Asus, watch your back. You've been coasting for a while on the Eee PC. Oh, sure, it's cheap and tiny, but you've got serious competition waiting in the wings. Acer provided us with a preview (preproduction) unit of the upcoming Aspire One, which may be priced as low as US$400; and after kicking the tires for about a week, I'm ready to shed my high-end portable in favor of a sub-$500 netbook (as some people call this class of basic mini-notebook).
Why the conversion? For starters, it's fairly light and lean (weighing 2 pounds and measuring 9.8 by 6.7 by 1.14 inches), yet it still manages to squeeze in Intel's 1.6-GHz Atom processor. Aside from MSI's Wind, this is one of the first machines to show off how well Intel's bargain-priced CPU can perform.
And the Aspire One is fairly well constructed for a beta unit. The hard, colored exterior is fairly polished and feels solid to the touch--certainly tough enough to withstand being tossed in your bag. And a huge, well-secured bezel keeps the 8.9-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel display in place.
Now, when I think of the average netbook, certainly ones in the $400 price range, the word that comes to mind is "compromise." You get Linpus Linux Lite, not Windows XP. You get OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office. You get an 8GB hard drive and 512MB of RAM. It just doesn't sound like a great deal.
Then I used it. I was genuinely surprised at the relatively smooth sailing (though I did run into some Wi-Fi issues) and at how much I like the keyboard. It's a great size and doesn't feel crunched up in order to hit a form factor.
We can't run WorldBench on the Aspire One's tiny 8GB NAND hard drive, but I can tell you that it'll boot in 25 seconds. I had no problems streaming video from Youtube over an 802.11g connection (final hardware revisions may add WiMax or 3G support). It played MP3s without a hitch and ran a 213MB WMV episode of Best Week Ever sans stutters.
Ah, but you need some more room to grow. Aside from the standard-issue USB ports, ethernet jack, and VGA out, the Aspire One comes with two storage card slots. Why two? One is tasked for "storage expansion"--pop in an SD card, and the mini-note will format the flash storage to serve as extra internal hard-drive space. The other slot serves the usual purpose: for files you want to transfer from a digital camera or other device you have on hand.
If you're not sold on the storage space--or on Linux, for that matter--Acer will also offer a slightly pricier, XP-loaded flavor of the Aspire One (though the company hasn't revealed exact pricing, expect this version to cost around $600). It'll have an 80GB hard disk and 1GB of RAM.
I know I'm going out on a limb here, but this machine shows lots of promise. You could get a surprising amount of mileage from this machine when production units ship (supposedly in September). Obviously, though, this is hardly a final review. Check back when Acer releases the production version for our updated thoughts and tests.