Update: You can now read the review of Linpus Linux Lite that comes pre-installed with Acer Aspire One Linux edition.
Ever since the first rumors about an Apple tablet computer, and more recently an ultra-portable notebook caught my attention a couple of years ago, I’ve been holding out on upgrading my beloved Sharp Zaurus. Seemingly surrounded by Asus EeePC 701 in Manila after the New Year celebrations, I doggedly resisted the urge to buy, for fear of the ever-imminent Apple ultra-portable arriving and relegating to the back of the cupboard any other UMPC I succumbed to now.
Apple still hasn’t made good on the seeds it planted in the rumor mill so long ago, but I’m still glad I was disciplined enough to wait out the EeePC 701: I was lucky enough to find a demo unit of the Linux Aspire One at the Acer booth at an exhibition in Bangkok last week, and after toying with it for a few minutes couldn’t hold back any more. I’m now a bona fide member of the netbook craze and, boy, am I impressed with this little guy!
Obviously for a little over $400, I was expecting everything to be encased in plastic, but that plastic is not to brittle or too thin, and build quality of the enclosure and the rest of the machine for that matter is exemplary. The case itself, and more importantly the keyboard feel very solid. The hinge for the screen looks even more robust than the hinges Apple uses on their current macbook range, making me confident that I could take this with me on a plane or in a suitcase without fear of it being damaged.
Folded, and tucked away in the supplied slipcase, the Aspire One is about the same size as a large paperback book, though it weighs much less. Compared to carrying a macbook around under my arm, or in a shoulder bag, all day the Aspire One is a breeze to hold in one hand.
The size is exactly right, with a near full size keyboard that is easy to touch type on. The 8.9” LCD at 1024×600 is cramped but not unusably so. The bigger 10” Asus feels (and costs!) much more like a full size laptop, and the keyboard on the equivalent 8.9” EeePC is too small to touch type on. To make room for this nicely sized keyboard, the Aspire One designers have had to compromise on the trackpad, which in addition to being very small, places buttons 1 and 2 to the left and right, rather than the traditional position underneath the trackpad. It is still useable though, and in any case Acer gave me a mini-USB mouse to go with it, so I don’t need to fret too much.
512MB of SDRAM with 8GB Solid State Drive might seem very small, especially when you subtract the 1GiB swap partition from the tally. As shipped, there is a little over 3.5GiB left for user files. None-the-less, only a few years ago (well, maybe 10 if you want to split hairs) I was happily running Slackware on a disk half that size with an 8th of the memory. And even today I run Linux Mint in a 512MB/6GiB VM without any problems. Even so, Acer have cleverly provided a second SD card slot that is merged with the internal 8GB disk using overlayfs: insert an 8GB SD card, and the primary partition will gain an additional 8GB of space without repartitioning or funky mount commands. That makes it is easy to upgrade the drive space without cracking the machine open and voiding your warranty. 8GB SDHD cards are easily available for under $20, and if money is no object you could buy a pair of 32GB cards, one for each slot, and have 67.5GB for user files!
For those that don’t need a warranty, there is a vacant SDRAM slot inside the case that will take a 1GB memory stick should you need it. In practice, when surfing with Firefox or writing in Open Office, the machine barely touches the swap partition, so I’m not sure that the extra RAM is necessary in any case.
Luckily, I’m very fond of the glossy screens that a lot of manufacturers have being putting in their laptops of late, because the Aspire One is equipped with one too! The contrast and viewing angle are quite impressive, and even though there is some banding due to the 6-bit display depth the overall effect is very good. Especially at this price point. And since this is Linux, if the banding bothers you, there is a dithering patch you can apply to the X server that more or less eliminates that glitch.
If I thought the display was good, then the speakers in the Aspire One are nothing short of awesome. It’s pretty annoying to have to strain to hear movie dialog on the crappy speakers built in to my $2000 macbook, but the Aspire One not only has oodles of volume, but a way better bass frequency response when it’s sat on something solid like a table.
There are 3 USB slots, so adding a mouse, printer and external drive without a USB hub is no problem. The only real letdown is the dreadful battery life. If I turn down the brightness, switch off wifi, and use non-CPU intensive applications, I can squeeze a little over 2.5 hours between visits to a power point. The other compromises Acer have made, are a lack of built in blue tooth (you’ll need a tiny USB adapter) and an optical drive (you can make a bootable USB stick from the restore disk using another machine)
The Windows versions of this machine, however, come with a roomy 120GB of (non-solid state) disk space, and a 6 cell battery with more than twice the charge capacity. The Acer reps told me that these 6 cell batteries will last up to 7 hours between charges under very light usage, and should be available separately in the next few weeks. At least in Thailand ;-)
The Aspire One comes preinstalled with Linpus Linux, which in turn is based on Fedora Core 8. I’m not really a fan of rpm distributions, but Acer have tuned this installation to the point where it will resume from suspend in around 10 seconds, and cold boot to the desktop in less than 20 seconds, so I’m reluctant to change.
There’s no doubt that the distribution is aimed at casual users, but as I’ve said before, this is still Linux so it’s not impossible to tweak anything. It runs on a modified XFCE with active buttons for the main applications right on the desktop instead of a right-click menu. Be careful not to update the GTK libraries from the fedora repositories — or XFCE will break. In addition to the usual Linux software Acer have built their own Email client, and Instant Messenger that make better use of the small resources available on this machine. Both are decent programs, and I’m particularly impressed with the use of the webcam in the Acer IM program.
The Acer Media player, on the other hand is sub-par, crashes occasionally, and is easily confounded by all but the most common codecs. It’s easy enough to connect to the Fedora Core 8 package repositories and install VLC to overcome this shortcoming though. Similarly, Firefox 3 has better support for small screens than the supplied Firefox 2, so that is worth installing at the same time.
Additionally, Acer have bundled all of OpenOffice, which starts up very slowly the first time it is run, but after that it comes up reasonably quickly for such a big program. If you don’t need Open Office specifically, you could easily swap it out for abiword and gnumeric from an fc-8 rpm repository.
One final note is that Ubuntu is being actively ported to the Aspire One, and is in the process of ironing out the last few wrinkles as I write. I for one will be trying it out as soon as it is ready, and I’ll write a followup post to let you know about my experiences.
The Aspire One is not without its flaws, and for a power user, even the OS needs a good bit of tinkering to get the full potential out of the machine. There is a great user community already, and plenty of information on how to best make use of this little marvel.
Who cares about the never-ending macbook ultra-portable rumors anyway? Especially when people have gotten Mac OS running on the Aspire One already! If you are at all on the fence about getting a netbook, then this machine should make you climb down for at least a little while. Excellent value for money, especially when the 6 cell battery is available more easily and Ubuntu is fully operational.
On a seperate note, read why Mobile Me drives gary nuts, please do share.
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