Ultrabook with game: Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG, hands-on

Does a thin 15-inch laptop float your boat? How about one with next-gen Nvidia graphics and a DVD drive? We take a look at Acer's larger take on the ultrabook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Are you ready for large-screen ultrabooks? Well, hopefully the answer's "yes," because they're coming to stores whether you like it or not. The differentiating factors on what constituted an ultrabook -- thin, portable, power efficient, SSD, no optical drive, lack of dedicated "high-end" graphics, longer battery life -- have started to go out the window . Witness the 15-inch Samsung Series 9 and HP Envy 14 Spectre , for starters.

As far as the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG is concerned, it may make you question your entire perception of the category. DVD drive? Check. Dedicated high-end Nvidia graphics? Check. Larger hard drive options? Check. Portable? Well, not exactly, compared to 13-inch ultrabooks. The Ultra M3 is 4.4 pounds, but it is .79 inches thick. Of all of these, the biggest novelty of this Timeline is that it's the first ultrabook (as defined by Intel) to feature Nvidia graphics. It won't be the last.

The Timeline Ultra M3-581TG is, essentially, a thinner version of a full-featured laptop, with few of the compromises you'd find on a MacBook Air or an ultrabook...but few of the space-saving advantages, too. We've seen thin, large laptops before, including Acer Aspire Timelines. We'll see them again. This is merely the latest evolution. However, apart from that distinction, the Ultra M3-581TG performs well. Its graphics are impressive: in fact, it's the first laptop we've seen with next-generation Nvidia Kepler graphics (an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M, to be specific). Can it be your all-around laptop without compromise? Yes, if you're looking at graphics and an optical drive as your missing links.

An as-yet-to-be-determined US price (1299 Euros for our Core i7 and 256GB SSD configuration, or a 699 Euro starting price for a Core i3 version) could make or break this laptop as a true competitor to the sub-$1000 mainstream laptop category, which has plenty of similarly-specced alternatives that aren't as thin and feature hard drives instead of SSDs. It's a fine machine technically, but it's hardly a design winner. And, once again, we urge you to consider this merely a "thin laptop;" the moniker of "ultrabook" is practically meaningless.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design, keyboard, and touch pad

I first heard about the Timeline Ultra at this year's CES , and the first reaction I had was: "how is this different from previous Timelines?" That's a good question, and a hard one to answer. Really, the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG looks like...a large, thin laptop. It's certainly not shocking or design-forward, and has nowhere near the visual appeal of the Acer Aspire S5, a 13-incher that's a closer fit to the MacBook Air breed of ultrabook. The Timeline Ultra M3 has clean lines, a matte black plastic body, and an aluminum lid. The entire laptop's construction has a more hollow feel than the rock-solid metal build of a MacBook Air or even the Razer Blade . This Acer has the veneer of a budget-level machine, and the keyboard and screen to match.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A full-size keyboard and a narrowly compressed number pad suffer from shallow keys compared to other full-fledged laptops, although typing on the flat, matte-surface keys worked reasonably well without too many misfires. There's no backlighting, however, and the keyboard exhibited some flex. Overall, it's a generic affair.

The large multitouch clickpad below has real estate going for it, but the Elan touch pad isn't as smoothly operating as I'd hoped. It works, but scrolling through documents and pinch-to-zoom actions sometimes tended to gum up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Display and speakers

OK, let's get this over with: the 15.6-inch screen is a major letdown. A maximum resolution of 1,366x768 pixels feels like cheating when all the other graphics and processor upgrades are thrown in; after all, this laptop boasts a next-gen Nvidia GPU, so why not show off a higher resolution? It baffles me, and while the final U.S. price isn't determined yet, the fact that the European version of our configuration will sell for 1,299 euros suggests this isn't a budget machine. Terrible viewing angles and lackluster color add up to a screen I'd settle for on a $600 laptop, but compared with screens I've seen on the HP Envy 14 Spectre, Razer Blade and Apple's MacBooks, it's weak indeed.

Built-in stereo speakers are seated under the front edge of the laptop, front-firing beneath the palmrest. They show off ample volume, but fall short of the quality suggested by the Dolby Home Theater Professionally Tuned label that hovers above the keyboard. Again, the speakers are fine for normal laptop use, but audio on ultrabooks like the Asus Zenbook put it to shame.

Ports: Hope you like the rear

Ports line the back of the Timeline Ultra M3 instead of the sides, a decision that seems decidedly odd. The M3 isn't really a desktop replacement, so odds are you'll want to access ports frequently on the go. Side access would have been preferred. Perhaps for the AC jack and even Ethernet and HDMI, the back port setup would make sense; however, even the headphone port's been stuck back there. The SD card slot is the only port-like feature not in the rear: it sits next to the optical drive door on the left side.

It's impressive that this Timeline manages to slot a DVD drive into its narrow chassis; a casual observer would assume the Timeline Ultra M3 was optical-drive-free. It's a nice touch for those who can't say goodbye to discs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Acer offers several processor configurations with the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3, but the full rundown on pricing and specs hasn't been officially announced yet. We do know that the entry-level point will be a Core i3 processor for 599 Euros (U.S. price TBD). Our configuration has a 1.7 GHz second-generation Intel Core i7-2637M, 4GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics.

Gaming and graphics

Those Nvidia GeForce graphics are the real story here: they're the first of Nvidia's next-generation Kepler laptop GPUs, and this is the first time these graphics have ever been employed on a laptop deemed an ultrabook. Now, that's not to say that thin laptops haven't had discrete graphics before, even laptops with low-voltage processors. So, the achievement is a technical one. However, these graphics may very well represent the sort of visual punch we can expect from laptops and even ultrabooks in the next year.

The news, in that regard, is good: running Street Fighter IV at native 1,366x768-pixel resolution and 2x anti-aliasing, the game ran at 59.9 fps. A far more graphically demanding gaming benchmark for Metro 2033 ran at 17.3 fps, in native resolution and graphics settings set to high. Despite the lower-resolution screen, that matches well with other midrange gaming-ready laptops. The Toshiba Qosmio X755-Q7170, with its Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M GPU and a Core i5-2450M CPU, ran the same Metro 2033 test at 23.7 fps, while the Razer Blade with an Nvidia GeForce GT555M and Core i7-2640M processor ran the test at 17.3 fps. Attached to an external 1920x1080 monitor, Street Fighter IV ran at 59.7 fps, with nearly no drop-off. That bodes well for this particular set of Nvidia graphics: while they won't compete with high-end performance graphics on a desktop replacement, they should be more than suitable for many games as long as graphics settings are managed.

However, there is one performance aspect of note: when running on battery, even on "high-performance" settings, benchmark results dipped. Street Fighter IV dropped to 30.5 frames per second at 1,366x768 with the same graphics settings on battery power; when outputting to a 1080p monitor via HDMI, the frame rate dropped to 20.8 fps.

Battery life

If you're looking for time away from a power outlet, this Acer Aspire Timeline U does the job: our unit lasted 6 hours and 10 minutes while playing a continuous video loop. That's far better than the average gaming-capable laptop, and even outperforms many other ultrabooks without dedicated graphics including the HP Folio 13 , Dell XPS 13 , HP Envy 14 Spectre , and Toshiba Portege Z835-P370. The 13-inch MacBook Air still bests it by about an hour.

Stay tuned for our full review pending finalized pricing details from Acer. So far, the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG is one significant step for Nvidia graphics, but not a very big step at all for ultrabooks or laptops in general.

 

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