Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pat's Quick and Dirty Acer Aspire One Review



First Impressions
Build quality is very good. Seams are tight, and all the different components fit very well. The construction is light, but solid. The pearlescent white plastic behind the screen looks to belong to a more expensive device, and the materials look to be of a high standard. It’s easily the most good-looking netbook in my opinion, possibly tying with the HP mini-note 2133, which is very stylish, but loses points for its bulkiness. The battery fits flush into the battery compartment and the material matches the plastics furnishing the underside of the netbook, so the battery fits well with the overall aesthetics of the design.
Unfortunately however, its with the slotting of the battery into the compartment, and powering on of the device, that the great first impression I had dissipated. Like a beautiful girl who snores like 60 year old overweight man with sleep apnoea, the loud, incessant whine of the Aspire One’s CPU fan just ruins an otherwise perfect moment. Its drone is constant, with the fan activated as soon as the netbook is turned on, and remains on, even when the netbook is idle, occasionally increasing in pitch when the the device is put to use. I understand that this serves to keep the CPU cool, but having owned the first gen Asus EEE PC for over a year, along with a few full-sized laptops, I can honestly say that the noise coming out of the Acer is the loudest I’ve experienced from a laptop. Although it does blend in with ambient noise, during my testing in a quiet room, the noise was so noticeable that I had to turn it off only after 15 minutes or so of operation. I could imagine this noise making the user a target of annoyed looks in a quiet lecture theatre, or a study area.


But overlooking this point, I must say that the screen is gorgeous. The relatively low resolution (1024x600) is well complimented by the small screen size, which means that visually, the screen renders crisp images, with barely noticeable 'jaggies' or blurriness. The backlighting is also very good, with the lowest setting still throwing a nice amount of illumination to the screen. Despite the wide-screen view, websites are easy to navigate, with only downward scrolling needed.
The keyboard is a good size, with good-sized shift keys one either end (an oft ignored aspect by other netbook manufacturers). Keys are comfortable to type on, and with time (and not being a touch-typist) I reckon I could get quite fast on it, despite the smaller size. The keys are a bit squishy, with the keys being slow to spring back after being depressed, but in any case, the keys register accurately and without any lag.
Unfortunately, while I would consider the Aspire One’s keyboard to be one of the better netbook keyboards I have used, I have to say that the touchpad would have to be one of the worst. The rectangular touch pad consists of the touch surface flanked by the left and right buttons on the side, instead of underneath as with other touchpads. This caused all manner of frustration for me, since I am so accustomed to using touchpads one-handed (usually for invoking the keyboard shortcuts with my left hand, while operating the cursor with my right). First of all, left-clicking using the dedicated button required the dexterity of a surgeon who does finger-yoga...however I managed to get around this obstacle by simply tapping on the touchpad itself, which in itself was quite usable and accurate. However, right-clicking proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, since my hand almost had to approach the touchpad from the north-east to even get my thumb in position to click the right button. To add insult to injury, both mouse buttons sit flush with the chassis and required a pretty hefty push, which was not always possible from the angle of my thumb, making it difficult to highlight text accurately because I couldn't maintain sufficient pressure over the left button with my thumb alone, and overall slowed down the act of activating context specific menu's via right-clicking. I seriously wonder how this touchpad design got past user testing (if any).


Programs
Fortunately, crapware is kept to a minimum, with google desktop, mcafee antivirus, and a trial of microsoft office being the only ones I noticed, so kudos for Acer for realising that its not a good idea to bog the system down anymore than it already is. Perhaps the only criticism I have, is in comparison to the linux version, the XP variant is missing the office and other tools that are present, but that only really affects those that are completely new to computing, which arguably is not the target market for the XP variant. All in all, on the software side, Acer keeps the MS install of XP home edition free from clutter.


Performance
I won't really touch on this because I've decided really early on not to keep the device, so I'm reluctant to install any software, and there are several reviews on the One that have already covered this, so I'll skip it. I will say that wireless performance is more than adequate (it identified and logged on to my home wifi network with ease) and webpages rendered quickly. Youtube videos work fine in both windowed and full-screen modes but moving the mouse causes it to drop frames immediately, and having the CPU at just under 50% probably has something to do with it. Taken as an indicator, I don't think multi-tasking will be a strong-suit of the One, though really, the small screen would really make that difficult to begin with anyway.
Sound from the bottom-firing speakers are not the best, but also not the worst sounding I've experienced from a laptop - suffice it to say that having the One on your shoulder boom-box style won't really be viable (or realistic anyway) or being the source of music for your neighourhood block party.


Battery life
The included battery is a thin block which is almost the length of the netbook, approximately 1.5cm thick, and sits flush with the chassis. While this makes the whole package aethetically pleasing, it does place limits on the battery's capacity, which ends up being a relatively paltry 2200mAH. Translated to real world usage, this means 2hrs of work with the screen at the lowest setting, and wifi turned off. Acer's decision to skimp on battery in this way is disappointing, because it severely limits the capacity of the One to work as a mobile device. Maybe my idea of target market serviced by netbooks is incorrect, but I thought the aim of having such compact laptops was so that they can be used on the go, part of which includes use in scenarios where access to cabled power is not available ie lecture theatres, and cafe's. With the battery life as is, the One would just make two 1 hour lectures before needing a recharge, less if some of that time involves use of wifi.

On that note, charging takes about 1min/1% of battery life when the One is being used, so with the stock standard battery, approximately 1hr and 40min are required to charge the battery from 0 to full - not bad, but certainly means that for continuous all day use, you'll have to be spending most of your day being plugged in.




Final thoughts
During my brief time using the One, I tried my hardest to love the device, and there certainly was a lot to love: looks, build quality, and computing performance were either on par, or better than expected for the price. However the misgivings with this device were just too obvious, probably emphasised by the attention to detail in the other aspects, and were things that I could not come to terms with, such as battery life, and that ruddy CPU fan noise! Its such a shame that the great detail to the design and execution of the chassis didn't extend to making a larger space for the battery, or having enough space to have a touchpad with the buttons in a more familiar position. To end on a positive note, I think that Acer has shown with the One that they are serious about their entry in the increasingly more crowded netbook market, and I hope that gen 2 of the One goes further in enhancing the usability of the device.
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