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Acer Aspire M5 481PT review: The safe Windows 8 laptop bet

The affordable, fully featured Aspire M5 has a touch screen, but also throwback features like a DVD drive. Consider this your safe Windows 8 laptop bet.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
7 min read

The sea of Windows 8 laptops is a rough one, full of confusing twists and turns. Do you buy a touch-screen laptop, or a regular one? Do you pick a clamshell, a convertible, or a hybrid? Sometimes it's best to play it safe.

Acer Aspire M5-481PT-6488
8.0

Acer Aspire M5 481PT

The Good

The 14-inch <b>Acer Aspire M5 481PT</b> has a solid metal body, strong battery life, good performance, a DVD drive, and a touch screen, all for a manageable price.

The Bad

The screen quality isn't stellar, the touch pad doesn't always handle well, and unlike previous versions, it doesn't offer dedicated graphics.

The Bottom Line

Considering the total package of features and price, the Acer Aspire M5 feels like a safe bet if you want an all-encompassing Windows 8 laptop with touch that won't cost a fortune.

That's exactly what the Acer Aspire M5 481PT-6488 is: a safe bet. At $729, this Best Buy-exclusive laptop configuration isn't too expensive. It's not too large. It still has classic, "old-school" features such as a DVD drive and a large-capacity 500GB hard drive -- both of which ultrabooks often don't have. It has a touch screen, too, but still operates like a regular old laptop if you want it to. Even the battery life is strong.

It's not particularly stellar in any one area, but as a total package, this feels flat-out reliable. And when you compare with the similarly configured and priced Acer Aspire V5 CNET recently reviewed, you get the same processor, hard drive, and screen resolution, but gain better battery life and 2GB more RAM in a smaller and lighter 14-inch-class aluminum body. And it's far more affordable than the thinner, sexier Acer Aspire S7; in fact, it's less than half the price.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Much like the Windows 7 version of the Acer Aspire M5 I previously reviewed, the touch-enabled Aspire M5 481PT with Windows 8 is a very good all-around laptop, even if it lacks the Nvidia dedicated graphics included in the last model. It's definitely worth a look for the risk-averse and budget-conscious Windows 8 laptop shopper who doesn't want to pay through the nose for touch.

Price as reviewed $729
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory 6GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB, 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD hybrid
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 8 (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13.4x9.7 inches
Height 0.8 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 14 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.4 pounds / 5.1 pounds
Category Midsize

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design, display, keyboard/touch pad
Smooth dark-gray aluminum with a subtle brushed-metal finish covers all parts of the Acer M5, much like its predecessor. It doesn't scream sexy, but it's a good deal more solid-feeling and minimalist-chic than your average budget laptop. And it's thin-ish, too: 0.81 inch thick may not set your world on fire, but keep in mind that's including a tray-loading DVD drive. Weighing in at 4.4 pounds, it's above the standard ultrabook weight, but lighter and trimmer than the average midsize laptop. It'll slide easily into any bag.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The clean design continues on the inside: a large multitouch clickpad and chiclet-style (aka MacBook/Vaio-style) keyboard are surrounded by more of that gray aluminum. The side edges at the base are ever-so-slightly raised toward the rear, letting the lid nest a little when closed.

The upper lid is nearly all glass, framing a 14-inch 1,366x768-pixel display surrounded by a black bezel. Despite holding a touch screen, the upper lid manages to feel pretty diminutive; you'd never guess the touch capability was there until you made finger contact.

Multitouch capacitive gestures work excellently on the screen: finger contact is smooth and precise, and as crisp as on an iPad. I wish the same could be said for the screen quality itself. It's not terrible, but it's not IPS: the picture quality deteriorates at extreme viewing angles, and colors and brightness sometimes seem a bit washed out. The lid bends back nearly a full 180 degrees, allowing you to get comfy and maneuver that touch screen into a more lap-friendly orientation. It helps with some of the awkwardness of using touch navigation on a standard laptop with a keyboard in the way, but it's nothing like what the Lenovo Yoga can do.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I found myself getting used to using touch pretty quickly, and on a laptop this small, you can reach up and thumb-navigate while working very easily. In fact, where possible, I rarely used the touch pad -- but the clickpad is functional enough to work well on its own, although as it's slightly recessed, it's a little hard to pull off from-the-edge Windows 8 swipe gestures for Charms and the like. It also doesn't always pick up two-finger scrolling gestures that easily.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The backlit keyboard is quite comfortable, though. The keys have good travel and are well-spaced, and no keys are oddly misplaced or shaped, with the exception of some media-control keys that sit on the right side in front next to the Shift/Enter/Backspace keys.

Where's the power button? It took me a while to find it. Hint: it's a narrow little pill-shaped thing on the front edge of the Acer M5, nearly invisible to the naked eye. It's a bit of a cruel design practical joke.

Stereo speakers situated under the front of the Acer M5 have good-enough sound that you can enjoy a movie with someone else or stream music in a large living room. It's hard to tell what impact the "Dolby Home Theater Professionally Tuned" branding has. They're fine, but not great.

Acer Aspire M5 481PT-6488 Average for category [midsize]
Video HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo 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

Ports, features, performance
The Acer M5 has a spare but useful set of ports, almost all of them tucked away on the back edge: dual USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, and Ethernet. An SD card slot and headphone jack are on the front of the right edge, while a tray-loading DVD drive is on the left. A lot of Windows 8 software and apps are well past the optical-drive age, but DVDs can still be handy for movie playback and burning backup discs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A third-gen 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor has plenty of punch, loading Windows 8 applications and other software without a hitch. The laptop felt fast and functional during my time with it. The 500GB hard drive has a 20GB solid-state drive (SSD) cache for some added zippiness in frequently used applications and files, too, and the 6GB of included RAM is a little more than the 4GB baseline average in your typical budget laptop. In our benchmark tests, this M5 was neck and neck with the similarly equipped Acer V5.

Sadly, this $729 configuration does not include Nvidia graphics, which the last M5 I reviewed pre-Windows 8 did have. Having Nvidia graphics for added gaming power would complete the package perfectly, but truth be told, no one except for gamers would really miss having it. Acer currently sells another Acer M5, the 581T, with a larger 15-inch display for $699, but it also lacks Nvidia graphics, and it doesn't have a touch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life and warranty
It's nice to see the Acer M5's battery do so well: we squeezed 6 hours and 2 minutes out of the three-cell battery during our video playback battery drain test. That exceeded the 15-inch Acer V5's time by nearly 2 hours. Few laptops in this category do better, and you should be able to get a good solid day out of the M5 by managing screen brightness and other power settings.

Acer includes a standard one-year warranty with the Acer M5 481PT. Acer's Web site does a decent job of making FAQs and documentation easy to find, and offers e-mail, chat, and phone support options, although you'll have to enter your serial number to get the phone number (it's 866-695-2237).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
This slight tweaking of the previous Acer M5 offers up a touch screen and good, solid battery life, plus a DVD drive, in a compact and reasonably attractive form for a good price. It's not eye-popping in any single way, but the sum total feels like a safe way to invest in Windows 8 for those apprehensive about convertibles and crazy detachable tablets. It's a regular laptop, and a thin one at that, with the option of touch navigation. Other competitors are out there in force with similar products, but this is a solid representative of the type and a worthy one to consider, especially if you care about having DVD access.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Load test (average watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Acer Aspire M5-481PT
26.56 

Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.

System configurations:Acer Aspire M5-481PT
Windows 8 (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm + 20GB SSD Hybrid

HP Envy 4-1102
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Adata XM11 SSD

Toshiba Portege Z935-P300
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Toshiba SSD

Sony Vaio T13
Windows 8 (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Acer Aspire M5-481PT-6488
8.0

Acer Aspire M5 481PT

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 7
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