The Acer Aspire One 521 looks like a typical netbook. It has a 10 inch display, a slightly less than full sized keyboard, and it weighs just 2.8 pounds. But while virtually every netbook released over the past two years has shipped with a low power Intel Atom processor, the Acer Aspire One 521 is powered by a low power AMD chipset. It also has ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics.
The result is a machine that looks and feels a lot like a typical netbook, but which performs much more like a larger, more expensive computer. Not bad for a mini-laptop that sells for $349.99.
On the other hand, the extra power comes at the cost of battery life. While the Acer Aspire 521 can run longer on a charge than some earlier notebooks with AMD chips, it doesn’t come close to netbooks such as the Asus Eee PC 1001P and Dell Inspiron Mini 10 in the battery life department. And while it outperforms a typical netbook in most performance tests, the Acer Aspire One still isn’t exactly a speed demon. Most users will probably find it makes more sense to pick one up for use as a secondary computer than as a primary machine.
Acer recently sent me a demo unit to review. It features a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display, 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 single core processor, ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and a 6 cell, 4400mAh battery.
If you’re a visual learner, you might want to skip to the end of this review where you can check out a brief video review of the Acer Aspire One 521.
The Acer Aspire One 521 is a nice looking little laptop. Acer has been making netbooks for almost a few years now, and the company has become a master at figuring out how to make the most of limited space. The keyboard and touchpad are nice and large. There’s plenty of room on the left and right sides for ports as well as a vent to help keep the laptop reasonably cool. And the 6 cell battery sits flush with the base and rear of the netbook.
The laptop is available in several colors, but the demo unit I received has a brown lid with an attractive not-quite-checkered pattern on the lid. If you don’t like seeing a company’s name emblazoned in big letters across the top of a notebook, this might not be the model for you, but I don’t really have a problem with it since this isn’t the part of the laptop I’m usually looking at anyway.
The overall design strikes a nice balance between an angular feel and rounded edges. Like many notebooks, the Aspire One 521 is a little thicker at the back than the front, which gives the illusion that this netbook is a little thinner than it is. But at 1.1 inches in the rear and 0.9 inches in the front, it’s pretty thin any way you look at it. The laptop is 0.2 inches wide and 7.5 inches deep.
On the right side of the case you’ll find two USB ports, mic and audio jacks, an Ethernet port, and the power connector as well as a space for a computer lock. I found the placement of the power connector took a little getting used to, since most notebooks locate it further back. But I doubt this will be a big deal for most people.
The left side of the computer has a VGA port, HDMI port, another USB port, and a flash card reader.
There’s a large access panel on the base of the computer which you can remove to access the memory, hard drive, and wireless module.
The 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display has a glossy finish, which I know isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But colors looked bright and vivid, and you have a decent amount of control over screen brightness.
As an added bonus, the screen can be tilted down at almost a 180 degree angle — something that many notebooks won’t do. I’m honestly not sure when you would use a laptop in this configuration, but it’s something that people ask me about every now and again, and aside from tablet-style netbooks that have screens which can rotate, I haven’t found many mini-laptops that can be opened quite as wide as the Acer Aspire One 521.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Acer Aspire One 521 has the same keyboard layout as most of the 10 and 12 inch Acer laptops I’ve used over the past year or so. The keys are flat with very little space between them.
While I often feel more comfortable with keyboards with a bit more space between the keys so it’s easy to feel your way around without looking down, there’s no arguing with results. I notched a score of 103 words per minute in an online typing test using the Aspire One 521, which is pretty close to my top speed.
The one area of the keyboard that I feel could really use some improvement is the arrow key section in the bottom right corner. The Page Up, Page Down, and arrow keys are all crammed into a very tight space.
In fact, these six keys take up just a little more space than the shift key just above them. I’m pretty sure that given enough time you could learn to use the arrow keys without looking at the keyboard, but I’m not there yet.
While many laptops separate the touchpad from the palm rest area by indenting it a little bit, the Acer Aspire One 521 touchpad is actually a little higher than the surrounding area. The effect is the same though. It’s pretty easy to detect the edges of the touchpad with your finger, which should keep you from accidentally sliding over the edge.
The touchpad supports mutitouch gestures such two-finger scrolling. And there are two separate keys below the touchpad to register right and left clicks.
The touchpad could stand to be a bit wider, but it would have been hard to make it much taller without taking away space from the buttons. Overall, this is one of the better netbook touchpads I’ve tested.
This is the area where the Acer Aspire One 521 really stands out from the crowd. In day to day activities such as surfing the web with multiple browser tabs open or listening to music, you’re not likely to see much difference between this laptop and a typical Intel Atom powered netbook. Both perform quite well at simple tasks such as these. But the Acer spire One 521 can do things that would make a typical netbook — and some more powerful notebooks — choke.
I ran a series of benchmarks to measure the CPU and graphics performance of this laptop. The Acer Aspire One 521 trounced pretty much every netbook on the market in most of these tests. But it wasn’t quite as fast as notebooks with more powerful Intel CULV processors in CPU-intensive tests. On the other hand, the ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics appear to be much better at some tasks than the Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics that ship with most of those notebooks.
First up, I tried playing 720p and 1080p HD video from the hard drive. The netbook had no problems handling either. Flash video from the web was a bit trickier. The Acer Aspire 521 had no problem handling 720p HD video from YouTube, but 1080p Flash video playback was a little choppy in my tests. Now, there’s a big difference between a little choppy and slideshow.
Try watching the same videos on a machine with an Atom N450 processor and GMA 3150 graphics, and you’ll be looking at a picture slideshow, not a choppy video.
In terms of CPU performance, I ran the same set of tests I’ve been using for the past year, which involves transcoding a video, creating a ZIP archive from a large folder of files, copying that same large folder, and transcoding an audio file. For comparison’s sake, I’ve included the scores for the Asus UL20A (1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU) and Asus Eee PC 1005PE (1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 CPU).
As you can see, the Acer Aspire One 521 was a bit slower than the UL20A on most of the CPU-intensive tasks. But it was much faster than the Eee PC 1005PE.
As another measure of overall speed, I loaded up two of the most resource-intensive applications I typically use on a netbook or notebook: OpenOffice.org and GIMP. Once installed, each took about 14 seconds to load. On the UL20A, they launched in 10 and 16 seconds, respectively, but on the Asus Eee PC 1005PE, it took 22 seconds to launch GIMP, and 13 seconds to load OpenOffice.org.
But the CPU scores only tell part of the story. While I couldn’t see any major difference between the Acer Aspire One 521 and the Asus UL20A in terms of HD video playback, the Acer netbook performed much better when it came to 3D performance benchmarks. It’s not entirely clear how much of this is due to the different graphics processors and how much is due to the Acer netbook having a lower screen resolution than the Asus laptop. But I tried to account for that where possible by running one of the toughest tests on the Asus UL20A at 1024 x 768 pixel resolution instead of the native 1366 x 768 pixel resolution.
For graphics tests, I’m using the Asus UL20A and HP Mini 311 as reference machines. The UL20A has GMA 4500MHD graphics, while the HP Mini 311 has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and first generation NVIDIA ION graphics.
First up, I ran the Cinebench benchmark, which tests both CPU and graphics performance. In the CPU test, Cinebench renders a high resolution image, wile the OpenGL graphics test renders a 3D image from a variety of angles.
It’s worth pointing out that the Asus UL20A has a dual core processor, and the HP Mini 311 has an Intel Atom chip which supports hyperthreading. The Acer Aspire One’s AMD Athlon II Neo K125 processor is a single core chip without hyperthreading support, so it wasn’t able to compete in the “multi CPU” test. But as the chart shows, the Acer Aspire One 521 scored nearly 3 times higher in the single CPU benchmark — and the single CPU score was actually much higher than the multi CPU score for the HP Mini 311. But the Asus UL20A was the winner in the CPU tests.
The OpenGL test, on the other hand, was another story. The Acer Aspire One 521 is the clear winner here, and I have to say I was amazed at how quickly it rendered the image while I was watching the benchmark complete. This netbook notched the highest score on the Cinebench OpenGL benchmark of any laptop I’ve tested, but bear in mind, my specialty is low power computers and not high performance machines.
I typically like to run 3DMark06 to test graphics performance, but for some reason it wouldn’t run properly on this netbook. Engadget’s Joanna Stern had more success, and notched a score of 1481, which is pretty similar to the scores I’ve managed to get from notebooks with NVIDIA ION graphics.
Update: After downloading the latest version of 3DMark06, I was able to run the benchmark. As you can see in the image below, the Acer Aspire One 521 achieved an overall higher score than the Asus UL20A with GMA 4500 graphics, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 with a single Core Atom chip and NVIDIA ION graphics. The only laptop I’ve tested that bests the Acer Aspire One 521 in this test is the Asus Eee PC 1201N, which has a dual core Atom 330 processor and NVIDIA ION graphics.
Instead, I took the suggestion of a colleague and tried the Street Fighter IV benchmark. I then ran the same test on an Asus UL20A. In order to keep things close to comparable, I set the screen resolution for the netbook at 1024 x 600 and the larger laptop was set at 1024 x 768.
Basically, neither of these laptops are up to playing this game with the default graphics settings. But the Acer Aspire One 521 is a lot closer. And at the lowest graphics setting, it actually zips through the benchmark at nearly 30 frames per second. Of course, at that point, you’re essentially watching cartoon characters fighting in a wireframe background, but the UL20A chugged along at just 20 frames per second even at the lowest settings.
All in all, the Acer Aspire One 521 isn’t exactly the best choice if you’re looking for a hard core gaming rig to play bleeding edge games. But it certainly has enough oomph to handle most older games and many new first person shooters, fighting games, or real time strategy games — if you can put up with the small screen and arrow keys.
Still, if you’re looking for a computer that’s just as small, light, and portable as a typical Intel Atom powered netbook but which packs significantly more CPU and graphics power, the Acer Aspire One 521 definitely fits the bill.
Of course, there’s a tradeoff for all that extra power. And that’s the fact that the computer uses… extra power. In other words, don’t expect to get the same kind of battery life from the Acer Aspire One 521 as you would with a newer Intel Atom-powered netbook.
Acer says that the Aspire One 521 should be last for about 5.5 hours on a charge and I found that under normal usage I got close to 5 hours of run time. That’s a lot better than I expected, and 5 hours is especially good when when you compare it to the battery life of early notebooks with AMD Neo processors, such as the HP Pavilion DV-2. But at a time when I regularly see mini-laptops which can run for 8 hours or longer on a charge, 5 hours is nothing to get all that excited about.
The Acer Aspire One 521 comes with a 6 cell, 4400mAh, 48Whr battery. It’s possible that Acer or a third party vendor could offer a higher capacity battery pack that would add a little extra run time, but it would probably also stick out a bit from the back or bottom of the laptop.
I tested the battery life without making any changes to the ATI Powerplay Settings, which means that the graphics card doesn’t work quite as hard when you unplug the laptop. If you need a graphics performance boost you can manually adjust the TI Powerplay settings in the computer’s advanced power options settings, but you’ll probably see a dip in battery life.
I’ve been reviewing netbooks for well over two years at this point, and to be perfectly honest it’s starting to get boring. Almost every 10 inch mini-laptop that hits the market these days has the same specs: Intel Atom processor, Intel integrated graphics, Windows 7 Starter Edition, 1GB of RAM, WiFi, and maybe Bluetooth. The Acer Aspire 521 is one of the few netbooks I’ve tested that really breaks the mold.
I mean sure, it still has the same basic case design as a typical netbook, it ships with the artificially crippled Windows 7 Starter Edition, and the screen resolution is still the standard 1024 x 600 pixels. But the AMD Athlon II Neo K125 processor and ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics are a winning combination in this small form factor laptop.
While I wouldn’t recommend the Aspire One 521 as a primary computer for most users, any more than I would recommend an Atom-based netbook, the Acer Aspire One 521 offers significantly better performance than most netbooks. If the limited CPU or graphics performance were keeping you from trying a netbook, this may be the model to look at.
On the other hand, if battery life is more important to you than speed, you might be better off going with another netbook — or at least picking up a spare battery for the Aspire One 521.
I put together a video showing off some of the features of the Acer Aspire One 521. You can check it out below: