Acer Aspire TimelineUltra M5-581TG review

Pros

  • Excellent graphics for an Ultrabook
  • DVD drive
  • Reasonable battery life
  • Keen price

Cons

  • Heavy for an Ultrabook
  • Mediocre screen

Although the Ultrabook genre was originally about thinness and lightness combined with day-long battery life and decent power, the concept has been stretched somewhat since its inception. Acer’s Aspire TimelineUltra M5 weighs in at around 2.2kg and measures less than 21mm at its thickest point, but packs in an optical drive, which isn’t usually part of the specification for this class of notebook. So this isn’t quite a classic model of the Ultrabook genre, but there’s still plenty to commend it.

Where the TimelineUltra does conform to the Ultrabook specification is in its use of an ultra-low voltage Intel processor. This is an Ivy Bridge-generation Core i5-3317U, which runs at a nominal 1.7GHz, but that’s not really a clear indication of its performance capabilities. In fact, with Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 able to push one core up to 2.6GHz when required, this CPU will significantly outperform processors without Turbo Boost in single-threaded tasks. It also offers Hyper-Threading, so presents itself as four virtual cores rather than the two physical cores it actually has. So there are benefits for multi-threaded applications and multi-tasking as well as single tasks, and all within the 17W power consumption envelope of an ultra-low voltage CPU. The Core i5 has been partnered with a healthy 6GB of DDR3 SDRAM, which is the maximum available and can’t be user-upgraded.

Although the Ivy Bridge Core i5 has capable Intel HD 4000 graphics on board, Acer has chosen to beef things up considerably in this area, supplying a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE chipset. This is towards the top of the mobile GeForce GT range, with 384 CUDA cores, a 500MHz clock speed, and 1GB of memory. So it’s pretty potent, particularly for an Ultrabook. Thanks to Nvidia’s Optimus technology, the TimelineUltra will switch between the two graphics accelerators as required. When only light 3D work is needed, the HD 4000 will be used. But intensive 3D will cause the notebook to switch automatically to the Nvidia chip, for more powerful gaming. Although HD 4000 is much more capable than the HD 3000 that preceded it, the Nvidia option will be in a different league entirely, and welcome if you are more serious than just a casual, occasional gamer.

Storage is the other area where the TimelineUltra diverges from the Ultrabook norm. On the left side is an 8x DVD rewriter, which will enable you to watch DVD movie discs and install software. This will be very useful if you want to play games, too, as these are still often delivered on disc. Acer has also taken the sensible compromise of supplying main storage in hybrid format, with a 500GB Western Digital Scorpio Blue regular mechanical hard disk alongside a 20GB MyDigitalSSD S5FAM017 solid state disk. The latter isn’t directly visible as a drive letter, however, as it acts as a giant high-speed cache, improving loading times for regularly used software, such as the operating system and main apps. But you don’t have the expense of a large SSD.

The screen is a bit more of a compromise, though. Its 15.6in diagonal means it is pretty large for an Ultrabook, but the resolution is still only the same 1,366 x 768 as offered by most 13in models. Its glossy surface also means it only has mediocre viewing angles. But colours are rich and contrast decent when viewed optimally. Sound is reasonable, with enough volume available for shared video viewing, although the bass response is unsurprisingly a bit weedy.

Another slight annoyance is the positioning of virtually all ports on the rear. Only the headphone jack and SDXC memory card reader can be found on the right. It would have been good to have at least one USB port located on the side for easy access. But the port allocation is reasonable, with two USB 3.0, a single USB 2.0, full-sized HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet. The island-style keyboard is also very comfortable, with full-sized keys, a clear response, and a separate numeric keypad to the right. The large touchpad has no button area indicated, and the entire surface can be used for single clicks, but the only multi-touch actions supported by default are pinch-to-zoom and two-fingered scrolling, so you need to press at the bottom right to achieve a right-click.

Not surprisingly, the TimelineUltra’s discrete graphics mean that its 3D capability is the performance highlight. The 3DMark06 result of 11,934 is two or three times what any integrated Intel graphics could muster, even HD 4000. Similarly, the 3DMark11 score of 1,893 with the Performance preset is two or three times as great as well, and even beats the more squarely multimedia-focused Toshiba Satellite L855-118 by more than 50 per cent. However, brute processing abilities are much more in line with the Ultrabook norm. A Cinebench R11.5 rendering score of 2.38 is good for this class of machine, and virtually the same as Asus’ Zenbook Prime UX32A, which sports an identical processor. But there are much faster CPUs available in notebooks that don’t focus so intensely on portability.

Nevertheless, the TimelineUltra doesn’t provide the huge battery endurance of some less fully featured Ultrabooks. It lasted 139 minutes in our gruelling 100 per cent utilisation test, which is definitely way ahead of more deskbound notebooks such as the aforementioned Toshiba Satellite L855-118, and a slight improvement over ultra-thin competitors such as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A or Toshiba’s Portege Z930-10Q. But there are Ultrabooks that will manage 50 per cent more. So whilst the Acer will give you close to a working day's worth of light usage, it will only last a bit more than one movie or two to three hours of gaming. This still places it squarely in the portable ranks, though, rather than a system that will need a power socket in the local vicinity most of the time.

Verdict

The Acer Aspire TimelineUltra M5-581TG diverges from the standard Ultrabook format, with mostly successful results. If you’re after sheer portability, this isn’t the notebook for you. But if the lack of an optical drive and usually poor gaming abilities of most Ultrabooks would put you off, this model provides multimedia facilities beyond the genre. You can watch DVDs and play recent game titles at reasonable quality settings, yet still enjoy an adequate time away from the power plug. So for those who want greater entertainment features, at the expense of slightly greater weight, the Acer is worth considering, particularly as the price is a very reasonable sub-£750.

Manufacturer and Product

Acer TimelineUltra M5-581TG (NX.M2GEK.001)

Processor

1.7GHz Intel Core i5 3317U

RAM

6GB DDR3 SDRAM

Graphics

Intel HD 4000 / NVIDIA GeForce 640M LE

Hard disk

500GB Western Digital Scorpio Blue hard disk / 20GB MyDigitalSSD S5FAM017 solid state disk

Optical disc

HL-DT-ST DVDRAM GU61N

Display

15.6in TFT with 1,366 x 768 pixels

Networking

802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, Gigabit LAN

Interfaces

HDMI, 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, SD card reader, headphone

Width x Depth x Height

366 x 255 x 21mm

Weight

2.2kg

Warranty

1 year collect and return