I've been meaning to get a 'net-book' for some time now. Our current laptop just isn't small enough to justify taking it away on holiday with us, and with a growing number of holiday rentals, even those abroad, boasting wi-fi, now seemed the time to put the bulkier Dell Inspiron 1200 out to pasture. Many people might not want a computer whilst on holiday, welcoming the chance to get away from the bloody things, but not me. I tend to view a holiday as something that's dragging me away from my hobbies, but I'll freely admit it takes all kinds.
PALMTOP, NETBOOK, NOTEBOOK, LAPTOP?
As far as my scant research could tell, there's very little difference between a so-called 'net-book' and a laptop, except the size. In scaling them down, one or two things do however have to 'give'.
One is battery size, and therefore life, although this is partly offset by use of even more economical processor chips, notably the Intel Atom, and the other is the lack of optical drive, i.e. CD or DVD writer. There's limit to how small these drives can be made, partly limited by the diameter of the silver disk itself. Thus it is that 'net-books', almost to a man lack an optical drive. This is only a problem if you need frequent use of one, but since screen sizes are somewhat smaller, say 10" diagonal or thereabouts, a net-book's use as an impromptu DVD player is somewhat limited. There's nothing to stop you having a neat little USB-connected DVD Re-Writer like my Lite-On eSAU208, which uses a compact drive from a laptop in a slim external case, taking its power from the PC that it's plugged into.
One other aspect of my research into the current state of play vis-à-vis net-books is that they're all 'much of a much-ness'. For example, there's a whole clutch of them from half a dozen makers like Acer, Compaq, HP, Toshiba etc all sporting the same Intel processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM, a 160 gigabyte hard drive and a 10.1" screen, and all, it would seem somewhere around the £220-£250 mark. Likewise, they were all sporting Windows XP Home Version as their operating system. The doubtful benefits of a shift to Vista seem to have been resisted presumably to keep the price down, in the hope no doubt, that Windows 7 was 'just around the corner', which of course for main stream machines, it is.
Some even sport a free Linux operating system to help even further with the shekels.
THE CHOICE IS MADE
Thus it was that my eye was caught by an Acer net-book sporting twice as much RAM, a 250 gigabyte hard drive, and all for £299 at Tesco's On-Line store, on a "double club-card points" deal - effectively a 2% discount, and available within 2 working days at a large branch of my choosing. I could even get a metallic maroon one to match my Lite-On drive. This one had a slightly larger screen at 11.6" diagonal in 16:9 widescreen format, and as such looks like a worthy replacement for our main laptop (not our main PC, I should add). Well, let's put it this way; we certainly won't be bothering with a new full-sized laptop ever again! The only drawback was that despite the implication that it may be loaded with Windows 7, it arrived with a Vista Home Basic version - seemingly the web-site had got it wrong as perusal of the stock in store confirmed that they were all like it. On a forum I keep my ear pressed to, I've heard Windows 7 described as 'a more polished version of Vista', to which someone else quipped (not me I might add, but it does come under the category of things I wish I'd said!), "I didn't think you could polish a t**d!".
"Doesn't it look pretty?" being one of them, as it gleams all shiny and metallic maroon at you.
"Isn't it slim?" being another. Stripped of a DVD drive it's only a tad over 1" thick when folded up.
Having an 11.6" diagonal screen prevents it from being ultra-narrow, but if it was, there'd have to be some compromise on the size of keys used on the keyboard, and that criticism certainly can't be levelled at this little beauty with its '100% Finger Tip Keyboard'. Honestly, full-sized keys straight from a normal Acer laptop. All they've done is shave a millimeter off the gap surrounding them. These keys are the nicest and most well-proportioned I've poked two fingers at, at least on a portable.
A less favourable first impression is the time taken to boot up. Of course, I'm forgetting that in order to give as much battery life as possible from what has to be a small battery (duuhhh!), the processors in these things aren't exactly red-hot; in fact I'd say that it's slower to boot than my 8-year-old desktop. Of course, if it really had come equipped with Windows 7, who knows what the result might have been. Once the warranty has expired, I may use Linux or the keenly-awaited Google Chrome OS, which from what I can gather will be a kind of browser-cum-operating system (or is that an operating system using a browser as its menu?).
However, once loaded, and set to the task it was intended, i.e. browsing, it works pretty quickly. Setting up wi-fi was easy, and worked first time.
I've never keen on laptop mouse-pads, and I'm even less keen of this one's smaller representation of the rodent. As such, I've treated it/myself to a Microsoft Cordless Optical Mini Mouse, which, on stowage of its USB dongle in its underside, turns itself off, preventing accidental battery wastage on the move.
Battery life of the machine itself is variable, from about 2 hours up to about 4 hours, depending on what you do with it, how much disk activity this causes and which of Windows three 'Performance Levels' you choose. I'm not quite sure where the 'up to 9 hours' from the specification comes in. If you tweak it so that the hard drive is never running and the screen is barely visible with the wi-fi and network card turned off, maybe, but then its that living?
To be fair, the reluctance to boot up quickly seems to plague all PCs, portable or not, if they aren't your 'main' machine and only get pressed into service say once a week. This is the fate of a lot of laptops and net-books, I suspect. The implication is that every time it gets switched on, it'll have a list of things straining at the leash to update them selves; antivirus software being one obvious example. Others would include Windows itself, Adobe Flash Player, Java Updates and all those other nuisances that present themselves seconds after you switch on, having uttered those fatefully optimistic words "Think I'll just have a quick look at (substitute your own preference)". Meanwhile, after staring at the 'egg-timer' for ten minutes, your "just a quick look" has become a "don't know why I bothered".
So you see it may not always be the PC's fault.
It's also true to say that boot up time depends heavily on what kind of switch-off you opted for. Closing the session, putting the machine into a 'low-battery drain state' of hibernation means that it will resume in about 30 seconds. After an overnight spell under these conditions, it had lost 14% of its battery capacity, so maybe this is the way forward with slightly more frequent charging needed.
The screen is nice and clear with good colour contrast. There's one faulty pixel, which I'm told doesn't constitute a fault per se (how convenient that the maker's get to set their own rules as to what's fit for purpose), but it doesn't alter the fact that it's red on a black screen. After boot up it somehow disappears though.
The installed software includes a 60-day trial of the latest Home Version of Office (Word, Excel and Powerpoint only). This I got rid of favouring my Office XP Pro, which is what my employers still use anyway. I also got rid of the three-month's trial of McAfee antivirus in favour of a 'freebie'. Yes, they may not be as good, but any anti-virus that's up-to-date is better than a proprietary one for which the subscription ran out.
Having gotten over the tribulations of boot-up, it runs normal software like Office for example just fine. I use this machine to hold the Outlook address book needed to sync with my new phone. I use it to rip the CDs I want loaded to my phone, onto Windows Media Player. As it's so easily portable, I can take it to my TV, plug it into the USB lead from the set-top box and extract recorded programmes from its disk, with a view to 'wi-fi-ing' them to my main PC for editing and conversion to DVDs (assuming you can find anything worth archiving, that is).
Despite its diminutive proportions, it doesn't lack for much. There are 3 USB ports, a VGA external monitor port, an Ethernet connection for hard-wired networks, wi-fi for those that aren't, stereo mike in, stereo earphones out and a multi-format card reader for camera chips*. Not exactly part of its connection list, but there's also a web-cam 'enhanced for low light use', built into the top edge of the lid. This was surprisingly easy to configure. I downloaded and installed my Skype account, did a few set-up routines, and whaddya know it works.
(*Useful on holiday for backing up photos)
Despite information to the contrary, this does not have Bluetooth built in, although my £4.50 Bluetooth dongle was very easy to set up in conjunction with my new phone.
Processor - Atom Z520 1.22 GHz
Dimensions (WxDxH) 28.4 cm x 19.8 cm x 2.5 cm
Weight - 1.35 kg
Built-in Devices - Stereo speakers, wireless LAN aerial, webcam (0.3 megapixel), card reader, sound card,
RAM - 2 GB (installed) / 2 GB (max) - DDR2 SDRAM ( 1 x 2 GB )
Hard Drive - 250 GB
Display - 11.6" TFT 1366 x 768 (WXGA) - CrystalBrite
Graphics Controller - Intel GMA 500
Networking - Network adapters - Ethernet, Fast Ethernet
Networking - Wireless NICAcer InviLink 802.11b/g
Input Device - Keyboard, touchpad
Battery - Lithium-Ion (Run Time Up To 9 hours)
Operating System - Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic
Manufacturer Warranty - 1 year warranty
Don't pay Tesco's ludicrous £98-odd price for 3 year warranty when the Acer web-site will sell it to you for £45, including accidental damage insurance (you are, after all only getting two MORE year's warranty). Conversely, don't buy the 'official' protective sleeve for it from the Acer web-site for £17.50 when the self-same item is available from Tesco for £2.75 (honest!)