For just a little more than the cost of an Atom-powered netbook, the Acer Aspire One 721-3574 ($429) sports a larger 11.6-inch display, a more comfortable keyboard, and a faster AMD Athlon II Neo processor paired with ATI graphics for HD video playback. This system is also a full $170 less than a nearly identical version powered by an Intel processor. So what's not to like? The battery life is well below average, making this ultraportable not very mobile. Does the 721 have enough else going for it to overlook this one glaring weakness?
Easily one of the best-looking notebooks we've seen for less than $450, the Aspire One 721 measures just 1 to 1.1 inches thick and weighs a mere 2.8 pounds. We especially like the mesh black textured lid (no fingerprint smudges), which has a subtle cross-hatch pattern. The inside of the machine has a sleek gunmetal gray strip underneath the black keyboard, and the power button is made to look like spun metal. A lighter gray strip wraps around the bottom of the 721, adding to the sophisticated aesthetic.
The left side of this ultraportable houses a VGA port, power jack, HDMI, and USB. A Ethernet port, lock slot, two more USB ports, mic and headphone jacks, and a 5-in-1 memory card reader can be found on the other side.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Like other Acer notebooks, this one sports a full-size FineTip keyboard that isolates the keys slightly. Though some may find that the keys are positioned too close together, we didn't mind. During our typing sessions the keyboard offered strong tactile feedback, and we appreciated the large right Shift key and Enter key. The shrunken arrow keys were easy to locate without looking.
We'd like to see Acer follow the lead of other manufacturers and turn the function key shortcuts into direct action keys in the top row. For example, to raise the volume, you have to press Fn + Up Arrow, when it should just be a dedicated button.
Two vertical lines separate the relatively small touchpad from the rest of the deck. The surface had only minor friction, but we found that we had to make more movements to direct the cursor due to the limited surface area. The dedicated touchpad buttons were crisp and easy to activate.
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After streaming Hulu for 15 mintues, the 721 remained fairly cool, reaching 91 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad, and 92 and 95 degrees, respectively, between the G and H keys, and 95 degrees underneath. The only part of the machine that got uncomfortable was near the vent, which registered 106 degrees.
Display, Audio, and Webcam
The Aspire One 721's display is one of the better screens we've seen in this size, an 11.6-inch panel with 1366 x 768 resolution. The picture was bright and crisp when surfing the web, and an HD trailer of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows exhibited an impressive level of detail, right down to the dark circles under Harry's eyes and his stubble.
Audio quality varied based on how we used the system. The twin speakers underneath the front lip of the chassis delivered plenty of volume when we listened to Green Day's "When I Come Around" on Slacker, but the sound became muffled when we used the 721 in our lap.
We weren't impressed with the 1.3-megapixel webcam on this laptop. During a Skype call our friend said we looked blocky and a bit blurry, though audio came through clearly.
Click to enlargePowered by a single-core AMD Athlon II Neo Processor K125 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Aspire One 721 isn't a speed demon, but it's certainly faster than the typical netbook. In PCMark Vantage this ultraportable notched 1,911, about 700 points higher than the netbook average. On the other hand, the $699 Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T-3721, equipped with Intel's dual-core Core i5 ULV processor, more than doubled this machine's score (3,824).
Anecdotally, the 721 could easily handle multiple tabs in Google Chrome, but when we added more tasks to the mix, such as opening large photos and streaming music, it started to slow down.
The 5,400-rpm, 250GB hard drive booted Windows 7 Premium in 56 seconds, a few seconds faster than average. The drive turned in a file transfer rate of 21.1 MBps, which is below the category average of 25.3 MBps.
The single-core CPU really struggled when it came to transcoding video. It took the 721 4 minutes and 12 seconds to convert a 114MB MPEG-4 to AVI. The TimelineX 1830T took just 1:31.
Graphics and HD Video
Want to play some mainstream games on this ultraportable? The ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics card (with 384MB of dedicated video memory) makes it possible. The 721 mustered 30 frames per second in World of Warcraft at 1024 x 768 and graphics set to default. Most netbooks can't handle mainstream 3D games, but those equipped with Nvidia's latest Ion graphics, such as the $499 ASUS Eee PC 1201PN, are in the same ballpark. That souped-up netbook got 28 fps at the same resolution. The Intel-only TimelineX 1830T also got 30 fps.
In 3DMark 06, the 721 scored 1,237, comparable to the TimelineX 1830T (1,278) but much lower than the Eee PC 1201PN (1,863). The notebook did a good job displaying the latest Harry Potter trailer at 720p resolution on its own screen, with only minor stuttering. We noticed more hitching while playing the same trailer trailer at 1080p when output to a Samsung 32-inch TV over HDMI. The picture didn't fill up the whole screen, either, while the TimelineX 1830T did. However, playback was nearly flawless when we fired up a 1080p downloaded trailer of Iron Man 2.
Battery Life and Wireless
Although the Aspire One 721's six-cell battery is rated to last up to 5 hours, our review unit didn't get anywhere close to that. It turned in an awful runtime of 3:15, which is 2.5 hours less than the average ultraportable. Even the Nvidia Ion-powered Eee PC 1201PN lasted 1.5 hours longer. The ULV-powered Aspire TimelineX 1830T, which has the same design as the 721, lasted nearly 6 hours on a charge.
The integrated 802.11n radio delivered very strong throughput at 15 feet away from our router, notching a blistering data rate of 50.7 Mbps. That's more than double the category average. From 50 feet, the rate dropped to 20.1, which is still a few points above average.
Click to enlargeIt took the Aspire One 721 3 hours and 18 minutes to fully charge the six-cell battery, averaging 34 watts, for a LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 36.8. That's nearly twice as bad as the average ultraportable (19.3), where a lower score is better. This notebook has not been rated by EPEAT.
Acer doesn't currently offer other configurations of Acer Aspire One 721. Those looking for more performance, however, should consider the Acer Aspire 1551. It features the same design as the 721 but for $100 more ($549) features a speedier dual-core 1.5-GHz AMD Turion II Neo K625 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive.
Software and Warranty
Acer includes several of its own utilities, including Acer Assist, ePower Management, eRecovery Management, Acer Updater, and Video Conference Manager. You'll also find Skype, Windows Live Essentials, Microsoft Works, and trial versions of Microsoft Office and McAfee Internet Security Suite.
The company backs the Aspire One 721 with a one-year limited warranty. Tech support hours are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST (Mon--Fri), 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Sat), and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Sun). To see how Acer fared in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Even if you don't leave the house with your notebook often, you probably want it to last more than 3 hours on a charge, especially when it weighs less than 3 pounds. That's why we don't recommend the Aspire One 721-3574. The $429 price of this AMD machine is attractive, and you get better performance than a netbook and a full-size keyboard, but there are better options in the sub-$500 range. While its single-core CPU is slower, the $499 ASUS Eee PC 1201PN offers snappier Nvidia Ion graphics performance and longer battery life. If you have a little more money to spend, check out the Intel-powered Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T (starting at $599), which has the same sleek design as the 721 but much better overall performance and battery life.