In our Boxing Day special, Diego treats himself to a shiny new present.
A netbook isn’t a mission-critical asset for my purposes, but I did find the idea of having a small, highly portable, no-frills computer that I can use on the go very appealing. For one thing, I plan to holiday overseas in a few months’ time, and it made more sense to invest a relatively small amount of money in a piece of hardware that can be used all year round (whether I’m travelling or not), can be pressed into service as a super-high-capacity “memory stick” for my camera and can be used for writing about my travel experiences as they happen, than waste a sizeable fraction of the asking price on additional memory sticks that will only gather dust when I’m not hitting the tourist trail.
Plus, I rather liked the idea of blogging in bed. (^_^)
My first – and, up till recently, strongest – candidate for acquisition was Lenovo’s S10: a sleek, very attractively designed netbook with an impressive set of features (1GB RAM, 160GB hard drive, 10.2-inch screen, good wireless internet capabilities). Main drawback: a 3-cell battery that will give you no more than a couple of hours unplugged (and only if you’re really lucky). 6-cell batteries are available for separate purchase in some areas, but remain out of reach for most consumers; in my corner of the world 3-cell configurations are still standard and only one retailer (to my knowledge) has begun offering a 6-cell option (but at a price substantially higher than what I eventually paid for my netbook).
So I cast my net a little wider and worked my way through offerings from other manufacturers (including Acer, Asus, HP and MSI). Eventually, I settled on the latest incarnation of Acer’s Aspire One series. It was the least expensive item on my shortlist and had a solid set of features that more or less matched those of more expensive alternatives (including the S10).
Here’s what I think of it after the first few hours of use.
SIZE AND APPEARANCE
At a mere 1.26kg with a 6-cell battery – just a hair heavier than the 3-cell S10 – the Aspire One more than meets my requirements for portability. Its compact dimensions (see image above, with a standard-sized US banknote for comparison) allow it to be slipped into a backpack or shoulder bag without committing much more room than would be needed for, say, a hardbound novel.
While I prefer the S10’s sharp, clean lines, the Aspire One’s smooth exterior and rich, deep colour still make it something of a looker. Trouble is, the glossy surface is a bit of a fingerprint magnet, and getting the marks off isn’t as easy as one might expect. The way the battery juts out the back tends to spoil the overall appearance, but not by much, and in any case isn’t a problem unique to this unit (it affects pretty much any 6-cell netbook).
Various colour options are available, but the retailer I dealt with had only pink and blue on hand at the time so I went with blue (I would have preferred copper-brown).
RAM AND STORAGE
Netbooks aren’t designed for resource-heavy applications such as today’s graphics-loaded games, so 1GB of RAM should be quite adequate for most users’ daily computing needs. In the first few hours of use, I didn’t encounter much in the way of sluggish performance or other indicators of insufficient memory. (Other users who ran space-hungry applications may have had a less positive experience.) The 160GB hard drive offers plenty of room for videos and other media, and is capacious enough to dispense with the need for an additional external hard drive (at least for a while) – a strong advantage for users who, like me, require as much portability as possible.
The Aspire One is equipped with an 8.9-inch 1024×600 screen – small, but capable of generating very sharp and clear displays. Of course, the S10 and its 10.2-class brethren have a clear size advantage; that extra inch kept me vacillating between Lenovo and Acer up to almost literally the last minute.
The Aspire One’s 89%-size keyboard takes a little getting used to; expect to generate typos at more than the usual rate during first use. I got the hang of it quickly enough and eventually found typing a remarkably comfortable exercise. The keys are quite responsive, with just the right amount of “give” on every strike.
The awkward placement of the touchpad buttons has been (justifiably) criticised by others, but I didn’t find the system particularly difficult to use especially after re-orienting myself to horizontal tapping and clicking – as opposed to the more usual vertical movements employed when the buttons are located above or below the touchpad – and reconfiguring the buttons for left-handed use. In any case, one can easily bypass the touchpad with a small wireless mouse.
The Aspire One also comes with a small webcam centre-mounted above the screen. Here’s a sample image:
Three USB ports – one on the left, two on the right – allow users to hook up whatever external devices may be needed.
I’ve had no problems so far using the Aspire One on our home wireless network. The netbook automatically detected the presence of our two routers’ signals, and logging on was a breeze (just enter the network key on one occasion and you’re good to go). I haven’t tested it using a direct LAN cable connection, although I fully intend to given that this will be my official travel PC and the free internet access provided by some hotels requires a physical hook-up.
As I type this, I am currently in the process of giving my battery a full drain; about two hours in I’ve still got more than half a full charge on hand. I think I should be able to squeeze four to five hours or so out of the Aspire One’s 6-cell power unit (provided I don’t start a quick emptying with video playback or other heavy use).
Incidentally, I ended up doing an unplanned battery test on the first day: I accidentally left the unit on for a couple of hours (with the power settings configured to prevent it from going into hibernation) when I fell asleep as Windows XP was installing some critical updates, and it still had a lot of juice left when I snapped awake.
SOFTWARE AND OPERATING SYSTEM
The Aspire One comes with a large amount of pre-installed software – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Some of this stuff falls squarely in the bloatware category and must be uninstalled one by one to cut demand on the unit’s processing resources. For my part, I banished the trial version of McAfee Security Center (replacing it with AVG Free), Google Desktop, and a space-hungry Google taskbar add-on for Internet Explorer; I may trim off even more excess branches as I find them. A trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 is included, which I’m keeping for now because I’d like to try out the new ribbon-and-tab interface. Probably the most useful software bundled with the netbook is a full version of Microsoft Works 8.5, a very user-friendly productivity suite that offers word processing, spreadsheet preparation, database and other capabilities – essentially a home version of MS Office.
All this runs on Windows XP Service Pack 3, which will need to be updated immediately in order to close up any vulnerabilities. Updating could be something of an inconvenience – I had to download and install 41 individual security/other updates to Windows, the trial version of MS Office, MS Works, and IE – but it’s absolutely necessary (especially where critical security patches are involved), and should be among the very first tasks on any start-up list.
It’s a little early to say whether I managed to hook a winner, but up to this point I’m very pleased with the Acer Aspire One’s performance. Barring any major defects that may come to light as I subject it to further use, I believe this handy little netbook offers excellent value for money and should prove a reliable companion for computer users on the go.