Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook Review: A MacBook Air For The Rest Of Us

The Aspire S3 is Acer’s first ultrabook. The notebook is almost unabashedly a MacBook Air clone with straight lines and a clean design but it’s also $400 less. There are some trade-offs when comparing this to the Air, sure, but for the most part the Aspire S3 is a fine ultraportible for the Windows crowd.

What Acer and all the rest of the ultrabook makers are building are by all accounts fine computers but will no doubt catch flack because of their similarities to the MacBook Air. The Aspire S3 isn’t a MacBook Air killer. Not alone at least. This notebook gives me hope that the PC isn’t dead and ultrabooks will be the genesis of this revival.

Lookin’ Good

It’s hard to dismiss the MacBook Air as the S3’s inspiration. It’s a virtual clone if you replace the MBA’s aluminum skin with plastic, ditch the backlit keyboard and replace the glowing Apple logo with a shiny Acer one. That’s fine with me. Acer got the major points right. The S3 is lightweight, surprisingly rigid and sports a quality multitouch trackpad.

The S3 is .51-inches thick. That’s .17mm thinner than the MacBook Air at its thickest point. But unlike the MBA or the recently announced Asus Zenbook, the S3 is nearly the same thickness throughout; it’s not tapered to a sharp point. But with a notebook this thin, these tiny details do not really matter. The S3 is just a touch thicker than two iPads 2. It also weighs a mere 2.98 lbs.

Acer pulled off a sort of coup with the S3. This ultrabook has perhaps the best trackpad I’ve ever used on a Windows notebook. The multitouch gestures simply work without a learning curve. The whole trackpad wiggles a bit in a way that’s not necessarily bad, but initially unsettling. The trackpad is so good that it tricks my brain and when I need to right click, my left hand constantly wonders up to the Ctrl and Alt button as if I was on a Mac – I forget this trackpad has a real right click button! I am thoroughly impressed with the trackpad.

Then there’s the screen. The S3 uses a rather low resolution 13-inch LED backlit display. The colors and clarity are just fine, but the 1366 x 768 resolution leaves me wanting more. That’s the same resolution used in the 11-inch MBA — the 13-inch uses a 1440 x 900 which lends greatly to its high-end feel. The S3’s low resolution screen is adequate just not exceptional. Plus, the viewing angle is poor and to make matters worse, the lid’s hinge is loose so it tends to fall forwards or backwards when jarred.

Think that’s bad? The S3 has a set of Dolby certified speakers, but you’ll get better sound out of a thrift store harmonica. They’re that bad, which frustrates me considering the Dolby logo printed right by the S3’s power button. Dolby seemingly sells licences more freely than George Lucas pimps Star Wars. If this is Dolby-approved sound, then Dolby clearly endorses horrible sound.

Battery Is King

Acer proudly touts that the S3 can last six hours on a charge. That claim puts the S3 on par with the MacBook Air’s 5-7 hour life. Unfortunately I never saw six hours of life during my testing. A day of normal activities consisting of mainly Internet browsing resulted in a 5 hour battery life. I only saw 3:30 hours when stress testing the notebook by playing 1080p movies over WiFi. (all of Mallrats and part of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood)

The shorter than advertised battery life is to be expected, though. Where Apple takes great pride in advertising real-life battery stats, Windows PC makers seem to state lives that are only achievable when the notebook is at its lowest brightness and sitting near ideal. Still, the five-hour battery life is below average in the ultraportable scene even though it’s still a good amount of time.

Thin notebooks generally get toasty. The S3 does not. It stays at a comfortable temperature thanks to a fan that kicks on a few minutes after opening the lid. But even the MacBook Air has a fan. After all, there’s a good deal of powerful computing hardware crammed into an area measured by cubic millimeters. At this point ultraportables either have a fan or they double as an Easy Bake Skillet.

Intel Inside

The Aspire S3 rocks a mobile 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU with 4GB of RAM. This little guy handled all my daily tasks that admittedly consists just of Google Reader and Reddit combined with a fair amount of YouTube videos sourced from both. Photoshop runs well enough for simple edits, but I wouldn’t want to compose a huge image — partly because of the low-res screen. Future versions in Acer’s ultrabook line will include Core i3 and i7 CPUs, which depending on your poison, will either provide better battery life at the cost of raw power, or likewise, a shorter battery life in return for faster CPU cycles.

Not surprisingly, the S3 isn’t a gaming machine but it runs less-demanding games like Portal and Starcraft just fine. Don’t expect to play BF3 on here.

Intel designed the ultrabook platform to be quick where it’s most obvious: system start-up and resuming. Acer took it one step farther and included several proprietary software packs to make it even quicker. The included SSD helps, too. It takes about 1 second to resume the system when opening the lid. A system boot took an average of 34 seconds from hitting the power button to seeing the WiFi reconnect. It’s clearly far from instant-on but it’s nearly an instant resume, which is more important to daily usage anyway.

Part of the quickness comes from a 20GB SSD that holds just the important system files. A traditional 320GB spinning disk hard drive handles file storage and additional software installations. This unconventional affair is hidden to the user and only one disk shows up in My Computer. Strangely, despite 3rd party confirmation of these hard drives from HD Tune Pro, only 283 GBs show as the total system storage — and that seemingly includes the Windows 7 install.

But This Is An Acer

Buy a Mac and you get OS X and several first party software titles. Buy an Acer (or HP, Dell or most others) and you get a computer loaded with unsolicited software. This notebook comes with at least a dozen bloatware titles including McAfee Internet Protection and Norton Online Backup. (side question: why does McAfee insist on running inside of Chrome as a plug-in? fear mongering) I’ve only had the computer a few days and I’m constantly bombed with software updates, required restarts and random program notification pop-ups. These sponsored offers allow computer manufacturers to sneak in extra revenue and keep prices low, but there has to be a better way that doesn’t require an owner to spend an hour uninstalling software on his new computer.

The S3 is a winner. It’s relatively low $899 price puts the ultrabook $400 less than a comparable MacBook Air. Plus it runs Windows, which, and I know this may be a shocker to some, is a big advantage for a large cohort of consumers. But the S3 isn’t the only ultrabook out there and if you need some extra power, it might do to wait. Nearly every computer manufacturer is launching a full line of ultrabooks. Acer has an early advantage of hitting retailers before Dell or HP who are expected to enter the game late this year or early next. But Lenovo, Toshiba, Asus, and Samsung are all launching ultrabooks in the coming weeks, so the competition is looming.

This notebook lives up to my rather high expectations. I’m a bit disappointed by the screen, but it’s far from a deal breaker in my opinion. The S3’s trackpad rocks, the notebook stays at a comfortable temperature and the long battery life makes it an all-day companion. I was quiet pleased and, in the end, it’s not just another MacBook Air lookalike.


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