April 3, 2007

Review: Acer Aspire T180

Author: Joe Barr

The $489 Acer Aspire AST180-UD400B desktop box looked like a good, moderately priced desktop to provide the computing power for my Linux ham station. I had to wipe Windows from its drive before I began, and Ubuntu failed to recognize some of its hardware components, but it proved a solid performer.

The Aspire T180 comes with a dual-core AMD Athlon 4000+ processor, 512MB of DDR2 SDRAM, an Nvidia chipset, onboard sound, video, and 10/100/1000 Ethernet, RW DVD/CD drive, 250GB SATA hard drive, multi-format media readers, an IEEE-1394 connector, six USB connectors, and a serial port. It also comes with Vista Home Basic, but that was easily fixed.

The first order of business after getting the Acer home from the store was to connect all the pieces. After connecting keyboard, mouse, and monitor, I started to look around for the external power supply for the speakers. I spent 15 minutes on that before I realized that the speakers get their power via a USB connection.

The next step was to get rid of Vista. At first power-on, the Acer looked like it was possessed by an evil spirit: the screen went black and strange noises began emanating from the belly of the beast as the DVD and SATA drives churned away inside.

The box does not have a reset switch, and Vista did not respond to a three-fingered salute, so I had to pull the power cable to stop Vista from doing whatever it is that it does to finish its installation when you first get it home.

By the way, don't do this if you want to keep Vista for dual-booting. The retailer I bought the box from had a Vista crash screen prominently displayed on its shelves, a reminder of what happens if you interrupt the unborn Vista during its private housewarming ceremony. I've been told the only way to recover from that is to wipe the hard drive and lay down another copy of unborn Vista on it. No CDs or DVDs of same included, naturally, because they know you are a pirate.

Pressing the Delete key at boot time when I powered the system back on took me to the BIOS setup screen, and I quickly set the boot priorities so that the machine would boot from the DVD/CD drive before the hard drive. Hasta la vista, Vista.

A typical Ubuntu installation followed. My only memorable impression was that the DVD/CD drive is loud. But there were disappointments to follow the install. I had assumed the Nvidia chip set meant I would have no problems using the integrated devices, but neither the onboard Gigabit Ethernet NIC nor the Realtek ALC888 sound card were recognized. I won't be surprised to see support for both appear as standard offerings across the major distros in the next few months, but in the meantime I had to resort to an old SB Live! sound card and 10/100 NIC.

Opening the box is a snap. Remove a pair of thumb-screws, slide a release latch down, and the side of the case slips off easily.

There is enough room inside the tower case that even a fat-fingered old man like me can fumble around well enough to install cards or memory. While I had it open to add the NIC and sound card, I also added another 512MB stick of PC4200 DDR2 memory and removed the included PCI modem card. The memory upgrade gave me a total of 1GB -- far short of the mainboard's 4GB ceiling.

If you're a serious game player, you might want to make use of the available PCI-Ex16 expansion slot to upgrade from the onboard Nvidia GeForce 6100 video and install a monster video card. A PCI-Ex1 slot is also available.

Dual-core performance

Click to enlarge

The Acer proved to be remarkably quick. I was surprised by how much more quickly I could do compiles on it than I can on my old desktop box. It takes approximately 2 minutes and 5 seconds to compile FLTK 1.17 on my desktop box, which sports an AMD Athlon 3200+ with a gigabyte of memory. The same build takes just a minute on the Acer with its dual-core 4000+ Athlon.

That increase didn't come because gcc is SMP-aware, but much of it is dual-core related. In addition to its faster multiprocessor AMD CPU, the Acer also has faster memory and bus speed than my desktop. Linux is SMP-aware and will take advantage of the multiprocessors even if specific applications do not. During a compile, for example, both CPUs are called into play. One may be doing system work like file access while the other is churning code. The image to the right shows both CPUs hard at work during a compile.

Out of curiosity, I ran the same compile on the Acer using the -j option, which kicks off simultaneous builds and thus exercises the dual-core nature of the beast. Make time was almost halved again, this time falling from 60 seconds to 35. That's an amazing performance boost over my desktop machine.


The Acer Aspire T180 would best serve a budget-conscious Linux user who is primarily interested in punching up his computing power, but doesn't want to build one from component parts, and for whom the lack of onboard sound and NIC are not showstoppers.

Noise is my biggest complaint about the Acer: noise from the DVD drive, the SATA drive, and from the power supply. Although I have been able to silence the rumbling power supply by slapping the top of the case or setting something heavy on top of it, I'm not optimistic about a long and trouble-free life for that critical part. If you're the noise-sensitive type, I suspect you would never be happy with the Acer.

The abundance of connections on the front panel for external media is a plus if you do a lot of digital video, sound, or photography, and rendering chores, like compiles, are among those for which the dual-core AMD processor is especially well-suited.

Overall, on a scale of 1 to 10, I give the Acer Aspire Aspire T180 a 6.

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