Acer TimelineUltra M5 Review: Big Screen, Few Pixels
At a Glance
Acer Aspire TimelineUltra M5-581TG-6666
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This attractive 15.6-inch Ultrabook represents a downgrade from its predecessor in storage and performance.
As an Ultrabook, the Acer TimelineUltra M5 disappoints. It's simply too big (with a 15.6-inch screen) and too heavy (at 4.5 pounds, not including accessories), to fit comfortably in the Ultrabook category. If anything, decision to market this model as an Ultrabook puts the TimelineUltra M5 a disadvantage, since it can't compete with the sexy sleekness of smaller, lighter Ultrabooks.
We should instead call the TimelineUltra M5 what it is: a very good-looking 15.6-inch ultraportable laptop with a discrete graphics card.
Our review model, priced at $829 as of July 23, 2012, has excellent specs considering its svelte form. It packs a third-generation, Ivy Bridge-based Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card. The M5 also has a 500GB hard-disk drive alongside a 20GB solid-state drive, which uses Intel’s Rapid Response SSD caching technology to boot up and resume from hibernate quickly. The M5 runs a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium.
On PCWorld Labs' WorldBench 7 benchmark tests, the TimelineUltra M5 earned a mark of 104 --not a bad score, but far below the category leader, which happens to be the M5's predecessor, the Acer TimelineUltra M3. Though the M3 carries a second-generation SandyBridge-based Intel processor, the CPU is a more powerful i7, not an i5; and the M3 rode it to a much better WorldBench 7 score of 155.
The M5 lacks the M3's i7 processor, but it has the same Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card, and it performed well on our graphics and gaming measures. In our graphics tests, the M5 managed excellent frame rates ranging from 39.9 frames per second in Crysis 2 (at high quality settings and 1366-by-768-pixel resolution) to 114.7 fps in Dirt 3 (at low quality settings and 800-by-600-pixel resolution). In short, the M5 is among the few ultraportables that should have no problem handling the vast majority of your gaming and graphical needs.
The M5's battery life is very good, too, considering the laptop's screen size. In our tests the battery held out for 7 hours, 24 minutes--about 40 minutes less than the battery life we recorded for the M3.
Design: Chassis, Keyboard, Trackpad
Though the M5 fits Intel's broad technical specifications for an Ultrabook--it has an Intel processor, is less than 21mm thick, and resumes quickly from hibernation--it is nothing like the tantalizing slivers of the first wave of Ultrabooks.
The M5 looks exactly like its immediate predecessor (the M3), and it's housed in a slim, dark silver, brushed aluminum chassis. The cover is simple, with a small raised metal Acer logo in the center, and the screen is slim and sturdy on its hinges. The interior features graceful lines with a wide wrist-rest area, a full-size keyboard, a full-size 10-key number pad, and a large off-center trackpad.
Both the keyboard and the trackpad are comfortable to use, though the keyboard suffers from smallish, slightly stiff keys. The trackpad has no discrete buttons--instead, the lower half of the pad depresses, much as the glass trackpads on Apple's MacBook line do. The trackpad is accurate and smooth, and it supports multitouch gestures. It's a little too sensitive when you aren't using it, however, which causes the mouse to jump around on the screen as you type.
Like the M3, the M5 has all of its key ports located in the rear: three USB ports (two 3.0, one 2.0), an ethernet jack, an HDMI-out port, and a Kensington lock slot. The left side of the machine is reserved for the M5's tray-loading DVD drive, and the right side of the machine sports an SD Card slot and a combination headphone/microphone jack. The power button is located on the front of the machine.
Screen and Speakers
The biggest draw--and regrettably, the biggest disappointment--of the TimelineUltra M5 is its 15.6-inch screen. The M5's big display has a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels--the same resolution you'll see on much smaller computers, such as the 11-inch MacBook Air. On such a large display, that resolution leaves individual pixels easily visible and makes text and other lines look a little fuzzy. I'm not sure why Acer decided to keep the resolution so low, especially given the processor upgrade and the nice graphics card.
Once you gt past its low resolution, the screen looks pretty good. Colors seemed accurate, though a bit washed out at times (especially at higher brightness settings), and off-axis viewing angles were solid. Video looked and sounded fine on the M5, with virtually no artifacting or noise, even in darker, action-packed scenes.
The TimelineUltra M5's audio was especially impressive, managing to sound both loud and full-bodied at the highest volume setting.
The TimelineUltra M5 runs on a newer but weaker processor than the M3 used, and Acer pulled the older model's speedy 256GB SSD in favor of a 500GB HDD with a 20GB SSD boot drive. The result is slower overall performance, which is reflected in the 50-point difference in the systems' WB7 scores.
Another disappointment: Acer shortchanged the TimelineUltra M5's 15.6-inch screen with 1366-by-768-pixel resolution--a huge letdown on a system with nice graphics performance.
The only real upgrades are in the ports, and those aren't great. You now get two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port (the M3 had one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports), and the headphone/microphone jack is now located on the right side of the machine (the M3's jack was located, inconveniently, on the rear). But these minor port upgrades aren't enough to justify calling the M5 a winner.