Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
12/12/2011 3:57:23 PM
High-def LED display, able to get online via Wi-Fi, Ethernet or 3G SIM, good battery life, excellent value
Slower than comparable netbooks, too much preloaded software
Netbooks are hitting ever more sophisticated trends, and the latest is for getting online via a 3G SIM. Acer’s Aspire One ZA3 is a Windows XP netbook and one of the first to hop on board with a preinstalled BT SIM and in true Acer-style; it’s a bargain at £249. Of course, you get what you pay for, and that’s never so true as with netbooks.
The ZA3 is a pretty typical netbook clocking in at 1.35kg and just one inch thick, though the 11.6-inch LED screen is larger than most. Its display packs a high definition 1366x768 pixels, which is on the higher end for netbooks, and webpages look nice with clear fonts and bright colours. The high-gloss front attracts finger smudges less than most, and comes in a choice of black, brown, pink, white or navy, but its sleek looks are slightly marred by a protruding battery at the back. Along the sides, we have three USB ports, an Ethernet port, TV out cable and a SD card reader, so you’ll be able to stick your camera’s memory directly in. You can only push the screen back to around 120 degrees, which is a little stingy but unless you’re experiencing horrible light reflection, you can probably live with it. The keyboard is nicely laid out, with individual tablet keys that are just a little lightweight and ‘clicky’. This is par for the netbook course though and we’ve come across keyboards with far more flex. For standard window navigation, the touchpad is responsive enough and you can slide your finger up, down, left and right to scroll a page, but it can’t really handle more precise work such as photo editing. It’s not quite accurate enough for micro movements, and though you can pinch to zoom, the motion is pretty jerky. Acer’s Crystal Eye 1.3-megapixel webcam and digital microphone lets you make Skype and other video calls without having to attach additional peripherals, and both automatically load if you start a video call. You can also load the webcam from the programs menu and take a photo at either 320x240 or 640x480 resolution, though colours are pretty washed out.
The internals of the ZA3 are definitely on the modest end of the netbook scale, with an Intel Atom Z520 processor packing a leisurely clock speed of 1.33GHz and just 1GB of RAM. Battery life is pretty impressive at around seven hours even with Wi-Fi on.
Applications load slower than in higher-spec netbooks, especially if you’re running more than three programs at once. You can watch high definition at 720p (rather than the full 1080p) but on a screen that size it’s definitely enough, and you can also connect an HDMI cable to watch your vids on the big screen. HD media does take a toll on the li’l processor though, with occasional freezing. For web surfing, email and document editing, it’s absolutely fine. The real problem is with the bloatware that Acer and/or BT has preinstalled – there’s a trial version of Microsoft Office, its free open source corollary, OpenOffice, and for good measure, the ancient Microsoft Works. There are about a dozen extra games with Acer GameZone, preloaded Google Desktop, and RSS reader/meta search engine eSobi – though these are fine pieces of software, we would prefer the option to choose. Finally, to top off the tech equivalent of a fat man going for bust, there’s McAfee Virus Scan, a clunky piece of software bound to bring our little Aspire One to its knees, or at the very least, disturb you at regular intervals to install new updates, reboot your computer, or double-check you’ve got those new updates.Luckily, this stuff can all be uninstalled and the net-savvy can download a lighter, better version of McAfee such as Avira Antivirus (for free).
The BT Connection Manager lets you switch between using your 3G SIM to go online or hopping aboard a Wi-Fi network. In fact, there are five internet profiles you can use depending on the tariff you are using the netbook on, including PAYG Wi-Fi, free BT Wi-Fi, and Ethernet. The interface is quite cluttered with various options and menu tabs, but actually switching between connections is straightforward, though the 3G connection sometimes took up to 30 seconds to load. It’s a very useful feature – piggyback a wireless network when you’re at home or a friend’s place, then use mobile broadband when out and about – but we wish there was a function to SMS a mobile from the computer, as in Nokia’s similar Booklet 3G.
The 3G option is also slightly more complicated to set up – instead of being able to hot-swap a SIM easily, the card is pre-installed, and you have to log onto BT’s website to first register the SIM card, either over a Wi-Fi connection, or on another computer.
Acer’s latest addition to its Aspire One range is a completely serviceable piece of kit that does everything a netbook should, but the preinstalled software and low-end processor means it is a bit slower than other devices in its class. Despite the somewhat clunky BT Connection Manager, we’re big fans of the option to go online via SIM, Ethernet or Wi-Fi though, and hope that future software updates can take further advantage of the 3G SIM – to start with, being able to send SMS direct from PC. A worthy addition to a solid netbook family.