Acer Aspire One 721: Ultraportable or netbook?

If you’ve lusted after Acer‘s TimelineX 1830T ultraportable but don’t have $700, you can get much the same experience from the company’s $430 (as of 8/25/2010) Aspire One 721 netbook. The two units are outwardly identical, but the 721 substitutes a far cheaper Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) Athlon II Neo CPU for the 1830T’s Intel Core i5. The WorldBench 6 performance numbers show a 21-point performance gap, but the subjective experience isn’t as dissimilar as that difference might lead you to believe.

The Aspire One 721 has a crisp, 1366-by-768, 11.6-inch colour display, which is big enough to comfortably watch videos on without having to be unduly close to the screen. The 721 is also outfitted with 2GB of DDR3 memory and, as a companion to the Neo CPU, with an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 integrated GPU. The only (minor) gotcha with the 721 is the hard drive. The 250GB drive that shipped with our 721-3574 test unit is an ATA version. Not many ATA SSDs–a favorite netbook/small laptop performance-boosting upgrade–are out there, so hot-rodders beware.

As for the Aspire One 721’s performance: A WorldBench 6 score of 52 takes it out of the usual lousy netbook range, but bestows only laptop mediocrity. Subjectively, the unit feels fine except when loading larger apps, and then it feels laggy. Thanks to the HD 4225, the 721’s gaming rates are actually a frame or two faster than the TimelineX 1830T’s; however, that’s a pyrrhic victory–19 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 is still unplayable. Video, on the other hand, is as smooth in nearly all cases as on the 1830T–entirely watchable. A slight stutter during quick background pans in a high-rate, 1080 video was the only (and barely) noticeable difference.

Input ergonomics are not the forte of the Aspire One 721–it’s good only for light to moderate typing. The biggest issue is not the size or feel of the keyboard, which are fine, but its placement. Slightly recessed into the deck, you’ll occasionally hit the edge of said deck when reaching with your thumb for the spacebar. Also, the relatively sharp front lip of the deck will cut into your palms during long typing sessions.

A lack of front deck space also cramps the size and usage of the flush-mounted touchpad. It requires more strokes than normal to move the cursor up and down the screen. It’s not often that Acer opts for style over substance, but the company did so in the 721’s case.

Weighing in at just over three pounds, the Aspire One 721 isn’t the lightest notebook of its size we’ve seen, and one reason for that is a six-cell, 4400-mAh battery that maintained power to the CPU for nearly 4.5 hours. That’s 2 hours shy of the TimelineX 1830T with its six-cell 5800-mAh battery, but still pretty decent.

The Aspire One 721 has no room for an optical drive, but the port lineup is certainly adequate: three USB 2.0 ones, one HDMI, one VGA, a single gigabit LAN port, and a 5-in-1 memory card reader. N-Wireless is on board, but the Aspire One 721 lacks the TimelineX 1830T’s Bluetooth. The model comes preloaded with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and some useful apps such as Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 9 for playing DVDs. Obviously, you’ll need a separate USB DVD drive or play the movies from disk.

The Aspire One 721 is a reasonably cheap ultraportable, albeit one with only passable performance. Thinking of the unit as a high-end netbook puts it in a much better light. We don’t like the input ergonomics, but they’re a lot less annoying in a $400 computer than in a $700 one.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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