Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook

The Aspire S3 ultrabook is the first unit that I actually laid hands on, and initial impressions are quite good. If you’ve always wondered why no one seems interested in matching the thinness of Apple’s MacBook Air laptops, wonder no longer: these ultrabooks are extremely thin and light, striking an impressive pose. Outside of the Acer branding prominently visible on the Aspire S3, in most other areas you likely wouldn’t guess this is an Acer product. Considering their reputation as a purveyor of budget offerings, that’s generally a good thing. Let’s start with the specs.

Acer Aspire S3-951-6432 (LX.RSE02.146) Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2637M
(2x1.7GHz + HTT, 2.8GHz Turbo, 32nm, 4MB L3, 17W)
Chipset Intel UM67
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 (onboard, dual-channel)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 Graphics
(12 EUs, up to 1.2GHz)
Display 13.3" LED Glossy 16:9 768p
(AU Optronics B133XTF01.0)
Hard Drive(s) 256GB Micron C400 SSD
(MTFDDAK256MAM 6Gbps, up to 500/260MBps read/write)
Optical Drive N/A
Networking Atheros AR9485 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz 1x1:1 MIMO)
Bluetooth 4.0
Audio Realtek ALC269 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Headphone jack
Battery 3-Cell, 11.2V, 38Wh
Front Side N/A
Right Side SD card reader
Left Side Headphone jack
Back Side Exhaust vent
2x USB 2.0
AC power
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 12.7" x 8.6" x 0.62-0.79" (WxDxH – including feet)
323mm x 218mm x 16-20mm
Weight 2.97 lbs / 1.35kg
Extras Webcam
SD card reader
84-key keyboard
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
(2-year on S3-951-6464)
Pricing Online starting at $1230

This isn’t the slimmest or lightest laptop in existence (our measurements above include the pads on the bottom if you’re wondering), but as far as the performance goes it will be on the higher end of the ultrabook spectrum. The i7-2637M has a base clock of 1.7GHz, which isn’t much more than the less expensive i5-2467M, but the maximum Turbo Boost is an impressive 2.8GHz (500MHz higher than the 2467M). The Micron C400 SSD is also a good choice and provides good performance at a price lower than the competition; the SF-2200 SSDs are still the king of performance, but the C400 is a reasonably priced alternative. The formatting/partitioning of the 256GB (240GB in practice) C400 is interesting, as Acer allocates an 8GB hibernate partition with another 16GB recovery partition—not exactly ideal, but perhaps the dedicated hibernation partition is part of what helps the system suspend/resume so quickly. Memory is also somewhat interesting in that there’s 4GB soldered onto the motherboard; that’s good for saving space but not so good for upgrades if you ever need more RAM.

The battery capacity might seem a little on the small side, but you can still get north of seven hours of battery life (and around six hours of web surfing). Acer also claims up to 50 days of standby time; I wasn’t sure initially whether they were talking about time in hibernate or time in sleep, as the former means a system is pretty much off whereas sleep is a low power mode where you can wake up and start working in a matter of seconds. I left the laptop unplugged and in sleep for a week at one point just to see what would happen, and the battery still had over and 85% charge when I opened it back up, so apparently they really do mean 50 days in suspend (i.e. sleep) mode, which is quite impressive.

One of the highlights of Intel’s ultrabook initiative is fast suspend/resume times as well as boot/shutdown times. The Acer certainly does all of those quickly; we clocked the boot to desktop time at 24 seconds with a shutdown time of seven seconds; POST time actually is a bit long at five seconds. Interestingly enough, there is no option for hibernate; the hibernation volume appears to be part of the magic of behind Acer’s ultrabook, providing for a hibernate-like state while still allowing for ultra-fast resume, so wake from sleep only takes about two or three seconds—fast enough that I can’t imagine anyone complaining. Overall performance is good, and the components and specs look fine, but the major differences between ultrabooks are going to be in the design elements. Let’s consider those areas before coming to a conclusion on where the Aspire S3 ranks.

The top panel has a nice brushed aluminum finish that gives the laptop an immediately higher quality appearance than most consumer laptops. Open the laptop up and you’re greeted by a decent Chiclet keyboard layout, all in a slate-gray matte finish. The bottom casing appears to be plastic as well, though it feels solid and doesn’t exhibit much flex—likely owing to the Magnesium-Aluminum frame. Overall it’s an attractive looking laptop, and it’s really thin and light, just as you’d expect from anything bearing the ultrabook moniker. But how does it fare in actual use?

Build quality is generally good but not exceptional. There’s some twist that’s particularly evident in the LCD lid, even with the aluminum cover. A thicker and more rigid aluminum sheet would have been good for eliminating this. Elsewhere, the laptop feels solid. The bottom chassis is made of a magnesium-aluminum allow, similar to what we find in many higher quality business notebooks, and unlike the LCD it feels very rigid. A couple areas that give me some pause as far as build quality. First is the LCD hinges; they work fine right now, but hinges are notorious for wearing out after a year or two and I could easily see that happening with the S3. My other complaint is with the seams around the chassis; they run all around the outside edges of the bottom chassis and the LCD panel and may catch some dust and develop some creaks over the long haul.

Also a little bothersome for me is that with the thinness of the laptop, the LCD cover weighs nearly as much as the bottom of the chassis, so if you open the display up beyond about a 135 degree angle, it can tip over. This is a minor consideration and comes with the ultra-thin territory, but I definitely feel we’re at the point where an ultrabook is as thin as I would ever want—and perhaps even too thin at times. Part of the problem with laptops getting ultra-thin is that it affects other areas once you try to use the laptop, like the keyboard.

Part of the ultrabook specifications is that the devices are no more than 0.8” (20mm) thick. As you can imagine, that means the key travel on the keyboard is inherently limited. I tried to measure how far the key travel is as a point of reference; obviously this is not the only important metric when looking at keyboards, but among many touch typists a slightly longer travel distance is preferred. The Acer S3 keys have around 0.06” of travel (1.5mm), where my Microsoft Natural keyboard has just over 0.12” (3mm). It’s a very noticeable difference, ad while I can certainly type on the Acer S3—I’m writing this portion of the review on it—it’s not my favorite typing experience. I also have occasions where key presses don’t register, probably due in part to the way the keys feel; I end up typing with a light touch but the keys could use a bit more force.

Besides the feel of the keyboard, the other elements are actually quite good. The layout works for the most part, with a decent amount of space between the keys, but I don’t understand why the Enter/Backslash keys are shaped the way they are; also, the tiny cursor keys with PgUp/PgDn crammed in takes some getting used to (and the UX31E cursor key layout is preferable in my book). The keyboard is still a healthy jump up from the previous Acer floating island keys, however, and I imagine anyone who likes chiclet-style keyboards will be fine with it.

The touchpad also works well enough, though at first it took some getting used to. It’s a single large clickable touchpad with Elan hardware/drivers, similar to what you’ll find on MacBook laptops. The bottom-left and -right corners register as left and right mouse clicks if tapped, and tapping on the surface also works as usual for Windows laptops. The difference is that you can also press into the touchpad and get a noticeable “click”, which is mostly useful for when you want to drag windows or other content around. It’s actually an interesting change and makes the single large touchpad design useable, but I do notice that when trying to drag across a larger area the “press” often gets lost. This mostly occurs near the top of the touchpad where the “click” doesn’t work as well; the middle and bottom depress quite easily but the top requires more force and doesn’t feel like it really goes in as much.

My biggest complaint with the Acer S3, not surprisingly, goes back to the old standby: the display. It’s okay for office use, but there’s nothing special about it relative to the competition. The contrast ratio is poor, the resolution is a bog standard, and that’s pretty much all there is to say. I don’t find 1366x768 panels to be the end of the world, particularly on 13.3” laptops, but at the same time given the opportunity for something like a 900p display or a higher contrast matte panel, I’d definitely be interested in paying more for the privilege. The Aspire S3 ends up being a decent representative of the ultrabook platform, and it’s also one of the less expensive ultrabook offerings if you eschew the larger SSD configurations. However, the lack of a dedicated SSD for most of your storage (I personally need at least a 120GB drive) limits the appeal of the entry-level models while the higher spec unit we’re reviewing clocks in at a hefty $1300.

Introducing the Ultrabook Contenders ASUS UX31E Ultrabook
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  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    You know what would be cool? A 17" ultrabook. You could get a nice big screen and a keyboard that is not all clusterjammed in there. I hate tiny laptop keyboards.

    Nice review Jarred. I don't think I will be picking up one of these ultra's anytime soon. Looking forward to the Samsung review though.
  • Malih - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    yes, I've been wondering why most thin laptops are limited to 13.3", would the extra space not be useful, or is it the limitation set by Intel, or is it because Apple don't make 15" MBA or is a 15" aluminum case cost too much to produce?

    17" might not be for everyone, but 14" or 15" are preferable for the masses, and with 15" you don't have to compete directly with Apple.
  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Maybe it is too expensive... I don't know. Plus the battery would be larger I suppose. It starts to get heavy and is no longer "ultra".

    I'd be very interested in a Llano based 17" Ultrabook with say a 128GB SSD, a more spread out keyboard, and a matte screen. Make the touch pad not suck too, please.

    Thanks Santa.
  • cobalt42 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Agree with both. If they used the extra keyboard space to make a nice cursor key cluster (arrow keys as well as home/end/pgup/pgdown and ins/del), they'd get my money. The others at that size either put a numeric keypad, or worse, nothing and just waste the extra space.
  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Arrow keys and the home section, sometimes I wish they would toss it out because all of that stuff is on the number pad anyway. At least it is with my 12 year old WYSE keyboard. And then they could keep some space away from the standard qwerty section. I'd like that style of board. I don't much care for small function keys all crowded down either.
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Strength becomes a bigger issue. If you keep the thickness the same, but increase the size to 17", the laptop would be enormously more delicate. More stress would be placed on it, if only because of the whole law-of-the-lever type thing. They'd have to make the 17" ultrabooks correspondingly thicker and more durable, and that would negate at least some of the advantage.

    A 15" ultrabook could be a lot more interesting, especially if they take advantage of a thinner bezel to fit the larger screen into a chassis that was only slightly larger than existing 13.3" ultrabooks.
  • Iketh - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    nah I don't think durability would be hard to figure out, tho achieving that durability would likely increase the cost a good bit
  • wadcock2 - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    ultrabook is define by Intel as a subnotebook with smaller size and weight. They are usually less than 6.5 lbs. They often have 7 -10 battery life (yea!). and are thin (< .7") to compete with Mac AirPro. There was one web page were the notebook had to fit into an 8.5"x11 interoffice mailing envelope. That also would require a smaller screen.

    I find that the 1366x768 pixel screens are too small to hole a whole video, photo or chart of today's web pages.

    Yes, I'd like a light weight 17" laptop with long battery life and high screen resolution. The nearly 10 lbs plus another 2-4 for the power adapter makes it heavy to carry around and heavy on my lap.
  • bji - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Apple is supposed to be coming out with a 15 inch macbook air late Q1 next year. I am waiting for this and it will buy one; it will replace my 7 year old Panasonic Toughbook Y2 that thus far has not had a competitor for light weight, screen size, and build quality in the 14 inch+ size range.
  • niva - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Right on, 17" frame will probably allow them to squeeze in a decent GPU in there too, something better than the integrated intel HD chip. Possibly even room for a hard drive to add more storage overall.

    The big thing I'm taking away from this review is the terrible screens. I'm surprised that they are that bad compared to the Apple screens. As much as many of us hate Apple and bash on them in the comments they've always been good about their displays.

    Dell and Samsung are the companies who can buck this trend with terrible displays in these devices, lets hope it happens soon.

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