The Aspire S3 is Acer's first foray into the world of the ultrabook. It aims to offer enough of a kick to get through all your computing needs without taking up space in your backpack.
Our model came packing an Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 240GB Solid state drive. Annoyingly, that configuration won't be available. Instead, you can get either an Intel Core i7 model with a 500GB hard disk drive or an Intel Core i5 model with a 240GB SSD. They'll cost you £899 and £1,099 respectively.
Design and build quality
The Acer Aspire S3 is immediately recognisable as part of the ultrabook crowd, due mainly to its super-thin design. At only 16mm thick at its thickest point, it's certainly svelte; with a width of 321mm and a depth of 217mm, it will easily slide into a backpack or an attractive leather briefcase without putting up any kind of fuss.
It's about as wide as-- give or take a millimetre -- but it's about 10mm shorter, so Acer will have had a little less room to play with for the keyboard and trackpad.
The lid of the S3 is made from brushed aluminium, which felt particularly sturdy under our brutal poking. It also looks pretty good and we'd be equally happy pulling it out at a fancy party as we are in a boardroom meeting (not that we go to either). It also manages to avoid the dreaded curse of greasy fingerprints, so it will continue to look good even when you're spending all day wiping your cake-covered hands all over it.
Sadly, the Aspire S3 doesn't have the same unibody design seen on the MacBook Air or thethat we liked so much. This means that the chassis is bolted together from various different pieces, rather than being milled from a single unit to have the components attached to it. The latter often results in a sturdier machine, better suited for a rough-and-tumble lifestyle.
If you look around the edge of the screen, you can see the split and if you really want to, you can get a fingernail in there. It's the same situation on the bottom half, where there's a noticeable join between the piece that makes up the wrist-rest and keyboard surround and the piece that makes up the base-plate.
Still, the S3 does feel very well built. We didn't detect any signs of flex or nasty creaking when we beat our hands mercilessly onto the keyboard and gave the screen's hinge a good test. Most of the body -- including the wrist-rest and keyboard surround -- are made from a magnesium alloy that feels strong. It's quite difficult to distinguish from regular plastic just by looking, so you won't have the same bragging power down the pub against your mates with aluminium machines.
Although we were very pleased with the way the S3 felt in our hands -- and we have every confidence it could take a hit or two -- we're disappointed not to see a unibody chassis. It may not really add much to the build and durability but it certainly adds an extra premium feel. Without it, it makes the S3 feel as though it's lacking a certain something when stacked up against the unibody competition.
Keyboard and trackpad
Under the lid is a keyboard that uses rounded, isolated keys that offer a pleasing typing experience. This is thanks to them being set just about the right distance apart and at the right height to allow us to type comfortably at speed without making too many errors.
Annoyingly, Acer has decided to squash the arrow keys up into a tiny little space in the bottom right-hand corner. If you often make use of these keys then be prepared to sharpen your fingers down to a fine point in order to comfortably use them. The Enter key has also been sliced in half, which caused us to repeatedly hit the \ positioned above it by accident -- especially when sending numerous fast instant messages.
Admittedly, there isn't a whole lot of space to play with on a machine of this size, but these space-saving measures have really given an otherwise splendid keyboard a few annoyances that really start to grate after a while.
The trackpad is smaller than the huge slabs found on the MacBook Air and Asus Zenbook, but it's very responsive and accurate. This results in a smooth and pleasant operation when navigating around the web for hours on end. It supports two-finger gestures for scrolling up and down pages, but doesn't make use of other navigation gestures found on the MacBook Air or Asus Zenbook.
There's a typically small number of ports found around the edge and unfortunately, Acer hasn't done a great job with them. For starters, there are two USB 2.0 ports. We're not moaning about the amount of ports -- computers this size just don't have the room to cram in more sockets -- but we're very disappointed not to see USB 3.0 for ultra-fast data transfer, especially when the Asus Zenbook and MacBook Air both pack high-speed options.
Acer has also seen fit to cram the USB ports and the HDMI port around the back of the laptop. This makes quickly popping in a USB stick a case of folding the lid down to see what you're doing or turning the machine round, which is more awkward than it needs to be.