- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

ABOARD BRITISH AIRWAYS FLIGHT 264 | Usually a trans-Atlantic flight while seated in coach means a loss of productive computing time. But the arrival on the market of various micro-notebook computers boasting Internet connectivity of some stripe, popularly dubbed “Netbooks,” is changing things, at least for this road warrior.

I’m in the first leg of what will likely be a total of 20 hours in flight to reach my destination, the southern Zambian city of Livingstone. That’s a lot of time in the air, and it’s nice to have a computer that’s smaller than my 17-inch Apple MacBook Pro to place on the tray table. (As wonderful a system as the MacBook Pro is, I don’t know if I’d open it in flight unless I were sitting in first class.)

Accompanying me (and the MacBook Pro) on this trip is the Acer Aspire One, which features what the Taiwan-based computer maker calls an “HD” screen, measuring 11.6 inches diagonally. The color LCD is quite nice, and the computer itself runs on an Intel Corp. Atom processor, has built-in Wi-Fi, and a Webcam that, the firm claims, adjusts to low-light situations.

The unit boasts a 160 gigabyte hard disc drive, and — are my eyes trustworthy? — 1 GB of RAM. I’m guessing the weight is about 3 pounds. Overall, this isn’t a machine on which you’d want to edit video for public television, but it certainly is a functional computer for many purposes.

I mentioned the “road warrior,” and that’s the first category of user who might find the Aspire One a useful product. The keyboard on the Aspire One is meant for touch-typing, and it’s fairly comfortable, even within the confines (and I do mean confines) of an economy airplane seat. Although the passenger next to me is probably experiencing more of my left elbow than desired, I’m still able to type well, and in a more normal situation, such as a Starbucks or a hotel, this should work quite well. (Indeed, on the ground I was proven correct.)

The screen is legible, and in the soft light of the late-night plane, increasing the font size to around 18 points makes word processing easier. Again, in more usual surroundings, this shouldn’t be an issue.

The Aspire One comes with Microsoft Windows XP as the basic operating system, and a variety of programs and features — some less charitable souls might term some of these “bloatware” — that might make a user able to start working quickly. Among these are Microsoft Works, a scaled-back productivity suite, and a trial version of Microsoft Office 2007. Before leaving Washington, I loaded the latest version of OpenOffice.org’s software, discussed here last Monday. I think I’m good to go.

While typing on an airplane requires compromises, on the ground the Aspire One should function nicely as a basic work-and-play computer; indeed, for students in high school and college who are not in need of vast processing power or the kind of memory needed to edit video or do computer-assisted design work. There’s a card slot on the right-hand side of the machine that should make transferring photos easy.

Notable are both the Webcam and the built-in Wi-Fi. There’s no Internet connectivity on this flight, so testing these aloft has been a challenge. But on the ground, the Wi-Fi worked well. With such connectivity, of course, the Aspire One can become an extension of the Internet, hence the name “netbook.”

Battery life clocks in at almost seven hours, more than enough to cross the ocean, and enough perhaps for a day of college lectures and labs. The built-in touchpad has just about every mouse feature you might ask for, including tap-to-mouse-click, which is quite nice.

You can probably pick up this machine for under $375, which is an impressive price for what you get. But as mentioned, there are many firms in the netbook scrum, and Hewlett-Packard has sent over one of its latest entries. More on that system another time — it’s at home, awaiting my return.

For now, the Acer Aspire One is proving a good traveling companion, and you might say the same.

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