Not really a web design related post, but it’s certainly relevant to my work, and I know there are an awful lot of Acer Aspire One 751 owners out there who, though they love this charming little netbook, have encountered problems similar to the ones that have affected my machine recently.
First of all, a little background: The Acer Aspire One 751H is a sleek, lightweight netbook with an 11.6″, 1366×768 pixel display, Bluetooth, wireless networking, virtually full-sized keyboard, 1Gb RAM and 160Gb (or larger) hard disk. When I bought mine in December 2009 it was available from Amazon UK for well under €400 (in Malta, of course, prices were more than 50% higher – but that’s part of Malta’s charm). As someone who often spends time at clients’ premises, and also loves to travel, it seemed a good choice for a web developer due to the screen resolution and price.
What I’ve done to it
My 751 had Windows XP Home pre-installed, which was fine for my needs at the time, so after creating factory disk images I didn’t change the operating system. I did, however, remove all the pre-installed bundle software (antivirus, Microsoft Office trials, daft games, etc).
Even after doing this, I found it to be quite sluggish (it only has a single core Atom processor, after all) so I replaced the 1Gb of RAM with a Corsair 2Gb unit (the largest that can be fitted). This brought the speed up to respectable levels, certainly good enough for my purposes.
About two months ago, after I had used the 751 for maybe 6 months, I decided that it was time to see if it could run Windows 7. I did my research like a good boy, and found that it should run Windows 7 without any problems, though the graphics firmware would probably not run the Aero special effects. Not a problem.
I wiped the hard disk, clean-installed Windows 7 Ultimate (32-bit), added all the appropriate drivers from the Acer support website, and found that I had gained even more speed. Until I tried switching Aero on, which actually did work but was too jerky for regular use. But nevertheless, this machine runs Windows 7 (without Aero) slightly faster than Windows XP Home.
With all my applications and data, the hard disk (which reports 140Gb formatted space) runs on average at about 65% full.
Other things I’ve done to it… let’s see. Maltese summers are very hot and humid, so it’s probably been running at the upper end of its tolerance for a lot of the time. And Maltese roads… have you seen Maltese roads? It’s like driving on the moon. So even though I have treated it, and its padded sleeve, very carefully, I have to acknowledge that it’s in one of the toughest parts of the world to keep a notebook alive.
What it’s done to me
Initially it behaved impeccably – running quite warm but not uncomfortably so, no crashes (apart from the occasional XP bug), and no freezes, both with the original 1Gb RAM and the 2Gb replacement stick.
Then, after about 5 months’ use, it froze on me. Twice. In one week. I found that it seemed a little warmer than usual, though to be fair the summer had started, and I did some Googling. I quickly found this epic thread on the independently-run Acer Aspire One User Forum.
At the time I first read it, the forum thread was discussing RAM quality and heat as two possible diagnoses. I dismissed the RAM idea, as I had run with the Corsair stick for 4 months without a problem, and decided to tackle the heat issue. I found a lovely little utility on the web called AA1FanControl, which works for various Acer Aspire One netbooks and allows you to set the temperature at which the fan will be forced to come on. After installing this, I found that my machine was frequently running with CPU temperatures of over 65°C before the fan came on. I quickly adjusted the settings and for the next few weeks, no freezing.
Then, after I installed Windows 7 in June, I found the freezes started coming back. Just occasionally at first, then with more alarming regularity. The machine hadn’t seemed to be overheating after installing Windows 7, so I hadn’t reinstalled the Fan Controller. But before doing so, I went back to that epic thread.
There were a lot of new posts about motherboard problems under heavy load, and a lot about BIOS version issues. There were also quite a lot about the extreme ineptitude of Acer customer service staff, which was to be expected.
One thing I found interesting was that a number of people reported that the freezing stopped after they disabled most of the advanced power management options, such as automatically switching off the hard disk or network controllers after a period of non-use.
However, my machine was now freezing only at the office (it sits on a passive netbook cooler at home but not in the office), and each freeze seemed to be preceded (like an earthquake warning) by a failure of the wireless network controller. Hmm, I thought, there still must be an issue with heat. So, I decided to tackle both issues at once. I reinstalled the Fan Controller (which works fine on Windows 7 even though its web page doesn’t mention it), and tweaked the power management settings so that while running on mains power, no components would ever be switched off or disabled.
The CPU is now veering between 55°C and 60°C, and it hasn’t frozen again yet. However, the AA1FanControl is set to turn the fan on when the CPU reaches 50°C, and to turn it off when the CPU drops to 40°C, so it seems clear to me that the fan itself is of an inadequate size for Malta’s climate (and of course it’s now running all the time which will shorten its life). Also, even though the CPU itself is running somewhat cooler, the graphics chip, RAM and wireless controller could still be running pretty hot, and I’m probably still at risk for future freezes.
So I plan to buy a couple of active fan-based netbook coolers, one for home, one for the office, leave the Fan Controller installed, keep the power settings as they are, and hopefully get a lot more enjoyment out of this little machine before I replace it in 2012 (I tend to replace each of my computers every 2 to 3 years).
Would I buy another 751 or recommend that you buy one?
No. Although I hope I’ve solved the problems with my machine, the 751 clearly has faults that are integral to its design and/or construction.
Would I buy another Acer of any kind?
Yes, certainly. I have two other Acer machines already (a larger Travelmate notebook and an Aspire One Revo nettop), neither of which have given me any problems whatsoever.