Acer Aspire One 522 netbook review

 
The Acer Aspire One 522 is the first netbook to ship in the US with a 10.1 inch display and an AMD C-50 processor with Radeon HD 6250 graphics. If it weren’t for the high resolution 1280 x 720 pixel display, you’d probably have a hard time telling this mini-laptop apart from any other netbook. It’s about the same size, weight, and even price as other offerings from Acer. But when it comes to performance, things get a little more complicated.
The AMD C-50 chip is a 1 GHz dual core processor with the CPU and graphics components on the same chip. AMD called this sort of system-on-a-chip an APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit. Intel is also producing System on a Chip processors, but Intel lags behind AMD in the graphics department, thanks to AMD’s purchase of graphics card maker ATI a few years ago.
The end result is that while the AMD C-50 chip uses almost the same amount of power as Intel’s latest Atom chips and offers similar day to day performance, it offers far better graphics performance.
In my tests, the Acer Aspire One 522 had no problem handling regular day to day tasks such as web browsing or writing documents. But it could also handle 1080p HD video playback and even some 3D gaming without breaking a sweat — although your battery life may suffer a bit if you spend a lot of time on these tasks.
Overall I’m very impressed with the performance offered by this little notebook computer which costs just about $330. But I’m less enamored of the keyboard and touchpad. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not awful, but the touchpad in particular takes some getting used to.
Acer sent me a demo unit for testing purposes. It features 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, 802.11b/g/n WiFi and runs Windows 7 Home Starter Edition. It has 3 USB ports, an HDMI output, Ethernet and VGA jacks, and mic and headphone jacks. The computer has a 6 cell battery and is not available with Bluetooth.

Design
The Acer Aspire One 522 looks a lot like the last half dozen or so netbooks from Acer. It has an 10.1 inch display, a not-quite full sized keyboard, and a 6 cell battery. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the early days of netbooks, computer makers were constantly trying out new designs to figure out what works. Acer has pretty much settled on its design, and the last few generations of the company’s mini-laptop have had very subtle differences such as different designs on the lid, or different power button arrangements.
I’m not a huge fan of Acer’s keyboard design, which has large flat keys without any sort of indentation. It can be a bit tricky to figure out where one key ends and the next begins at first, but after a while I was able to touch type on the keyboard about as quickly as on any other netbook — which means about 100 words per minute for me.
One thing I always have a hard time getting used to on Acer netbooks though, is the arrangement of the keys in the bottom right corner. The arrow keys and page up and down keys are all huddled togethe in s apace that’s barely large enough for 2 or 3 full sized keys. I find it hard to hit the up arrow without looking down at my hands, lest I should accidentally hit the down arrow. Since these keys also serve as the Home, End, volume, and brightness keys, I have to use this area more frequently than I would like.
I’m also underwhelmed by the touchpad. On the one hand it’s nice and wide, providing a lot of surface area for your fingers. On the other hand, it might be a little too wide. I occasionally found the cursor jumping from place to place while typing on the Aspire One 522, and it took me a while to realize this was because when I placed my palms on either side of the keyboard to type, sometimes my left palm would slip over to the touchpad.
There’s a single button below the touchpad which you can press for left or right-clicking action. It’s not the most responsive button I’ve ever used, but neither is it the worst.
Above the left side of the keyboard is a backlit power button which glows blue when the netbook is turned on.
Around the sides you’ll find 3 USB ports, VGA and HDMI ports, mic and headphone jacks, and an SD card slot.
One of the key features setting the Aspire One 522 apart from most 10 inch netbooks is the 1280 x 720 pixel high resolution display. The screen has a glossy finish, which turns the display into a mirror when the backlight is off, but with the light on, the screen reflected very little glare under normal room lighting. I still wouldn’t recommend using the netbook outdoors in bright sunlight — or even near a window on a sunny day.
The viewing angles are reasonably good and I had no problem reading a web page while looking at the computer from the left or right side — but if you tilt the screen all the way back, colors will start to fade.


The high resolution screen makes a huge difference in day to day use. As a blogger and journalist, I frequently have two web browser windows open at the same time, one for reading an article and another for writing. On a typical netbook with a 1024 x 600 pixel display, it’s almost impossible to do this, but the 1280 x 720 pixel screen on the Acer 522 makes it a breeze to open two windows at once — although some content might be cut off on some web pages.
The netbook is among the smallest on the market, measuring 10.2″ x 7.3″ x 1″ and weighing 2.9 pounds with a 6 cell battery. The mini-laptop does get a little warm on the bottom and in the center of the keyboard when you use it for a few hours at a time, but it’s not uncomfortably warm, or much hotter than a typical Intel Atom powered netbook. The Acer Aspire One 522 is also fairly quite. It does have a fan which is audible from time to time, especially when you’re running CPU-intensive tasks. But it’s one of the least noisy netbook fans I’ve heard.
Performance
The Acer Aspire One 522 is one of the first computers to ship with AMD’s new 1 GHz C-50 dual core chips with AMD Radeon HD 6250 graphics. In terms of overall performance, the new chip is surprisingly Intel Atom-like. I ran my usual series of benchmarks to see how long it took to transcode audio and video files and create a ZIP archive containing more than 2,000 individual files. The scores were nearly indistinguishable from netbooks with the latest Atom chips.
I pitted the Acer Aspire One 522 against the Asus Eee PC 1015PN, with a 1.5 GHz Intel Atom N550 chip, the Asus Eee PC 1015PED with a 1.83 GHz single core chip, and the Acer Aspire 521, with a 1.7 GHz single core chip.
The Aspire One 522 took just about the same amount of time on most tests as both Intel-powered netbooks. The Acer Aspire One 521 which came out last year, trounced all three of its competitors in every test, even though it has an older, single core chip. To be fair though, these tests don’t really take advantage of multicore functionality, which is why I ran some other tests as well.
Next up is the Cinebench graphics rendering test. This time I compared the Acer 522 and 521, the Asus Eee PC 1015PN (which has NVIDIA ION 2 graphics as well as the Atom N550 chip) and an HP Mini 5103, which has an Intel Atom N550 chip and integrated GMA 3150 graphics.
This time I was surprised to see that last year’s Acer Aspire One 521 still came out ahead on two of the three tests. In fact, the only one it didn’t win was the one where it couldn’t compete – the multi-core test. But since the Acer 521 notched almost the same score in the single CPU test as the HP Mini 5103 did in the multi-core test, I’m still calling this a win for the Aspire One 521.
In terms of 3D graphics rendering in the OpenGL test though, the Acer Aspire One 522 came in a close(ish) second.
Next up we have the 3DMark06 benchmark which measures CPU speed and overall graphics performance by playing through a couple of resource-intensive game demos. The Acer aspire One 522 held its own here, scoring higher than either the Aspire One 521 or the NVIDIA ION-powered Eee PC 1015PN. The netbook did get the lowest CPU score of the bunch, but it made up for that with its graphics prowess.
The Street Fighter IV benchmark basically checks to see whether your computer is up to the task of running this resource intensive video game. The Acer Aspire One 522 scored a letter grade of E… which is sort of a passing grade, depending on who you ask. But with an average of 19.48 frames per second, the overall experience isn’t likely to be great.
I managed to get the frame rate up closer to 25 fps by using the lowest graphics settings available in the benchmark, but the game is a lot less cool with wireframe backgrounds and cartoonish characters.
Finally, I plugged in an external Blu-Ray drive and fired up a movie using CyberLink PowerDVD. Not only did the computer have no problem playing the video in full screen mode on the laptop’s 720p display, but when I plugged in a 1080p monitor using the HDMI port, video playback continued both on the laptop screen and the external display with just a little stuttering during the first few seconds.
During the Blu-ray test, the CPU usage rarely spiked higher than 65 percent.
All told, the Acer Aspire 522 can run some modern games, and it does a slightly better job than other 10 inch mini-laptops I’ve tested. But I woudn’t really call this netbook a gaming system, unless you’re happy with somewhat older games or modern games that might not require quite as much graphics power.
The Windows Experience Index for this laptop is 2.8, which only tells part of story, since Windows determines the overall score by looking at the lowest subscore. In this case, that means the CPU, which can handle about as many calculations per second as a typical Intel Atom chip. But the graphics and gaming graphics scores are actually pretty respectable.
Battery
The netbook comes with a 6 cell, 49Whr battery which sits flush with the back of the computer, but which juts out a little from the bottom, raising the back of the keyboard up a fraction of an inch higher than the front.
The AMD C-50 processor is a low power chip with a TDP of 9 watts. While you might expect a dual core chip to use more power than a single core processor, the opposite is often the case, since you can run a multi-core processor at a lower voltage to achieve similar performance to a single core chip at a higher voltage. Additionally, the C-50 is a Fusion chip which AMD called an APU, or accelerated processing unit. That means the CPU and graphics cores are on the same chip, which further reduces power consumption.
What that means in the real world is that while the Acer Aspire One 522 offers netbook-like performance for day to day tasks, and support for HD video playback and 3D graphics acceleration, the computer still manages to get decent battery life. In my tests, I managed to get about 5 hours and 15 minutes of run time on a charge.
Sure, some Intel Atom-based netbooks provide twice as much battery life, but 5+ hours is still pretty impressive for an AMD-based computer. AMD has a reputation for making high performance chips which weren’t exactly known for their energy efficiency.
But here’s the truly surprising thing: while we’ve been waiting for ages to see how the AMD C-50 chip would fare in terms of overall performance and battery life, in my battery tests the Acer Aspire One 522 notched nearly identical scores to the Acer Aspire One 521: a laptop released last year with a 1.7 GHz AMD Neo K125 single core chip and Radeon HD 4225 graphics. The K125 chip is part of AMD’s Nile platform and includes separate CPU and graphics components.
As far as I can tell, there’s no real advantage to using the C-50 chip instead of the K125 — at least not in terms of battery life. In fact, as you can see in the performance section, the K125 chip was actually faster when it came to some CPU-intensive tasks, although that’s not necessarily the case when running software that’s optimized for multi-core chips.
Verdict
The Acer Aspire One 522 is one of the most impressive netbooks I’ve tested to date. While it doesn’t receive top honors in the battery life department, it does get a respectable 5 hours of run time, and you might be able to prolong that by picking up a spare battery or even a third party extended battery. Replacing the hard drive with an SSD probably wouldn’t hurt either.
The Aspire One 522 also isn’t much faster than a typical Intel Atom powered netbook, particularly one with an Intel Atom N550 dual core processor. So why do I consider the little laptop so impressive? It’s because of a combination of the processor, graphics, and HD display.
Here’s the best thing I can say about the Acer Aspire One 522: I wrote most of this review on the mini-laptop, and I didn’t really feel like I was using a netbook at all — at least once I plugged in a USB mouse. The HD display offered just the right amount of screen real estate, and the CPU and graphics were more than up to the task of making sure I could surf the web with multiple windows open, watch some video, and edit images without any noticeable slowdown.
But I was surprised to discover that I could have said almost all the same things about the Acer Aspire 521 — last year’s model. That netbook offers similar battery life, but better CPU and graphics performance at for about the same $330 price — if you can still find a store selling the Aspire One 521. It looks like the new model has largely replaced it.
The key advantage the new model has over the Aspire One 521 is the HD display, and if you’re looking for a more notebook-like performance from your 10 inch netbook, I’d definitely consider looking at the Acer Aspire One 522, in large part because of that screen.



I’ve found some netbooks with 10 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel displays to look almost too sharp unless you spend some time tweaking Windows fonts and other settings. I didn’t really have that problem with the slightly lower resolution 1280 x 720 pixel screen on the Aspire One 522. Your results may vary.
The netbook’s keyboard and touchpad are also not the best I’ve ever used — so if you really want a device with a higher resolution screen and a full sized keyboard, you may want to consider a notebook with an 11.6 inch display. But in my opinion, you’ll be hard pressed to get more bang for your buck out of any 10 inch model than the Aspire One 522 right now.

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