December 27, 2008:
‘Net Book’, ‘Ultra Mobile PC, ‘Mobile Computing Device’, ‘Mini Notebook’…. One is reminded of the six blind men of ‘Indostan’ in that old poem by John Saxe, who sized up an elephant and ‘Disputed loud and long/ each in his own opinion/Exceeding stiff and strong/Though each was partly in the right/and all were in the wrong!’
As the personal computer industry, gropes towards a better understanding of how to exploit the availability of power-efficient processors that enable the creation of very lightweight, small sized Internet access devices, customers are a mite confused: are these Lilliputian offerings meant for mobile executive hotshots who would rather not carry weighty laptops – or for lay users who don’t want to pay for a lot PC functionality they rarely use?
By stripping away the hard disk and reducing the on board to the bare minimum, early iterations of these shrunken PC offerings, sharply restricted the use to which one could put them to a bit of browsing, messaging and word processing. But the new-gen chips like Intel’s Atom could do a bit more – and the challenge for industry has to get the balance right – between achieving portability, attaining significant power efficiencies while not being seen to pare basic PC functionality too much. Most started by ditching Windows for lighter Open Source operating system. Some decided to hedge their bets by offering both options – which some what damaged the basic premise of these lean – if –not-quite-mean machines.
The product we review here is one which we believe got the balance right – and in the process will ease the pains of transition from traditional desktop/ laptop PCs to the new era of ultra portable, Internet access machines. It has been around for about six months -- but the reason we chose to notice it now is because Acer, the Taiwan-based player is promoting it in India at a special pricing that we believe many customers will consider affordable – if it does what they expect. Interestingly this one model Acer Aspire One has almost single handedly propelled Acer to the top of the PC shipment league in Europe, Middle East and Africa during the 3rd quarter of 2008 ( IDC numbers). (The growth of Asus’ EeePC, another make in this space, in percentage terms, not in numbers is equally spectacular – but that is a separate story).
The Acer Aspire One family comes with different specifications. As far as we can determine the one being offered in India is known internationally as the A 150L. The LED backlit screen is almost 9 inches across (22.6 cms): To get an idea of how they have shrunk the laptop or notebook form factor, think of this as an inch or two wider than the portable DVD players you might have seen or used, which come with 7 or 8 inch screens. This makes the qwerty keyboard quite roomy – even for some one like me with chubby fingers that are challenged by phone-sized keypads.
Acer has thrown in a 120 GB hard disk drive in this model – not a Flash based storage that early entrants in the ultra mobile PC (UMPC) category seemed to favour. PC users among us will find 120 GB acceptable -- where an 8GB solid state Flash storage might seem as too drastic a reduction over what we are used to. If the 512 MB of RAM seems on the lower side, you can pay a little extra and upgrade to 1MB.
The built in connectivity includes Ethernet LAN and WiFi (equivalent to 802.11b or g). There is a camera as well but it is sub megapixel (0.3 MB to be exact), so it will do for video phone calls and web images and not much else. In any case, a built-in camera, unlike a phone-camera, can’t be used for much more.
Acer’s entry pricing for the AspireOne is Rs 14,999 plus taxes and at this price, you get Linpus Linux Lite as the pre-installed operating system. You have to pay Rs 3000 or so more to get loaded with Windows XP Home edition (SP3). The machine is incredibly light, just short of 1 kg and this includes a 3-cell battery pack that promises almost 3 hours of typical usage. This is made possible by Intel’s Atom processor which has captured many of the earliest UMPC makes offered in 2008.
The Linux OS is in our opinion, perfectly adequate to give users almost all the PC experience they have been used to. There is now a perfectly adequate ecosystem of applications that can run on Linux flavours – Open Office suite; Firefox browser, Gimp photo and image editor to name just three -- which will answer the browsing and computing needs of most of us. We really can’t see too much reason to blow additional money on a Windows desktop, unless you are seriously uncomfortable with, or unwilling to change. Acer clearly respects such loyalty which is why the Windows version is also on offer – and the hardware can support it.
We believe dealers in India are squeezing their margins just a bit to sweeten the offer even further. For getting us as close as they can to conventional laptop specs and experience– on a really lightweight package, we think the Acer Aspire One is a good buy for those who appreciate PC performance in a machine that will not tax the lugging power of the most light framed and delicate amongst us.
Fuller details and purchase information can be found at:
(Review date: 27 Dec 2008)