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.