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Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814 review: Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814

A DVD drive, Nvidia graphics, and ample hard-drive space for under $800? Acer's Timeline U M5 is ready to be a student's bargain dream machine.

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Scott Stein
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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.

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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.

Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814
8.1

Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814

The Good

The slim <b>Acer Timeline U M5-481TG</b> ultrabook combines Nvidia graphics, an optical drive, and plenty of extra features, including a backlit keyboard, in a shockingly affordable package.

The Bad

A clean but generic design and its heavier weight make the U M5 feel less like an ultrabook and more like a regular mainstream laptop; the screen quality is mediocre, too.

The Bottom Line

Yes, it's heavier than the average ultrabook, but if you're looking for an excellent value in a full-featured thin laptop, the Acer Timeline U M5 is hard to beat.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Price as reviewed $779
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB, 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD hybrid
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE (1GB) / Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13.4x9.6 inches
Height 0.8 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 14 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.2 pounds / 5.0 pounds
Category midsize

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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

Scott Stein/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Finding configuration and upgrade options on Acer's own Web site is nearly impossible (I couldn't even easily locate the Timeline U by name). Suffice it to say that this fixed-configuration Timeline U M5-481TG comes with a good middle-of-the-line Core i5-3317U processor, a 500GB hybrid hard drive with a 20GB solid-state drive (SSD), 4GB of RAM, and Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics.

As mentioned above, Acer offers an $829 version of the M5 that's a whole new chassis size -- 15.6-inch screen, along with 6GB of RAM -- but has otherwise identical specs. Compared with other ultrabooks on the market, the Timeline U M5-481TG for $779 is a downright steal. A similarly configured Dell Inspiron 14z with an extra 4GB of RAM and AMD graphics costs $899, and it's the only ultrabook configuration we've seen that comes close while also including dedicated graphics and an optical drive.

Equipped with a now-common-for-ultrabooks 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, the Acer Timeline U M5-481TG showed nearly equivalent performance on our benchmark tests to the Dell Inspiron 14z and Samsung Series 9, both of which had the same processor in our review configurations. This Timeline U is plenty fast enough for everyday needs, and Intel's latest third-generation Core i-series low-voltage processors are more efficient and somewhat faster than last year's CPUs. It's a great processor for most people.

In bootup time the U M5 matches some midrange ultrabooks with hybrid hard drives I've recently tested. I was able to cold-boot to on, with Wi-Fi, in 27 seconds, which is better than most laptops with traditional hard drives, but worse than SSD-bearing laptops like a MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9. Waking from sleep was a different story: I found the default state didn't wake from sleep when the lid was closed, and I needed to press the power button on the front each time.

This Acer's 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics are quite impressive too, and a significant step up in power from the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics in most ultrabooks. Dirt 3 ran its benchmark at 67.6 frames per second at 1,366x768-pixel resolution and medium graphics settings, and 52.9fps at high graphics settings, while our Street Fighter IV test ran at a blazing 74.9fps. Even Metro 2033, a challenging game to run well, performed at 17.3fps at native resolution with graphics settings on high.

The Acer Timeline U M5 may not be a hardcore gaming laptop, but it can certainly run games. That lower-res 1,366x768 screen helps frame rates look good, if nothing else. Comparatively, the competitively priced Dell Inspiron 14z's AMD Radeon graphics fared far worse on the same tests (44fps on Street Fighter, 9.7fps on Metro 2033).

Juice box
Off (60%) 0.15
Sleep (10%) 0.69
Idle (25%) 8.28
Load (05%) 29.71
Raw kWh number 32.54
Annual power consumption cost $3.69

Annual power consumption cost
Acer Aspire Timeline U M5-481TG-6814
$3.69 

Battery life is usually the fatal flaw of a budget laptop with stepped-up graphics, but not so here. The integrated battery lasted 5 hours and 50 minutes in our video-playback battery drain test, which comes close to the level I'd consider excellent in a 14-inch ultrabook. Considering the extra features here, it's impressive indeed. With gaming, of course, expect that number to drop considerably -- but the M5-481TG has automatically switching Optimus graphics, which should help.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Acer offers a standard one-year warranty with the Timeline U M5-481TG. Acer's Web site isn't the easiest to navigate, mainly because the support section requests that you enter your product model name and Acer's site uses a different shorthand than the actual names for the products. This laptop was called an Acer Aspire M5-481TG, while retailers call it the Acer Timeline U M5-481TG.

The Acer Timeline U M5-481TG is an excellent back-to-school value, packing a complete laptop into a pretty slim package. It's not so much an ultrabook as a thin laptop, in my opinion, but call it what you will. With good battery life, impressive graphics, a DVD drive, and a new Intel Core i5 processor, you're getting a computer that would easily cost over $900 elsewhere.

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)

System configurations:

Acer Aspire Timeline U M5-481TG-6814
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)
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 SanDisk SSD

Dell Inspiron 14z-5423
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB (Dedicated) AMD Radeon HD V18 + Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 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

Sony Vaio S13A190X
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 640GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Toshiba Satellite U845-S406
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814
8.1

Acer Timeline U M5-481TG 6814

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 8Battery 8Support 7