The term Ultrabook becomes more loosely defined with every release under its name. The latest to bend the ultra-slim rules, the Acer Timeline M3 Ultra, despite not being particularly thin has a lot about it worth getting excited about.
Inside is one of Nvidia’s new 640m processors, this is fun for many reasons. Most of all because it provides an unparalleled mobile gaming experience, but also because it uses little power and is more compact than previous cards. The result is a laptop which while thicker than most Ultrabooks, more than lives up to the name in the power and battery life department. No bad thing then.
Is this really an Ultrabook?
First up, a gripe or two to get off our chest. We don’t want to start on the bad foot - believe us, the M3 is great - it's just not an Ultrabook. Intel defines the genre by essentially copying the standards set by the MacBook Air. Intel requires a 21mm maximum height on anything with 14-inch or larger display. The M3 is 19.8mm thick, so incredibly close to the maximum threshold and thick enough for it to feel nowhere near as portable as some of the other disc-drive-free Ultrabooks.
This is the first Ultrabook to use discrete graphics instead of the Intel integrated system. Again going slightly against the definition of the name, but in the end, no bad thing. On paper the M3 stays just within the lines of Intel’s specifications, but the second you hold it against the likes of a MacBook Air or Zenbook, say, it doesn’t feel nearly as portable.
All this would cause rather a significant irritation if it weren’t for the M3 blowing everything out of the water in power terms, while being about half the size of something like the Alienware M17x.
We've been playing through a copy of Mass Effect 3 on the laptop for a while now. We can ran the game maxed out, with absolutely no sign of slowdown whatsoever. The same applies to Battlefield 3 which hits a smooth FPS on "ultra" with little problems. You might want to keep it on high to ensure a totally fluid experience, but essentially, this laptop is a gaming beast.
Connecting the hardware up to a 1080p monitor via HDMI and then cranking up the in game resolution, we saw a frame rate drop of about 10 fps, enough to do away with any chances of running Battlefield 3 on ultra settings. Still, the game was more than playable on high. Incredibly, despite the huge load something like Battlefield 3 would place on the card, we still managed to get around two hours of playtime from the battery. This is extremely impressive for a laptop of this size.
Aside from the graphics card, the Acer is a bit less fun. The Core i5 processor inside is decent enough, and is clocked at 1.6 GHz. 4GB of RAM is adequate as is the 450 GB hard drive. You do probably want to go for the 256GB solid state option, as it will speed up a lot of conventional Ultrabook tasks such as wake times and boots.
Boot times aren't helped by the horrendous load of software that Acer dumps on to the laptop. We are sure that some will find them useful, but let us decide whether we want them or not, rather than having to clear out the system. It's a gripe we have with most laptops we review.
Thank God a manufacturer has finally stopped trying to rip-off the design of the MacBook Air and done something different with the Ultrabook concept. This is a laptop that certainly looks unique, or at least unique in how boring it is. There is not a single thing to get excited about with the M3 other than that it turns on and off and runs games like nothing else. The trackpad is a tad dodgy, but works. The keyboard is nice enough, the whole thing is just acceptable, but in a very unexciting way.
Some may enjoy this, but with a product this premium we want to see something a bit more innovative, particularly given its power capabilities. Instead Acer has gone for a black slab approach. This is a real shame as the internals are so impressive, a decent shell would have had us sold. In the end, if you are just after it for its internals, you won't be disappointed.
One of the main reasons we had Battlefield 3 running so high was partly thanks to the M3’s 15-inch display, which runs at 1366 x 768 resolution. This is disappointingly low for such a big screen - again, a shame as we know the 640m could be put to use in 1080p form and still do well enough. Even so, the actual panel is nice, well saturated and bright - just don’t expect top notch viewing angles.
Because the M3 is a sort of quasi-ultrabook, it lacks a lot of the connectivity you get with something that has a bit more size to play with. A DVD drive is present as are a trio of USBs, one of which is 3.0 capable. There's HDMI on the back, and an Ethernet port, headphone jack and an SD card reader. That's it. Not hugely comprehensive then.
The M3 does seem to be made from some absurdly fingerprint friendly material. After only a few seconds of having the laptop near our hands, it appeared covered in marks and smudges. You might point the finger at our KFC habit, but this was before our daily bargain bucket. Best keep a micro-fibre cloth nearby if you want it looking swish.
At £600 the M3 offers fairly persuasive value for money. It also makes it one of the cheaper Ultrabooks - funny, given it doesn't really deserve the name. It should fall into a new category altogether, aimed directly at those who want to game on the go. For this, the M3 is the best we have seen. If, however, you are about to consider it as a thin laptop purchase, don’t, there is a lot better out there.
What it has told us is what we can expect from this generation of mobile GPUs. Thinner, lighter and less power hungry, they can now very clearly rival the desktop. Lets just wait until someone wraps it all up in a package that looks a bit nicer.