Tiny computer tussle: HP vs. Acer

September 22, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

Who'll win over consumers this holiday season? We test-drive the newest netbooks and notebooks.

This Christmas expect small computer overload -- so many options, so little time (and money).  All the major computer manufacturers are coming out with lightweight 'net-connected laptops, and they're banking on big sales: The researchers at IDC expect some 160 million notebook computers to sell worldwide by the end of the year.

But which company will come out on top? It's a tight market right now in the notebook world. HP's (HPQ) remains the market leader in personal computers; Dell (DELL) is, for now, the No. 2 PC maker. But Taiwanese rival Acer is coming on strong, especially in the netbook market.

In netbooks, Acer's got a considerable lead: This year it has almost 2 million units sold. (In contrast, HP has sold some 792,000 netbooks this year.)

We decided to take a look at the small laptops that have been getting some serious buzz to determine which one might win the holiday buying bonanza, such as it is. (With consumers strapped for cash, low-priced netbooks should prove to be winners among consumer electronics.)

Here's the breakdown of HP and Acer's leading notebooks and netbooks -- and how the devices stack up.

NETBOOKS

HP Mini 110 Photo: HP

HP Mini 110. Photo: HP

HP Mini 110

  • $329
  • 2.89 pounds
  • 3-hour battery life
  • Nearly full-sized keyboard
  • Intel Atom Processor
  • 10.1" LED widescreen display
  • 1024 MB of memory
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • HP webcam
  • HD audio

Acer Aspire One Photo: Acer

Acer Aspire One. Photo: Acer

Acer Aspire One A0751

  • $349
  • 2.75 pounds
  • 4-hour battery life
  • Full-sized keyboard
  • Intel Atom Processor
  • 11.6-inch LED display
  • 1024 MB of memory
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • Acer webcam
  • Built-in stereo speakers

My choice? Acer's Aspire One

With the specs almost exactly the same, this was a hard decision. But a couple of dealbreakers in HP's design gave it to Acer. Although, Acer's full-size keyboard throws you off a bit (because you don't expect it), you don't realize how great it is until your fingers are squished on HP's netbook. Acer decided to do this after specific feedback from customers saying that this was not comfortable. Not to mention that the HP Mini tried to save space by putting the navigation buttons on the side of the scrolling mouse pad versus putting it under it, like conventional design has it. Now I'm all for innovative design, but this was not intuitive. The user has to constantly adapt to this new navigation style. (I had to use both hands most of the time in order to work at the same speed I normally do.)

That's not to say the HP Mini doesn't have its own strengths: The speakers and sound quality was great and the web cam was brighter and better than what I saw from Acer. The HP Mini also looks sleeker despite being a bit heavier. But because of its keyboard and mouse design, for $20 more, Acer's still the better choice.

Expected holiday winner? Acer

Although Asus started the netbook category, Acer saw a golden opportunity and jumped in when most other companies were still reticent, says IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell. Acer hit the market hard and "came up with a great product and price," he says. Although it might not have as large of a market share as this year because more competitors are entering the field (Toshiba's bringing the goods now), it's still expected to remain the leader.

NOTEBOOKS

HP Pavillion dv3t Photo: HP

HP Pavillion dv3. Photo: HP

HP Pavillion dv3

  • $749
  • 4.7 pounds
  • Intel Core 2 duo
  • 2.2 GHz
  • 13.3-inch HD LED display
  • 4-hour battery life
  • 2 GB of memory
  • 250 GB hard drive
  • 8x DVD double-layer drive
  • Altec stereo speakers
  • Regular touch pad
  • HP Web cam

Aspire Timeline Photo: Acer

Aspire Timeline 4810T. Photo: Acer

Acer Timeline 4810T

  • $699
  • 4.2 pounds
  • Intel Core 2 Duo 1.4 GHz
  • 14-inch HD LED display
  • 8+ hours of battery life
  • 4096 MB of memory
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • 8x DVD double-layer drive
  • Dolby Sound Room Audio system
  • Multi-gesture touch pad
  • Acer Web cam

My choice? HP Pavillion dv3

Close comparisons again, but HP's decision to include Intel's choice for stronger processing speed made all the difference. The Acer started to lag and slow down when I was at my optimal multitasking state of consciousness. That's not desirable for any computer these days, especially when more folks are looking for longer-term value in their notebooks instead of investing in a desktop. I was also disappointed with the sound quality, considering Dolby was involved. It was very low even at its highest. And yes, my hearing has suffered from constant earbud wearing, but that still doesn't excuse bad.

I also wasn't a big fan of the multi-gesture touch pad. Although I understand the "concept," it doesn't work. Yes, this feature can be turned off, but you can't translate the same idea of a touchscreen into a mouse touch pad. Your brain doesn't work that way. It's fine to explore on the netbook, but I think Acer should have held off on its regular notebook. Overall, HP did it for me -- mainly because of the processing power, but also because Acer's little "features" wound up becoming more like nuances. (Also, props to HP for installing a battery that elevates the laptop to give it a better user experience.)

Expected holiday winner? HP

HP still has reasonable lead over second-place Dell. Yes, Acer sales have increased rapidly, but they're also expected to slow soon. As the PC market has become more specialized and fragmented, HP has adapted to its customers well, targeting specific demographics. As HP looks are more of these targeted opportunities, it'll probably continue to remain the leader, O'Donnell says.

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