Quick Take: Acer AspireRevo

It's starting to get a little weird here in PC land. First came the smart phone, which will no doubt become the mainstream computing platform of the future worldwide despite having little if anything to do with today's PCs. Then we got the netbook, which can only be honestly described as a PC that's been stripped of everything that true PC fans love. And now this, this ... thing, a new kind of PC that is basically just a netbook retooled for the desktop. That is, it's a netbook with no screen. A non-portable netbook, if you will.

The Acer AspireRevo is one such computer. I think of these computers as "utility PCs," though one could make an equally valid argument that a computer with just 1 GB of RAM and an Atom processor is anything but useful. But this is really about the computer as a tool, in this case a very simple tool, and when you consider the price--just $200 for the lowest-end version of the product, which I purchased at retail--you can start to see the appeal. In the Apple camp, $200 barely buys a decent iPod.

Acer AspireRevo
Hero shot: Acer AspireRevo.

You might also make the argument that this kind of computer is nothing new, at least thematically. Almost two years ago, I wrote a mini-series of articles I called Attack of the Tiny PCs. Those PCs were based on a weird assortment of processor types, including ultra-low-voltage Intel procs, dual core Pentiums, and in one notable exception on the high-end, an Athlon 64 X2.


Today, of course, almost all truly low-end PCs and netbooks are based around the exact same processor, the Intel Atom. This little mighty mite has changed Intel's fortunes and given the PC industry its only true growth point in what is otherwise a sea of economic recession-induced morass. To date, of course, most Atom-based systems have been netbooks. But as with the Acer, we're starting to see some desktop-based systems creep into the market as well.

Acer AspireRevo
The Acer AspireRevo hooked up and raring to go.

What makes this (kind of) OK is the addition of NVIDIA ION graphics. Otherwise, the whole Atom shtick would wear thin pretty quickly on the desktop. Unlike other NVIDIA chipsets, ION isn't just about graphics, however. Instead, it's an entire motherboard platform that is built around Intel's Atom, and as such we might consider the combination of the Atom and ION as a second generation Atom platform of sorts. That's because systems based on the ION platform support 3D graphics and full 1080p video playback with 7.1 channel surround sound audio. And the Aspire gets bonus points for using a dual-core version of the Atom, not the lousy single core chip found in most netbooks.

When mated to just 1 GB of RAM and a slow 5400 RPM hard drive, as is the case with the AspireRevo 1600 I have, things aren't quite perfect. Adding to the misery is the 8 year old Windows XP Home Edition. I mean, come on. Windows 7 is out, guys. Wake up.

Acer AspireRevo
Acer AspireRevo with keyboard and mouse.

Put simply, this little system, while cute and all, performs about as well as any similarly configured netbook (i.e. mostly poorly), and while some may have fanciful dreams about using this PC as a secondary PC, perhaps for children, or, God forbid, as a home theater set up of some kind, it just isn't very suitable for that kind of thing, especially if you want to stream content over a network. Local playback of content is acceptable.

A simple few upgrades could make a big difference. After creating three recovery DVDs (Three? Really?), I blew away XP and installed Windows 7. I've added a USB memory fob for Windows ReadyBoost, which should theoretically improve performance. And I'll be ordering more RAM--most Atom-based systems support up to 2 GB of RAM, but this system can handle a full 4 GB.

Acer AspireRevo
Acer AspireRevo keyboard compared to a real man's keyboard.

The thing is, none of this will probably make much of a difference. With either Windows XP or 7, desktop performance is leisurely at best. And as for the vaunted 1080p capabilities, I'm not seeing it. My own DVD rips, which are sub-HD quality, occasionally stutter on this system when streamed. And the thing doesn't even support Wi-Fi; only Ethernet networking is provided. Overall, I'm just not impressed. (A version that costs $300 does add Wi-Fi and a total of 2 GB of RAM.)

In the good news department, the system is small and cute, and very nearly silent, and it does come with HDMI output ( as well as VGA). It comes with a too-cute-for-words USB keyboard and a mouse that can only be described as child-like in size. Kids will love that stuff, until of course they actually use the computer interactively. DVD rips do play back acceptably when stored locally on the hard drive.

Acer AspireRevo
The Acer AspireRevo isn't all bad news: It's heavy with
useful ports and connections, including HDMI, eSATA,
and 5 USB 2.0 ports.

I'll test this device as an HDTV set-top box over the next week and see how it holds up. But I don't think that the base model of the Acer AspireRevo will cut it as a secondary computer or a home theater digital media streamer; for that, you'll want a higher-end model with more RAM. Or a non-Windows environment, which I'm not personally very interested in.