Acer Aspire S3 review (2014)

Slim, light, good-looking laptops are great. If you spend half your life rushing between places with more work to do than is strictly healthy then a decent one is exactly what you'll need. But to fit the MacBook Air-style blueprint in a Windows 8.1 form it can often feel as though you pay an awful lot of cash and don't get as much power as you might like.

The Acer Aspire S3 tries its best to set the record straight by balancing the power and price ratio. It's a slim and light 13.3-inch screen laptop that has a dedicated graphics card to augment the typically so-so games performance of the graphics chips you get with Intel's CPUs and it costs around £850. For a 1080p 13.3-inch Ultrabook that's not bad at all.

This is not the first time we've met the Acer Aspire S3. It crossed our paths a couple of years ago when we reviewed the 2012 model, but the 2014 version is a different beast. Is it one worthy of sitting high up your list of potential laptop purchases?

Design

Acer has given the S3 series a complete refresh - both inside and out. The rehashed MacBook Air style of the older model has been changed for something Acer can call its own without wearing a knowing grin. The 2014 S3's look is based on the Acer Aspire S7, the company's top-end Ultrabook.

With a lid that looks as though it's glass-topped (but, and unlike the S7, isn't), the Aspire S3 looks rather showy, and pretty keen to announce its presence. However, its build is actually a bit more ordinary than that. The Acer Aspire S3 has an aluminium frame, with a few layers of thick gloss paint on top to give the lid that glassy look and feel. It's the laptop equivalent of a painted fingernail, if you will. It does give you a bit more confidence that the lid's surface won't shatter should it get a knock.

As well as being a little less fancy than the priciest laptops out there, the Acer Aspire S3 is a mite less thin and light than the skinniest of 13.3-inch laptops. It's 17.8mm thick at the chunkiest point and weighs 1.65kg. While around 300g heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air, it's easily light enough to carry around with you all day, without feeling as though you're dragging around a ship's anchor.

The little bit of extra bulk is largely down to two factors: a hybrid HDD/SSD rather than the usual pure SSD; and a dedicated graphics card. Every chip has to weigh something.

We quite like the overall approach. The Acer Aspire S3 isn't trying to be the thinnest, the lightest, or even the fastest laptop out there. It's just a sensible option that gets you most of the benefits of laptops that are obsessed with any of these factors, and generally a bit more expensive as a result.

Screen

It's true of the Acer Aspire S3's screen as well. Its 1920 x 1080 resolution IPS panel offers vibrant colour and decent sharpness for a laptop, but not the level of sharpness seen in the Retina version of the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro, or even higher-res laptops like the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus or Dell Precision M3800.

Of course, to get that Samsung with the same sort of specs you'd be looking at an additional £600 spend. And the super-powerful Dell is even pricier still. Conversely the Acer Aspire S3 is a normal spec laptop for folk whose wallets aren't so bulging that fivers fly out of their pockets like feathers whenever they jump.

Get close-up and it's pretty easy to see the difference between a 1080p display and a QHD+ one at this 13.3-inch scale, but not so that it's an issue at all. The biggest issue we had was that - like virtually any laptop in this class - the screen is reflective. On a sunny day, outdoors use is a bit of a trial even at top brightness. One of the few Ultrabooks that puts quite a lot of effort into making its screen slightly matt is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. But good luck trying to get one of those for £800.

From a purist's perspective, the Acer Aspire S3 display is also skewed with a warm cast, giving whites quite an orange-yellow tint to them. It looks quite pleasant in person, but is worth considering if you're after a laptop you can do some fairly serious photo editing on because this display isn't hugely accurate.

Power

The Acer Aspire S3 has internal components similar to a lot of other Ultrabooks. It has an Intel Core i5-4200U dual-core 1.6GHz processor and 4GB of DDR3 RAM under the hood, making for ample handling of most tasks.

This is a good mid-range CPU, shared by a few other laptops including variants of the Sony Vaio Pro 11 and HP Elitebook, and similar in power to a MacBook Air - rather than a slightly pricier MacBook Pro, which is a fair bit more powerful.

Just about all Ultrabook-style laptops under £1000 have 4GB of RAM rather than 8GB, which is perfectly fine for everyday use. However, if you're going to be editing video or crunching loads of image data, then you'll probably want to consider a device with a bit more. But, again, that's unlikely to be found under the £1000 mark.

Where the Acer Aspire S3 can claim a bit of a win is with its use of dedicated graphics. There's a GeForce GTX 735M card with 1GB of memory on board. Although this is still a pretty low-end card by gaming standards, it's a good deal more powerful than the built-in Intel HD 4400 graphics that comes paired with the Intel Core i5. It's not often that we see laptops as slim as this with "real" graphics cards.

But what can it do? It's not going to play the latest and greatest games at 1080p with all the bells and whistles, but it steps things up to a middle point between in-built and discrete top-end graphics cards. Its use means recent titles aren't a problem if you chop down the settings a bit and/or reduce resolution. Hardcore gamers wouldn't consider the Acer Aspire S3 a real gaming laptop, but for the occasional session, the Acer Aspire S3 is a good deal more capable than most.

It's not all about gaming though. More recent versions of Photoshop, as one example, can plug in to graphics for better, faster handling for specific tasks. If you want to do any 3D work or are performing manipulation a little heavier than just a colour balance tweak then there's more available to throw at the process.

However, this extra power sees the four-cell 6200mAh battery life fall down a little bit. We used the laptop as our main computer for a few days to see how it handled long sessions, and found it'll last for between 5-6 hours when used to make documents and search the web - nothing too demanding. It's just an ok performance, but certainly doesn't trouble the MacBook Air, which is still unbeaten for stamina among laptops without an external battery pack to help out.

The basics

By now you should have a pretty good idea of what the Acer Aspire S3 is all about. It doesn't cost the earth, is pretty portable, and while not a powerhouse it gives an extra graphical hit that's missing from most other Ultrabooks.

It doesn't have super-fast storage, though. Instead of using a pure SSD, it has a hybrid drive with 500GB HDD storage and a small SSD cache to improve performance when waking up from sleep. Again, it's all about balance: you get the capacity for lots of files, while the active SSD section is fast for swift delivery. As long as you don't switch the Acer Aspire S3 off completely or put it into a deep sleep, it only takes a couple of seconds to get back into the action. Furthermore, not opting for a full SSD solution also means you get far more storage to play with - a laptop with a 500GB SSD would cost a good deal more.

For typing we found the S3's keyboard to be standard fare in the Ultrabook world. It looks good, and doesn't make any particularly strange moves in layout, but the key action is a tiny bit shallow with each press. It's a good upgrade over the old S3 model, though, and has a backlight that's very handy for night-time typing.

We found the trackpad a little bit tricky too, primarily because it's like a MacBook trackpad but worse, with a strange bit of movement to the pad before you reach its click area. It's functional, but not a smash hit in our books.

In terms of connections, the Aspire S3 ticks all the right boxes without offering anything particularly special. There's an SD card reader, an HDMI output and three USB ports (two of which are USB 3.0s). There's no dedicated Ethernet socket, but there is a special proprietary Acer converter port - buy the right cable (around £20-30 extra) and you can add several ports including an RJ45 Ethernet connector.

Verdict

The Acer Aspire S3 is an Ultrabook that doesn't aim for superlative performance in any area, but instead balances the price-to-power ratio better than many competitors out there.

It gives a decent performance, there's a good screen (despite reflective qualities) and thanks to dedicated graphics there's even a bit of gaming cred for a price that won't send those on a strict budget scurrying back to having to buy a chunky laptop.

The Aspire S3 won't top the very best slim laptop ever created. However, it's a much more sensible option than many alternative products out there - and for a price that makes it a winner. By considering a balanced approach to its features the S3 offers versatility that's missing from some much more expensive laptops.