First Look: Acer Aspire S3 3951

Acer’s first foray into the new “Ultrabook” category is with the Aspire S3, a slim and light notebook that offers you a proper hardware loadout without bloating into what were once typical PC dimensions. We’ve seen a number of moves in the Windows PC world to counter the impressive specs of the MacBook Air including the Samsung Series 9, but Ultrabooks are designed to be more affordable.

We managed to get our hands on Acer’s new Ultrabook prior to the launch announcement at IFA 2011 in Berlin, and spent a few hours fiddling with it to bring you our first impressions. Can Acer offer an affordable, powerful, ultra portable?

Design

In many ways the Acer Aspire S3 apes the design of the MacBook Air: it’s slender, tapering to a finer point at the leading edge, so the base is a thin profile wedge. In many ways it is slightly unexpected from Acer - not that Acer can’t do good design, but so often affordability gets in the way - it's not an accident that the Macbook Air is so expensive.

In the case of the S3, the body is plastic, so although it matches the colour of the metal lid, it is softer. With that comes a degree of flexibility not found on the likes of the MacBook Air. Acer was keen to point out that we were looking at a pre-production sample of the S3, so there may be some slight differences when the models hit the shelves later this year.

On the underside of the S3 are four rubber feet, but we found that one of these didn’t quite touch the desk, so there was a slight wobble to things. This is almost certainly a pre-production issue, perhaps caused by a slight twist in the chassis. However, we found that area around the touchpad was also a little soft, so when using the trackpad to any great extent we’d find flex in the centre of the palm rest. Again, this might be changed in full production models, but it might also suggest that internal strength has been slightly compromised in achieving that slim profile. An extra foot front and centre on the underside might add necessary support.

The display bezel is a little wider than we’d like, but we like the neat hinge that Acer have put in place. The screen hinge sits atop the base, but given the skinny dimensions it doesn’t raise the screen level too much, so it’s still nice and compact, ideal for using on the plane or train.

The screen seems to be in balance too, so you can sit with the Acer Aspire S3 on your knees and it doesn’t try to topple off on to the floor, which is great for mobile workers. The hinge is a little soft, so it is easy to knock the screen into a new position, but the lid overall has greater rigidity than some portable PCs we’ve seen previously.

The 13-inch screen offers up resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and has a glossy finish to it, which isn’t so good for those wanting to work on the move. We also found that the display wasn’t very bright. Set at full brightness is was difficult to make out the screen detail in daylight outdoors. 

Keyboard, trackpad and connections

The left and right sides of the S3 are left mostly bare. On the left-hand side you’ll find a single 3.5mm headphone jack, on the right you’ll find a single SD card slot. All the other physical connections reside around the back, as part of the central black section that makes up the hinge for the lid. 

Here you’ll find the power connection, a full-sized HDMI, two USB sockets and the grill for the heat sink ventilation. The effect is rather good, although naturally the location of the USB means you’ll have to swivel the S3 around to access them. It’s worth noting that the SD card slot isn’t full-sized, accommodating only half of the inserted card - that’s fine for accessing files, but you can’t leave it in permanently.

Moving on to the keyboard, the chiclet-style keys are welcomed, as Acer for too many years used an almost identical keyboard across all their models, from netbook to desktop replacement. The action is a little soft for our liking so in the short time we had to test the typing action we missed the odd letter, but it’s something you’d accommodate in your typing style.

The keys are a good size though, especially those on the left-hand side, so the normal run of Shift, Ctrl and Fn are all easy to hit at speed. On the right-hand side it isn’t quite the same story. The Enter key has been split in two, so where you’d expect to find the top half of that button you instead have a slash key. Again, something you’ll have to adapt to and during our time with the S3, we did hit the wrong button a fair few times. 

The trackpad is a nice size and, as is becoming a trend thanks to Apple, doesn’t feature separate buttons, instead offering clicks on the left and right when you press. This was one of the areas that lead to our greatest complaint: the action was too severe, the trackpad needed to travel too far to click. Acer tells us that this is definitely something that affects the pre-production models and will be rectified on the retail units. That said, the trackpad also offers multitouch features such as two finger scrolling and pinch zooming, which work well. 

Performance

The Aspire S3 3951 that we played with equipped with an Intel Core i7-2637M processor running at 1.7GHz, backed by 4GB of RAM, and running 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium. The performance was great as a result. Although you are restricted to on-board graphics, we found it neatly handled a range of media well.

We fired up BBC iPlayer to stream Dr Who in HD which played perfectly, with nice sharp visuals and nice smooth results. We also found the same when we fired up some 720p camcorder footage and 1080p video from our digital camera.

Supporting this video performance is Dolby Home Theatre. The speakers for the S3 reside on the underside, with two neat openings near the left and right edges. They are surprisingly effective, a little shrill when hitting loud high tones and not really delivering much in the way of bass, but on a notebook this size, it’s nice to have speakers that provide adequate performance for casual use.

Dolby comes into play to enhance the audio output, with a range of preset sound profiles that make a slight difference through the speakers, but make a massive difference when you plug in your headphones, virtually widening the sound stage to make for a more immersive audio experience.

We didn’t have the time to see how the S3 handled more intensive applications, like Photoshop, or how it really performed at multitasking, but given what we’ve seen of Core i7 processors in the past the impression we’re left with is that it will happily cope with your daily computing needs. 

When playing video that cooling vent at the rear seemed to be put to good use, the fan spinning up and venting out the hot air from inside. Although we couldn’t hear it over the soundtrack to the videos we were watching, we can imagine that once you fire up a little photo editing, you’ll find that the noise from the fan is fairly noticeable. 

In the short time that we had with the Acer Aspire S3 3951, we couldn’t gauge how the battery would perform on an average day. In light browsing and office tasks it was displaying around 5 hours of life. With the HD video fired up this dropped off to show a little under two hours. We managed to get through most of a charge in the 5 hours we had the S3 on our test bench, so that’s the most accurate figure we can put our finger on until we get a production version to review.

Verdict

There are a few areas that we hope Acer gets the chance to tweak before the Aprire S3 lands in the shops: they’ve already confirmed that addressing the trackpad click action is on the list, but the screen could do with being a little brighter too and another central foot would make the leading edge feel much more rigid.

But Acer have achieved their aims in creating a slim and light Ultrabook. It performs well enough from what we’ve seen and although the design doesn’t offer the premium flare you get from the MacBook Air, the price (not currently confirmed) at around £800 puts it in the range of those looking for a primary work or play machine - and we’d expect online discounts to make it a much more appealing over time.

Intel have previously said that they expect Ultrabooks to make up a huge segment of the PC market moving forwards into 2012. If this new Windows PC focus on design is what we can expect, then we should all be in for a treat. Having seen the Asus UX31, it is clear that competition is going to be fierce in Ultrabooks.

We’ll be getting the Acer Aspire S3 3951 in again or a full review in the not too distant future, so stay tuned.

This First Look Review was first published on 2 November 2011

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