When a netbook is released that's different to the horde of identical machines out there, we chain ourselves to it like it's the last chopper out of Saigon. The Acer Aspire One 521 is one such beast. It rocks the boat by sporting an AMD V105 processor instead of the standard Intel Atom chip. But does switching up the hardware lead to better performance?
The 521 is available from PC World and other vendors for around £260.
The 521 is one of the best-looking netbooks we've seen all year. The lid sports a glossy black coating, with the Aspire One logo embossed in a chrome finish. A subtle check pattern across the left side leaves this netbook looking like a fancy crossword compendium.
On the inside, the 521 looks more ordinary, however, with black plastic being the order of the day. We do like the power switch, though. It's made of clear plastic, set into a shallow well, and surrounded by a blue LED ring. It serves no extra purpose, but it is eye-catching.
The 521 does pretty well in the portability stakes, measuring 259 by 24 by 185mm. Furthermore, it only weighs 1.3kg, so it's light enough to carry around in a backpack without crushing your spine. If you ever needed to, you could spin it like a discus over the horizon.
The display also scores some plus points. It's a 10.1-inch LCD panel with a maximum resolution of 1,024x600 pixels. It's pleasingly bright, and doesn't attract too many annoying reflections. Colours are also rendered extremely vividly -- looking at a beautiful sunset on this screen might just melt your retinas.
The 521 is comfortable to use. Acer has stuck in a whopping great keyboard that's easy to type on. The big keys help you to keep mistakes to a minimum. An unfortunate consequence of the keyboard's size, however, is that the trackpad is minuscule. The mousing surface is sufficiently sensitive to prevent its cramped size traumatising you, however.
Around the edges of this machine, you'll find a VGA output, multi-format card reader, three USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and 3.5mm sockets for headphones and a mic. Interestingly, there's also an HDMI output slapped on the 521's left flank. That's unusual to see on a netbook, and it means you'll be able to hook the 521 up to a high-definition TV, so you can check out your images and video on a big screen.
Many larger laptops have this feature. We think it's more or less essential now, as it turns an ordinary laptop into a bona fide media centre, allowing you to stream iPlayer, for example, in big-o-vision. But does the 521 pack the processing wallop required to give this netbook any kind of multimedia potential?
The 521 shakes up the status quo by packing an AMD V105 processor clocked at 1.2GHz, while graphics are handled by an integrated ATI Radeon HD 4225 GPU. There's only a solitary 1GB of DDR3 RAM on-board, though. The 160GB hard drive offers less storage space than some competing machines, but it will probably still cater to all your needs, considering this netbook is built for light tasks, such as Web browsing and document editing.
Annoyingly, the 521 threw a hissy fit when we tried to run our CPU and GPU benchmark tests. But we can report that this netbook visibly struggled when we shoved some 1080p video footage down its gullet. Our beautiful footage was left looking more like a slide show. A slow one.
The 521 didn't fare much better when we tried streaming iPlayer footage. Standard-definition content looked alright and played pretty smoothly, but switching to an HD stream ended our fun. This netbook isn't capable of handling high-definition video.
That's a shame, as we'd hoped its slightly unusual components might help the 521 perform more capably than its brethren. That's not to say it's any less powerful than most rival machines, though.
The 521's battery life is average. When we caned the battery by constantly running the CPU at 100 per cent, it took 3 hours for this netbook to run out of juice. A minimum of 3 hours of battery life isn't too shabby, but we've seen many other netbooks that can last several hours longer than that.
We applaud Acer's decision to mix its netbook components up with the Aspire One 521. Even though the unusual CPU doesn't improve this machine's performance compared to rivals, it's still a decent netbook in other respects.
Edited by Charles Kloet