Asus, watch your back. Oh, sure, the Eee PCs are cheap and tiny, but they've got serious competition waiting in the wings. Acer's Aspire One is priced as low as US$400 for the Linux version, but it weighs in with enough features to make me consider leaving my high-end portable on the sidelines.
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). That's in no small part thanks to Intel's 1.6-GHz Atom processor. Of course, Acer isn't alone in that department. MSI's Wind, Asus's new Eee 1000, and plenty of others are on their way to market with Intel's bargain-priced CPU.
The Aspire One is also fairly well constructed. The hard, candy-colored exterior (it comes in a number of hues; my favorite: Sapphire Blue) 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. The screen itself, though, is a little too glossy. Even with the brightness cranked up, you might find it tough to see outside. Then again, many full-priced, full-featured notebooks stumble with the same problem.
Now, when I think of the average netbook (as some people call this class of mini-notebook)--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 that comes with the OpenOffice.org suite (after the 10-second load time for OOO 2.3). I didn't mind the locked-down launch page for the Aspire One. All the basic tasks I'd likely throw at the machine were all right in front of me, on screen. Firefox 2 is the default browser--no surprise there. The built-in messenger client supports AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Google Talk accounts. A serviceable RSS reader is built in as well. Wi-Fi connectivity isn't an issue on this little laptop, either. A quick toggle flick, and it's connecting without a hitch.
Unfortunately, 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 flat. I had no problems streaming video from Youtube over an 802.11g connection. I copied over a 77MB Weezer album in just under 8 seconds (and then proceeded to play MP3s through the tiny, tinny speakers; pro tip: get headphones!). Next up, a 213MB WMV episode of Best Week Ever. It took about 11 seconds for the Aspire One's Media Master to fire up, but once it did, the show ran sans stutter. Granted, this episode was recorded at 320-by-240-pixel resolution and 29 frames per second, but go up much higher, and you'll start seeing some video slowdowns.
Another test I had to improvise, since WorldBench won't work here: battery testing. Sitting in your garden-variety coffee shop doing sporadic Web browsing and document typing, this notebook should last you roughly 2.5 hours. Or two iced coffees with skim milk.
Performance aside, you'll 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 sometime this fall). It'll have an 80GB hard disk and 1GB of RAM.
Now another surprise is how much I like the keyboard. It's a great size and doesn't feel crunched up in order to hit a form factor. In fact, because it provides solid key response and a wide gap between buttons, I proclaim this one of the few netbooks to be fully adult-hand friendly. Wish I could say the same about the mouse pad. Like HP's 2133, the left and right mouse buttons sit on either side of the touchpad. That makes it a little less convenient when you need to deftly manipulate documents.
OK, so the machine isn't perfect. The important part is that Acer gets more than enough right to hit the mark for basic use. And, considering the low costs to own this li'l laptop, you could get a lot of mileage out of the Aspire One. If you have simple needs, this is your notebook.