We have a winner, if not in the sales competition at least in the nomenclature contest: The low-priced, lightweight laptops inspired by last fall's Asus Eee PC and since described as everything from mini-notebooks to kneetops to Microsoft's catchy acronym ULCPCs (ultra-low-cost PCs) are now universally called netbooks, after their primary purpose of simple Web and e-mail access.
They're also selling like mad to students and traveling professionals who don't want to carry a heavy full-sized laptop just for going online or doing some word processing or presentation work -- and who don't want to pay big bucks for an upscale ultralight such as Apple's MacBook Air or Lenovo's ThinkPad X301. That's why Asus has been joined by HP, Acer, MSI, and (soon) Dell and Lenovo, all trying to find the sweet spot of reduced-but-not-too-reduced features and performance versus price.
Trouble is, the plunging prices of full-fledged notebooks are screwing with the sweet spot. HP offers a bare-bones, Linux-based configuration of its 2133 Mini-Note for $499, but the top-of-the-line Windows Vista Business model is a hefty $829.
And while the original 7-inch-screened Eee flew off the shelves at $400, Asus' current 10-inch Eee PC 1000 costs $700. That's not even mentioning the online buzz about an Asus presentation last month that outlined a confusing crop of more than 20 Eee-branded PCs at prices up to $900. Can you say "losing sight of simple and affordable"?
That's why we're impressed with Acer's entry in the netbook wars, the Aspire One. True, "impressed" doesn't mean "enraptured"; Intel's new Atom processor's performance is underwhelming, and our test unit delivered disappointingly brief battery life.
But the Acer is a handsome and classy ultraportable with a high-quality 8.9-inch display, a remarkably usable keyboard, and the familiar environment of Windows XP Home Edition with an ample 120GB hard disk for installing applications and storing data, music, and image files. Considering that it cost the same $399 as the 7-inch, keyboard- and storage-cramped Eee PC 4G we cheered last November, we decided fairly quickly to give it a thumbs up.
And that was before the other day, when Acer lowered the price to $349.
Go Get Your Own, Kid
Actually, Acer has introduced what it calls back-to-school savings on two Aspire One models. Our review system, model AOA150-1570, combines Windows XP with 1GB of memory and the above-mentioned 120GB hard disk.
For $329, the Aspire One AOA110-1722 stays closer to the first Eee recipe with the Linpus Linux Lite operating system, 512MB of RAM, and an 8GB solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk. Like the Eee 4G's variation on Xandros Linux, the Linpus platform hides the open-source OS' complexity behind point-and-click icons in categories such as Connect (browser, instant messenger, e-mail), Fun (media player, photo manager), and Work (the OpenOffice.org word processor, spreadsheet, and so on).
Both of the above Aspires come with a three-cell battery pack that fits flush with the back of the case. Acer has assigned the $399 price point to a new Win XP configuration (AOA150-1447) with a 160GB hard drive and six-cell battery.
We'd like to get our hands on the six-pack, because we rarely got the One to run for more than two hours unplugged -- maybe two hours and ten minutes doing light productivity work with the WiFi radio turned off, but that proved the best-case scenario. Two hours is all right for a luggable desktop replacement, but a toss-it-into-your-briefcase-or-backpack netbook should last much longer.
At least Acer's advertised lifespan for the three-cell pack -- a maximum two and a half hours with the hard disk, three hours with SSD -- is less exaggerated than most notebook vendors' battery claims. So when the company estimates six hours for the six-cell, we can hope for an honest five.
Am I Blue?
The Aspire One measures 6.7 by 9.8 by 1.1 inches and weighs 2.3 pounds -- an even three pounds with its AC adapter.
It's also available in white, but we vote for the Aspire in our test unit's deep blue, which manages to be both one of the best-looking and best fingerprint- and smudge-collecting shades we've seen. There's no polishing cloth in the box for buffing the netbook's lid and palm rest, but there's a soft, snug-fitting carrying pouch.
A tiny slider switch on the Acer's front edge turns the 802.11b/g wireless on and off. Microphone and headphone jacks, two USB 2.0 ports, and an SD/MMC/xD/Memory Stick flash-card slot are on the system's right side, with a third USB port, VGA and Ethernet ports, and an additional SD card slot along the left.
On the Linux model, this slot performs the nifty trick of merging a memory card with the SSD as seamless main storage, rather than appearing as an additional drive.