Tom's Definitive 10.1" Netbook Buyer's Guide: Fall 2010

Acer Aspire One 521 (AO521)

This is the only netbook in the roundup equipped with an AMD processor. That might be somewhat odd to many, considering that the two most popular netbook brands (arguably Acer and Asus) have always stuck with Atom CPUs for nearly all of their netbooks SKUs. Add to that the fact that AMD processors, even at the low-end, have never really stood a chance against the power-saving capabilities of Atom. It is easy to see why an 10.1" AMD netbook makes us intrigued.

Announced a few months back, the AO521 was released alongside its nearly-identical 11.6" AO721 brother. This makes the AO521 the newest notebook in our showcase, sporting the recently-released Athlon II Neo K125. With a market price of ~$339.99, though, the AO521 is certainly one of the more expensive netbook options.

In return, you get two things not typical of netbooks--HDMI output and a more capable graphics processor. Understandably, Acer hopes this 10.1" netbook comes across as the powerhouse platform. This may be the right time too, considering the netbook market is saturated with buying options--10+ models totaling more than 100 submodels, the only gap has really been in a performance netbook and this is where Acer is now hoping to stand above the crowd.

The sense of power that Acer is trying to bring to the table is certainly reflected in the feel of the AO521, mainly because of its weight. It also feels a bit beefier because of its 7.4" width, and the use of what seems to be a thick ABS shell. MSI's U150 actually comes in about .5" wider, but this is only because of a protruding battery back. The battery on the AO521 sits nearly flush, accounting for a good deal of its weight. But the small footprint is still typical of a netbook form factor.

Open up Acer's Aspire One and you will find that the piano black finish on the display bezel matches the high-gloss surface of the display lid. Meanwhile, the ABS surface extends to the rest of the AO521, except for the palm rests and the touchpad, both of which seem to be made of polycarbonate. We found the location of the power button somewhat odd considering most people are right-handed, but this is really a minor concern for us.

The keyboard is pretty typical of what we have seen from previous Aspire One netbooks; opting to forgo the use of a chiclet design isn't a downside by any stretch. Chiclet-style keyboards are more an issue of preference and aren't inherently superior to the standard keyboard, except in their lower profile and the ease of cleanup. According to Acer, this is a 93% keyboard, which is to say 93% of the size of a desktop keyboard. Understand, though, that this is in respect to the size of the entire keyboard, and says nothing about key size. So, this makes it easy to overlook the fact that the keys on the A0521 are very close to being desktop-sized. This is not the case for all 92% or 93% keyboards.

While space is constrained, key size helps make up for the small real estate a bit. The touchpad, like everything else on a netbook, is reduced. It is interesting to point out that Acer doesn't really consider this to be an integrated touchpad. We probably would describe this as "semi-integrated," since it is fabricated as a single piece along with the casing. We say "semi" because this is not a seamless transition from touchpad to case or vice versa. Instead, the touchpad is beveled slightly higher, but retains the same texture as you run your fingers over the rest of the silver polycarbonate panel.

It is good to see that the AO521 has an unpolished finish on the touchpad surface. When it comes to touchpads, polished is more a detriment because it is easier to feel any accumulation of skin oil. This doesn't necessarily come from eating while computing, but rather the buildup from everyday contact. Polished surfaces make this sensation noticeable rather quickly. This is what makes it disappointing to see Acer also include high-gloss touchpad buttons. While they have good tactile feedback and depression space, it would have been preferable to see the company match a multi-gesture touchpad with either matte or textured buttons.

  • frederico
    Very indepth excellent review. Pleasantly surprised. A lot of people out there have little clue of netbooks or even their uses. I got a little samsung last year and now I use it more than my main PC, obviously not for gaming, but watching webcasts/films at night, listening to music, grabbing it while watching TV to check something on the web, etc, etc. Not to mention completely essential when travelling on train/bus/wherever - 6 hours batt life still holding up.

    Very handy little things - easy to become addicted to. Theres some new models coming out this month that can handle HD but still have great batt life, will be tempted to pick one up.

  • ScoobyJooby-Jew
    I have used a Gateway netbook with vista and 2 gigs of ram. I loved it. The 2 gigs really helped smooth things out. And when I loaded the netbook distro of ubuntu, it was ridiculously awesome. It satisfied everything except gaming. Which is what I wanted it to do.
  • DjEaZy
    ... AMD FTW!!!
  • As far as I know the battery makes a difference between 1000P and 1001px.
  • amk09
    I have been looking forward to an article like this!!!!!

    Great job TH ily ;)
  • Luscious
    That's the best performance rundown I've seen to date on the Broadcom Crystal HD - nice to get critical, hands-on info without the marketing BS. That said, AMD's Nile platform is seriously spanking Intel.

    I recently tested the HP Pavilion dm1z with the dual-core K625. Only slightly heavier/bigger than the 10" HP 210 Mini, but far superior when it comes to performance:
  • lashabane
    Huh, never knew that a full propane tank weighs ~38 lbs.

    *Ninja edit*

    Super good roundup/review. I'm in the market for a netbook this season and this review helped a lot.
  • braneman
    I actually found that on my last netbook (toshiba satalite, amd based) with a ram upgrade the only game it couldn't play passably on lowest settings(resolution included) was red faction guerrilla, even then it was graphical errors, you could even bring Crysis up to MEDIUM on some settings. meh now I got an m11x, it's very nice.
  • KingArcher
    OMG this review is like drugs for the technically inclined., Excellent job Andrew Ku. Amazing stuff. Really learned something new.
    I look forward to reading more reviews from you. :bounce:

    P.S. Editors, give this man a raise ;)
  • super_tycoon
    If you're doing a 12 inch in the near future, I hope you include the Asus 1215n. I've had mine for three weeks and it's brilliant. ION2 and Optimus are easily worth whatever I paid for them. Playing any HD youtube video yields unicorns and butterflies while my friend's gateway (the one reviewed here) only gets the look of disapproval.

    My concern is that drivers for ION2 are a bit -fast- slow and loose now, the stock asus drivers were crap, the Nvidia update at launch was crap, but about two weeks ago there was a major update that requires manual installation. It gets roughly double, yes double, the fps of the old pos. Now I didn't write the thing, but it felt like it addressed the PCI-Ex1 link narrowness. (After all, what else could it be? It's just a 210m at it's core, but whatever's drawn on the Nvidia gpu also has to go back down the PCI-E link to be written to the Intel gpu vram (Optimus))

    Anyhow, forget the broadcom thing, my friend (a different one, I promise they're real and actually have these things!) has the dell and it's pretty bad. Even I couldn't get that stupid thing to work reliably except for WMP. At least he got his with his new xps 16.

    TL;DR I've actually used the gateway and dell netbooks reviewed here and they're both crappy. The gateway gets good battery life though and feels nicer. I love the asus 1215n with it's ION2 gpu and Optimus, and you should too.