Let's face it: unless you're out to find the most stylish laptop ever, most laptop shopping is about value for money. As back-to-school season enters its dog days, one clear-cut winner in that regard is the Acer Timeline U M5-481TG, an ultrabook with all the trimmings that costs as little as $779.
And by all the trimmings, I mean all of them: the M5-481TG configuration I reviewed has Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics, a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, a backlit keyboard, and even a DVD drive, all crammed into a 14-inch laptop shell that feels no bigger really than the generic and more expensive Toshiba Satellite U845.
The Timeline U M5 is the U.S. version of a laptop I previewed a long time ago that never saw the light of day here, the Acer Aspire M3. The M5 has a smaller footprint and a newer Intel Core i5 processor.
Technically, the Timeline U M5-481TG is an ultrabook. You can throw that terminology out the window, though, because this Timeline is really just a very reasonably priced thin full-fledged laptop with nearly no compromises...assuming, of course, you're willing to forgive a somewhat forgettable design. At this price, you should.
|Price as reviewed||$779|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD hybrid|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE (1GB) / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.4x9.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.2 pounds / 5.0 pounds|
The Acer Timeline U M5-481TG, while being thinner than previous Acer Timeline laptops, is not exactly thin or light compared with its ultrabook brethren: at 4.2 pounds and 0.8 inch thick, it'll feel heavier and thicker than most competitors. However, compared with your regular everyday laptop, the Timeline U will feel, with apologies to Mr. Creosote, wafer-thin. Such is the strange middle ground of the "thinnerbooks": the Sony Vaio S is close to the same size class, and so is the Toshiba Satellite U845. The Acer's feature set more closely matches the Vaio S, however, than the oddly pared-down Satellite U845. It all comes down to expectations: most pared-down ultrabooks trade off features for size. In this size class, I'm fine with a bigger chassis if it affords all the extras this Timeline U manages to cram in. The Satellite U845 felt disappointing for the same reasons this Timeline U feels impressive.
Clad in a combination of matte black plastic and glossy brushed aluminum around the keyboard deck and lid, this Timeline U doesn't fall too far from the tree of Acer's previous Timeline laptops. These thin-and-lights with low-voltage processors predated the term "ultrabook" by a good several years, and laid the groundwork. It doesn't come as a surprise that the look of the new Timeline U feels familiar rather than revolutionary. It's clean, and it's not ugly, but it suffers from a little of the generic feel that plagued the Toshiba Satellite U845.
The beauty of the Timeline U M5 will be in the eye of the beholder. If you're a budget laptop shopper, this Acer will probably look surprisingly good to you. If you're looking for a premium product or an ultrabook, it'll look disappointing.
Amazingly, the Timeline U M5 manages to fit a tray-loading DVD drive into the left side, a feat that makers of similarly thick ultrabooks like the Sony Vaio T seemingly found impossible or undesirable. Most regular folks would probably prefer to have a DVD drive if price and size weren't an issue. They're not, in this case, so it's a win.
Ports on the M5 have been shifted to the back of the laptop, an odd choice in terms of access. For Ethernet and the power-in jack, it's a plus. For USB 3.0 and HDMI, it's a minus.
The raised and backlit keyboard resembles many other keyboards from Asus, Toshiba, and others. Keys are comfortable and about as shallow as those on a MacBook Air; the only problem is the annoying column of keys on the right side that cramps access to the Enter/Shift keys. Volume and other controls are carried out with combination Fn/other key presses on the keyboard.
Not only is the keyboard good, but so is the touch pad: the matte, slightly recessed multitouch Synaptics clickpad worked better than those on some more expensive laptops I've seen. There's enough finger room to be useful, while leaving ample palm rest space on the sides.
Quick challenge: where's the power button? It took me several minutes to spot it on the Timeline U M5. The thin, narrow button is on the front edge of the laptop, one of the oddest choices I could think of. It's hard to press, hard to reach, and easy to accidentally trigger in a bag. Bad move.
A glossy 1,366x768-pixel-resolution, 14-inch display has average picture quality and poor off-axis viewing angles, but DVDs, Netflix streaming video, and games all look fine on it. Colors are vivid, even if black levels are poor. Normally, I'd look for a higher-resolution screen on a 14-inch laptop. At this price, it's forgivable. (But, on Acer's larger 15.6-inch version of the Timeline U M5, which has the same 1,366x768 resolution, it's not).
Stereo speakers, seated below the front edge of the laptop, are shockingly loud. Cranked all the way up, they'll turn heads at an office. On the other hand, they're crass and lack quality sound definition. They will, however, blast audio quite nicely in a busy room.
A brief note on preinstalled bloatware: Acer's one of the worst at this, and there were plenty of pop-up antiviral and trial software windows that annoyed me enough to write this paragraph. Acer's hardly the only one to do this, but I just wanted you to know that this very affordable laptop does come with annoying trialware.
An included 1,280x720-pixel-resolution Webcam worked well enough, and picked up my face in a dimly lit office.
|Acer Timeline U M5-481TG||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
Tucked into the rear of the M5's chassis are all the basic ports you'd need, including a pair of USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, and an Ethernet jack, plus Bluetooth. A DVD drive rounds out the perfect package, especially at this price. I just wish some of those ports had been added to the sides; plenty of unused space on the right could easily have been used for more than just an SD card slot and a headphone jack.