Acer’s Aspire S3 is the first ‘Ultrabook’ released in the New Zealand and Australian markets.
Ultrabooks—ultra-thin and light laptops intended to offer long battery life without compromising on performance—have been referred to as 2012’s ‘big thing’ in PC form factors. Perhaps the best description of the Intel-sponsored initiative (though also the least politic one), is that it’s designed to introduce competition into the MacBook Air’s previously near-impenetrable niche.
Straight out of the box, the 13-inch Aspire S3 is a beautiful piece of hardware. Intel’s Ultrabook specification requires a maximum thickness of 20mm and the Aspire is just 13mm at its thickest point, substantially thinner than the 13-inch MacBook Air (which is 17mm at its thickest, though more starkly tapered toward the front). It’s also essentially the same weight: both are just under 1.4kg, which is coincidentally the maximum allowable for Intel’s Ultrabook spec.
The fully aluminium/magnesium frame of the Aspire S3 doesn’t have the rigidity of the MacBook Air’s aluminium unibody, but stills feels exceptionally solid. The seams and joins are all very subtle, worked nicely into the design. There are no ill-fitting parts or gaping edges, such as you might find in a cheap plastic-encased laptop.
The 1366 x 768 screen is sharp and clear, though somewhat lacking in brightness. Disappointingly, colours are notably washed out across the board (deep red, green and blue hues all appear much paler than they should). Whether this bothers you will really depend on the type of computing you’ll be using the Aspire S3 for.
If you’re trying to edit photographs, design websites or similar visual work, the colour inaccuracies will prove a hurdle. No amount of calibration will fix this: as far as we could tell, it’s an inherent limitation of the hardware. If you’re just web browsing, watching YouTube clips or knocking out your thesis in Word, the advantages of the S3’s form factor could easily justify the limitations in colour reproduction.
The grey-on-silver island keyboard is attractive and full-sized, but does have a few limitations. Key travel is very shallow—hard on the fingers during long stretches of typing, but understandable given the S3’s thin body. Less understandable is the classically-styled (L-shaped) Enter key, which cuts far too close to the Backslash key above it and can lead to mistyping. The arrow keys are also undersized, each less than half the surface area of the other keys. If you’re trying to select and edit text without using the mouse—a common task on a laptop—this is going to be a major annoyance.
The touchpad is a good size—around 12cm/4.7in diagonally—and the whole surface is usable for cursor movement. In fact, there are no buttons marked at all. To click, just tap anywhere on the pad (left-click) or press the lower left or right corner, under which the click buttons are hidden. Right-clicking can be a little difficult, but overall the touchpad provides an easy and reliable way to navigate Windows.
Powering our review model was an Intel Core i5-2467M CPU, backed by 4GB
of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. This model sells for a very reasonable $1,599.
Several variants are available, up to a $2,499 model with an Intel Core i7 CPU and 256GB SSD. In line with the Ultrabook spec, the Aspire S3 uses Intel’s on-CPU graphics. This means the S3 lacks DirectX 11 support, and is rather limited in terms of graphical performance. Expect to see this improve in future generations of Ultrabook: Intel’s next generation of Core processors (codenamed ‘Ivy Bridge’) will feature DX11 support, and purportedly improve the on-chip graphics performance beyond that offered by the current generation (Sandy Bridge). As for the S3, it’s never going to be a gaming machine, nor a top-shelf multimedia powerhouse, but it’s no slouch in the CPU department.
Overall performance is commensurate with the ultra-portable laptops in our recent roundup, but the S3 is decidedly thinner and lighter than the average set by that class. Acer and Intel have effectively shrunk the smallest class of laptop, without compromising performance to do so: it’s an impressive outcome, and hints at good things to come over the Ultrabook frontier.
Following the style of the MacBook Air, connectivity is admittedly limited on the Aspire S3. You’ll get an SD card reader, headphone socket, two USB 2.0 ports
(no USB 3.0), HDMI-out, wireless-n and Bluetooth 4.0. The lithium-polymer battery is not user replaceable, so there’s no way to carry a spare.
The USB ports, HDMI output and power socket are all along the rear edge—great for keeping cables tidy and out of your mousing area, but annoying when you’re connecting and unplugging USB drives or other peripherals frequently.
Particularly useful—and novel—is the S3’s ‘Instant On’ technology. Close your Ultrabook, and it falls asleep. After 8 hours, it falls into a deeper sleep which will preserve the battery for up to 50 days. Wakeup time? Less than two seconds. Similar ‘instant on’ functionality was the one thing that swayed me, personally, to a MacBook Pro when purchasing my last laptop. Now it’s no longer the sole domain of Apple, with Ultrabooks promising that same massively time-saving function.
Battery life in our relatively demanding ‘productivity’ test was 3 hours and 22 minutes – almost 30 minutes less than our non-Ultrabook ultraportables averaged. Acer advertises battery life up to 7 hours—under less demanding use, such as light web browsing or word processing, I found that figure was achievable. More so, the ‘instant on’ technology means you can pop the laptop to sleep if you walk away for even a minute or two—something you probably wouldn’t do with a slower-waking machine. That way, without a doubt, lies the road to great battery life. The Aspire S3 is worth going out and buying, right now, if you need a laptop that focuses on portability, but still delivers reasonable processing power. Beware, though, if you need USB 3, great graphical performance, or good on-screen colour accuracy. None are things you’ll find in the Aspire S3, and none can be upgraded or optimised away.
Acer Aspire products are distributed in New Zealand by Synnex, Ingram Micro, and Dove Electronics.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of PC World.