Look and feel
While it would be inaccurate to say we've reviewed this exact laptop before, we've certainly tested something very similar. If you recall, we had a chance to try out Acer's Aspire Timeline Ultra M3, a 14-inch Ultrabook also packing NVIDIA Kepler graphics. If you think you're in for an encore of that same review, well, keep these two things in mind: for starters, the M3 Ultrabook is not for sale here in the US. Secondly, while the M5 doesn't offer any improvements under the hood, the design is decidedly more premium, with a metal keyboard deck and lid. (The bottom side is still made of rough plastic -- this is a $680 laptop we're talking about, after all.)
Additionally, Acer went with an LG Shuriken panel for some narrower bezels. Lastly, the keys are backlit here -- always a welcome touch. The lid on this guy wobbles less than on more expensive machines we've tested, an impressive feat, though pick up the notebook by the palm rest and you'll hear some creaking coming from the left side. All told, it's an adequate design, though we can think of similarly priced machines, like the Sony VAIO T13 and Lenovo IdeaPad U310, which feel a bit more solid.
When Acer first announced the Timeline Ultra laptops back at CES, the company didn't explicitly describe them as Ultrabooks -- in fact, we thought of them more as mainstream notebooks, successors to last year's TimelineX series. In the intervening seven months, though, we've seen enough larger-screened Ultrabooks that we now realize the M5 fits right in with other 14-inch thin-and-lights. Both this and the 15-inch version measure 0.81 inches thick, which is on par with Dell's XPS 14 and the 0.82-inch-thick Samsung Series 5, which also makes room for a DVD burner. In terms of heft, the M5 is a good deal heavier than the Series 5 (4.3 pounds versus 3.94), but it's still lighter than the XPS 14, which weighs 4.6 pounds and doesn't even have an optical drive. What we mean to say is, this is hardly the lightest Ultrabook you'll find, but it's easy enough to tote around, and it's definitely lighter than all those 14-inch non-Ultrabooks you could be buying.
In addition to that DVD burner, the M5 sports two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a Kensington lock slot and an HDMI socket -- all inconveniently located on the notebook's back edge. (And here we thought that was just a conceit of the Aspire S5!) Though we're never fans of having to reach around to access ports, that arrangement seems especially odd here since the right side has barely any openings, save for a 3.5mm headphone jack and a 2-in-1 memory card reader. There's no reason not to put a USB socket there, unless you truly think people would prefer to have it tucked out of sight on that rear edge.
Keyboard and trackpad
Acer doesn't seem to have re-invented its keyboard design since releasing the TimelineX series last year: the island-style arrangement is similar, as are the keys' shallow pitch. Though we had to get used to the lack of travel, we appreciated the buttons' smooth finish, as well as the sturdy underlying panel -- say what you will about that hollow palm rest, but we didn't notice any flex or give while typing. If anything, we would have expected some slightly larger arrow keys, just because the M5 has a wider footprint than other Ultrabooks and there would appear to be more room to widen those auxiliary keys.
The large, Synaptics-powered trackpad responds well to various multi-touch gestures, including two-finger scrolls and pinch-to-zoom. The palm rejection can sometimes be a problem, though, meaning you might accidentally highlight text you weren't trying to select. Also, the built-in touch button is on the stiff side. Between that and the palm rejection, this reviewer got into the habit of using one-finger taps instead of doing the equivalent of a left click. It's an adaptive technique that works, though only you can decide if you'd be willing to work that way (or, at the very least, invest in a standalone mouse).
Display and sound
No surprises here: both the 14- and 15-inch M5 laptops have 1,366 x 768 resolution, which is typical for a machine in this price range. For what it's worth, the glossy finish didn't get in the way while yours truly wrote this review in a harshly lit office. As a garden-variety TN display, you'll find it washes out pretty easily if you dip the lid forward, but we don't think you and your friends will have a problem crowding around to watch a movie -- even the people sitting off to the side should have a decent seat. And, of course, that Shuriken display is nice to have, especially on a machine as relatively inexpensive as this.
The best thing about the M5's Dolby-enhanced speakers is that they get loud -- loud enough for a small, impromptu dance party, say. But, as is the case with so many notebook speakers, the audio quality here is tinny, and it only gets more metallic-sounding as you crank the volume.
If you were to buy our test model, it would cost $780, and come with a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU and 4GB of RAM. There's also a 500GB hard drive on board, paired with a 20GB solid-state drive for faster boot-ups. And man, does it boot quickly: we recorded a fast 17-second startup. Obviously, having a hybrid hard drive is no substitute for an SSD as far as disk speeds go, but it at least fares well in its class. In the benchmark ATTO, read speeds topped out at 133 MB/s, on average, with writes consistently maxing out at 108 MB/s. That's not bad compared to the Sony VAIO T13, which managed 131 MB/s reads and 92.5 MB/s writes. Still, in synthetic benchmarks it trails the T13, as well as the Lenovo IdeaPad U310, both of which fall in the same price range and offer similar specs. (Actually, both of these machines lack the advantage of discrete graphics, which the M5 has.)
Thanks to that 1GB GeForce GT640M LE GPU, the M5's 3DMark06 score is roughly double what you'd get from a typical Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabook with integrated HD 4000 graphics. In real-world use, that naturally means much higher frame rates. In Call of Duty 4, for example, we enjoyed smooth gameplay at about 80 fps, and that was at the max resolution, mind you. Even when you crank the settings, there's really no overlap with the best-case frame rates on a lesser-specced Ultrabook (in past tests, these machines have hovered around 30 fps, even at default settings).
Acer rates the M5's non-user-replaceable battery for up to eight hours of runtime and about 1,000 charge cycles. In a video rundown test, though, Acer's own testing team got closer to six hours. That dovetails fairly nicely with our own results: in our standard battery test, it lasted a little over five hours with WiFi on, the brightness fixed at 65 percent and a video looping off the hard drive. That's on par with the 14-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook, but that's not necessarily a good thing: considering how these laptops are bigger and heavier than most ultraportables we test, we'd at least expect them to make up for that heft with longer runtime.
Software and warranty
Like the higher-end S5 Ultrabook we just reviewed, you'll find a good deal of bloatware pre-installed, with third-party programs that include: CyberLink's MediaEspresso decoder, an eBay shortcut, Evernote, the Fooz Kids gaming platform, a trial of McAfee Internet Security Suite, Nook for PC, Norton Online Backup and Skype 5.5. Additionally, Acer bundled a handful of its own apps, including Backup Manager, ePower Management, a gaming hub, Instant Update Service, Theft Shield, Updater and clear.fi, for streaming media over WiFi.
The M5 comes with a one-year warranty, which is par for the course among consumer laptops, especially lower-priced ones like this.
Though the particular configuration we tested costs $780, the M5 starts at $680, with prices topping out at $830, meaning even the top-of-the-line models here are still going to be lesser-specced and more affordably priced than most other Ultrabooks out there. At the entry level, the M5 comes with a second-generation (read: Sandy Bridge) Core i3 processor, along with 6GB of RAM and that same 500GB hard drive paired with a 20GB SSD. It's important to note, too, that this base model also does not include discrete graphics -- for one of those Kepler GPUs you'll need to pay $780 and higher. If all you want is Ivy Bridge, but you're willing to settle for integrated HD 4000 graphics, you can get away with spending as little as $730.
For the money, the Acer Aspire M5 is a fantastic deal.
Forget for a minute that this is an Ultrabook: for all intents and purposes, it would be smarter to compare this mainly to mainstream laptops, models with optical drives and maybe even discrete graphics. One that comes to mind is the recently refreshed Dell XPS 15z, a 15-inch laptop that's available with discrete graphics and known for its relatively slim design. At $1,300 and up, it's hardly in the same price category, but it starts with an Ivy Bridge processor, NVIDIA GT630M GPU and a much-higher-res 1080p display. It's worth considering if you've taken a look at what the M5 series has to offer, and feel like you're willing to spend more for better performance.
In HP's camp, there's the Pavilion dv4, a 14-inch laptop that starts at $650 (not counting any promotions on HP's site). Like the M5, that sub-$700 base price includes a Sandy Bridge Core i3 processor and a 500GB hard drive. The difference is that the dv4, like most of HP's machines, is fairly customizable with options for an Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, two kinds of NVIDIA GPUs, a Blu-ray player and up to 16GB of RAM. And while you won't find any SSDs offered here, the storage space maxes out at a roomy 1TB. Just keep in mind that, as with the M5, regardless of how much money you spend, there's only one display option: a TN panel with 1,366 x 768 resolution.
As for Sony, your best bet might be the E series, which is similarly offered in 14- and 15-inch sizes. (There's an 11-inch version, too, but that's not really relevant here.) With starting prices hovering around $570 for each, they, too, come with a Sandy Bridge Core i3 processor at the base level, along with 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. The difference here is that you can step up to an Ivy Bridge Core i7 CPU and a 1,600 x 900 display. Things you won't find: a Blu-ray option, SSDs or discrete graphics. For those features, you'll need to move on up to the higher-end S series, which starts at $800.
For the money, the Acer Aspire M5 is a fantastic deal. At $780, it delivers some of the best graphics performance you'll find in this price range, or among Ultrabooks, in general. It's thinner than many mainstream 14-inch laptops, even though it still makes room for an optical drive. Unlike other ultraportables, too, you'll find a generous selection of ports (Ethernet, HDMI, USB 3.0), and the keyboard and trackpad are fairly comfortable. And because the price is so tempting, we suspect the people considering this (students, etc.) will be willing to forgive its minor flaws, like its mediocre screen and scratchy, plastic bottom. If you've been looking for a solid, all-purpose machine and either can't afford a $1,100 Ultrabook or need something with more horsepower, you won't do much better than this.