Acer Aspire One A110
The Eee-beater to beat
Review It was all so simple at the start of the year. You wanted a Small, Cheap Computer™, you bought an Asus EeePC 701 . Now we have a plethora of SCCs to choose from - and Dell has still to get in on the act.
Thankfully, Acer has taken a slightly more restrained view of what constitutes an SCC. Its Aspire One is available in just three basic flavours: 8GB SSD and Linux; 120GB HDD with Linux; and 120GB HDD with Windows XP. On the desk in front of us, we have the least expensive, most basic model, the 8GB in MacBook-envy white, the most pure iteration of the SCC concept to date, in our opinion.
Acer's Aspire One: stylish
Out of the box, the AA1 - as fans call it - is a petite 249 x 170 x 29mm and weighs in at a correspondingly featherweight 995g (2.19lbs). So the portability box is well and truly ticked.
It's wider than the Eee: about 25mm more than the Eee 900 , for example. That's to accommodate the AA1's larger keyboard, which Acer claims is 85 per cent of the size of a full laptop keyboard - larger and less cramped than the one on the Asus and, consequently, easier for bigger hands to use.
Overall, the AA1's build quality is excellent. The keyboard is well laid out, firm and responsive, the screen hinge is solid, and the fan is never intrusive once it fires up to cool things down. It has a decent colour scheme as well, the black screen surround nicely setting off the white of the lower half of the device, though we're not entirely sure what the red rims on the lid hinge are all about. There's a pleasing lack of stickers too, with only the Intel Atom label besmirching the palmrest area.
The only part of the AA1's exterior that we have doubts about are the touchpad and buttons. The buttons are placed on either side of the touchpad, which is all well and good from a space-saving point of view, but in everyday use we much prefer the more traditional placement below the pad - the place where you fingers' muscle memory expects them to be. The buttons are too small too.
Exterior connections consist of three USB ports; 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks; a VGA port; a 10/100Mb/s Ethernet port; and an SD slot. So far, so Eee. But the AA1 has a second memory card slot, and this is used in a very novel way.
The screen's superb - but the trackpad's not
More on this later - continuing our tour around the AA1, flip up the lid and you come across a 8.9in, 1024 x 600, 262,000-colour, LED-backlit screen, and a rather decent example of the breed it is too. Bright, clear and well up to the task of watching full-screen movies if your AA1 will be doing duty as a PMP.
Above the screen sits a 0.3-megapixel web cam and a digital microphone. Combine these with the two reasonable stereo speakers and you have an effective little communications device.
Under the hood, the AA1 is driven by Intel's 1.6GHz Atom N270, just like the Eee 901  and 1000, and the MSI Wind. It has 512MB of memory and a Intel 945GSE chipset which also provides the graphics. OK, not a spec to blow anyone's socks off, but good enough to cope with anything that should realistically be thrown at a netbook.
By way of a test, we ran a basic Gimp filter test by applying the Gaussian blur filter to a 25.3mb 2048 x 1366 pixel JPEG image, a process that took an average of 7.2s. This compared well the results of the same test performed on the Atom powered Asus EeePC 901 which managed 10.85s when the CPU's set to the standard 1.6GHz setting.
Time in seconds
Shorter bars are better
Wireless communication is limited to 802.11b/g Wi-Fi so no Bluetooth and no 3G, though the SIM slot lurking behind the battery is a sure indication that the latter will be coming to the AA1 in due course. In the meantime, accessing the net over a cellular network will involve getting up close and personal with a USB modem and the relevant drivers. That's easy with the XP version, less so with Linux.
A feature currently unique to the AA1 is the seamless storage expansion. Shoving a £20 Class 2 8GB SDHC into secone memory card slot we mentioned before resulted in the system telling us we now had 11GB of storage from a potential maximum of 14GB, up from 3.4GB out of 6.4GB. In case you're wondering where the missing storage is, it's the One's 1GB Swap partition.
Acer states that the expansion slot is only good for cards of up to 8GB but we found that a 16GB card also worked with no problems. This being the case, there's no good reason why 32GB cards should not also do the job when they become generally available.
Whatever card you add, the One integrates its capacity seamlessly with the main SSD as if they were one. This is a far better approach than treating the SD card as a separate storage space. You can do that too, thanks to the other SD card slot, and at least with the AA1, you can up your storage capacity without losing the ability to slot in the memory card out of your camera.
The Linux distro on the AA1 is called Linpus Light. It presents a pretty twit-proof desktop divided up into four distinct areas: Work, Fun, Files and Connect, a bit like the Eee's streamline UI. This keeps things pretty clear for novices but is likely to drive more experienced users up the wall with its lack of easy adaptability and personalisation. Real techies will probably want to install an alternative distro, like Ubuntu.
Luckily, a few very basic hacks allow you access to the full Linux functionality, so you can crack on and add missing applications such as Skype or Thunderbird, the latter especially useful as the bundled mail client is nothing to write home about.
A fifth desktop page covers the basic settings, including a Live Update feature which, judging from the number of downloads that came down the 'pike during our time with the AA1, means that Acer is committed to keeping the device supported with new patches and, hopefully, drivers.
Other bundled applications include Firefox 2, OpenOffice 2.3 and a bespoke IM client that proved hopeless for the first ten days of our test – it simply wouldn't log into our MSN account. The webcam initially had a mind of its own, but a downloaded patch brought it to heel and it now supports full and reliable video and sound communication with MSN, Yahoo, GoogleTalk and AIM. It even delivers MSN messages sent to you when off line, something we wish our usual IM client, Pidgin, did.
The bundled Media playback is MPlayer so a quick download of VLC will be in order as it does more – it supports DivX, for starters - and does it better.
The basic three-cell 2200mAh battery is frankly pathetic. In day-to-day use, the best we got was between two and two-and-a-half hours of usage, depending on the draw from the Wi-Fi radio. Playing a 576 x 240, 25f/s .AVI video at full screen with the volume set to 50 per cent, the AA1 ran for a far-from-spectacular 106 minutes - all of The Incredibles but for the end credits.
Battery Test Results
Time in minutes
Longer bars are better
There's no question, we'd have rated the AA1 more highly, matching the MSI Wind , if it hadn't been for the battery life.
Of course, the optional six-cell battery will effectively double that, but add over 300g to the AA1's weight. It will probably also set you back a substantial percentage of the basic machine's initial purchase price.
Nice look, shame about the battery life
Speaking of the price, the basic AA1 comes in at around £220, rising to about £230 with the 120GB HDD instead of the 8GB SSD. That's handy if you want to take lots of media content around with you, but for an SCC it seems overkill. £250 will buy you a 120GB model with 1GB of memory, and a further £30 gets you the Windows XP instead of Linux, albeit with 512MB of memory. The version with 1GB of memory costs £300.
Some will argue that's too expensive for an SCC, not without some justification. Go for the basic model, though it's a real shame Acer couldn't bring in out under £200, as it originally promised. It'll make a great secondary machine that you can take with you when you don't need the performance - or fancy carrying the bulk - of your main notebook.
The Aspire One is everything a Small, Cheap, Computer should be. The build quality is excellent, the feature list is not half bad, and it certainly looks and feels the part. Indeed, it's the best-looking SCC we've seen. On the down side, the standard battery is poor and - with the Linux versions at least - getting online using a 3G network isn't straightforward.
Of course, the really great thing about the AA1 is that you can tuck it under your arm, go our and feel far less of a tit than if you were carrying a MacBook Air. Worth buying for that alone, if you ask us.