I obtained a Acer ES1-311 laptop at the low price of AUD $320. It is a 13″ netbook of surprisingly good quality, at a rock bottom price.
Performance is good with Xubuntu. I will detail the installation process separately.
The pre-installed Windows 8.1 performance was atrocious, with a lot of Acer bloatware installed. Re-installing Windows without the bloatware might fix the poor performance, but I haven’t tried it.
Executive summary of review
$300 gets you a laptop that performs well with a lightweight Linux distribution like Xubuntu.
The build quality is good, it has a good selection of ports (including gigabit ethernet!), and the HDD and RAM are upgradeable.
Getting Xubuntu installed and working requires a bit of fiddling, but nothing too extreme.
- Build quality is good for the price. I am not scared that any parts will crack, bend, or break under normal use.
- The exterior is black plastic with a textured pattern. I like the under-stated, businesslike appearance.
- The keyboard has a clicky feel, which I like, and a decent layout. I do wish it had hardware keys for Home and End.
- The trackpad is a ‘ClickPad’, with the mouse buttons built into the trackpad itself. I would have preferred discrete hardware buttons for ergonomic reasons. Apart from the ergonomics, Ubuntu 14.10 requires some manual configuration to get the ClickPad working properly.
- CPU: Celeron N2840
- RAM: 2GB DDR3 SODIMM
- HDD: 500GB 5400RPM hard drive
- 1× USB 2.0
- 1× USB 3.0
- 3.5mm audio (combined speaker/mic)
- SD card reader
- HDMI (!)
- gigabit ethernet (!!)
HDMI and gigabit ethernet are nice features on a laptop this cheap.
The HDD and RAM can be accessed by removing the entire bottom cover. The bottom cover can be taken off by un-fastening 12 screws and prying around the edges with a plastic tool (I used a plastic dinner knife. This guy uses an actual spudger tool.. There are no “WARRANTY VOID IF REMOVED” stickers over any of the screw holes, so taking off the bottom cover should not void the warranty.
There is one RAM slot for a DDR3 SODIMM. At time of writing, the ES1-311 laptop cost $300 and an 8GB SODIMM cost $99, so I do not consider it economic to upgrade this part.
The hard disk drive is limited to 7mm height. I tried to install a 9.5mm height hard drive, but the SATA connector on the HDD is too high to line up with the SATA connector on the mainboard.
Windows 8.1 experience
The laptop comes with Windows 8.1 pre-installed. I found the Windows 8.1 performance to be annoyingly poor, with keyboard input lag (!) and very long webpage load times in Internet Explorer. The pre-installed Acer software is also annoying.
The Windows experience might be better with a clean install of Windows 8.1. A clean RTM Windows 8.1 .iso can be downloaded using Microsoft’s Media Creation Tool. The Media Creation Tool does not require you to know the Windows Product Key.
I gave up on Windows and installed Xubuntu instead.
Xubuntu is a light-weight variant of Ubuntu, which suits the weak hardware of this laptop. Aside from performance, I also find Xubuntu has a more “Windows-like” interface, with a familiar Start Menu, taskbar, etc. which I find easier to use.
I installed Xubuntu 14.10, overwriting the Windows 8.1 installation. I chose to use the entire hard disk, wiping out all of the Acer recovery partitions.
After installation, I needed to edit the “Secure Boot” settings in the BIOS to get Xubuntu to boot from the hard drive. I will detail the required steps in another post.
Hardware support is good. The wireless network card, Bluetooth, and SD card reader all work out of the box. All the keyboard’s “function” keys, such as volume control, brightness control, touchpad on/off toggle, etc. work perfectly.
I have not tested the HDMI output or the webcam as yet.
Performance is good. Firefox handled ten webpage tabs with no issues. Other applications are not exactly snappy, but I didn’t get frustrated with anything. The battery life under light usage is at least 5 hours, with the laptop operating at a cool temperature throughout.
The touchpad requires a bit of configuration before it works properly. I have posted about the problem, and its fix, in a bug I have logged on Ubuntu Launchpad.
The Acer Aspire ES1-311 is surprisingly well-built and featureful for the low, low price of $300. It’s not powerful enough to be your main PC, but it will do very well as a lightweight laptop for web browsing and light office work.