Joe Rybicki is a freelance writer who’s spent the last 13 years covering the videogame and technology industries. He lives in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and laughs at your commute. You can read more of his writing on various topics at joerybicki.com.
In the summer of 2002, I moved from Chicago to San Francisco, in the process going from a five-minute car commute to an hour-long commute by ferry. It was time to get a laptop. So I did my research, I saved up some cash, and I bought a Sony Vaio PCG-SRX99. It had a 10-inch screen, weighed just over three pounds with the battery, and was an inch and a half thick. It had an underpowered processor — an 850MHz Celeron — and almost nothing in the RAM or HDD department (256MB and 20GB, respectively). It was essentially a proto-netbook, heralding most of the features that, six years later, we would come to associate with the netbook form factor. Except one:
It cost sixteen hundred dollars.
(To be fair, that was relatively cheap for a notebook in those days, especially one small enough to throw in a man-purse and light enough to carry along on a commute that involved a walk of nearly a mile through downtown San Francisco. But still: nearly two grand with tax!)
I’m telling you all this so that you’ll understand my shock when I finally made the leap to a real netbook and discovered that it was a superior product in nearly every way…and for less than one-quarter the price.
The object of my affection is the Acer Aspire One D250, newly launched here in the U.S. and retailing for around $375 in “diamond black” with a 6-cell battery. (Subtract $25 for any other color, and another $25 for a 3-cell battery.) And superior though it may be in performance to my trusty old Vaio, it’s extremely similar in function.
Which is to say, it does everything a traveler needs, in a ridiculously small package. How small? It’s 1.25″ thick at its thickest point, with the somewhat angled battery attached. It’s less than an inch thick at the front. And it’s well under three pounds. It’s quite small.
This is what I look for in a laptop, and it’s the reason I started looking into the netbook form factor in the first place. Ninety percent of my travel is for business, and so most of the time when I’m on the road — or in the air — I’m all business. I don’t care much about gaming on the road; I have a smokin’ desktop at home for that. I don’t care about heavy video or photo editing; that’s what my Mac is for. I don’t need it to be a media center, a mobile recording studio, or a DVR. I need it for three things: e-mail, web browsing, and word processing. Everything else is just gravy.
The D250 does all these things perfectly well, and it’s easily powerful enough to do them all simultaneously, with a screen full of Firefox tabs, plus Pidgin and iTunes running in the background. But of course, even these simple tasks can go way off the rails if care isn’t taken with the keyboard design, and Acer earned big points with me for two important design choices: One, the keyboard is physically responsive and includes a fair amount of travel. This is key (ow, sorry) for me because this newfangled “chiclet”-style keyboard that style-savvy PC manufacturers have embraced just does not work for me. Since I type almost exclusively by touch it’s vital that I be able to feel the keys depressing fully. I know this is a matter of personal taste for a lot of people, but as a professional writer I am very particular about my keyboard feel. (This is, in fact, one of the main reasons I abandoned the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, which was the forerunner in my research until I actually tried typing on the thing. One word: Ew.)
So far my only complaint is the tiny trackpad. Acer tries to maximize its usability by adding multi-touch and various gesture-based commands, but no matter how much functionality you try to cram on there, you’re still talking about a space that’s 1.5″ by 2″ — there just isn’t a whole lot of real estate. I’ll be curious how easily I adapt to it, especially compared to the generous trackpad on my old Vaio.
Anyway, next week I’m taking the D250 with me to E3, the yearly videogame mega-convention, where it will accompany me on four days worth of jaunts from one end of the Los Angeles Convention Center to the other. It’s going to be subject to some rigorous testing in the areas of battery life, WiFi connectivity, portability, and reliability.
So I’ll have a more complete report when I return. But so far, after just a couple days of experimentation, I’m extremely optimistic that this little wonder is going to come through with flying colors.
Yay for the SRX-99! I still have mine. The battery is totally dead, so if it’s unplugged it dies immediately, but other than that it still works fine (albeit very slowly with its whopping 256MB of RAM). Nowadays it seems a crime to have paid $1600 for it, but it was an awesome computer for a computer science student going through grad school. I still remember walking out of the lab and having to check to make sure my laptop was in my backpack, it was that pleasant to carry around. I’m thinking of getting a netbook to replace my aged Vaio, but my current laptop is an XPS m1330 (13″ screen, ~4lbs) so it’s pretty portable already. That combined with the fact that I don’t go that many places with it and that I mostly use it for coding (so I like a fair amount of screen real-estate), I’m not sure that it’s worth getting a netbook. Anyone have any thoughts?
I think there is a mistake, all photos are showing an ACER AO D150 and not a D250 as said in the title…
Is it normal ?
The two laptops look very similar, but if you look carefully, you’ll
notice that the SD card slot is on the right side of the machine on
the D250 and on the left on the D150.
Good article. I agree with your comments about keyboard design. Feeling comfortable when typing on one of these smaller keyboards is very important. It is the main reason I sold my Eee PC 900 and bought an MSI Wind. I thought the Eee PC 900 form factor was perfect and it seemed to run well enough but typing for even a few minutes on its tiny keyboard drove me nuts.
Yeah, I was willing to be sold on the N120, had I just been able to try one out in person. But portability was also key, and the N120’s additional width and weight weighed (AHA!) against it.
The real kicker, though, was that the keyboard feels exactly like my old Vaio’s, which I knew from experience I could type on for hours at a time with no problem whatsoever.
Thanks for the kind words!
Oh, and Nate: I would not be surprised at all if some people find it easier to touch type on chiclet keyboards. But for my typing style it was just…ew. I really need the springiness a more traditional keyboard provides.
I see. As I said. To each his own. The beauty of the netbook market is that there’s something for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t think the 1000he is the best keyboard going. I just don’t have any problems touch typing on it. Of the netbooks I’ve owned, the HP Mini-Note’s keyboard is easily the best.
If the 1000he’s keyboard wasn’t so flexible and cheesy feeling, it would be higher up on my list.
Indeed, More weight is literally a drag. It just occurred to me that the Samsungs have Bluetooth as well, which are handy for mice, headsets, etc.
I do have to admit the Acer has cleaner lines and a more modern look; moreover it places the 4-1 card reader in a more logical spot then the Samsungs. The price is also very good too.
No, you’re right Joe, the Acer is a winner. Hope it proves very useful at e3.
Joe was a decent chap when he was writing for Ziff Davis. It nice to see a “professional on the road” account each year about these devices.
I suspect that if he likes his Acer he would have ‘loved’ a Sumsung N120 with the bigger keybaord and bigger battery. It’s a bit bigger and heavier (6 oz)….but he is a writer so the bigger keyboard would have been helpful. The touchpad of the N120 is wider too, and it’s indented a bit from the rest of the chassis, which is a huge improvement over the Samsung NC10 touchpad.
I did try to convince him to look at the N120 after hearing he didn’t
like the Eee PC 1000HE keyboard. But he wasn’t able to find one to
check out in person before placing an order.
I guess I don’t get why it’s any harder to touch type on a chiclet keyboard. I did it on a Macbook, and I’m currently clicking away on my 1000he without issue.
To each his own, I guess.
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