Friday, September 18, 2009

Moving to an Acer Aspire One netbook

OK, as I promised here earlier, I'd like to share some thoughts about moving to a netbook computer, specifically the Acer Aspire One D250, which I purchased recently at Wal-Mart for $278. Much of what I have to say in this post would be equally pertinent to several other netbook models from any manufacturer, such as some of the Asus eepc models, or the HP mini. The entire rest of this post deals with this subject alone, so if you are not interested, or only looking for my next update about our travels in Odyssey, you can skip the rest.

In a future post, I would like to discuss in more depth what it takes for me to configure an XP machine from scratch and load all of my applications, a process which has consumed a couple dozen hours for this machine. However, in this post I will stick to those aspects of a netbook that are essential to its character, make it different from full-size laptop or desktop computers, and add some challenge to configuring and using one.

About the Aspire One

First off, let me clear up some confusion about the Aspire One. This moniker does not identify a single model, but rather an entire family of sub-notebook PCs. That family spans from models with an 8.9" screen, flash memory (as opposed to a hard disk), and the Linux operating system, all the way to models with an 11.1" screen, large hard disk, and Windows Vista Home pre-installed. Likewise Asus and HP make entire lines of netbook computers with a range of specs and operating systems.

The one I have, shown above alongside the Gateway it's replacing, is the D250 model (often referred to as the AOD250), and even this is not fully descriptive; the D250 comes in a range of configurations, for example with or without built-in Bluetooth networking, with a 3- or 6-cell battery, with 1- or 2-gigabytes (gB) of installed memory, and in several different colors. The configuration varies by retailer; the model Wal-Mart sells is the one with no Bluetooth, one gB of memory, 160 gB hard disk, and a three-cell battery, although there is a choice of colors. (While I would have liked to have the internal Bluetooth and another gig of memory, I was unwilling to pay the substantial price premium to get those features; I already have a Bluetooth dongle, and memory is $20).

What all of these models have in common, though, along with most other netbooks, is what they lack: an optical drive (CD or DVD), a large screen, and lots of processor horsepower. Those are the issues which I will address in this article. On the plus side, most of these netbooks come with Windows XP, which in my book is a big advantage over Vista. This is a conscious and calculated decision by Microsoft, who had already completely withdrawn XP from the retail consumer market; they backpedaled on that decision for netbooks (only) in the face of the decision by several vendors, including Asus and Acer, to release machines pre-loaded with Linux instead of Microsoft products -- amazing what a little competition will do.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

There are lots of good reasons to buy a netbook. To begin with, they're cheap. A large percentage of the manufacturing cost of a laptop today is the screen, and smaller is definitely cheaper. Omitting the optical drive also lowers the cost. So basic netbooks now are under $300, a price that's hard to beat for a brand new computer. Add to that the fact that they are small and light, making them highly portable and easy to store, and the fact that they are still available with Windows XP, and they make a natural choice for many people with light-duty needs. On top of all that, the Acer uses LED backlighting, which I am finding much brighter and easier to read than the older electroluminescent backlight on my Gateway, and it uses less power as well.

The other side of the coin, though, are the limitations. There is no optical drive, which means that installing software that comes on CD- or DVD-ROM will be a challenge. Restoring the operating system in the event of a system failure might also be problematic; even creating the restore media is difficult. Making backups will also require some thought (although CD- or even DVD-R is hardly up to the task of backing up today's hard drives anyway). And if you are the sort of person who likes to watch DVD movies or listen to music CD's on your laptop, a netbook is probably not for you.

Then there is the matter of the screen. The size itself is not the whole issue, although that's part of it: the screen is smaller than a full-size laptop, and that means your photos, videos, and graphics will all display smaller, and even text will be smaller by default. The real problem, though, is just the number of pixels on the screen, something known as "native resolution." Although I have heard tell that Acer will be releasing a 1280 x 720 version of the 10.1" netbook (and I can just imaging how tiny everything will look on that screen), today's models generally have screen resolutions of 1024 x 600. That may sound like a lot, especially considering that just a few years ago, 800 x 600 was something of a standard screen size, but today's applications often expect a minimum of 1024 x 768, leaving the netbooks 168 rows short in the vertical direction.

Lastly, the Intel Atom processors that all of these machines sport are really slow, by today's laptop standards. If you are stepping up from a six or seven year old model with sub-gigahertz speed, the Atom at 1.66 gHz may feel fine to you; I personally moved "down" from a 1.6 gHz Core Duo model, and can attest that there is a very real difference. If you're heading off to college and need to use your laptop to do statistical computing, linear algebra, solve Fourier transforms, do high-end database work, or even just heavy graphics processing such as might be found in some of today's fastest computer games, again, a netbook is probably not for you.

The workarounds

OK, so most readers here know that I am a geek, that I used to run computer networks for a living, and that even today I am immersed in Windows XP culture through my volunteer work with the Red Cross, where we use XP exclusively. I am also addicted to the Internet and like to have enough capability at my command to do anything I need to do, at any time I need to do it. So in order for one of these netbooks to meet my needs, I had to find workarounds for all these limitations. You might find some of these useful yourself if you have a netbook (and maybe even if you don't).

No Optical Drive

This one, frankly, was the easiest to deal with. Of course, the simplest solution is to just buy an external USB optical drive, about $80, and be done with it, but the last thing I wanted was another piece of computer hardware kicking around the house, especially one that I would use maybe once or twice a year. Louise, who has no intention of downsizing to a netbook, still has a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive in her computer, so we will always have a way to read a CD or DVD if we need to in the future.

The route I chose was, instead, to load all the files from any CD software I needed onto the hard drive, and install from there. For me, that's not much; the vast majority of software I use is free and downloaded from the Internet, so there's no pesky disk to worry about in the first place. (I discussed some of this software in this post, and I will probably update that list when I discuss configuring XP in a future post.)

Now, some things just expect to be loaded from a CD drive. The workaround for this is to use a "virtual CD" program, and a copy of the CD in a type of file known as an "ISO." To create the virtual drive, I use MagicDisc, a free download. Follow the instructions to install this on your machine, and you will magically have a CD Drive D: (on Acers; you may have a different letter), and a control icon in the system tray; right click to "mount" image files on the drive. (Microsoft's unsupported free Virtual CD Driver for Windows XP, which I used to recommend, has proved extremely finicky under Service Pack 3.)

To create the ISO image from your CD, you will, of course, need access to a system with a CD drive. I recommend Alex Feinman's ISO Recorder v2 (for XP, you'll need v3 if you create the images on a Vista machine). If you can beg or borrow a USB optical drive, you can make the images right on your netbook. In fact, if you don't own a USB optical, and just borrow one, I strongly recommend you go this route, rather than actually using the external drive just to install your software. If you ever get asked to "Insert your Installation Disk" you'll be stuck if you installed from a drive you no longer have access to; if you instead use the drive to make an image, then mount the image as a virtual CD, you will always be able to mount it again later if needed.

ISO recorder, once installed, adds a line in the "context menu" of your physical CD drive. Insert the CD you want to image (do not let it "autoplay" -- hold the shift key down when inserting, or just cancel out of any installation dialog that opens), then right-click on the drive icon and select "Create ISO." Once you've made your ISO image, move it on to the hard drive of your netbook; I created a top-level folder called "Disks" for images of installation media.

How to move those ISO files to your netbook raises an interesting question. Here aboard Odyssey, we have a local network and even a file server, and this is certainly one way to do it. ISO files can be quite large, though -- my Street Atlas 2008 DVD is a little over 2 gB, for example -- and you're also going to need a way to back your netbook up, so I recommend you invest in an external USB hard drive. I picked up a Western Digital Passport 250 gB model at Wal-Mart for $60, and, in fact, I would recommend investing in an external hard drive over an external optical drive. You're also going to need a USB flash drive, which I will explain in a moment, and that could be used to move the ISO and other files in a pinch; 4 gB drives are now just $12 or so.

Not all CD's will need to be imaged; lots of software packages will install just fine from a folder. In fact, many installation CDs have a only a few megabytes on them; for these types of disks, I simply copy all the files off into a folder, and make a .ZIP file. You can use an external utility for this -- I like 7-Zip -- or you can use Windows' built-in "compressed folder" option. Remember to unzip into a real folder for installation; then delete the folder, keeping only the .ZIP file in your "Disks" folder until you need it again.

Backup and restore without an optical drive

One of the liabilities of having no optical drive is that there is no way to use the built-in utility to create a "system restore" disk. (Don't get me started on this, BTW -- there is absolutely no excuse, IMO, for Acer to not provide an option in the recovery CD creator to "burn" to an ISO file, which you could then use to make a boot USB stick, or even an option to create a bootable stick directly.) Acer will send you the CD's, for, I think, a charge of around $20, but then you'd still need an external drive to boot.

What I did instead was to "image" my system, after setting it up the way I like it, with a free image backup and restore prorgam, Macrium Reflect Free Edition. This program lets you create a compressed "image" of your entire hard disk to a file, either on a network server, or on your external USB hard drive. Reflect also has an option to create a "boot CD" that would be used to boot the system, in the event of a complete hard drive failure, to restore from the image.

Unlike the built-in Acer recovery, Reflect will allow you to "burn" your recovery boot CD to an ISO image. The boot CD contains a working Linux system that can read the image files you made when you backed the system up. Since it is a bootable Linux image, a free utility, UNetbootin, can "burn" that CD image onto a bootable USB flash drive. Once you have the bootable flash drive, you can set your netbook to boot from a USB port -- on the Acer, this involves pressing F2 immediately after power-on to access the BIOS settings, then moving the USB drive option up above the Hard Disk in the boot sequence.

The limitation I have found with this is that the drivers included by default in the bootable image that Reflect creates do not support the network cards in the Aspire One (I'm sure with enough fiddling in Linux I could fix this on my boot flash drive, "some day"). So even though I can use Reflect to back up my disk image to my network server, I can't use the bootable flash drive to restore from that same location. This is where that external hard disk comes in handy -- the bootable flash drive has no trouble recognizing the external hard drive and finding the disk image there. I'll be doing my normal backups to the network server, but I have a working system image on my external hard disk, so if I have a complete system failure, I can use my USB boot drive to restore to a working Windows configuration.

Macrium Reflect is an image backup tool, which is great for making a full system image to recover from a catastrophe. For more routine daily file-by-file backups, I use SyncBack Free to synchronize to a folder on the server. Another option is Microsoft's free SyncToy. Either of these can be configured to back up, as I do, to a server on your network, or you can again use that handy external hard disk I recommended earlier. The external hard disk has the advantage that you can throw it in your bag or jacket pocket when you leave the house; this way, if your computer should be lost to, for example, a house (or rig) fire, you'll still have all your backup data.

That tiny screen

After getting my netbook more or less set up and configured as I wanted it, I started installing applications and loading my most commonly used web sites. Both the Google Earth application, and the Yahoo Mail web site, complained on first use that my screen resolution was too low... "we recommend a minimum resolution of 1024 x 768," helpfully suggesting I exit the application and come back "after adjusting my display settings." Harumph -- you can't "adjust" the settings on a netbook to meet this standard. (As an aside, I have to say this: given the tremendous popularity of netbook computers, which nearly universally have 1024 x 600 displays, you'd think a popular and theoretically hip and cutting-edge site like Yahoo would, by now, have written code to detect netbook settings and adjust their presentation accordingly. I mean, c'mon, they can detect a mobile device such as a Blackberry and set the display for that.)

Fortunately, both these applications allowed me to continue once I checked the box saying I understood the limitations and wanted to proceed anyway. But they're right -- there's not enough vertical real estate on the screen for some of these apps to look right. So I next tackled how to "make up" for some of that missing screen.

One easy immediate fix is to get rid of the Windows Task Bar, which is down there at the bottom of the screen taking up a couple dozen pixels of height. You could just move it from the bottom to one of the sides, which would give you more vertical room at thee expense of horizontal -- just "grab" an empty spot on the task bar with your mouse, and drag it to one side or the other. But since 1024 is the "minimum width" demanded by many applications, and it's easier to scroll vertically than horizontally, I did not like this solution. Instead, I use the "auto hide" feature: right-click on the Start button, click Properties, choose the Task Bar tab, and check the "Auto-hide the taskbar" box.

Now when you move your mouse off the task bar, it will shrink down to a bright line across the bottom of the screen just a few pixels wide -- voila, all those other pixels are now available for your application window. If the app window is "maximized," it will fill the new screen height down to the minimized task bar. To get to the task bar, bring your mouse all the way to the bottom of the screen where the line is, and the task bar will reappear, and you can use it normally. It takes a little practice to keep the mouse pointer down inside the task bar while using it -- if you stray outside the bar, it will disappear again -- and if you are used to just glancing down at the system tray to see the time, or network status, or whatever, you'll now have to bring the mouse down there to see those things. A minor annoyance, but those extra pixels make a big difference in, for example, your browser.

If you are like me, you spend most of your time on the computer inside an Internet browser. I use (and recommend) Mozilla Firefox 3.5 (and the reasons for this could fill another whole article). If you use Firefox, there are a few more things you can do to make more of the screen available to web sites.

The first and easiest is to change from large to small icons on the navigation bar. This will make the bar narrower, and those extra pixels become available to the web site. Go to the View menu, choose Toolbars/Customize, and in the window that pops up check the box "Use Small Icons." While you're on that page, if you have selected "Icons and Text" in the box next to "Show:", you can make even more screen height available by selecting either "Icons" or "Text" but not both.

I went even one step beyond that. You can make the navigation bar go away altogether, by unchecking it in View/Toolbars (you can also make the Bookmarks toolbar go away, buying even more height, in the same menu). Instead, I installed the Firefox "extension" Hide Navigation Bar 1.3, one of many add-ons available for Firefox from This does for the Firefox navigation bar what "auto hide" did for the Windows task bar. Once you move your mouse off it, the nav bar will shrink down to a blank bar a few pixels wide between the menu bar and the bookmarks tool bar (if shown, tab bar otherwise). Note: select "Small Icons" first, as described above. If you have Large Icons selected, the "hidden" nav bar will take up more pixels. As with the auto-hide on the task bar, this can be a bit annoying until you get used to it, but with practice, accessing the now hidden nav bar becomes second nature, and, again, the pixels you get back for your web pages make a big difference.

I, personally, really like having the Bookmarks Toolbar available. But all bookmarks can still be accessed through the Bookmarks pull-down on the main menu, and you can get even more real estate back by unchecking the Bookmarks Toolbar in View/Toolbars. When I am viewing a page that can really benefit from the extra height, I use this option, and I am seriously considering rearranging my bookmarks to do without the toolbar altogether. Similarly, the "status bar," which appears across the bottom of the screen, can also be unchecked for even more height -- just remember that information normally displayed there, such as page security settings, and load status, will not be visible.

If you happen to use Mozilla Thunderbird for your email, it, too, has options for smaller icons, icons or text in lieu of both, and the tool and status bars can be omitted. I have not found the need for as much extra height in email as in the browser, but then I do not use the preview pane, preferring a simple list of messages, and to open each as needed in a separate window.

Lastly, the Aspire One and other netbooks will support much larger screen resolutions when connected to an external monitor. I can connect the netboook to my 32" LCD TV with a VGA cable and get 1390 x 720 resolution right away (and it looks great, too), so if I am doing something where I absolutely, positively have to have a larger screen, it's available if I need it. Many modern digital-ready sets have a VGA input; you may be able to take advantage of this simply by buying the proper cable, about $15 at many retailers.

The anemic Atom processor

I saved the worst for last. Many will be content with just the suggestions above. However, if the system seems slow or unresponsive to you, you might wish to go further.

As I said earlier, there is a reason Microsoft is allowing XP to be sold on these machines. They were originally conceived as "thin clients," in the parlance of the industry, intended to be used for connecting to network resources like web sites and email servers, and not to undertake any strenuous tasks on their own. In their first iteration, most were shipped with a bare-bones GUI on top of a stripped-down version of Linux -- very light, very nimble, and adequate for the originally intended tasks. In fact, most did not even have a hard disk; 8 or 16 gB of flash memory was more than adequate to store the tiny operating system, GUI, and handful of network and productivity apps, along with a small amount of settings and user data.

Even Microsoft realized early on that Vista would bring one of these diminutive machines to its knees, if they could even strip it down far enough to fit into a flash drive. Moreover, they did not want to cannibalize their cash cow to meet the price point OEMs needed to offer Windows as an option on these machines, given that Linux cost them essentially nothing. So Microsoft rolled XP Home back out of retirement just for the emerging netbook market. There is, today, no other legitimate way to get a new licensed copy of XP Home (it's not available for retail sale, and OEMs that are allowed to ship full-size computers with XP are limited to XP Professional, through their direct-sales business channel).

Unfortunately, neither Microsoft nor, in most cases, the OEMs selling these netbooks have done any work to make XP suitable for use on a bare-bones, low-power computer. As we used to say in academia, "that is left as an exercise for the student." But the bottom line here, really, is that you can't really expect these little netbooks to do well with a a full bells-and-whistles operating system right out of the box -- that's a lot to ask. What you'll need to do, to get the level of response you're likely accustomed to, is to strip Windows back down to something a bit lighter and more nimble. The price to be paid, of course, is that you will lose some of the bells and whistles.

First things first, though, and that's to ditch all the "junk" that came with the system. Most of this is less than useless, in the sense that a lot of it calls home to mama, which not only robs cycles but also invades your privacy, and a good deal of it installs endlessly running background tasks that steal even more power. As soon as I took my Acer out of the box I went into add/remove programs and removed:

from Windows Components:
  • MSN Explorer
  • Outlook Express (keep if you use this for email; I suggest Thunderbird instead)
  • Windows Media Player (I recommend Media Player Classic, which despite appearance is not a Microsoft product. It runs much faster than Windows Media Player, and does not send a constant stream of information back to Microsoft, which is invasive as well as performance-robbing. Get it as part of the K-Lite Codec Pack.)
  • Windows Messenger
  • Accessories/Games/Internet Games
from Programs:
  • Alice Greenfingers (game)
  • Bookworm Adventures (Game)
  • Acer GameZone Console
  • Cake Mania 2 (game)
  • Chicken Invaders 2 (game)
  • Dream Day First Home (game)
  • eSobi (RSS reader trialware)
  • Fizzball (game)
  • Galapago (game)
  • Gold Miner Vegas (game)
  • Google Desktop (performance-robbing spyware)
  • Google Toolbar for IE (ditto)
  • Jewelleria (game)
  • Luxor - Amun Rising (game)
  • McAfee (Trial; when it expires, they try to get you to upgrade for $60. Save your money; AVG Free is better and uses far fewer system resources. Even the McAfee trial version has tentacles all over your system.)
  • MS Office 07 (Trial; I have a license for Office 2003 which I installed later. Unless you intend to pony up $150 or more for the license when this expires in 60 days, you're better off just removing it without ever launching it. If you need to do office productivity but want to save your money, download Open Office instead; it will open most MS Office document types.)
  • PPT viewer (keep if you want to just view PowerPoint files; I took it out, since PowerPoint is part of my Office 2003 kit)
  • MS Office activation assistant (This is the part that will nag you until you buy the license)
  • MS Works (Dumbed-down office productivity software. Keep it if you have files created with it, or if you just want really minimal word processing. Even then, I suggest dumping it in favor of Open Office.)
  • Supercow (game)
  • Windows Live (Essentials, Sign-In, Sync, Upload)
Note that absolutely every program listed above except MS Works is available on the Internet as a free download, so don't worry that you'll be giving up something you can never get back. Windows Live is being discontinued. After you've removed all this stuff, reboot. Before we move on to optimization, if you have not already done so, now is the time to install all pertinent critical Windows XP updates.

Launch Windows Update from the start menu. I recommend you allow it to install all high-priority updates except Internet Explorer 8 (which is optional; it's a huge download, IE7 already on the machine is perfectly adequate, and I recommend Firefox anyway). getting all the critical updates done will require several restarts; after each restart, launch Windows Update again until no more priority updates are shown. After the high priority updates, I recommend you update Optional Software .net framework and root certificate updates, as well as any hardware driver upgrades.

Now, tomes have been written about optimizing Windows XP for performance, a process most of us call "tweaking." Simply Googling "Tweaking Windows XP" will yield hundreds of sites. I can't go through all the tweaks step-by-step in a short article such as this one. Instead, I will recommend Eric Vaughan's excellent site:

This site goes on for a dozen or more pages. Read it thoroughly, and then select only the tweaks that you, personally, are comfortable doing. In any case, I recommend you download at least the TweakUI program from Microsoft, which is extremely easy to use. I would also strongly suggest the AutoRuns program, and the X-Setup program (version 6.6 is the last freeware version), all of which Eric discusses in his guide.

Once you have the programs and have read through the guide, you might be interested in the tweaks I personally applied to my Acer Aspire One, which collectively have made a big difference, presented here in roughly the order Eric covers them:

  • Turned off the XP security center. I use AVG Free antivirus, and Comodo firewall pro (also free), so I am fully protected anyway. I am also normally behind a firewall (but I do take my machine on the road and onto public networks protected by these two apps).
  • Turned off all visual effects except "Use drop shadows for icon labels on the desktop" and "Smooth edges of screen fonts." The theme-related effects would disappear in a later step, anyway.
  • Disabled error reporting
  • Turned off System Restore. Note that I have made my own restore images with Macrium Reflect, as discussed above.
  • Turned off Remote Assistance
  • Set Automatic Updates to Notify Only. I do want the update service to run in the background and tell me when there are updates available, but if you are religious about checking manually, you can turn this off altogether to save some resources. I don't want full automatic updates, though, because I don't always want them -- for example, I don't want the latest version of Internet Explorer (hey, I use Firefox). Also, some of these updates can easily put us over our satellite bandwidth allocation, and I want compete control over when they get downloaded.
  • Turned off Indexing on all drives. Not only does this take valuable CPU cycles and disk space, I don't want Windows keeping tabs on what files I have stored where.
  • Turned off all system sounds. I always run with the speakers turned off anyway, unless I am watching a video (usually with headphones). Louise and I sit right next to each other -- we would drive each other crazy if we left our speakers on. So the system was wasting cycles making sounds I never heard anyway.
  • Turned off desktop wallpaper. Although this is a nice feature which probably does not take many resources, so YMMV.
  • Turned Hibernation ON. I know in Eric's guide it says to turn it off, and that's probably right for desktop systems, or fast laptops. For me, it's worth the extra disk space to have the computer power right up into Windows in just a few seconds; booting from scratch takes far longer on these machines. However, while I normally "hibernate" the computer between sessions rather than "shutting down," I do try to do a complete shutdown or a "restart" at least once every day or two. XP tends to slow down the longer it has been running, and a full shutdown forces tables to get cleaned up, old processes to be killed off, etc..
  • Start Menu: Unlike Eric, I prefer the new menu over the "classic" menu, and I organize my programs in top-level groups to keep the menu clean and short. Bottom line: use the customizations that work best for you. Try them all, there's lots of stuff here most people never even see.
  • Page File: Moving it to another drive is not an option on a netbook. I suggest leaving the default, system-controlled settings.
  • Services: Books have been written on this; I turned off everything I did not need, and that included the Themes service. If you were married to some of those visual effects discussed earlier, you'll need to leave this one on. In addition to Eric's suggestions, this guide discusses all the services under SP3 and which ones are "safe" to turn off. Every service that is running in the background is using resources, and many of them serve no useful purpose on a personal, home machine. Like Madman Muntz, who used to clip components out of his TVs until they stopped working, then solder the last one he snipped out back into the circuit, I turned services off until something I needed broke, then turned the last one back on.
  • Registry edits: I applied the menu speed-up edit, and nothing else. I do edit the registry by hand quite a bit, though, in particular to remove annoying auto-run software. (Another rant here: Please, software makers -- if you think your software should load at system start-up, or at login, at least tell me so when I install, and give me the chance to opt-out. Argh.)
  • X-Setup and TweakUI hacks: I did many of the performance-related ones listed. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and what you can or can't live without. I encourage you to play with the settings here until it feels right to you; the beauty of these tools is that it is easy to go back and change things back again if they don't work for you (unlike, for example, editing the registry by hand). TweakUI is safer than X-Setup, but even X-Setup warns you about potentially problematic changes. I also used TweakUI to turn off globally the annoying auto-play on USB flash drives, and made the visual mods that look good to my sensibilities (such as removing the arrows from shortcuts).
After this section, Eric goes into detail about registry settings, many of which are redundant for things we've already done, and I can't in good conscience recommend this sort of registry editing for anyone who's not already an expert. He also talks about tweaking IE and Firefox and some network optimization, but all of that is really beyond the scope of making up for the low horsepower of a netbook.

After you've customized Windows XP using the guide and, perhaps, my recommendations, go ahead and install any applications you normally use (if not already done). You'll want to have all your software loaded for the next step, which is to launch the AutoRuns application mentioned above. This will let you see and adjust which programs are started automatically in the background when the system starts and/or when you log in. You may be surprised how many of your applications think they need to have a module running at all times.

Generally, I turn off every third party background application except for my anti-virus and firewall programs. That includes Adobe and Microsoft Office quick-launch tasks, and most tray icons except the Synaptics touchpad driver. I also turn off all the junk related to the fancy sound system; if you don't use an external monitor ever (I do), you can also turn off the Intel Graphics background tasks. Again, some of this is personal preference; if you need to hot-switch sound system properties or whatever, leave it on. Just remember that every background task takes up memory and CPU cycles, so the more you turn off, the better off you are.

Lastly, if you have a netbook with anything less than the full supported complement of memory, upgrading to the maximum will probably help. My Aspire One came with 1 gB and I will be replacing the single 1 gB card with a 2 gB card just as soon as I can. The AOD250 takes PC2-5300 DDR2 memory, and has only a single slot accessible through a removable panel on the underside. A 2 gB card is $60 at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, but widely available on-line for half that. I expect I will get $10 or so for my 1 gB card after I upgrade.

What about the tiny keyboard and trackpad?

If the keyboard on these machines feels too small or cramped for you, that probably means a netbook is not the right machine for you. That said, try out a few different models; sometimes seemingly minor differences in layout, key feel, or size can make a huge difference in typing comfort. If you already have a netbook and are just trying to make it work for you, you can always add an external USB keyboard, about $20, but this tends to negate the advantages of the netbook form factor to begin with.

As for the trackpad, I find the one on the AOD250 to be perfectly adequate, and I like the new scroll and zoom gestures. Many aspects of the trackpad are adjustable; right-click on the taskbar icon and select Pointing Device Properties. I have heard that the trackpads on earlier models were problematic; the easiest solution is an external mouse. Several compact models will fit easily in your carry bag; I like the HP travel models which are small and wireless, using a single AA battery for power and a USB dongle that barely protrudes from the netbook case when inserted, so it can just be left in all the time; $25 at Wal-Mart.

Since I have no desk and use a lap tray instead, yet integrated track pads give me repetitive motion injury if I use them too much, I have used a full-size Logitech USB trackball device for years. It's pretty bulky, which feels great in my hand, but it seems huge now next to the Aspire One. I use it at home; when I grab-and-go with the machine, I just use the built-in trackpad. I suspect I will be tempted to grab-and-go more often with this smaller machine, so I may end up buying a travel mouse to go with it.

So there you have it, my take on pressing a netbook into service as my full-time primary computer. As always, the opinions expressed are my own, and I am sure we will see some alternative ones in the comments.


  1. I know you like Firefox, but have you considered Google Chrome? It seems like it's minimalist UI would be well suited to a small netbook screen. I switched to Chrome as my main web browser last fall and at this point, I rarely launch Firefox anymore. There are a few websites out there that don't seem to like Chrome, but that's pretty rare. The only real sticking point would be how heavily you rely on any Firefox extensions, since Mozilla still has Google beat in the extensibility arena.

  2. A coupl'a minor points:

    1. Re hiding and unhiding the taskbar: you just have to press the key with the Windows logo to bring it up if you've hidden it. This'll work even if you have Firefox in full-screen mode -- not sure how easy it is to bring it up using the mouse in that situation.

    2. It might help to keep your desktop free from unnecessary icons since a cluttered desktop means more pixels for Windows to refresh. And, of course, more icons on the desktop means more memory used up. I don't see the need for the Firefox icon on the desktop, for instance, if you already have it on the toolbar.

    3. I don't use the mouse much, relying on hotkeys to activate most functions. I've even gotten to memorizing a few GMail hotkeys -- *u to select unread, <shift>i to mark as read, *n to select none -- so I don't have to keep reaching for the mouse. Or, in my case, my trackpoint (using a ThinkPad). I also manage to avoid the left buttons of the trackpoint and the trackpad, prefering to tap on the latter for a left-mouse click or double-click. Of course, to move across the screen or select large portions of text, the mouse is still more convenient, but for other functions, I find keyboard shortcuts more efficient -- although YMMV :)

  3. @Blackeagle: I don't trust Google. They've already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will track people to the ends of the earth -- just look at how much tracking Google Desktop and Google Toolbar do. Google will know everything about your browsing habits just from those add-ins -- you and your habits are a commodity to them.

    I use their products when it suits me, but I also use extensive privacy controls available in open source software such as Firefox to limit the amount of information going back to the Googleplex.

    So, IMO, Firefox beats Chrome not only in extensibility, but also in privacy and transparency, two of the areas that make me also recommend against Internet Explorer.


    1. Yes, the Windows key will bring the Taskbar back up, but it will also bring up the Start Menu at the same time. Press twice to see just the Taskbar.

    Firefox "full screen" mode is a different animal; that obliterates the Taskbar even if it is not set to auto-hide. Moving the mouse won't get to it, so you need to use the Windows key or ALT-Tab. For the uninitiated, "full screen" in Firefox is activated and deactivated with "F11" and causes the web page to fill the whole screen, hiding the Windows Taskbar, the window title bar, the menu bar, the Navigation bar, the Bookmarks toolbar, and auto-hiding the Tab bar (tabs come back when you mouse up to the top of the screen). I dislike this mode because all the controls are inaccessible, but it is useful if you want to get more of the web page onto the screen. For some reason, the navigation bar is turned off when I return from full screen with the "hide" extension installed.

    2. I actually have a completely empty desktop for this reason. Makes the machine look broken when no windows are open -- all you see is a blank blue screen. To get rid of those persistent icons like the Recycle Bin or My Computer, use TweakUI (or you can set most of them in Display Properties/Desktop/Customize).

    3. This is largely a matter of personal preference. When I am surfing, my hand is always on the mouse. But I use the Windows key a lot -- Windows/R to access the Run command, Windows/L to lock the desktop, Windows/E to launch an explorer window, and Windows/F to launch the search dialog. One of the greatest annoyances of older ThinkPads for me was the absence of this key.

    BTW, keyboard shortcuts in Gmail only work if you first enable them in the settings. I access my Gmail through IMAP in Thunderbird, which is a more flexible and extensible interface.

  4. Chrome does not send all your browsing habits to Google, just stuff you search for using Google and some 404 pages. In fact, it is quite easy to configure it so it doesn't send any browsing data to Google at all (change the default search engine and turn off suggestions for navigation errors).

  5. @Blackeagle: I've read Matt's blog. Remember, he works for Google. Nothing wrong with that -- I have several friends who also work for Google. But it does not change the fact that I do not trust them. Since this is my blog, not Matt's, I recommend Firefox, which doesn't have an axe to grind. BTW, here's a counterpoint:

  6. Hey guys...I have the Acer Aspire One and I also installed MS Works for Small Business 2003. All works well except I cannot get powerpoint to project....something in settings. Acer copped out and said it was a MS problem...Help. F Derrick

  7. F11 gets rid of all the taskbars. Pressing it again restores them.

  8. @Derrick, your Acer may have detected the projector as a second display and PowerPoint "expects" to use that. From PP: Slide Show, Slide Show Settings, then there should be something there about displaying the slide show on a secondary display (instead of the first). Sorry I can't be more precise, I use Impress for my presentations, and I'm going by its menus, which shouldn't be too far from PP's.

  9. @Croft: just to clarify for anyone following along, you are talking about Firefox. F11 activates and deactivates "full screen mode," which we discussed in the second and third comments above. Useful at times, but it has its own issues, which is why I prefer auto-hide.

    @Silverlokk: Thanks for chiming in. I did not answer @Fletcher because I don't know anything about MS Works. Regular PP I understand completely. I don't think I really want this post and its comments, though, to become a sort of general Q&A about Acers -- there are plenty of better forums on the internet for that, where the questions will be seen by a wider range of experts who may be able to help.

  10. Thanks for a great article. I just got my aod250 and the issue with respect ot the Macrium boot device was one of my main concerns. I am planning on using my netbook as an eReader as well as a travel device.

  11. In yahoo mail, to resolve the error page telling you to change your screen resolution.
    After pressing the button to continue to yahoo mail anyway, the address bar will show this:
    Use this in your bookmarks instead of It will quickly redirect to the login page and remember that you are ignoring the system req's and go straight into your mail.

  12. I just bought an Aspire One Netbook and I do not like the fact that on Microsoft Works the "Task (pain)Payne" is always there. I read up on it seems that I am stuck with it....bumber!
    Unless you know of some way to get rid of it...without purchasing the "Works."

  13. So it is a while later, but very informative specially for me as ignorant as I am!!!
    My Xmas was an Acer Netbook! Amazing 4GB RAM and full windows. Using the phone has been fine (I do my Journal on the Phone!) but this is better. My main concern is always power consumption. The 16" laptop now is just for photos and videos... This little guy is great and will follow your advices... Hopefully, somehow, somewhere we will bump into you guys again soon...


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