Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 review

When Acer's Aspire Timeline Ultra notebooks made their first appearance at CES, these 14- and 15-inch laptops seemed like little more than the successors to Acer's TimelineX series. Thin-and-light laptops, complete with optical drive and some likely reasonable prices. While there's no mistaking that DVD burner and mainstream screen size, we now know a few things we didn't then: the 15-inch version you see up there packs NVIDIA's next-gen Kepler graphics... and Acer's calling it an Ultrabook.

Acer's branding that there Ultra M3 as an Ultrabook because it's less than 20mm (.8 inches) thin, but given that 15-inch display, numpad, optical drive and graphical horsepower, it's hard to think of this as anything other than a mainstream laptop. If you accept Acer's marketing scheme, though, this is the first so-called Ultrabook to ship with discrete graphics. (We're expecting to see more -- many more -- of these.) As of this writing, at least, we don't have a confirmed price, though Acer has said the pricing for the Ultra series should align with current TimelineX notebooks (which is to say, we're hardly expecting this to be a $1,500 machine.) Until we know for sure, it'll be hard to say how sweet of a deal this is, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about what it actually does. How does the performance stack up against regular 'ol 15-inch laptop? Does it pummel your garden-variety Ultrabooks like you'd expect it to? Join us past the break where we break down exactly what this 'tweener can do.

Look and feel


At first glance, the M3 is a rather unassuming machine. The matte black exterior is fashioned out of polycarbonate, save for the textured chrome Acer logo and aluminum lid. The only other interruption in the monochrome exterior are some small, silk-screened text on the hinge letting you know there's "Professionally Tuned" Dolby Home Theater technology powering the audio -- branding you'll find stamped on most every recent Acer laptop. Open it up and you'll find the palm rest and screen bezel swathed in the same ebony skin, while the recessed chiclet keys are surrounded by pewter gray plastic. There's an Acer logo beneath the screen, a 1.3 megapixel webcam in the bezel, and Aspire Timeline U branding placed below the numpad on the right palm rest, along with the obligatory Intel, Windows, and NVIDIA stickers affixed nearby.

Plastic skins rarely lend a laptop luxurious looks, and the M3 is no exception. For what it's worth, though, the fit and finish here are decent, with the only exception being the DVD tray, which isn't fitted as well as we'd like -- when closed, the gaps to the left of and above the tray are noticeably wider than along the bottom and right sides. Make no mistake, though: even if those gaps were narrower, no one would guess based on looks alone that this is a premium machine.


Despite the use of such low-rent materials in the chassis, we're happy to report that this hasn't adversely affected the PC's construction much. There's zero flex in the palm rest, and while the keyboard could be coaxed to bend by pressing directly on the deck, typing on it produces no noticeable bowing. It's a different story with the display, as it can be made to flex and wobble quite easily -- an issue the M3 shares with an unfortunate number of its competitors, including some made of metal.

Along the front edge of the laptop resides a slim chrome power button, LED activity indicator, plus a second light to let you know the laptop's charging status. Left and right speaker grilles are also located on the underside of that beveled front edge. On the laptop's left side is an SD reader and a tray-loading DVD-RW drive, while the right side is home to just a Kensington lock slot. That leaves the rear for most of your connectivity options: dual USB 2.0 ports (plus one of the 3.0 variety), HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, a 3.5mm headphone jack and the power port. That's a pretty generous selection of sockets, and it compares quite favorably to other 15-inch thin and lights like Samsung's Series 9. While the rear-facing location makes for an uncluttered appearance, it also makes for woeful ergonomics: reaching back there to connect peripherals, headphones and the power cord feels like a chore. Every. Single. Time.

Keyboard and trackpad


Back when we first put fingertip to keyboard on the new Timeline Ultra, we found a few flaws with its grid, and we're sorry to say they weren't addressed in the laptop's final form. As with so many other Ultrabooks, the keys suffer from a shallow throw, though in this case the Tab and F-keys are undersized, and there's no backlighting. Like the rest of the chassis, the keys are made of hard, cheap-feeling plastic that left our phalanges yearning for the soft-touch buttons you'll find on a MacBook Pro or Samsung Series 9. On the plus side, the spacing between buttons is ample, which should keep misfires to a minimum. And we've always had a soft spot for numpads, particularly on machines with some gaming chops like this one.

Another Windows laptop, another middling trackpad. The Acer comes equipped with a plastic clickpad from Elan, and while two-finger vertical scrolling is fairly reliable, there were times when multiple attempts were needed to pull this off. Another niggle: the lack of an option for two-fingered sidescrolling. Similarly, pinch-to-zoom works most of the time, but touch doesn't always register, and when it does you'll have to settle for some seriously chunky scaling. Four-finger swipes grant direct access to the desktop -- a feature we found quite useful when it worked -- but again, the trackpad sometimes missed our input, forcing us to try multiple times.

It's not all doom and gloom in clickpad land, though: single-finger navigation works as it should, and right, left and double clicks on the pad register as they ought to.

Display and sound


One word describes the display on the Acer Timeline Ultra M3: disappointing. It's a machine with some of the latest NVIDIA graphics, but the glossy LCD panel Acer chose doesn't make the best of the GT640M card inside. Resolution on the 15.6-inch screen is a paltry 1366 x 768, which puts pixel density at about 101 PPI. Now it's true, that pixel count is par for the course for budget laptops of all sizes, but if we're comparing it to other big-screen Ultrabooks, the panel doesn't compare favorably against either the 1600 x 900 IPS-quality display on the HP Envy 14 Spectre or the matte, 400-nit, 1600 x 900 panel on the 15-inch Series 9. Heck, even the $949 14-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook has a matte, 300-nit display -- that's a step up, even if, too, has 1366 x 768 resolution.

Aside from an inability to adequately display details, the screen suffers from poor viewing angles. Tilting it back even an inch or two past the sweet spot results in the screen darkening, and moving it further leads to color inversion. Pulling it forward isn't any better, as that causes the kind of wash-out characterized by inverted colors and a sickly yellowish tint. Given those shortcomings, we were surprised to enjoy some pretty wide viewing angles from the sides, even as we approached 180 degrees. In general, though, the display makes for an underwhelming canvas whether you're gazing at a desktop of noticeably pixelated icons or playing Battlefield 3 (much more on that later, of course).


As for those two front firing speakers, they aren't much more impressive than the display. Sure, they could attempt to regale us with the dulcet tones and steel guitar of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, but like most laptop speakers, they provide neither rich sound nor any semblance of decent bass response. Suffice to say you're better off with some external USB units or using headphones if you want to listen to your tunes in a way even approaching how the artist intended. As for the EQ manipulation magic promised by that Dolby Home Theater technology? It didn't improve our audio experience much, if at all. Whether watching movies or playing games, we were never fooled into thinking that the sounds were coming from anything other than a pair of garden-variety laptop speakers.

Performance and battery life

Our test machine came specced to the max, with a 256GB Lite-On SSD, 4GB of RAM, a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-2637M CPU and, of course, that NVIDIA GT640M GPU and dedicated 1GB of video memory. Because of that speedy solid-state drive, boot times were like greased lightning: 1.3 seconds to wake from sleep, 12.7 seconds from hibernation, and 12.3 ticks for a cold boot. All those other internals made for a more than capable work machine, as it juggled three HD videos on YouTube, 15 open tabs in Chrome, a Skype chat and some light word processing in Notepad. Through our day-to-day use, the M3 never got more than mildly warm, and the fan only spun up periodically as we kicked into gaming sessions or watched videos for extended periods.


Speaking of gaming, we spent some time playing Team Fortress 2, Skyrim and Battlefield 3 to see just how well NVIDIA's newly minted GPU performs. Suffice to say, we weren't disappointed. The GT640M routinely delivered frame rates between 55 and 60 fps as we ran around torching folks in Team Fortress 2. During walkabouts in the empire of Tamriel, meanwhile, frame rates consistently hovered around 50fps, dipping into the 40s during battles. An NVIDIA rep promised its new Kepler architecture would enable us to play graphics-intensive Battlefield 3 at over 30fps in Acer's 20mm-thin machine, and it delivered. On its high setting, frame rates hovered in the mid to low 30s, and on medium we got between 40 and 45fps. (The ultra setting slowed gameplay to twenty-something fps, so if you demand the utmost from your gaming experience, the Ultra M3 isn't for you.)

That said, most users should find the Ultra M3 provides ample horsepower to get their game on, and its capabilities truly are impressive given the machine's svelte profile. But, there's a catch. In order to take full advantage of the hardware, you'll be chained to a wall outlet -- to conserve the battery, the GPU performance is severely curtailed when the machine's not plugged in. That's a serious drag, because a big part of the Acer's appeal is its prodigious gaming prowess in a super portable profile, but this limitation takes that away. We know that such sessions would necessarily be quite short due to the battery drain they would entail, but it sure would be nice to at least have the option to switch to a more performance-oriented battery profile during, say, a 30-minute train commute.

Benchmarks roughly mirrored our in-game experience (including a reliance on the AC adapter), as the M3 smoked PCMark Vantage with a score of 11,545 and pulled off an impressive 11,128 in 3DMark06.

Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 (1.7GHz Intel Core i7 2637M, Intel HD 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M, 1GB)



Samsung Series 7 Chronos (2.2GHz Core i7-2675QM, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6750M 1GB)



Dell XPS 15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M 1GB)



Lenovo IdeaPad U400 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M 1GB)



Dell XPS 14z (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT520M 1GB)



HP Envy 15 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, AMD Radeon HD 7690M 1GB)



14-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



HP Envy 14 Spectre (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Dell Inspiron 14z (2.3 Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Dell XPS 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



HP Folio 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Acer Aspire S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



2011 Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)



Notes: the higher the score the better.

Battery life on the Timeline Ultra M3 is good, but not amazing. We got five hours and 11 minutes out of its three-cell Li-polymer battery in our standard test, with a video looping off the hard drive, WiFi on and screen brightness set at 65 percent. In general workday use checking email, web surfing and word processing in Notepad, we got a little more than five and a half hours before needing to plug in. As you can see in the table below, the M3 bests most 15-inch laptops with discrete graphics (save he Series 7), but it falls short of almost every smaller Ultrabook.

Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3


Samsung Series 7 Chronos


Dell XPS 15z


Lenovo IdeaPad U400


Dell XPS 14z


HP Envy 15


14-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook


Dell Inspiron 14z


HP Folio 13


Toshiba Portege Z835


ASUS Zenbook UX31


13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air

5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)

HP Envy 14 Spectre


Lenovo IdeaPad U300s


Dell XPS 13


Samsung Series 9 (2011)


Acer Aspire S3


The competition

As we said at the outset, the M3 Acer is a bit too big and brawny to make a fair comparison to (what we consider to be) skinnier Ultrabooks like the ASUS UX31 and Toshiba Z830. Perhaps a more appropriate juxtaposition is with the Lenovo IdeaPad U400. That machine also packs an optical drive, similar specs and discrete graphics, plus a display with the same resolution, albeit in a 14-inch panel. Yet, the U400 doesn't have the Acer's more spacious, numpad-equipped keyboard, nor the capabilities of a Kepler GPU. It does have a higher-quality aluminum build, however.


Full-featured (and sized) laptops like the HP Envy 15, Sony VAIO SE series, Dell XPS 15z and Samsung Series 7 Chronos could be called competitors as well, though it's difficult to compare them as Acer has yet to announce the Ultra M3's pricing. They have the same screen size and similar battery life and CPU options, but they boast far superior display quality and build materials. Additionally, the M3 is thinner than those machines and dominates them in both benchmark scores and gaming capabilities, thanks to its Kepler graphics.



Kepler comes of age: NVIDIA unveils GeForce GTX 680 desktop GPU, 600M series for laptops

Samsung Series 7 Chronos review

Lenovo Ideapad U400 review

With the Ultra M3, Acer has delivered some serious computing power in an incredibly thin package. In our opinion, it's simply too big to be evaluated as a true Ultrabook, though it is thinner and lighter than typical 15-inch laptops. Its high-end internals allow for some noteworthy performance, but its plastic construction and shoddy screen scream low-end, making it a bit of a paradox. We think what Acer has done is create the computer equivalent of a '70's muscle car shoving a premium powerplant in a subpar chassis: it's great at the (gaming) drag strip, but its shortcomings could make it a tough sell as a daily driver. It's an intriguing package, but without knowing its price point, it's impossible to tell whether it's worth taking the plunge. Regardless, we think that Acer and NVIDIA's latest collaboration has given us a glimpse of a gaming landscape populated by thin, light machines, and that's a decidedly good thing.