Editors' note: After testing and reviewing several subsequent Ultrabook laptops, we have decided to revise our original rating for this product. Most notably, other Ultrabook laptops now offer full SSD hard drives for the same price, instead of Acer's less-expensive hybrid drive. We have changed the rating from 4 stars to 3.5 stars.
Call us skeptical (please do, we like it), but the Ultrabook concept always struck us as being a bit suspect. Intel has been pushing for several months the idea of a new class of laptops that are slim and powerful with excellent battery life, but simply putting out a list of suggested specs and coining a name isn't the same thing as creating an entire new top-level category that can stand alongside ultraportable or desktop-replacement laptops. On paper, the Ultrabook concept seemed like just a way to pitch Windows-based versions of Apple's popular MacBook Air, but now that we've seen the first few models in action, we may not be total converts but we're certainly more inclined to think of these as something new and unique.
The best of the new Ultrabooks may be Acer's 13-inch Aspire S3. Slim, lightweight, and powerful, it certainly looks and feels a good deal like a MacBook Air, and is, at first glance, nearly indistinguishable from Ultrabooks from Asus and Lenovo. The difference is that Acer has decided to sell the Aspire S3 for $899, a steep discount from what you'd pay for a 13-inch MacBook Air (starting at $1,399), and indeed, about $300 less than Asus and Lenovo are charging for very similar systems.
All of the examples above have default solid-state drive (SSD) hard drives and Intel Core i5 processors (some have upgraded Core i7 options as well). The Acer has a large clickpad-style touch pad, which, while not MacBook-level, is one of the most responsive mutltitouch touch pads we've seen on a Windows laptop. To hit that $899 price, however, a few corners were cut. You don't get a USB 3.0 port, the 1,366x768-pixel display has a lower resolution than other Ultrabook-style laptops, and, most importantly, the SSD in this system is only 20GB, and paired with a standard 320GB HDD in a hybrid configuration. None of those concessions would work for us at $1,200, but for $899 and for something this slim and powerful, it seems like a fair trade-off.
|Price as reviewed||$899|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Core i5 2467M|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||20GB SSD / 320GB 5,400rpm|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.6x8.5 inches|
|Height||0.5 - 0.7 inch|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3 pounds / 3.7 pounds|
Though it clearly leans on the design of the MacBook Air, we thought the Aspire S3 also looked a lot like Dell's old Adamo XPS. It's also very similar to the handful of other Ultrabooks we've seen, including the Lenovo U300s and Asus Zenbook UX. Of all of those, the Acer S3 is clearly the least fancy of the bunch, with a body made of both aluminum and plastic parts.
The dull gray color isn't very eye-catching, but the overall slim silhouette is still appealing--this is a good-looking laptop, but not a great-looking one. It has a bit of a sedate business laptop vibe to it.
The keyboard tray is sparse, with a single power button built into the center hinge. The keyboard is a typical island-style one, with widely spaced, flat-topped keys. The keys are on the shallow side, but still usable, and they clack a little loudly while typing. The Shift, Tab, Ctrl, and other keys are full-size, but the Enter key is surprisingly small; we rarely see PC makers shave anything off that very important key. The arrow keys are positively microscopic, which is a shame, as they also control the speaker volume via an alternate Fn-key mapping, and there are equally tiny Page Up and Page Down keys in the same lower-right corner of the keyboard.
The touch pad is larger than most Windows laptop examples, but still not as big as what's on a 13-inch MacBook Air. As it's a clickpad-style device, the separate left and right mouse buttons are eliminated, and instead you have to click on the lower-left and -right corners of the pad for those functions. On thing we miss is the ability to tap with two fingers to perform a right-click, which is a staple of Mac trackpads. On the bright side, multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, work very nicely--not quite as well as on a MacBook, but it's easily some of the best two-finger scrolling we've ever found on a Windows laptop.
The 13-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is standard for most laptops with 11- to 15-inch screens. It's fine for casual Web surfing and video streaming, but some of the other (more expensive) Ultrabook-like systems we've seen have higher resolutions, including the 1,440x900-pixel MacBook Air and 1,600x900-pixel Asus Zenbook UX31. The screen itself is overly glossy and catches some room glare, and the off-axis viewing angles aren't great, but at $899 it's hard to complain.
|Acer Aspire S3||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack.||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0; SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
For all its success in design, performance, and price, the Aspire S3 still cuts a few corners, mostly in its connectivity and configuration. There's no USB 3.0, or even a built-in Ethernet jack. Instead of the larger SSD hard drives found in other Ultrabooks, up to 256GB, this fixed-configuration system has a hybrid hard drive, with 20GB of SSD storage and a 320GB traditional 5,400rpm hard drive. While not great for data storage, the SSD allows the system to boot up and resume from sleep very quickly, and Acer claims that the S3 can sleep for up to 50 days and still keep some of its battery charge (we've only had our review unit for a few days, so we can't verify that claim).
The Intel Core i5-2467M CPU is a solid midrange choice, and it's a pleasant surprise that it runs so well in such a slim chassis without the need for excessive cooling. In our benchmark tests, it was comparable with other midrange Core i5 laptops, such as the Toshiba Portege R835, but fell behind high-end models such as the 13-inch MacBook Air. Interestingly, it was faster than the very expensive Samsung Series 9, an early Ultrabook-style 13-inch laptop.
In anecdotal use, we found the Acer Aspire S3 speedy and responsive, with no slowdown or stuttering during everyday entertainment and productivity use. It played back HD video files with no problem, but with only Intel's integrated HD3000 graphics, you shouldn't expect much in terms of gaming performance.
|Acer Aspire S3||Average watts per hour|
|Raw kWh number||27.66|
|Annual power consumption cost||$3.14|
One of the Ultrabook tenets is that a system is supposed to have long battery life, without sacrificing performance. The S3's performance is fine, but its battery life is average at best. The system ran for 4 hours and 3 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's acceptable, but just barely, for a 13-inch laptop, but it should last a bit longer during everyday use. The 13-inch MacBook Air ran for about 2.5 hours longer in the same test, as did Toshiba's excellent Portege R835.
Acer includes a standard one-year warranty with its systems. The support Web site is good at providing a list of appropriate driver software and FAQ pages for your particular model of laptop. Discovering the telephone support number is not as easy, so we googled it. Try 866-695-2237 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. CT, and you'll need your system's serial or SNID number.
The Ultrabook may be a questionable laptop category, but the first handful of systems pitched as Ultrabooks all look and feel very impressive. The Acer Aspire S3 is an early favorite, as it delivers on the idea of undercutting Apple's MacBook Air, while other Ultrabooks cost as much if not more. If not for middling battery life, this would be a no-question recommendation for 13-inch-laptop shoppers. As it is, this is still a sharp-looking ultrathin laptop with mainstream power at a great price.
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Acer Aspire S3-951-6646
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 20GB SSD / 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm
Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch - Summer 2011
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Apple SSD
Samsung 9 Series NP900X3A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 128GB Samsung SSD
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.1GHz Intel Core i3-2310M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce 520M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 640GB Western Digital 5,400rpm
Toshiba Portege R835-P56X
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 640GB Hitachi 5,400rpm