capsule review

Acer’s Timeline M3 Review: Laptop Could’ve Been a Contender

At a Glance
  • Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG

    PCWorld Rating

    The Timeline M3 could have been a Macbook killer, if not for the poor LCD panel.

The Acer Timeline M3 is a study in polar opposites. Its thin, elegant chassis and superb performance for its class suggest that the M3 might be a true category leader, but an painfully poor LCD panel prevents the Acer from achieving that goal.

At 4.5 pounds, the Timeline M3 is very light for a 15-inch laptop, and even with the 65W power brick factored in, it weighs only a scant 5.25 pounds. Acer dubs this machine an Ultrabook, which just goes to show how vague that moniker is. Still the M3 is sleek and quite light for so large a laptop.

It's no slouch in the performance department, either. The combination of a Core i7-2637M low-voltage processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics, and a 256GB solid-state drive yields an impressive WorldBench 7 score of 155--one of the highest performance scores we've seen for a machine in the ultraportable laptop category. The M3 also lasted for more than 8 hours in PCWorld's battery life test.

So what's not to like?

The LCD--the most visible component in the system--is a 15.6-inch panel that delivers a puny resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. That might work for a 13.3-inch Ultrabook; but at the M3's larger screen size, you'll notice the "screen door" effect of individual pixels while watching video content. On top of that, the range of satisfactory viewing angles is quite narrow. If you watch content from outside that range, you'll see substantial color and contrast shifting. This system cries out for a true 1080p, IPS LCD panel.

The system incorporates Nvidia's Optimus power-saving system, which allows the Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics to run during normal use, but fires up the Kepler-based GT 640M GPU when the demands of 3D gaming render the Intel graphics inadequate. You can specify which GPU to use in key applications, so we tested both Nvidia and Intel graphics when playing back DVD and HD video. In those tests we noticed distracting levels of mosquito noise while playing our The Return of the King DVD with Intel graphics. The noise disappeared when we switched to using the Nvidia GPU, but the overall image suddenly looked washed out and excessively bright. HD content fared slightly better, but visible noise persisted in our Magic of Flight test clip.

The keyboard isn't top-notch, either. The layout is good, and the keyboard comes with a full numeric keypad; but key travel is very short, and the keys aren't sculpted, which invited frequent typing errors. An overly sensitive trackpad exacerbated the situation, to the extent that the cursor was rarely in a predictable location.

The system ships with all of its key expansion ports located on the rear: Two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port, one ethernet, an HDMI 1.4a output, and a lone headphone jack are built into the rear. The SD Card slot and the DVD tray are on the left side. Connectivity is available via 802.11n Wi-Fi or gigabit ethernet; no provision exists for 3G/4G wireless broadband, and the Timeline M3 lacks Bluetooth support.

One other area where the Timeline M3 shines is storage. A 256GB solid-state drive coupled with a DVD burner makes for a good storage combo, and the SSD provides fast boot times and speedy application loading.

Game performance was robust in our tests, with frame rates ranging from 16 frames per second (Shogun II) to 26 fps (DiRT3) to 44 fps (Dawn of War II), all at the full panel resolution, with medium or high detail settings. You'll want to use a real mouse for gaming, however, since trackpads are inadequate for most PC titles.

The Acer Timeline M3 offers excellent overall performance and an elegant-looking package, but with less than optimal input devices and an eye-gouging LCD panel that left us cold. You can adjust to an odd keyboard feel, and you can tweak trackpad settings, but nothing will save your eyes from a display that's not up to snuff.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Timeline M3 could have been a Macbook killer, if not for the poor LCD panel.

    Pros

    • Sleek, thin, and elegant looking
    • Above-average gaming performance
    • Trackpad is overly sensitive

    Cons

    • Very poor overall display quality
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