Review: Acer Aspire One D150 and Linux
I have had about ten laptops over the years. My first one, if you could call it a laptop, was an Atari Portfolio (1992) which I still have and it still works. I've only bought three laptops new and the rest have been given to me as retired machines by work, friends, and/or family. Here are a few things you need to know before you read this review:
- I'm a long time Linux user
- I am NOT a hardcore 3D gamer
- I don't use any high end vertical apps like CAD or video editing
- I'm a technical user who doesn't mind a certain amount of hacking
What is a Netbook?
According to the wikipedia page:
A netbook is a small portable laptop computer designed for wireless communication and access to the Internet... primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing, netbooks rely heavily on the Internet for remote access to web-based applications and are targeted increasingly at cloud computing users who require a less powerful client computer. Netbooks typically run either Windows XP or Linux operating systems rather than more resource-intensive operating systems like Windows Vista. The devices range in size from below 5 inches to over 13, typically weigh 2 to 3 pounds (~1 kg) and are often significantly cheaper than general purpose laptops
Netbooks have been out for a couple of years now and the Asus Eee PC 700 series with a 900MHz Intel Celeron M processor underclocked to 630MHz is generally perceived to be what started the trend with inspiration from the OLPC Project. The current crop of netbooks (circa June 2009), regardless of the manufacturer, are all very similar:
- 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 10.1 inch screen with 1024x600 resolution
- 160 GB hard disk
- Windows XP
Linux used to ship on most netbooks especially those with smaller SSD (Solid State Drive) storage but it seems that the volume sellers all have hard disks and Windows XP pre-installed. This is mostly due to significant price breaks Microsoft has given netbook makers on Windows XP and the market seeming to move toward traditional hard drives for their increased storage capacity over SSD storage.
The laptop I was using was a Dell Latitude D610. My brother-in-law had given it to me after using it for a few years. It has a 1.6 GHz Pentium M processor and 2 GB of RAM and is in very good condition except the battery life has reduced to about 1 hour. I used it for a few months and was very happy with it until two things happened. The f key on the keyboard broke off (thanks to my 3 year old son) and the AC power supply cord required twisting to operate properly.
I was lucky enough to win a service award at work which included a engraved crystal plaque and a check for $350. Wow, just enough to start looking for a netbook so I started reading all of the reviews. Asus has a few models out now and so does HP, Dell, Acer, and MSI. The list seemed to be growing on a daily basis. I started reading all of the reviews I could find online. There were even a few video reviews. None of them really had bad reviews... and since they all have very similar specs, Linux worked equally well on them all so how to decide?!? Acer had some models that shipped with Linpus Lite, a flavor of Linux based on Fedora. I'm a big Fedora fan so I figured that if Linpus Lite worked on it that stock Fedora would probably work on it.
The Acer Aspire One
The first model of Acer Aspire One I saw (called AOA150 or A150) had a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor, an 8.9" display screen and very attractive styling. The A150 has a design flaw though... if you want to upgrade anything, you have to take the whole case apart. Taking laptops apart is no fun and I imagine the smaller they are, the harder it is. For that reason I decided to keep looking around and the MSI Wind was my next target because several reviews raved about its Linux compatibility. I prefer to buy locally if at all possible (rather than online) but no local store seemed to have the MSI. Lots of places had the Acer and the HP.
Then I learned of a new model from Acer with a 10.1" display screen (called the AOD150 or D150) and it has almost the same specs as the previous model but with one important difference... it provides access to the hard drive, memory, and wireless card via access panels on the bottom of the unit. The larger display is a bonus although it offers the same resolution (1024x600). Although the case was slightly wider to accommodate the bigger screen, the keyboard is the same as that of the A150. The MSRP on the D150 model is $349.99 and a few local retailers had it so I decided pick one up.
The unit I bought was labelled "Acer Aspire One D150-1577" and is black with silver around the keyboard. The D150 is also available in white, red, and blue.
The unit I bought had Microsoft Windows XP pre-installed on the 160 GB hard disk but as soon as I unboxed it I plugged in my LiveUSB of MontanaLinux and booted it up.
For those not familiar with MontanaLinux, it is a personal remix of Fedora 10 that I created for a two reasons: 1) To apply all updates so it is as current as possible, and 2) To pre-install all of the software I like. I have been building it few times a week for the past couple of months and it consists of about 1,550 software packages including many pulled from the third-party RPM Fusion repo as well as Adobe's Linux repo. It has Flash, Acrobat Reader, and all of the multimedia apps/codecs as well as a healthy sampling of desktop applications including the GNOME desktop, the KDE desktop, the XFCE desktop... and a sampling of other window managers. Using it saves me a ton of time over taking a stock Fedora install, applying all of the updates and then installing all of the extra software I want.
MontanaLinux from LiveUSB worked great. The funky resolution of 1024x600 came up automatically and I didn't have to fuss with the wireless card at all, it just worked. I clicked on the "Install to Hard Drive" icon on the desktop and it let me install from the LiveUSB. USB2 is fast.. and even though I had to take the step of resizing the existing Windows setup to make room for Linux... the entire install took about 10 minutes.
Before writing this review I wanted to wait a few weeks and use the Acer Aspire One D150 for my regular day to day stuff. In that time I have gone through quite a few package updates... have had time to adjust to the smaller keyboard and screen... and have run all of the applications I'm used to on other desktops and laptops. I will address each topic separately.
As a attachment to this review I include a text file that shows the output of various commands in Linux to show all of the hardware.
According to lspci the video chipset is an "Intel Corporation Mobile 945GM/GMS/GME, 943/940GML Express Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 03)". Accelerated video works fine but I don't find "desktop effects" in GNOME nor KDE to be very useful so I generally leave them turned off.
So many reviewers seem to make a lot out of the smaller screen. I'm not a huge fan of large resolutions. My home desktop it set for 1280x1024 although it could probably provide a larger resolution if I wanted. My previous laptop was 1024x768. I have had a dual-head display setup on one work machine before but I can easily live with a single display. I guess I'm trying to say I'm not too picky. The default font size provided by Fedora was a tad bigger than I wanted. Using KDE most of the time I went into KDE's System Settings and reduced all fonts to 9 point. This seemed a little smaller than on other machines but looked more natural on the netbook. The display is very bright and clear and easy to read even with smaller fonts... although anyone with vision issues really needs to check it out before they buy.
I really didn't have any issues with the smaller vertical resolution although in a few cases application dialogue boxes would be too tall for the screen. Given the fact that I'm a seasoned Linux user I know that holding down the ALT key while dragging allows for moving an oversized window around so one can access previously inaccessible buttons. I've run into this issue a few times on machines with higher resolutions although it does seem more common on a netbook. While it is a minor annoyance to sometimes have an extra step to see all of a dialog box, it is acceptable.
I hooked it up to both a projector and an external display and so far as I can tell it will NOT do dual-head and will only mirror the internal display. You can make the external display a much higher resolution that the internal display if desired... yielding an internal display that is a subset of the larger one. If you want to close the cover and use the external display it is smart enough to turn off the internal display upon closing.
Wireless and Wired Networking
The wireless card is an "Atheros Communications Inc. AR242x 802.11abg Wireless PCI Express Adapter" and it worked fine out of the box.
The wired NIC is a "Attansic Technology Corp. L1e Gigabit Ethernet Adapter" and it works fine too although I have only used it at the 100Mbit speed as I don't have a GB switch.
Most laptops have smaller than full-sized keyboards and netbooks are even smaller yet. Examining the various netbook models I've discovered that there are two basic styles of keyboards on netbooks: 1) The individual key size is rather small but you have all of the keys and rows you'd expect or 2) The individual key size is close to full-size but there are less keys and rows and as a result more keys serve a dual purpose. For example I'll compare the Acer keyboard with the Dell Mini 9.
Acer keyboard - 84 keys on 6 rows, max of 17 keys per row
Dell keyboard - 61 keys on 5 rows, max of 13 keys per row
The Acer has single-touch Function Keys whereas the Dell requires holding down the Fn key to access the Function Keys as well as a handful of other commonly used keys. I prefer having more rows and more keys even if they are smaller. While the keys on the Acer keyboard are considerably small I didn't have any trouble getting used to them and typing full speed. I have what I consider to be medium sized hands. Everyone is advised to try out the keyboard before they buy.
All of the special purpose keys worked in Linux in combination with the blue Fn key... so dimming and brightening the screen work fine as does volume up and down, external display, etc.
The case is made completely out of plastic including the area around the keyboard that looks like polished aluminium. The touch pad is all part of the case with the exception of the button which is a separate piece. In Linux an up/down wheel is simulated by moving the finger close to the right edge of the keypad. While the simulated wheel works well I find myself occasionally scrolling when I don't mean to. I haven't found any way to adjust the sensitivity of the scroll area nor a way to turn it off. As a result I have to be more careful with my finger positions to not engage the scroll function when not desired.
The button is located under the pad and is not separated into left and a right buttons... it is one button and depending on which side you push, you get the appropriate click. To simulate the middle mouse button you push on both sides at the same time. I haven't had much trouble simulating a middle click.
The touchpad is a little small but it works well although I think some people might get frustrated with the scroll area sensitivity.
Sound, Microphones and Webcam
The sound chipset is an "Intel Corporation 82801G (ICH7 Family) High Definition Audio Controller (rev 02)".
Sound works but the internal speakers aren't very loud and they certainly aren't something you'd want to listen to music on unless you were in a very quiet place. The headphone jack works fine. Sometimes there is a pop or crackle in the audio playback and I've actually had the audio stutter a time or two.
The unit has a built-in microphone on the top screen border (near the webcam) and a microphone jack on the left side (next to the headphone jack). As best as I can tell the mics do not currently work in Linux and it is a problem found on most netbooks made from the same hardware. I'm hoping that a future kernel update will fix the problem.
The webcam works but I couldn't really find any instant messaging applications that would allow me to take advantage of it. In Cheese (a GNOME photo booth type application) I could take a snapshot but recording video didn't work. In Kopete (a KDE instant messaging app), I could see the motion video in the settings area but not actually do a video chat with anyone... and I assume that is a IM protocol compatibility issue.
In Microsoft Windows XP everything works well... although I don't use Windows much. I mostly kept it around for resale value and for hardware testing. It seems that the audio subsystem is a bit flaky with regards to Linux support but as mentioned earlier I hope that improves greatly with future distro / kernel releases. As it is I'm not too disappointed.
The CPU is an "Intel(R) Atom(TM) CPU N270 @ 1.60GHz" and it must have hyperthreading because Linux sees it as two CPUs according to /proc/cpuinfo.
Having a modern 1.6 GHz CPU, it performs well. It isn't a screamer but I can't complain. Re-encoding videos from AVI format to OGV with Thusnelda seemed noticeably slower than on my 3 GHz machine. That is to be expected.
Given the fact that the machine came with 1GB of RAM, everything performs quite well although I do plan on upgrading it to 2 GB next pay check. Why? Because I want to run VirtualBox on it. I installed it and it worked fine but with only 1GB of RAM I wasn't going to run too much.
At any given time I would be in KDE 4.2.3 running several applications: Firefox (6-ish tabs with 2 being Zimbra sessions), Kopete, Konsole, Konversation, Ktorrent and Dolphin. In Konsole I almost always have screen running and a few shell jobs. To see how well I could tax the machine I started re-encoding a video in Thusnelda while I was using VirtualBox... booting up a Linux distro (Slitaz) from a LiveCD image, installing it to virtual hard disk and then booting from hard disk. Seemed to run at full speed.
Video playback works well although sometimes large Flash videos embedded in the browser can be a bit choppy. Save the embedded .flv to a file and play it with a video player in fullscreen mode, no slowdown at all. I was able to easily play low and medium quality (638 - 512 horizontal resolution) AVI and OGV files in fullscreen without any noticeable slowdown of the machine.
Many people claim that a netbook is too slow to do every day work on. I disagree... or at least my everyday work doesn't require that much horsepower to run.
If you want, hook the machine up to an external VGA display, keyboard and mouse and you'll find it performs as a competent desktop. I even installed Tremulous (a free 3D shooter based on the Quake 3 Arena engine) and it played fine... although I do not necessarily recommend using netbooks as game machines.
Battery Life, AC Adapter, Suspend and Resume
Battery life depends greatly on how much of the hardware you are using, how bright you have the screen, etc. The unit I bought came with the 6-cell battery pack and it seems to last for about 4 hours with fairly heavy use. Some models have the 3-cell pack and I've heard a third party makes a 9 cell battery.
The AC adapter / charger is very small and the cord is quite long compared to some I've seen. Only time will tell how well it will hold up. I do recommend taking care with rolling it up and not to put any stress where the wires start... as that seems to be problematic over time on all adapters I've seen. It takes about two hours to charge the battery from empty.
Suspend to RAM and Suspend to Disk work fine in Linux. Resuming from Suspend to Disk seems to take as long or longer than booting (which is about 30 seconds) so I don't really recommend it over completely shutting down. One annoyance is that when you come back from a Suspend to RAM, sometimes you'll see a popup notice about IRQ #16 being disabled. Why, I'm not sure. The effect it has is that the sound quits working after the error message and requires a reboot to become functional again. Linux has a ways to go before suspend and hibernate work well on most laptops... on some it doesn't work at all... so I am fairly happy at how well it works on the Acer.
General Purpose Distro vs. Netbook Specific
I haven't tried any netbook centric distros. I've just been using my Fedora remix and it works fine. The main limiting factor is the vertical resolution so I did play around with reducing the size of title bars, turning off any less important panels within applications as well as making the panel auto-hide to give more desktop space. In the end I just switched back to the same settings I prefer from desktops. For web surfing, since it is 1024 horizontal resolution the vast majority of the web displays just fine... you just might have to scroll vertically a little more than you are used to.
The special purpose distros usually offer a menu program to launch things from. I don't think I'd like that... as I'm already used to the menus and panels in GNOME and KDE which work perfectly fine. Menu applications might be good for newbies but I think they are better off getting acquainted with a traditional desktop environment. On the first generation of netbooks, because they had less memory, less storage, and a slower processor... netbook specific distros with a light-weight menu rather than a traditional desktop made more sense... now, not so much.
My recommendation to distro makers... don't make a separate distro build / version just for netbooks. Your regular release should work fine... but if you want to include netbook specific packages or groups of packages, go for it.
Netbooks sell well because they are about the cheapest things out there. The first models had much slower processors, half as much RAM, and not much disk storage. The current crop is much faster and better suited for every day use. Unless you have some special software needs and require high performance hardware, I don't think you'll be disappointed with the Acer Aspire One D150. I certainly recommend it over previous models because of the larger screen and easy access to hardware through the panels on the bottom of the unit. It has been very stable and has not locked up on me not even once... and it runs fairly cool unless you block its airfow.
If video chat and audio recording are important to you... you might have to spend some time tweaking a kernel or wait for later releases to iron out the issues mentioned above. For general purpose and productivity use I don't think you can go wrong with this $350 netbook.
I almost forgot to mention it has a multi-card reader which I tested with an SDcard and it worked fine. Bravo! Oh, and since it is a netbook it doesn't have an optical drive... so no Audio CD nor Video DVD playback... unless you buy an external USB drive.
I'll report back after 6 months to let you know how it is holding up... and after a year. How well are the case, keyboard, trackpad, and AC adaptor going to hold up after a lot of use? We'll see.