There's no avoiding the fact that everyone wants a thin, light, attractive notebook. So even when our budgets may only stretch to a basic model, we still predominately want an Ultrabook. But this class of computer always costs a premium. Fortunately, Acer has other ideas with the latest spin of the Aspire S3. At around £550, it's still not budget territory. But with many competitors costing £700 or more for a similar core specification, it looks like a reasonable proposition. Here, we reviewed the 391-53314G52add model.
Things get off to a decent start with first appearances. The chassis has an attractive brushed aluminium finish, and feels pretty sturdy. Weighing 1.36kg and measuring just 17.5mm thick, it's also going to fit very nicely in most bags. So the most important stylistic checkboxes for an Ultrabook are ticked. The core components also pass muster very well. The processor is an Intel Core i5 3317U, a 1.7GHz ultra-low power CPU from Intel's latest Ivy Bridge range. This offers a 2.6GHz Turbo Boost mode for a single core, and Hyper-Threading means the dual cores are presented as four virtual ones. So all of Intel's usual performance enhancements are on hand.
The Core i5 is partnered with 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, which is also the maximum this model supports. You can't access this at all, even if there was an upgrade path, which is a shame now some Ultrabooks are coming with 6GB or more, such as Toshiba's Z930-10Q. Some of this memory is purloined by the integrated graphics, which is the much-improved HD 4000 variety since the processor is from the Ivy Bridge generation. This is no games powerhouse, but has a much better chance of coping with the occasional task of 3D acceleration than the HD 3000 chipset that preceded it.
Acer has taken the same compromise as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A when it comes to storage. There is a solid state disk on board, but it's an unspecified 20GB unit that Acer doesn't even mention in the specifications. It's there to act as a cache for the comfortably sized 500GB mechanical hard disk. This is a Hitachi Travelstar Z5K500 model, with a 5,400rpm spin rate. So it won't be the fastest available, but the SSD will speed up boot times, and also means the hard disk can spin down for longer when no access is required, saving power.
The 13.3in screen offers the standard 1,366 x 768 resolution, but it's a merely mediocre display. Colours aren't as rich as the Samsung Series 9 900X3B, and the glossy finish means viewing angles aren't outstanding either. Audio also lacks bass and volume, and is really only suited to Skype conversations, in tandem with the webcam on the top of the screen bezel.
The island-style keyboard has a rather soft action, with a shallow key depression, which places it behind the best around. But it's still comfortable to type on for long periods. The enter key is a little small, though, and semi-connected to the hash key, whilst the left shift and backslash keys are similarly adjacent - both rather strange layout choices. Placing the power button on the inside of the lid hinge is also a slightly weird design, almost as if Acer couldn't think of anywhere else to put it.
The trackpad is a little smaller than the monsters increasingly finding themselves fitted into Ultrabooks, but that's not a major issue. In fact, as the trackpad is centrally placed, it's better off small, as this reduces the chances of you accidentally brushing it with the palm of your hand when typing. We had no problems with this during testing, unlike Asus' Zenbook Prime UX32A.
However, there are some areas where the S3 falls down. In particular, we're not exactly enamoured with the positioning of the ports, or their quantity. The combo headphone and microphone jack is on the left, and the SD card reader on the right. But everything else is on the back. We're not so concerned about the power and HDMI connection being here, as you won't be disconnecting these frequently during use. But having both USB 3.0 ports on the rear could be a major issue. Aside from the inconvenience, there's the danger of accidentally bending a USB memory drive inserted at the back when you pick the notebook up. With a USB key sticking out of the back. you will also have trouble using this notebook on the tray tables in some commuter trains. Having just one USB port on the side would have been preferable.
The lack of VGA and wired Ethernet could also be a drawback for corporate users needing to connect to older projectors, or in need of more dependable networking than Wi-Fi. You could add a USB Ethernet adapter for under £20, but carrying this around would still be a hassle compared to having the port permanently built in.
Performance is slightly under par for the specification, too, but only slightly. The score of 2.32 in the rendering portion of Maxon Cinebench R11.5 is about what we would expect for the CPU. But the OpenGL result of 11.47 is slightly slow, as are the scores of 3,495 in Futuremark's 3DMark06 and 422 in 3DMark11. On the other hand, the battery life is decent, although not quite up with the best premium Ultrabooks. In our gruelling 100 per cent utilisation test, the S3 lasted 106 minutes, implying that you should just about get to see an entire two-hour film on battery. The score of 356 minutes is beyond value or desktop replacement notebooks, but about 50 minutes short of the best around. Nevertheless, Acer's claims of 5.5 hours of general usage would be about right, and still a very decent duration away from the power socket.
The Acer Aspire S3 is not the perfect Ultrabook. The port allocation and positioning will be distinct drawbacks for some users. The 3D performance and battery life also can't quite match the top premium models, even those sporting the same processor. But the £550 price is also very reasonable, and this is still a reassuringly sturdy and attractively styled portable. If you can put up with its deficiencies, this is still a decent-value Ultrabook.
Manufacturer and Product
Acer Aspire S3
1.7GHz Intel Core i7-3740QM
4GB DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4000
500MB Hitachi Travelstar Z5K500 5,400rpm SATA hard disk plus 20GB SSD (cache only)
13.3in CineCrystal LED TFT with 1,366 x 768 pixels
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
2 x USB 3.0, HDMI, headphone / microphone combo, SD card reader
Width x Depth x Height
323 x 219 x 17.5mm
1 year carry-in