Life [8 months] With Acer Aspire ONE Netbook

I just finished reading Bob Atkins review of the Acer Aspire ONE AOD255E-13647 10.1-Inch Netbook and thought I should also put mine up. I purchased the Acer Aspire ONE N450 netbook back 8 months ago to use for my going back to university project. Though I also have a Sony VAIO laptop and a MacBook Pro, I did not want to lug a heavy backpack everyday and was gunning for a netbook. So, when FutureShop featured the Acer at CDN $230 for a 6-cell Li-on battery, 1GB RAM, 1.66GHz N450 CPU, 10.1-in. screen, Wi-Fi, webcam, 93% full size keyboard, 3 USB ports, and 160GB HDD weighing in at 1.2kg (2.76 lbs), I jumped on the offer. You basically have all the specs listed up there. Oh, and it comes preloaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition.

After using it extensively for almost 8 months now to access the Internet, read and answer emails, download and upload assignments, I feel I can give you a pretty accurate assessment of what life with a netbook is like. This is not so much a review of the netbook itself (and new models of Aspire One have come out since then) as much as what my personal experience using one daily for 8 months has been. So, if you have been debating whether you should go with a netbook, notebook or iPad, here’s the scoop on the netbook.

Got to give it to netbooks. At less than 3 lbs, they are featherweights compared to regular-sized laptops. Only the iPad weighs less at 1.33 lbs. Even then, add in textbooks, binders, water bottle(s) and hot lunch — and my backpack became a strain on my back at times. There were more than one time when a fellow student would look longingly at my dimunitive netbook and wondered if I would be willing to swap or sell it to them. So, as far as size and weight are concerned, a netbook scores an “A.”

My Acer starts up in less than 40 sec (to login screen) and a further 10 sec (after you login) to the work screen. It shuts down in about 21 sec. [All numbers are approximate.] Maybe not as fast as my MacBook Pro, but not too shabby either. Start up and shut down in less than 1 minute is fine in my book.

Windows Explorer (is that what we still call it now?) pops up in about 5 sec. Microsoft Word 2010 in about 6 sec. Firefox 3.6 in about 15 sec. Not blazing fast, but I suspect it also depends a lot on the app itself. You can replace the 1GB RAM to a 2GB RAM chip and that might help with speed as well as how many apps you can open at one time. B+.

Windows 7 Starter Edition
It’s fine for my basic needs (i.e. Microsoft Office products, Internet access) but, believe it or not, the inability to customize the background in the Starter Edition is a minor pain everytime I turn the machine on and sees the default logo and background. I was also not about to form out $70 to upgrade to the Home Edition. Does Microsoft think I’m an idiot? People will pay a premium if they believe they are getting something worth it, whether in term of functionality or looks (or even prestige) — why Apple can charge a ridiculous premium for its products — but I was not about to pay to be able to change background. Nonetheless, I quietly @#$% Microsoft everytime I turn my netbook on. B-. [Acer could have been smart enough to provide an app to change the background from its unfortunately ugly image, as some other netbooks provide.]

Microsoft Office Suite 2010
Since Microsoft Office products are still pretty much standard everywhere, I purchased a copy. Shock and Awe! The version on my desktop is 2003 and the new one I downloaded and installed on my netbook is 2010. Now, for all the hate that Microsoft receives, I was in fact a supporter: there is nothing that comes close to the MS Office 2003 Suite as far as producticity is concerned.

Not so with the 2010 version. Who went and changed all the user interface in 2010 (and apparently starting in 2007)? I’m sorry but that person needs to get a reality check. Even now after 8 months of daily grind, I still have to hunt for many of the basic and important functions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

My productivity probably decreased by about 50% struggling with the stupid user interface. Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice improvements, but overall, basic and commonly used functions have been emasculated to the point they are painful to use. That “ribbon” also takes up lots of precious real estate on a netbook’s small screen, leaving little actual working screen space. D-.

Screen Size
At 10.1 inch, you have a nice screen. However, seeing that many applications now believe they need to have “ribbons,” and factoring the status bar and toolbars we sometimes add, realize that you will have only about a little more than half of that screen for actual content. So, I wouldn’t recommend a smaller screen and would welcome a slightly bigger one.

I don’t do heavy Photoshop editing on my netbook — and wouldn’t even think of doing so. The screen is simply too small for that. But I do the odd image crop, resize and sharpen.

In practical terms, expect to do lots of scrolling and peering intently at small fonts. B-.

The Acer has a multi-gesture touchpad, allowing you to flick, twirl and pinch à-la-iPad. But, before you get too excited, it’s not that useful. First of all, the touchpad is quite small, so there’s not enough real estate for “gesturing.” Secondly, it’s simply not as responsive as on an Apple product, period.

I would have preferred a different design of the touchpad on my Acer for two reasons. First, it has bumps. I hate bumps. My skin reacts badly to bumps. So, I leave the clear protective plastic on mine so I can navigate with a smooth surface. Second, it has a click bar separate from the touchpad. It does not click too well and there is not a good tactile feedback so at times you don’t know if the click took and you end up clicking a second and even a third time. Please, Acer, allow your bottom left and bottom right touchpad to be clickable.

However, I don’t want to give the impression that it is not usable. I would not have been able to last 8 months with it otherwise. B+.

The keyboard is about 93% of a full size keyboard. The travel and feedback are fine. I would have preferred a backward-L Enter key but that would require some real estate sacrifice elsewhere. I like the placement of the DEL key which makes it easy to find. I also prefer separate Home and End keys (which I use a lot) and would gladly swap the PG UP and PG DN keys for them (who doesn’t use the mouse wheel to scroll?). Otherwise it is much better than the keyboard I’ve seen on other netbooks and even on some bigger laptops. A.

The one thing missing on [all] netbooks is a CD/DVD-ROM and so you need to install software by downloading them, which can sometimes be a pain. If you have saved pictures to a CD/DVD, tough luck. You’ll have to send them via email or upload them to the “cloud” and acess them from your netbook. Or use a USB key or, as I do, an external HDD (Hard Disk Drive). B-.

USB Ports
There are 3 USB ports on my Acer. If you like to use a wireless mouse, that’s one USB port taken. If you work on a USB key or external HDD, that’s a second USB port taken. Leaving one spare USB port for plugging in someone else’s USB key to share something, to plug a camera in, etc. It has a built-in SD/xD card slot so that would save one USB Port for another device. A fourth USB Port would be ideal. A.

A note on USB Keys. Do not buy the fat models. They might look cute with fruit shapes, etc. but are a hassle to use. Always buy the thin, strictly rectangular shaped ones. The USB ports on most computers are situated very close to one another and there’s very little clearance for anything bulky.

The 6-cell battery is supposed to last 8 hours! If you bought a 3-cell battery laptop or netbook, my condolences, for you are always in search of an electrical outlet to recharge your machine. I use mine all day in class and recharge only when I get home. Unless, I am putting in an extremely long day (which I don’t do too often these days) and need to top up the battery a bit.

I pretty much get the stated 8 hours but, at times, I’ve noticed it said that there was only 5+ hours left — and I know I just recharged it full. It’s probably because I also plug in a 160GB external HDD which draws its power from the battery. The 160GB is an overkill because all I’ve used up so far is about 14GB, so a 16GB or 32GB USB key would have sufficed for my needs. But have you seen the prices on these?

On my netbook, the battery has a tendency of getting loose. There are two switches underneath the netbook holding the battery secure, and one of them tends to unlock when I handle the netbook. If the battery is not properly in its place, the netbook will not start [obviously]. If the switch is loose but the battery is in place, then you will start working when suddenly you move the netbook and unseats the battery slightly from its place — and you may lose all you’re working on. It has happended a couple of times before I wised up to this problem, and now I verify everytime that the switches are locked before starting up the netbook. A-.

External HDD
I’d like to do a digression here and talk a bit about using an external HDD as your main hard drive (instead of the netbook’s HD). I do all my work on an external HDD. Ever since my primary desktop suffered a HD failure, I now work exclusively on an external HDD. Say, you’ve bought a new computer and want to transfer the contents of your old PC’s HD to the new PC’s HD. Do you know how much time it takes to transfer a mere 180GB of data from one PC to another? If you have to ask, it means you have never done it yet — be prepared to reserve a couple of days to this task.

With an external HDD, all I have to do is unplug it from the old PC and plug it into the new PC. Done!

A PC goes on the fritz? Unplug external HDD from broken PC and plug it into a working PC and you’re good to go! Since your external HDD is already your primary working HD, you don’t need to do a restore from your backup and copy into the HD of the other PC. Just unplug from one and plug into the other and, assuming you have the same applications on both machines (and, if not, why not?), you or your business do not need to suffer any downtime.

With my netbook, I unplug the external HDD from the netbook and plug it into my desktop PC when I get home. This way, I get to use a full size keyboard and 17-in. screen. Just in case the external HDD has a breakdown, every night, I also back up onto the netbook’s HD and onto a second external HDD. It takes only a couple of minutes to do so, and this way, I have 3 copies at all times, and am at most 1 day off.

When I am ready to replace the netbook, all I need to do is a complete delete/reformat of the content of the HDD, knowing that all my content is already on the 2 external HDDs (since the netbook’s HD is not my primary one). Same for my desktop.

A word of caution. External HDDs are also known for breakdowns. You’ve got to handle them with care, so don’t go bumping them or squashing them with your heavy textbooks. And do make backup copies.

I consider the CAD $230 I spent on this Acer Aspire ONE the best money I’ve ever spent on any electronic gadget. For my [university] use, it was ideal though I still preferred to work on my desktop at home. On the plus side, I don’t have to lug a heavy back-breaking laptop all day.

So, as long as you restrict your usage and have reasonable expectations, you’ll be glad you got a netbook. And your back will thank you for it. Overall, I give my Acer Aspire ONE a score of “B-.”

If you are interested in an Acer Aspire ONE netbook, check out the newest one with 11.6-in. screen, full size keyboard and 3G/WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity. Whichever model or brand you decide to purchase, I would recommend a 6-cell battery for a long 8+ hours battery life.

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