Review: Acer Aspire S3

Our score: 3/5
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Published: October 27, 2011 11:00 PM
By Alexandre Botella
The Acer S3 has certain obligations to fill to justify its ultrabook status. Decent battery life, processing power and a slim line (under 2 cm) are all part of the makeup required of this 13.3-inch to get it into the new category of laptops as defined by Intel. An ultrabook must be the perfect companion for travellers who can't make do with the capacities of a netbook. Does the S3 satisfy these needs? Answers below!

Note that the model tested here has an Intel Core i7 processor while the basic version has to make do with a Core i5 (see the paragraph on the processor). This is the version (Core i5) currently on sale at £700. Make sure that you check which model you're getting at time of purchase.

While some differences in respect of the processor (less powerful) and battery life (longer) are to be expected, our remarks on the screen, audio quality, hardware or gaming and HD video capacities are still entirely valid.

Hardware: lightweight connectivity

Once the first 'Oh! It looks like a MacBook Air' thought has passed, you'll be able to appreciate what is a nice object. It appears to be made up of quality materials and seems well-finished. However, when you start handling it, you quickly realise that the shell is in plastic and not aluminium, which is what the Apple competitor uses. The good news is that the plastic in question is well disguised. The bad is that it's a lot less scratch proof than aluminium and you'll have to take care with it when carrying it around if you want it to retain its sheen.


Nor is the keyboard anything like the MacBook Air keyboard, in spite of appearances. The S3's is disappointingly cheap: the chiclet type keys aren't all at the same level (some are slightly higher off the base than others!) and there's a little play on some of them. The model we received for testing was a pre-series and these faults may well be corrected on the S3s that are sold in stores.

Note also that the arrow keys are far too small and lead to some keying errors.
The keyboard nevertheless offers supple and quiet keying and you can use it on the train without annoying your neighbours.

The touchpad is excellent. It's big, multitouch and the glide is pleasant to use. While the right and left buttons aren't visible, they are there in the right place (on the lower right and left corners). This implementation maximises the size of the touchpad. We congratulate Acer for what is a good idea!

The webcam isn't the worst 720p model we've tested, but it does have a few drawbacks. Whether you're in a dark or light room, the image flickers a lot. In addition, as soon as you lower the brightness, there's a significant loss of detail. This is more of a fallback solution, then, than something you'll use for shooting your next feature film.

The S3 doesn't have a strong hand to play when it comes to connectivity either. There are two USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI out, an SD card reader and a headphones/mic combo. Although it isn't better equipped than a MacBook Air, it has a more standard video out that is therefore more practical and doesn't require an adaptor.

We also want to draw attention to the fact that the S3's on-board microphone has unfortunately been placed beside the keyboard and the noise of keying therefore comes through.

Perfectly cool and quiet on start-up, the Acer S3 fan gets louder when you push its processor hard. Temperatures are well contained, which isn't always the easiest thing to achieve in a chassis of this size. Hot air is evacuated from the back and this means you can rest this ultrabook on your knees without getting too hot.
 
The S3's temperature readings when you push the components hard
Readings taken using a Fluke Ti25 (Distrame) camera
 
x121e
Touchpad


x121eConnectivity at the back: power supply, HDMI out and USB 2.0 (x2) port


x121e
  SD card reader
x121e
 
Headphones/mic combo


Processor: a low consumption Core i7, between an i3 and i5

Here we tested the high-end S3 (on sale for around £900 with the Core i7 processor). The model on sale for £700 has an Intel Core i5-2467M. This is the same processor as used in the MacBook Air 11.6-inch tested here a few months ago. The MacBook Air will therefore give a good idea of the capacities of the S3 in its basic configuration (CPU index 78).

A Core i7 was announced and this is what we found inside. Note however, this is a low energy consumption model, which isn't as fast as the Core i7-2630QM. The Intel i5-2410M is, for example, 10% faster, but the four physical cores on the i7 give it certain advantages in optimized applications (3D modelling for example). The low consumption i7 is moreover 10% faster than the Core i3-2310M that you find in numerous ultraportables.

This Acer ultrabook is therefore able to complete all the tasks that you care to throw at it but won't be the fastest machine to complete them (processor index: 112). Office documents, Internet browsing and so on are a walk in the park for it.

The inclusion of an SSD makes it faster to install software than if you were using a hard drive. Thanks to the SSD the S3 can also start up in 15 seconds and turn itself off in 5.  

Gaming: undemanding titles

As there is no discrete graphics here, this ultrabook has to make do with the capacities of its integrated chipset. Perfect for decoding HD videos, it is a lot less impressive with games. Old, undemanding titles (Left for Dead), or major concessions in terms of graphics options and the screen resolution are the only way to go with the S3.

Audio: make sure you get some good headphones

On the Audio side, you can count on this 13.3-inch for a decent headphones/mic in/out. The interference and crosstalk are limited, which means you'll be able to communicate under comfortable conditions.

Like the X121e (an 11.6 ultraportable from Lenovo) it's the speakers that let it down. They lack power and the sound saturates very rapidly. As the headphones out doesn't suffer from this problem, go for some good headphones or an audio kit when at home, as this will allow you to enjoy much better sound.

Battery life and portability: promises kept

We knew it was thin (17 mm at its thickest) and relatively light (1.4 Kg) but the S3 also has good battery life. You'll get 5 hours video playback time (headphones plugged in, screen at 100 cd/m², wi-fi and Bluetooth off), which is a very good result for such a powerful machine.

Here the basic version should do better as the Intel Core i5-2476M consumes less than the Core i7-2467M tested here.


3/5 Acer Aspire S3 DigitalVersus 2011-10-28 00:00:00

Pros

  • Very slim and light
  • Good general performance: CPU, RAM and SSD
  • 5h battery life
  • Quality audio in/out
  • Moderate temperatures

Cons

  • TN panel with very low contrast and inaccurate colours
  • Reduced connectivity
  • Speakers lack power
  • Low gaming capacity
  • No USB 3.0

Conclusion

Although imperfect (glossy mediocre quality screen, poor connectivity), the Acer Aspire S3 does deliver in terms of battery life, processing power and thickness (under 2 cm). Although the MacBook Airs still have certain advantages over this model, notably when it comes to the finish and materials used, they are also more costly.

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