Acer Aspire TimelineU M3: Life on the Kepler Vergeby Dustin Sklavos on March 13, 2012 5:56 PM EST
Conclusion: A GeForce and an Acer Both So Close
With the Acer Aspire TimelineU M3, we're really talking about and reviewing two different products: the ultrabook itself and the shiny new NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M. There's a certain poetry to the feeling that these two products are both worthy of the same conclusion: excellent on their own, but both need to be able to stretch their legs.
The GeForce first: without being able to reveal details about Kepler it's difficult to say if the GeForce GT 640M is shader heavy, but it is most definitely memory bandwidth bound. At the M3's low native resolution the 640M is a fantastic GPU that demonstrates a lot of the progress that we want to see; it's not just about being able to play games, it's about being able to play them well, and the 640M does provide next-generation performance in what seems to be the same power envelope as its predecessor. We also continue to see Optimus performing as well as it should. Jarred is big on eventually having GPUs idle so low that we simply don't need this kind of graphics-switching technology, but until that day comes, Optimus remains a stellar value add for end users. This is one place where AMD is lagging woefully behind and needs to get their act together, because right now the 640M is going to be preferable to pretty much any other mainstream mobile GPU in terms of both performance and power consumption.
Meanwhile, the TimelineU M3 has a generally beautiful aesthetic, fantastic battery life, and Acer has finally and truly done away with the floating island keyboard. At just under five pounds I'm sorely tempted to split hairs over its "ultrabook" status, but as far as the dimensions are concerned, this is really the form factor we'd like all mainstream notebooks to eventually hit. There's a convincing case to be made between the M3 and the Dell XPS 15z that notebooks just don't need to be particularly bulky anymore unless they're trying to cool high-end graphics hardware; with Ivy Bridge in the pipe even the CPU side of the equation is less and less likely to need extensive cooling. I'm also a big fan of the inclusion of both an mSATA port and 2.5" drive bay, allowing end users to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, the M3's design trips up in a couple of key places. The touchpad is difficult to use and is one more case against unified touchpads in PCs; it's a bit worse than the Dell XPS 13's was, and I have yet to test one that was anywhere near as convenient as the time-honored touchpad and discrete buttons combination. Having almost all of the ports on the back of the M3 is inconvenient as well; at least one USB port needs to be on a side, along with the headphone jack. While I can't really complain about the inclusion of the DVD+/-RW drive, I'm also not entirely sure how essential it is. I can't remember the last time I've needed the optical drive on my Alienware M17x R3, and I've never missed not having one on my ThinkPad X100e. And finally, the SSD controller built into the mSATA SSD in the M3 is capable of SATA 6Gbps speeds, but the mSATA port limits it to SATA 3Gbps, thus leaving some performance on the table.
With all that said, I remain optimistic. The GeForce GT 640M is a worthy mainstream GPU that improves substantially on its predecessors and one I hope to see wide adoption of, while the Acer Aspire TimelineU M3 is the first Acer notebook I've tested that I ultimately felt pretty positively about. If the M3 can hit a reasonable price point it's going to offer an awful lot of value for the money, and I'm pretty sure we can count on Acer to make that happen. I've been trying to find an inexpensive gaming-ready notebook to recommend to a friend lately without having to dip into Llano territory; if the M3 can hit $800 or lower, it's the one. [Ed: Sorry, but you're not getting a 256GB SSD for under a grand, and even 128GB is asking a lot. In fact, with the discrete GPU and i7 CPU, I'm guessing this particular model with go for closer to $1500. Hopefully we'll see a variant with an i5 but still with the 640M GPU, and maybe a 128GB SSD targeting a price closer to $1000.]