Until now, Windows fans have had precious few alternatives to the MacBook Air. Sure, there's Samsung's Series 9, but just like the original Air, it's far from cheap. Since then, of course, Apple has cut the Air's starting price to $999, while the Windows options -- now marketed as Ultrabooks -- are about to mushroom in number. And so far, they're all starting in the (more reasonable) neighborhood of a thousand bucks, making these pinch-thin, long-lasting laptops accessible to the budget-conscious masses.

Acer's Aspire S3 was the first to hit the market here in the States, and with an entry price of $899, it's currently the least expensive. That it's skinny (just 13mm thick, to be exact), should be a given, but it also claims to wake from sleep in two seconds flat and reconnect to known networks in two and a half. But, as the least pricey Ultrabook on the shelf, it also forgoes some specs you might have liked to see -- namely, all-flash storage and USB 3.0. But does that matter much when you're potentially saving hundreds of dollars? Let's find out.
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Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review

Acer

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook

Pros

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Thin and light design, runs cool
  • Resumes from sleep in two seconds

Cons

  • Disappointing battery life
  • Trailing performance
  • Stiff touch button
Summary

The first Ultrabook to go on sale in the US is as thin and light as you'd expect and also happens to be the cheapest, but its battery life and performance are underwhelming.


Look and feel


The S3 has something of a split personality: understated elegance on the outside, something more pedestrian when you lift the lid. At first glance, it's refined (but never ostentatious) thanks to a cool-to-the-touch brushed aluminum lid that doesn't seem to pick up fingerprints. Make no mistake: this thing makes a strong impression.

Its slender frame doesn't hurt, either. At three pounds flat (1.4kg) and half an inch thick, it's on par with the 13-inch MacBook Air (2.96 pounds / 1.35kg) and the 2.9-pound (1.32kg) ASUS Zenbook UX31. If you've handled a MacBook Air before, its skinny silhouette might not impress you but if (like yours truly) you're used to schlepping a six-pound 15-incher, the difference will feel refreshing, and the ounces separating it from the competition will seem irrelevant. While we're on the subject of comparisons, by the way, we're digging the S3's rounded edges and corners. One thing we dislike about the MacBook Air (or any Mac, really) is that although those sharp edges make for a bold design, resting your wrists on them or pressing your palms into them can make for a none-too-comfortable ergonomic experience. The S3 is softer in this regard, and it works.

The S3 also has a softer aesthetic under the lid, and that's where the design starts to seem a bit cobbled-together. For one, the display has a habit of wobbling even when you set the machine down, which chipped away at our confidence in the build quality. Also, because the keys, deck, palm rest and bottom side are made of plastic, they seem mismatched against that striking metal lid. We'll spend two paragraphs on the keyboard in just a moment, but for now, suffice to say the problem isn't that plastic keys are uncomfortable to type on; it's just that an all-metal keyboard (à la the ASUS UX21 / UX31) would have gone a long way in pulling together what's otherwise a slick design.


Above the keyboard, a black, rubbery strip interrupts the beige deck. There, you'll find a pair of LED lights along with a metal power button that peeks out even when the lid is closed. Like other Acer laptops, this one features Dolby sound, along with two prominently placed logos to match: Dolby's Home Theater branding on one side of the keyboard, and its "Professionally Tuned" slogan. The bottom of the machine, meanwhile, is studded with four rubber feet -- a homely sight, but not something you'll notice when you're using the machine.

Taking a tour of all the ports and openings, you'll find that the front edge is completely blank, as are the left and right sides, save for a headphone / mic socket and SD slot, respectively. There's also your requisite 1.3 megapixel webcam tucked in the bezel. Really, though, most of the action's to be found on the back edge, where the vent, two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI-out and the AC socket sit in a row. For comparison's sake, the Air has two USB 2.0 ports and a Thunderbolt socket, whereas the UX31 has two USB 2.0 ports and one of the 3.0 persuasion. Meanwhile, Toshiba's forthcoming Portege Z830 will have USB 3.0, HDMI and an Ethernet jack, while the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s will also have USB 3.0 and HDMI. Even the UX31, which has mini-HDMI and mini-VGA ports, at least comes bundled with USB-to-Ethernet and mini-VGA-to-VGA adapters.

Keyboard and trackpad


You might think that if you've seen one chiclet keyboard you've seen 'em all, but the S3's reminds us that some are more (or, in this case, less) tactile than others. Starting with some kind words, the keys have a pleasant, ever-so slightly textured finish, and the panel is rigid enough that it stood firm even as we pounded out stories on deadline. The problem is, there's not much travel here, which left us craning our hands over the keys, typing deliberately to make sure our presses registered. As we said when we reviewed the current VAIO Z, typing on shallow keys is not unlike trekking around in flip-flops: you know how your toes roll into a claw, pressing into the rubber in an attempt to compensate for the fact that your feet aren't well supported? Well, in the case of the S3, we found ourselves digging into the keys with concerted effort since there's otherwise not much to latch onto. All told, the MacBook Air's keyboard is the cushier of the two. (Then again, if we're talking ergonomics, the Air is no ThinkPad either.)

For what it's worth, though, we were able to type the brunt of this review on the S3 with only the occasional spelling error -- and that's despite the fact that all of the major keys (Enter, Tab, Caps Lock, Backspace and right and left Shift) are shrunken. The arrow keys are especially miniature here, so if you're like us and regularly use them to highlight text, you'll find yourself pining for a keyboard that's a little less crowded. What's more, the brightness and volume controls are located on those arrow keys, which means even if you don't use them for anything else, they're still unavoidable.


Even when we first saw the S3 back in August, one of the first things to make an impression was that spacious trackpad. Even after spending more time with it, the integrated button still feels stiff -- a flaw we were willing to chalk up to pre-production kinks when we got hands-on at IFA. Similar to the keys, the touchpad has a slightly textured finish, and while it sometimes made for a frictionless experience, it more often slowed us down, even as we tried to do something rudimentary like drag the cursor across the desktop. We also noticed that this giant clickable pad sometimes mistook our left clicks for right ones -- a quirk we've noticed in other laptops whose trackpads have integrated buttons. At least this is something that can be remedied with a software update.

Despite all this, two-fingered scrolling generally works as promised -- a pleasant surprise considering the grief multi-touch trackpads can cause when executed poorly. It's not perfect, though: although pinch-to-zoom works reliably, you'll have to concentrate a bit (and apply some pressure) to make text resize to the exact scale.

Display and sound


The S3's 13.3-inch display has 1366 x 768 resolution, which is common for laptops this size. In fact, the Portege Z830 and IdeaPad U300s will tap out with the same pixel count. Still, the 13-inch Air sports a 1400 x 900 panel, while the UX31 steps up to 1600 x 900 resolution. When we were using just one program at full screen, the S3's low-res panel was more than adequate for reading documents and scrolling through web pages, but we felt the squeeze keenly when we used Windows 7's Snap feature to view two pages side by side.

For what it's worth, high-def videos looked plenty crisp on that display, and we enjoyed decent viewing angles from the sides once we dimmed the lights. We didn't have as much luck head-on, though; even when we dipped the display forward slightly, the picture appeared washed out. Not good news when the person sitting in front of you on the plane decides to lean all the way back.

And how's the sound, you ask? Not bad -- depending on the sort of music you're into. Pop songs, such as Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory" sounded more or less as we'd expect them to, though the system's limitations became obvious when rap tracks like "Hypnotize" took on a distinctly metallic quality.

Performance and graphics

Right now, there's one configuration of the S3 available in the States, and it has an ultra low voltage 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a hybrid drive that combines a 320GB HDD for accessing files and a 20GB SSD for storing the operating system. If you can wait until year's end to pull the trigger, Acer will release additional models with Core i3 and i7 processors and expanded storage capacity.

So how does the performance stack up? Well, that depends on what metric you use. If we go by benchmark scores, it falls short, frankly. Particularly when it comes to overall power, the current MacBook Air trounces it, thanks to all-solid-state storage, equal RAM and a similar 1.7GHz Core i5 processor. In PCMark Vantage, the most general of the performance tests we run, it notched 5,367, while the Air managed 9,484 in Bootcamp. In 3DMark06, we expected the two systems' graphics performance to be similar, as both machines rely on an integrated Intel graphics card. Indeed, the gulf was smaller, but still significant: the S3 scored 3,221; the Air, 4,223.

Right now, our ability to judge by the numbers is limited: the S3 is the first Ultrabook to hit the market, and so we don't yet have scores from the ASUS UX21 / UX31, the IdeaPad U300s or the Portege Z830. We'll flesh out our performance chart in due time, but for now, the only fair comparison is with the MacBook Air, not just because it's arguably the inspiration behind the S3 and others, but because it's the only other machine you can buy that's comparably priced with a pinch-thin design and ultra-low voltage innards.


PCMarkVantage
3DMark06
Battery Life
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3 5,367 3,221 4:11
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240 4:20
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5 GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,787 3,726 3:31 / 6:57 (slice battery)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Instant-on and real-world performance

Still, as far as real-world performance goes, the S3 deserves more credit than that. Say what you will about its benchmark scores, but we freely went about our everyday business, jumping between at least half a dozen tabs in Chrome, checking email and Facebook, chatting over Google Talk, loading YouTube videos and downloading and installing apps. It also boots up in a more-than-respectable time of 45 seconds. Through it all, that vent 'round back did a fine job of expelling heat -- the laptop always felt cool to the touch. We did notice the occasional hang, though -- for instance, while we were installing a program, the machine took its sweet time opening Windows' advanced power settings.

This also might be a good time to tackle the S3's two key claims: that it automatically connects to stored WiFi networks in 2.5 seconds, and that it resumes from sleep in two seconds -- provided the machine hasn't been asleep for more than half an hour. After all, these are things that can immeasurably improve your daily grind with the thing, and that won't be reflected in pat, four-digit benchmark scores. Indeed, without fail, the machine consistently resumed from sleep in two seconds (less, actually, according to our stopwatch). That's a faster showing than we saw when the S3 debuted at IFA, and it's perfectly conceivable the company has ironed out a few kinks since then with final software.


As for connectivity, we tested Acer's 2.5-second claim by turning off WiFi and then timing how long the computer took to reconnect once we flipped the radio back on. Indeed, two Mississippis passed, though the scenario we created is, admittedly, an unrealistic one. After all, how often do you really disable WiFi? We were also curious to see how long the computer took to latch onto our home network at start-up, and found that time was more in the neighborhood of 35 seconds. No different from our experience with other notebooks; just don't expect that Acer's technology will let you bypass that routine delay.

Battery life

The S3's three-cell, 3,280mAh battery is rated for six hours of active use, or 50 days of standby time. In our standard rundown test, which involves looping the same movie with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, it lasted four hours and eleven minutes. Now it's true, you can eke out more than that if you just bum around online and refrain from playing a movie off the hard drive, but let's not forget that in that same video playback test, the current MacBook Air lasted five hours and thirty-two minutes in its native OS X (in Bootcamp with Windows 7 installed, it managed just four hours and twelve minutes). Again, we'll be in a better position to grandstand about battery life once we've reviewed competing models by ASUS, Lenovo and Toshiba, but for now, that gap in runtime doesn't exactly bode well.

Software

The S3 comes with a fair share of pre-installed software, including your requisite security software (McAfee Internet Security), Microsoft Office 2010 and Windows Live Essentials. Less typical, though, are additions like the Times Reader, Skype 5.3, newsXpresso, Nook for PC and an eBay desktop shortcut. You'll also find a good deal of Acer-branded apps, including clear.fi for sharing files media over WiFi and utilities for tweaking power management and sleep settings. To be fair, even after we removed Bing Bar, Office, Norton Online Backup, Skype, newsXpresso, Nook for PC, Times Reader and that annoying eBay shortcut, our boot-up time held steady at about 45 seconds.

Wrap-up


We wanted to love the Acer Aspire S3, the same way we're rooting for all of these reasonably priced, impossibly skinny, long-lasting laptops that have the potential to give the MacBook Air a run for its money. Indeed, it's priced aggressively -- $200 less than the UX31 and $400 off the 13-inch Air. It performs well enough for everyday use, stays cool throughout and keeps its promise to resume from sleep in two seconds. You'll have a mostly enjoyable experience if you pounce, and we'd sympathize if you ended up going with the least expensive option.

But now that we've spent some time with it, we're not sure it should be the poster child for Team Windows. What's more, something tells us the best Ultrabook is yet to come. Whether or not you agree that the S3 isn't quite the looker that the Air or ASUS Zenbook is, the fact remains that it relies on hybrid HDD-flash storage and, as a result, trails the MacBook Air in both battery life and all-around performance. Though we haven't tested them yet, we wouldn't be surprised if ASUS' Zenbooks have a similar advantage given that they, too, use all-flash storage. Stick around for more Ultrabooks and you'll also see multiple options with USB 3.0. If you absolutely must buy a laptop of this ilk right now, you'll get better performance and longer battery life from the MacBook Air and possibly one of the Zenbooks, but if you're more comfortable with Windows or are simply platform-agnostic, we highly suggest you sit tight and survey what's likely to be an ample field of contenders.

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