Acer Aspire S3*
Review Date: October 15, 2011
PCMag.com* Editor Rating: 3.5 stars, “Good”
The Acer Aspire S3 ($899.99 direct) is the first Ultrabook™ in the PCMag Labs, the first of many in the next few months. If this sliver of a laptop is the shape of things to come, consider us excited. This new breed of laptop checks off all of the boxes Intel has laid out for the Ultrabook category—ultra-thin, ultra-fast, and ultra-affordable, with more than 5 hours of battery life. Compared with similar laptops and the few Ultrabooks we've spent time with, like the Asus Zenbook UX31* ($1,099 direct) and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s* ($1,199 direct) (stay tuned for our review of both), it falls short on a couple features, but it still gives you a slim, mobile laptop for less than premium competitors.
A Word on Ultrabooks
When Intel announced the guidelines for Ultrabooks, it became clear that it intended to create a new laptop sub-category that most closely resembled the specs of the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt)'s* ($1299.99 direct, 4 stars), with requirements about thickness (under 0.83 inch), battery life (at least 5 hours), and faster boot times that would rely on Intel® Rapid Start Technology. Intel has also made it clear that it wants Ultrabooks to carry sub-$1000 price tags.
There are laptops that meet some of these requirements—most notably the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt)—but this unit is the first that meets all of them. The Samsung Series 9* hits plenty of these points, but it costs far more and lacks Intel Rapid Start Technology. Thus, while the MacBook Air 13-inch and Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3A) ($1,599 street, 4 stars) have many similarities, they are not Ultrabooks under Intel's definition. So while we may compare the Acer Aspire S3 to, say, the Editors' Choice Toshiba Portege R835-P50X* ($889.99 list, 4.5 stars), it's still, technically speaking, in a category by itself. Until there's an opportunity to dig into the other Ultrabooks recently announced, like the Asus Zenbook UX31, we won't be able to compare the Acer Aspire to its closest competitors on anything but a superficial level.
Like the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt), the Aspire S3 is ultra-thin, measuring a scant 0.51 inch thick, not including a bit of thickness added by the four foam-rubber feet underneath. It measures 0.7 by 12.6 by 8.5 inches (HWD) , making it small enough to slip into a backpack or large purse, while adding less bulk than a single-subject college ruled notebook. It's also extremely light, at a featherweight 2.94 pounds, which is barely more that the MacBook Air 13-inch (2.9 pounds).
One of the first differences you'll notice once you get your hands on the Aspire S3 is in how it feels. Though its magnesium lid and silvery color scheme resembles laptops with all-metal construction, the rest of the chassis (including the palm rest) is made of plastic. Like the MacBook Air 13-inch, it's thin and lightweight, but the MacBook feels solid and luxurious, while the Aspire S3 feels less substantial.
The 13.3-inch widescreen display—at 450 nits—is even brighter than the screen found on the Samsung Series 9, thanks to an LED-backlit screen. The 1366-by-768 resolution doesn't match the 1,440-by-900 one on the MacBook Air, or the 1,600-by-900 screen on the Asus Zenbook UX31. It also has pretty narrow viewing angles, and anyone attempting to share the screen will likely see the image in negative, so content consumption will be primarily a one-person affair. Audio is another story: the Aspire S3 has two 3DSonic* speakers, one on either side, with the experience improved thanks to Dolby Home Theater v4* audio enhancement. The quality of sound produced by the slim Ultrabook is unexpectedly robust and clear.
Also notable is the keyboard. The chiclet-style keys look similar to the square-tiled keys of the MacBook Air, and they also manage to impart the same smooth typing and shallow keystrokes. The quality is quite good, but you won't find a backlight on the Aspire S3 like you would on the MacBook Air. The touchpad may not be enormous, but it's large enough for all of the gestures available on the glass-topped trackpad. The right and left mouse buttons are integrated into the trackpad surface as well, and clicking is as simple as pressing on the face of the mouse, or in either lower corner. It's the closest I've seen to replicating the Apple clickpad experience on a Windows* laptop, and it managed to pull it off pretty well. As testing wore on, however, I did notice that multitouch controls, like zoom and scroll, didn't always register properly.
That ultrathin profile is achieved, in part, by offering few features. Along the back edge of the Acer Aspire S3, you'll find two USB 2.0 ports and an HDMI port. On the right edge of the laptop you'll find a media card reader (SD, MMC), and on the left, you'll find a headset jack, combining a headphone and microphone jack in one. Internally, the Aspire S3 is equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless options, and a 1.3-megapixel webcam atop the 13-inch screen. But what don't you get? To maintain that greyhound-thin profile, Acer has jettisoned common connections like a VGA port, Ethernet, and optical drive, which is par for the course in all the Ultrabooks we've seen so far. You also won't enjoy the faster speeds of USB 3.0, which you will find on the Zenbook UX31, and the even faster speeds of Thunderbolt™ technology, which is only found on Apple products right now.
Though several competitors have opted to use nothing but solid-state flash memory in their Ultrabooks, Acer has chosen a mechanical hard drive, which offers greater capacity for a lower price. The 320GB 5,400rpm spinning hard drive offers far more storage than the 128GB solid-state drives (SSD) found standard in the MacBook Air and Asus Zenbook UX31. On the flipside, the spinning drive is more prone to damage from bumps and falls, and doesn't offer the same speed and responsiveness that an SSD can provide. Acer addresses the responsiveness problem with an additional 20GB of flash memory, allowing the Aspire S3 to have the same speedy boot and wake times offered by an SSD. To protect the hard drive from physical damage, the Aspire S3 is equipped with an accelerometer that activates drive protection whenever the laptop is moved.
Acer includes a lot of pre-installed hardware on the Aspire S3. Some of it is useful, like Clear.fi, Acer's wireless media sharing solution, Microsoft Office Starter* 2010, and a 60-day trial of McAfee Internet Security*. Others are just bloatware, like a New York Times* reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook* App, Blio* e-reader, Acer Games*, and dedicated links to eBay and Netflix. You'll also find a number of Acer utilities for everything from tweaking the sleep settings to using the webcam.
The Aspire S3 runs on a dual-core Intel® Core™ i5-2467M 1.6 GHz processor. If that processor model sounds familiar, it's because it's the same ultra-low voltage CPU found in the 11-inch MacBook Air, as well as the new crop of Ultrabooks, including the Asus Zenbook UX21* ($999 direct, not yet reviewed) and Lenovo U300. It's energy efficient and less prone to overheating, making it the ideal CULV processor for the thin, light, long-lasting Ultrabook. Though bolstered with 4GB of RAM, PCMark* 7 scores showed that it's not quite a match for the Intel® Core™ i5-2557M processor found in the 13-inch MacBook Air. In PCMark 7, our day-to-day performance test, the Aspire S3 scored 1,899 points, significantly behind the 3,186 scored by the MacBook. In tests like CineBench* R11.5 (1.93) and Photoshop CS5* (5:37), the Aspire S3 performed well. Although it fell behind the Apple MacBook Air, it met or even beat the scores of the Samsung Series 9 (1.36 in Cinebench; 5:53 in CS5) and Toshiba R835-P50X (2.04 in Cinebench; 5:36 in CS5). Only time and lab testing will tell us how the Aspire S3 stacks up against the incoming Ultrabook competitors.
||PC Mark* 7
|Acer Aspire S3*
||Intel® Core™ i5-2467M processor
|Intel® HD Graphics
|Apple MacBook Air 13-inch
|Intel® Core™ i5-2557M processor
|Intel HD Graphics
|Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3A)*
||Intel® Core™ i5-2537M processor
|Intel HD Graphics
|Toshiba Portege R835-P50X*||Intel® Core™ i3-2310M processor
|Intel HD Graphics
|Sony VAIO VPC-Z214GX*
||Intel® Core™ i7-2620M processor
|AMD Radeon HD
|N/A - Not Applicable: The product could not complete the test, or the test was not compatible.|
With only the integrated graphics offered by the Intel® Core™ i5 processor, the Aspire S3 wasn't equipped for graphics-intensive activity like gaming, but that's no surprise. In 3DMark06*, the Aspire S3 scored 3,530 points at 1,024-by-768 resolution settings and 1,791 at its native 1,366 by 768; this beats out the Samsung Series 9 (2,441 at medium) but not the MacBook Air (4,781 at medium) or Toshiba Portege (4,550 at medium). The Aspire S3 scored 16.3 frames per second (fps) in Crysis* and 15.4 fps in Lost Planet 2* at medium resolution settings. Neither test could run at full resolution and detail, indicating that you'll be relegated to very basic gaming on the Ultrabook.
Acer estimates that you'll get as much as 7 hours of continuous use out of the Aspire S3's internal sealed battery, but our testing clocked it at 5 hours 20 minutes in MobileMark* 2007. That's not too shabby for a small 3-cell, 36Wh battery. By comparison, the MacBook Air lasted 5:46 with a 50Wh battery, the Samsung Series 9 lasted 6:04 with a similar battery. The Toshiba Portege R835-P50X lasted 9:26, albeit with a much larger 66Wh battery. Like the MacBook Air and the Samsung Series 9, the Aspire S3 sheds some girth by sealing the battery inside the chassis, making it inaccessible to the regular user. This looks to be the rule rather than the exception, so be aware that swapping out batteries for longer life won't be a viable option for this or any other Ultrabook. Acer also claims that the Aspire S3 provides 50 days of standby time—20 days more than the 30 days claim for the MacBook Air and certainly more than the 14 days being offered by Asus UX21 and UX31. We couldn't test this claim overnight, but you should feel confident that you can leave the laptop in standby mode for a while.
The Acer Aspire S3 is the first Ultrabook we've seen, so it's a bit early to tell where it fits within the overall category. It has some definite high points, like a super thin profile, larger storage capacity, and affordability that is currently unmatched. But it also rang hollow on a few important notes: the build quality simply feels cheap, despite the magnesium lid, and the screen doesn't offer the same resolution offered by competitors. At the moment, the MacBook Air 13-inch or the Editors' Choice Toshiba Portege R835-P50X are stronger choices, but the Ultrabook landscape will be changing rapidly, so stay tuned.
Benchmark Test Results
Check out the test scores for the Acer Aspire S3
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