Acer Aspire M5-481PT review: Jack of all trades, master of none
A year and a half ago, the Acer M5-481PT would have been a revelation. A Windows 8 Ultrabook, the M5 sports a third-generation Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive (with 20GB SSD cache), a 14-inch 10-point multitouch screen, and a DVD-RW drive. It’s an impressively robust hardware package, especially for its budget pricetag of $800.
Now, in the age of ultra-portability and high-end laptop performance, however, the M5-481PT feels just a bit too big, a bit too heavy, a bit too slow, and a bit too dull to be properly labeled as an Ultrabook.
Design and Usability
The Acer M5-481PT technically meets Intel’s Ultrabook design specifications—but just barely. Eschewing the wedge design of smaller Ultrabooks, the M5 stands at a uniform height of 0.9 inches tall on all sides. Though not ugly by any means, the best word to describe the M5's overall design would be “solid.” Solid in its durability, solid in its aesthetics, solid in its build quality. Solid as a rock…but also dull and heavy as a rock. Though not as hefty as a performance machine, the M5 weighs in at a substantial 4.5 pounds, and over 5.2 pounds including the power brick. The touch-screen and the optical drive certainly contribute to the weight, making the M5 one of the heavier Ultrabooks around, especially in its performance range.
The M5's keyboard is the highlight of the build—quite literally, including a nice-looking and useful backlight. The keys are big, well-spaced, and responsive, allowing for fast, accurate, and comfortable typing.
The multitouch touchpad, unfortunately is not nearly as comfortable or accurate. While the off-center placement of the touchpad somewhat mitigates accidental touching and palming, the over-sensitivity of the pad, combined with its somewhat shoddy multitouch detection means when you do accidentally touch it, you’ll probably do something irritating, like zoom in, scroll, task switch, or pull up one of the Windows 8 side menus.
Side menus aside, the M5 is well-equipped with a slew of connectivity slots. Most of the ports reside on the back side of the machine: the power connector, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI out jack, Gigabit Ethernet, and a Kensington lock. The left edge features the DVD drive, which seems somewhat superfluous on a modern Windows 8 device, but may still be an appealing feature for the budget target demographic. The right side feels a bit sparse, with just an SD card reader, a combo headphone/microphone jack, and a lot of unused real estate. Discrete headphone and microphone jacks or a convenient side USB jack would have been welcome additions, but the overall connectivity offered by the M5 is still substantial.
Whereas the M5's chassis, keyboard, and connectivity options are rock solid, its performance leaves a bit to be desired. The M5-481T scores a 46 out of 100 in our WorldBench 8, on the lower end of the performance spectrum in our Windows 8 benchmarking. The comparably spec’d HP Envy TouchSmart 4 easily outscores the M5 with a 57, the sexier and flexier Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga clocked in at a 60, and the fellow touch screen model Dell XPS 12 Convertible turned in a 64. The M5 does rank a touch higher than the Toshiba Satellite P845T however, its closest rival in terms of price and specifications.
The M5's hard drive performance is a bit of a mixed bag. The unit features a 20GB SSD cache that significantly speeds up sleep recovery and moderately speeds up startup speed. Clocked in at a startup of 12.2 seconds, the M5 whizzes past pure mechanical hard drive models, but still lags behind Ultrabooks featuring true SSDs. Furthermore, the SSD cache offers little help beyond startup and recovery, as the M5 scored a 1620.5 in the PCMark7 Hard Drive benchmark and timed in at 180.9 seconds on the WinZip compression test, both within standard range for its 500GB 5400 RPM hard drive.
Its overall CPU performance is equally standard, though again, on the lower end of the performance spectrum for its class. However, its PhotoShop CS6 photo editing time of 448.7 seconds was surprisingly zippy, compared to the 659.1 of the Toshiba Satellite P845 and the 649.1 of the IdeaPad Yoga.
Gaming is a similar middle of the road proposition, with the M5's integrated Intel HD Graphic 4000 doing its perfunctory duties and clocking in at roughly 30 fps at the 1366x768 native resolution.
The real performance star for the M5 is its battery life. At 5 hours and 29 minutes in our battery stress test, the M5 outperforms even 13- and 12-inch screen models, an impressive feat for a 14-inch model. That longevity, combined with the legacy DVD drive still makes the M5 a useful portable video viewing device.
Screen and Speakers
Unfortunately, the M5 stumbles most in the visual department. The 14" glossy LCD screen with LED backlight just doesn’t look very good, clearly showing the limitations of the 1366x768 resolution. The colors are washed out, the contrast is limited, and there is noticeable blur, pixilation, and chunkiness when playing video full screen. Even still text and images can look a bit hazy up close. Poor contrast and color balance issues are apparent from both off-angle horizontal and vertical viewing as well.
It’s a shame the screen looks poor, since it feels quite good. As a touchscreen, the 10-point multitouch earns all 10 of those points. Touch controls are fast and responsive, with no real lag on swipes, taps, or multitouch gestures. The screen feels sturdy, and stands firm to all but the most forceful of motions, and the hinges stay in place despite offering a nearly 180 degree of motion. The glass itself also does a decent job of mitigating glare, and is even fairly smudge resistant for a glossy glass surface.
The audio isn’t nearly as disappointing as the video quality, but even a quick listen will confirm you’re listening to low quality laptop speakers. The speakers are tinny and muffled sounding, even when listening to low dynamic range offerings like podcasts and dialogue. When listening to music and more bass heavy content, the sound is even further garbled.
The Acer M5-481PT feels like a holdover of a bygone era in laptop design, where all laptops tried to be all things to all people. While its robust feature set and solid build quality are impressive for the modest $800 pricetag, the M5 feels like an outlier in the Ultrabook class, a product line defined by extreme portability and sleek design.
The end result is a product that feels kind of like a 100-tools-in-1 swiss army knife. It can perform many tasks adequately, but none particularly well, and its practically worst-in-class form factor hampers its portability and convenience. The M5-481PT is a respectably solid, general purpose budget laptop, but is easily outclassed by its more ambitious and appealing Ultrabook brethren.