Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook

Apple’s MacBook Air has started something of a war. Ultrabooks - the name being thrown around to describe manufacturers’ slender yet powerful, Windows OS-based laptops - are popping up left, right and centre at the moment.

The Acer Aspire S3 was one of the first to rear its head back at the IFA electronics trade show towards the latter half of 2011. And an attractive bit of kit we thought it was too.

With the imminent launch of the Aspire S5 just around the corner, and plenty of other Ultrabooks knocking at its door, can the Acer Aspire S3 set the bar high for the Ultrabooks market?

Design

From the outside the S3’s external design is elegant indeed. This 13.3-inch Ultrabook is dressed up with a brushed-aluminium lid and sturdy body. It’s slender, at a mere 17mm at its thickest point. It ticks the lightweight box too, weighing in at 1.4kgs.

But it’s not all rosy. The power, HDMI-C out and twin USB 2.0 ports - yup, no USB 3.0 to be found here - are in a row to the back of the machine.

It’s not the most convenient placement, though the slim body would make it difficult for side-mounted ports. Worse though is the distance between the ports, a common problem for many machines these days. Jazzed-up USB devices often won’t sit next to other bulky devices in parallel, which can render one port temporarily useless. Not entirely Acer’s fault, but still a potential issue.

To the side of the device there’s an SD card slot that’s most convenient. Whether transferring images from a digital camera, loading data on to a card for your Nintendo 3DS XL, Smart TV, or other device, we found it a useful addition to the design.

Keyboard and screen

Open the Aspire S3’s lid and the 13.3-inch screen looks okay, but it’s nothing special. The viewing angle isn’t really wide enough for versatile use, our review model had a blue/cyan hue (can be fixed with a little effort and some software, but it made everything look rather bleached out), and the 1,366x768 pixel resolution isn’t a patch on the MacBook Air or the likes of the Asus Zenbook.

Beneath is the keyboard, which also has issues. The plasticky keys are bunched together which doesn’t make for a fluid, comfortable typing experience, nor does it reflect the machine’s delightful external appearance. A shame.

Windows 7 as standard

The Acer Aspire S3 comes pre-loaded with Windows 7 Home Edition. It’s easy to pick up and use, as any Windows user will be aware. No Windows 8 to be found in this model, though that’s cause enough for some to sigh a breath of relief.

The pre-loaded demo of McAfee’s anti-virus software is less of a pleasure though as it barrages various prompts and queries when attempting to do pretty much anything. Not an Acer-specific problem, we know, but you might want to consider switching to something like Windows Defender for example.

Performance

A key area with any machine is just how powerful it is. Can you juggle those Word documents with a bit of Photoshoppery and some gaming?

Thanks to the 1.7GHz i7 processor - which can Turbo Boost up 2.8GHz - and 4GB of RAM in this particular model (S3-951 LX.RSF02.167 according to the Acer website, though there’s a caveat to that which we’ll get to) none of that will be a problem.

We did have some teething issues with our particular review machine, however, where errors with installs and downloads occurred. A bit of a tinker, a few dozen restarts and some restoration work later and things were back on the path to good.

In our review machine there’s a 240GB SSD (solid state drive) to store all kinds of goodies, though that got us scratching our heads a little. The off-the-shelf Intel i7 machine comes with a 500GB HDD, whereas the top-spec machine offers the 240GB SSD but you have to dip to a less powerful i5 processor. Seems that Acer has tailored this review machine to try and show off its best potential: but be warned, this configuration isn’t something you’ll be able to purchase, at least not with the initial cash outlay. A bit cheeky, as it skews our tests.

Battery life is reasonable, and while it won’t beat the top-spec machines or the likes of Apple’s latest MacBook Air, the S3 will keep you on the go for up to around five hours. More processor-intensive work will, of course, cut that figure down, but we’re happy enough with that performance. It dealt with a number of long train journeys, some lap work at home and a little out-on-the-town typing too.

Verdict

The Aspire S3 is something of a mixed bag. We had high hopes as this Ultrabook’s sublime form and finish looks enticing from the outside.

The performance is decent too. That Intel i7 processor will keep ticking along through all manner of tasks - whether simple word processing or more intensive editing or gaming to some extent.

But that doesn’t matter so much when considering the downsides. The £899 list price of this machine sounds reasonable enough, but then that’s not far from a grand. Sure, the online store price might be closer to £700, but for that kind of money we’d like to see a decent, high-resolution screen with better viewing angles and a more comfortable keyboard. Don’t overlook the importance of those features: if you’re putting out the cash then a machine that's comfortable to use and view is an essential.

Other chinks in the S3’s aluminium armour include no USB 3.0 support and the increasing number of competitive Ultrabooks also available on the market that are hard to ignore.

There’s promise here, and the Aspire S3 isn’t a bad machine by any means. While we may moan about the price point, in reality it undercuts the the competition by hundreds of pounds in most cases. The S3 does its job, and performance isn't called into question, but more demanding users will be left wanting a fuller experience.