The Acer Aspire S3 looks very nice in the product photos, and it is often associated with Ultrabooks because this type of design, which is inspired from the Macbook Air, has been used by many PC manufacturers in their recent designs. I like the new look very much, and I have been pretty bullish about Ultrabooks, at least much more than I ever was about Netbooks. Although Ultrabooks often share a similar hardware platform from Intel, they differ more than one may think, and depending on how they were designed, the end-user experience can be very different from one model to the next, so don’t let the superficial resemblance fool you. In this review, I will tell you how it felt to use the Acer Aspire S3 and we will look at what I felt was its strengths and weaknesses. Ready?
13.3” WXGA (1366×768)
Core i5 2467M (dial-core) 1.6Ghz, 4GB RAM
GPU: Intel 3000
Windows 7 Home 64
320GB HDD (283GB formatted), 5400rpm, 8MB cache, 3Gb/s
WiFi B/G/N, Bluetooth 4.0
3-Cell battery 3260mAh
0.7 x 12.7 x 8.6”
2x USB 2.0
Acer Aspire S3 official specs
The Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook has an agreeable design. It is thin, compact, and light. The loaner unit that we have even has a custom paint job that was done for Intel. The case seems to be built with a Magnesium alloy, which is a classic material for laptops and notebooks. Overall, it feels rigid enough, but there is a little bit of “flex”, especially with the display – it’s not as flexible as the Toshiba Ultrabook Z830 whose screen is *very* flexible, but we’re definitely not in the rigidity territory that the Macbook Air or Asus Zenbook are in.
In the back of the computer, you will find one HDMI port, two USB 2.0 ports, and the power connector. This is a good placement if you mainly use the computer on a desk as there won’t be any cables popping out from the sides, but if you need to plug and unplug things regularly, this may be a bit annoying. For example, we often use a 3G USB modem, and with the USB port in the back, it is possible (or probable) that backwards tilting would apply pressure to any USB device. You’ll have to think about this a little, and decide what works for you.
Because most of the ports are in the back, the sides are left clean with just a 3.5mm audio jack (left) and a full-size SD slot on the right (see photo gallery at the bottom).
Overall, I found the build quality to feel a bit “plastic”, and I think that Acer should improve upon this, because with its XPS 13 Ultrabook ($999 with 128GB SSD), Dell has a much nicer (partial) carbon-fiber construction and a better “soft touch” finish wherever carbon-fiber is not used. The HP Envy 14 Spectre (see Envy Spectre 14 demo) is also extremely nice, and the build quality is even higher than the XPS 13. However, it is much more expensive, and at 4+lbs, it is heavier.
Keyboard (average, no back light): for the most part, the keyboard is decent and there are no major complaints. The only thing that should really be different are the arrow keys. They feel tiny, because they *are* tiny. I don’t know for you, but if you type a lot of text, chances are that “Shift/CTRL + arrow” is a pretty big deal because that allows one to quickly navigate within a sentence. Also, I wish that there was a backlit keyboard, but this is not the case. Again, some people care, while others don’t. Find out in which category you stand.
Trackpad (above-average): The trackpad is “OK”. It’s not super-smooth, but it’s better than most trackpads, so I would say that it is above-average, but, not quite high-end or anything like that. It gets the job done and is definitely good enough and big enough.
Display (average): the display is OK, especially If you look at it straight-on. The view angle is not great and colors start changing rapidly as you move around, but this is a widespread behavior for computers in this category. What I like the most about the display is the ability to recline very far back. This can be great in airplanes or in other situations where you need that extra tilt that most laptops don’t have. This is definitely a plus.
In terms of processing performance, the Acer Aspire S3 processor does fairly well. For instance, when compared to my first generation Macbook Air, it is about 2X as fast in raw performance, which is as fast as the Samsung Series 9, according to Geekbench.
That said, I have to stress that synthetic benchmarks don’t tell the full story. Perceived performance is much more important to the end-user, and things like pre-loaded software (bloatware) or a slow disk can affect performance drastically. Here, the 5400rpm drive clobbers the end-user experience when compared to SSD-equipped competitors. The boot time and shut down speed is 5X or 6X slower, and the overall system responsiveness is lower as well.
Boot/wake-up/shut down speed
Shut down: 48 sec
Boot to browser: 60 sec
Wake-up from sleep: <2 sec
Battery life (fair)
For these tests, I have adjusted the power settings to make sure that the user experience is good enough. For example, the computer can play the test .mp4 1080p movie in Power Savings mode, but YouTube required switching to the more demanding Balanced Mode in order to get a smooth frame rate.
60mn of 1080p MP4 video playback used up 29% of the battery (download it here: gt5rpe3trailer_fixedv11_1080.mp4)
60mn of 1080p Youtube playback (WiFi) used up 40% of the battery (actual video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dJCLaoBZvM)
60mn of doing nothing (Display at 50%, no apps running) used up 18% of the battery. This is very important because this means that in the best-case scenario, the computer can stay on for about 5hrs, which is fairly good, but there are better options.
Charge time: recharging is as important as the battery life itself, because a quick charge can make a world of difference. It is clear that battery capacities won’t increase dramatically for any given size, but rapid-charging is already a working solution for industrial purposes, so consumer electronics will be next.
to reach a full (100%) charge, the Acer Aspire S3 takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes, but if you are on a clock, stop at 90% (1hr 50mn) because that’s when things start to slow down dramatically. This is not uncommon for batteries, but depending on laptops there are different behaviors, so it’s definitely worth checking out.
In the end, the battery life is fair, and it’s surprising what one can get out of a 3-Cell battery these days. You can watch 3 hours of 1080p video, and that’s a fair amount for a laptop. Tablets can go as long as 10 hours, but it’s clear that they don’t have the chops to run more demanding Windows applications. Also, most (older) laptops in circulation now would probably die shortly after the first hour of 1080p video.
Webcam: the webcam quality of the Acer Aspire 3 is relatively low, which is unfortunately quite common in laptops. Even in good lighting conditions, the response time/frame rate is low, so I am guessing that the camera is slowing the shutter speed to compensate for the lack of light sensing capabilities. It’s never a good sign.
Audio: the speaker quality is pretty good, especially for a laptop this size. In a quiet environment, watching a movie, or listening to music is enjoyable. In a noisy environment (trade show, noisy cafe…) this could be more challenging.
Conclusion (needs to kick it up a notch)
The Acer Aspire S3 is an interesting laptop, which delivers good raw compute performance that is comparable to other laptops using the same Intel Core i5 24xx platform. However, the choice of using an mechanical hard drive (HDD) will put it at a significant disadvantage when compared to competitors who have opted for a Solid State Drive (SSD) because the SSD seek-time is nearly infinitely faster. SSD is a critical component of perceived performance in a computer. If you can afford one, get one.
If Acer could justify it with a much lower price point, there would be some grounds for debate. However, Dell has an offering that is just $100 higher and features a smaller form factor, a better display, a 128GB SSD, better build quality and… USB 3.0.
Interestingly, some competitors don’t offer the HDD option at all, so if you need a lot of storage (300GB+), and/or want to save a buck, the Acer Aspire S3 can be a slightly cheaper option. My personal take on this is that if you *really* need more than 128GB, you way want to consider a laptop with an SSD drive and use USB 3.0 for the additional storage.
In the end, the Acer Aspire S3 does look good, but in the current competitive landscape, this computer should be priced at $749, and not at $899. If you are willing to spend close $1000, there are simply much (much!) better options out there. I hope that this Acer Aspire S3 review has helped you form an opinion about this computer. If you still have questions, please leave a comment, and I will try to address it asap.