Acer Aspire S3: The Basic Ultrabook
At a Glance
Acer Aspire S3-951
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Acer's attempt at a cost effective Ultrabook ultimately cuts too many corners.
Intel's Ultrabook guidelines describe the anti-netbook. Sure, Ultrabooks aspire to the MacBook Air's sleek, sexy design. But they're also intended as a counter to the blandness of boring 15-inch everyday laptops and to the underwhelming performance of netbooks.
Of course, a laptop with improved performance, a svelte chassis, and light weight tends to come at a price, as we saw with $2000 (base price) Sony VAIO Z. Acer is offering its new Aspire S3 for a comparatively reasonable $899 (as of November 16, 2011), and you can find it discounted to sub-$850 online. Still, $850 isn't a budget price by today's standards. Can the Aspire S3 deliver on the promise of good performance in an ultralight, ultrathin package at a not-unreasonable price?
The Aspire S3 looks good, and seems to handle well when folded--there's no weird weight distribution that might make it susceptible to drops when you're juggling it with other gear. The plastic shell isn't as rigid as the alloy shells on some Ultrabooks, but it's functional. Opening the Aspire S3 reveals a muted gray keyboard that almost disappears into the chassis and otherwise is notable for possessing the tiniest set of navigation keys (arrows, Page Up, Page Down, and the like) that I can recall seeing on any Windows laptop. They're not much bigger than cell phone Chiclet keys, and about the only positive I can see is that the Page Down and Page Up keys are discrete, so they don't require a separate function key press.
Key travel is very short, but I got used to that pretty quickly. I found the tactile feedback quite recognizable for such short travel, so touch-typing accuracy should be fairly good. And since the trackpad doesn't pick up a hovering palm, the cursor doesn't skate across the screen unexpectedly. The right and left buttons are invisible and are built into the lower right and left corners of the touchpad.
The Aspire S3 ships with a 1.6GHz Intel Core-i5 2467M low-voltage CPU that clocks in at 1.6GHz and offers a maximum Turbo setting of 2.3GHz. The laptop has 4GB of total system memory, but 0.15GB of that goes to the Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. The 2467M CPU, with its 3MB of L3 cache, probably contributed to the model's middling WorldBench 6 score of 97. Battery life was a bit low for an ultraportable laptop, too, at just under 5 hours (the average for the category is around 6.5 hours). Owing to Acer's use of integrated graphics, the Aspire S3 is no gaming powerhouse either. You can play some games at limited resolutions and detail settings, but serious gaming is best left to other systems.
The display has an average, 1366-by-768-pixel native resolution. When I sat in the sweet spot, the screen looked bright and colorful. Still photos looked good and HD content streamed over the local area network smoothly. However, streaming Netflix HD content looked even softer than it usually does. In addition, the LCD panel's range of angles for high-quality viewing is rather restricted, with noticeable color and contrast shifts at minor displacements from dead center.
Audio is another weak point. Even with the supplied Dolby Home Theater activated, stereo imaging was vague and seemed to wander from one side to another. Bass was utterly lacking, and volume levels were so low that I kept checking system volume levels and Windows Media Player volume controls to make sure that their levels were maxed out. You'll definitely want headphones for any serious audio work.
The Aspire S3 is deficient in ports and network connectivity, in part because of design constraints common to all Ultrabooks. On the rear are a pair of USB 2.0 ports and an HDMI connector. A lone audio jack appears on the left, and an SD Card slot on the right. There are no USB 3.0 ports. Admittedly, that array is only slightly worse than what you'd get with a MacBook Air, but the Air has a high-speed Thunderbolt port than can serve as both an I/O and a digital monitor connection. Also like the MacBook Air, the Aspire S3 lacks an ethernet jack; the only connectivity is through 802.11n Wi-Fi. And unlike the Air and most other Ultrabooks, Acer's model lacks Bluetooth support.
This Aspire S3 supposedly ships with a 20GB solid-state drive and a 320GB Hitachi hard drive. The SSD is set up as a "hibernation drive," which means that the unit can restore rapidly from hibernation, and consequently hibernating the system is the power-down method of choice--it's more battery-efficient than sleep mode and much faster than cold-booting. But using the SSD exclusively to cache hibernation data is a waste of about 15GB of SSD space. It would have been better to use the SSD as a more robust hard-drive cache, if possible.
In the end, the Acer Aspire S3 attempts to be an affordable, visually attractive, and usable Ultrabook. It only partly meets those goals. The keyboard is mostly good, but the laptop's mediocre audio quality, lack of high-speed USB, shorter-than-average battery life, and modest performance make it less than appealing. Still, if you need a very thin, very light Windows PC for mostly nondemanding office and Web chores, the Aspire S3 may suit you.