Some of our editors recently had the opportunity to take part in NVIDIA's Editor's Day in California's "sunny" San Francisco to be briefed on new products. While we can't go into any great detail on NVIDIA's new Kepler architecture (as that information is still under embargo), what we can provide you with is a review of Acer's new Aspire TimelineU M3 notebook, complete with a shiny new GeForce GT 640M based on the Kepler architecture.

Of course, that's not all that's interesting about the TimelineU M3. Taking advantage of Intel's expanded ultrabook definition, Acer has produced a 15.6" notebook with a dedicated GPU that's only 20mm thick. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion of the review, we'll say this is one of the most compelling notebooks we've seen yet, even if we're hesitant to call it a true ultrabook.

Thus far, when we've thought of ultrabooks we've usually thought of 18mm-thick notebooks hanging out around the three pound weight class, but the TimelineU M3 is just under five pounds, throwing it more into the same kind of class as Dell's XPS 14z and 15z. Of course, arguing semantics over what does and does not constitute an ultrabook isn't really why you're here. What you're really interested in is Kepler.

As I mentioned before, we're still under embargo regarding the architectural details of Kepler; in fact the only reason we can share the TimelineU with you ahead of time is because Acer actually broke the embargo and began selling the notebook early, causing the rest of the press (and NVIDIA) to scramble to put together these reviews. That also means the only details we can share are the ones that can be gleaned from the notebook itself, but that's fine, because there's a lot of interesting information to work with as it is.

Acer Aspire TimelineU M3 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2637M
(2x1.7GHz + HTT, Turbo to 2.8GHz, 32nm, 4MB L3, 17W)
Chipset Intel HM77
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (one stick integrated, one user replaceable, maximum 6GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M 1GB DDR3
(384 CUDA cores, 625/1800MHz core/memory clocks, 128-bit memory bus)

Intel HD 3000 Graphics
(12 EUs, up to 1.2GHz)
Display 15.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p
AU Optronics B153XTN03.2
Hard Drive(s) 256GB LiteOn mSATA 3Gbps SSD
Optical Drive HL-DT-ST DVD+/-RW GU61N
Networking Atheros AR5B97 802.11b/g/n
Broadcom NetLink Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo speakers
Single combination mic/headphone jack
Battery 3-Cell, 55Wh (integrated)
Front Side -
Right Side Kensington lock
Left Side Optical drive
SD/MMC card reader
Back Side Exhaust vent
2x USB 2.0
USB 3.0
HDMI
Ethernet jack
AC adaptor
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 14.8" x 0.78" x 9.8" (WxHxD)
375mm x 20mm x 250mm
Weight ~5 lbs
Extras Webcam
mSATA SSD
Open 2.5" drive bay
USB 3.0
Warranty 1-year limited
Pricing Not yet available

The Intel Core i7-2637M has been a stalwart of the ultrabook class for some time now, and our performance testing shows it's perfectly adequate for most tasks. The 1.7GHz nominal clock speed is obviously on the low side, but the chip is able to turbo up to 2.5GHz on both cores or 2.8GHz on a single core. It's interesting that Acer opted for a 17W ultra-low-voltage CPU for the TimelineU since the chassis looks like it can handle a full-voltage processor, but I suspect they opted to use the bulk of their thermal budget on the dedicated GPU.

That dedicated GPU is the NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M. What's worth noting about the 640M from the spec sheet above: it's sporting four times the number of CUDA cores as its predecessor, the GeForce GT 540M. The chip itself runs at a core clock of "up to 625MHz," while the DDR3 is running at an effective 1.8GHz. Given the limited memory bandwidth, we can probably be expected to be bound by the VRAM long before we're shader bound. Of course, NVIDIA is likely able to fit all that shader power into the 640M due to the chip being based on their upcoming Kepler architecture and thus manufactured on TSMC's 28nm process instead of 40nm. It's entirely possible and even likely given what we know of Kepler behind the scenes that these numbers are incorrect; even GPU-Z doesn't accurately detect the 640M.

Kepler's early arrival isn't actually the only interesting thing about the TimelineU M3, though. While the connectivity is par for the course for an ultrabook, Acer is able to cram an optical drive into the system. More than that, the M3 uses an mSATA SSD but also has an open 2.5" drive bay, effectively making it among the first notebooks we've tested to include the potential for the ideal SSD + HDD storage combination in a reasonable form factor. The mSATA port, single user-replaceable RAM slot, and 2.5" HDD bay are also all easily user accessible by removing a single panel on the bottom of the notebook. For many users, these storage options alone may make the M3 a compelling purchase option, and that's before taking into account the reasonably spacious 256GB mSATA SSD already included. It's also worth pointing out that the M3 is employing Intel's incrementally-improved HM77 chipset, which brings USB 3.0 connectivity with it instead of requiring a separate chip.

In and Around the Acer Aspire TimelineU M3
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  • lcarsos - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Oh my the screen is 768p? I would certainly hope that the screen is refreshed in a progressive manner! If my cursor were to start interlacing as I moved it around I would probably start a bar fight.

    My point is, why would an unnecessary descriptor such as "progressive" get slipped into a laptop review? Man up, and display the screen pixelage, of course the laptop is going to display things progressive it wasn't a television designed in the 60s. Now if you were to stick a DVD in there, DVDs are encoded interlaced in most cases. Now what's happening? A progressive display of interlaced images? Better to just leave that out of the review.

    Also, 1366x768 in a 15.6" laptop? What committee let that through? In an age where the iPad can end up with 2048x1536 pixels in a 10" screen for $500 they can certainly slip in a higher quality screen at the price they are currently at. Even if it is still a TN panel. I have a 14" Thinkpad with a 1600x900 display, at no point should a screen of larger size come with lower resolution.
    Reply
  • Glock24 - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    I've been looking for a laptop to replace my aging Asus F8Va (which has a 14" 1440x900 screen), but every single manufacturer insists on using crappy 1366x768 screens. And I say crappy screens not just because of the resolution, but also because of the poor viewing angles and bad contrast.

    I remember some older notebooks sporting 4:3 screen with at least 1280x1024 resolution. Then came the 16:10 craze and the screens started coming with 1280x800 resolution. Now we have 16:9 screens with 1366x768 resolution. What's next? 1440x600? 1600x400?

    Having 768 vertical pixels feels so 90's. Come on! Even my old 19" Samsung CRT sm997mb, which was in no way top of the line, could diplay 2048x1536@60 (1600x1200@75, 1280x1024@85), and it was made in 2004. I know CRTs are different animals, but I think I made my point.

    I'm not much into the "ultrabook" thing, but I prefer a 14" latop over the more common 15.6" form factor, and I want to play some games on it from time to time, so a dedicated GPU or a decent APU is required. I was considering the Lenovo y470p, which is a 14" laptop with Radeon HD7690, a very good port selection and a great price, but why does it come with a mediocre screen!

    HP makes some decent laptops, the DV6 is interesting, and some of them have a 1080p screen option, but are 15.6" or 17"

    Also, as some others said, why not ditch the optical drive and use the space for something more useful? An additional battery, some more ports, etc.
    Reply
  • Johnmcl7 - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    It's not the case that every company only offers 1366x768 screens, my current Vaio is approaching three years old for the model and has a 1600x900 13.1in screen and the model after it (now also retired) offered a 1080p 13.1in screen with decent colour and viewing angles. 13in higher resolution panels are trickier to find but 14in is fairly easy, there's quite a few other with 1600x900 panels.

    I do love that in the comments as always people are saying how Apple will lead the way with high resolution displays despite Sony offering 13.1in 1080p panels for a couple of years now. As usual Apple are first to do something by being several years behind those that are genuinely at the front.

    As for the why with mediocre screens, I would think it's obvious - most people don't care and won't pay for them. I don't agree with that stance but on supporting a large number of these crappy 1366x768 screens both at work and out of work laptops, not one person has every complained to me about the low screen resolution. It tends to be the other way round if anything, people tend to complain about my high resolution panels because they make everything too small.

    John
    Reply
  • Finraziel - Thursday, March 15, 2012 - link

    Yes, Sony does make nice laptops with sometimes nice screens... The problem is that you pay through the nose for them. When a 500$ laptop offers enough performance for me, and the added cost for a decent screen would be about 50-100$, then why can't I get one of those screens unless I buy a 2000$ laptop?
    As for Apple, I don't think the majority of people saying that in the comments here are fanboys or even saying that Apple would be the first, but it does seem to be the case that whatever Apple does, other manufacturers copy. I'm not even saying that it's to Apple's credit as a technology company, it says more about their marketing department. I actually would never buy anything from Apple because I don't agree with their philosophy and most of their products and think they're a bunch of stuck up snobs (from professional dealings with them), but I would like it if they could jumpstart a trend to include better screens in laptops.
    Reply
  • zepi - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    How about the battery life when gaming? Is it still a dismal 1 hour or so? How about when compared to let's say a Llano laptop? Reply
  • kmmatney - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Hey Acer! Do you want to stand out and be more like Apple? Then how about making a laptop with a 16:10 screen? Reply
  • HighTech4US - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    Why exactly do manufactures chose slower and more power hungry GDDR3 over GDDR5?

    You would think the lower power and higher performance of GDDR5 would make it the obvious choice.

    Is the cost of GDDR5 really so much higher than GDDR3?
    Reply
  • ueharaf - Thursday, March 15, 2012 - link

    you have to compare with amd 6630m on a sony vaio SA.
    z2 has thunderbolt so is not a fair comparison in graphics card. Here I smell a NVIDIA propaganda, rather than a fair comparison of the graphic cards...come on!!!
    Reply
  • Kansja - Thursday, March 15, 2012 - link

    Keep this in mind: Due to the much lower thermal headroom in a laptop you can't just stick in enough power to fire up 1080p displays on a laptop, either from the graphic's side or the power constraints (Remember that the iPad has a MASSIVE battery for the power consumption of everything minus display)

    You can't just stick 4 580's on a lap. It's a compromise between costs to the user, mobility and performance. I do agree 1600x900 should be an standard but it's not possible until our graphic's card offer 6870 like performance on 10-20W power envelope
    Reply
  • Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer - Thursday, March 15, 2012 - link

    I had to log in to say this...looking at the results on the gaming performance page, it seems to me that this laptop is able to acquit itself quite well at 1600x900. Honestly, my next laptop will be 1600x900 at 15.6" (unless I need to get a really cheap machine for some reason) and if this model had a matte, 900p display, it would be on my short, SHORT list, especially given the pleasant experience I've had with my current Acer laptop.

    There's really just no excuse for Acer (or anyone) to not put a higher-resolution display on a machine like this. I don't need (or want) 1920x1080, but I'll be damned if I spend more than $600 on a laptop that doesn't have at least 900 rows of pixels on the display.
    Reply

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