Acer Aspire S3 Review

 Acer’s very own version of the ultrabook was revealed in the form of the Aspire S3 a couple of weeks ago. This review unit I have was actually won during their raffle at the event and I’ve been using it for over a week now. Check out our full review of the Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook after the jump.

Acer is said to be the first one to release an ultrabook in the Philippines, a category of notebooks that combines great processing power, long battery life and a very thin form factor that’s under half an inch thick.

However, Samsung already has something in that same specs with their Series 9 laptops for many months already so the title is debatable.

The Aspire S3 is definitely sexy with its very thin frame and brushed metal finish. The ultrabook is made of a combination of metallic (aluminum) lid and plastic bottom with a total net weight of only 3lbs. Not bad considering the equivalent 13″ Macbook Air is almost the same weight or just 0.02lbs lighter. The Aspire S3 is also very thin at about 17mm at its thickest point.

All the ports are situated at the back (the 2 USB ports and the HDMI port) which is a little bit hard to reach when you needed them. The SD card reader is placed on the right side and the 3.5mm audio port on the left for easy access.

The 13-inch screen has a resolution of 1366×768 pixels, typical of most other laptops in this size but we’re wishing it could have been a bit higher (like 1400×900).

The display is bright and crisp but I notice the contrast isn’t that high so you’d have the impression the screen is a little washed out when you set it at the highest brightness. This isn’t unusual though since I’ve had other laptops before (from other brands) that had these same characteristics. Movie playback is great though and the display produces clear and crisp images.

One design issue I noticed is that hinge of the lid sits on top of the base so it tends to wobble a lot because it does not have anything solid to rest on.

On the contrary, the MBA’s hinge design sits at the back end of the base so when you flip the lid open, the edge of the lid rests at the bottom end of the base. The problem with that design is that you can only flip open the MBA’s lid up to around 135-degrees while the Aspire S3 can open to as wide as 170-degrees.

The decision to use a hybrid storage is a tricky one – 320GB HDD for main storage and a tiny 20GB SSD for caching. The SSD works in the background and cannot be seen by the system. It’s used for storing data when the laptop goes on sleep or hibernate which allows it to boot and wake from sleep fairly fast. I’d say a typical 2 to 3 seconds from sleep and around 35 seconds to boot up Windows 7.

The hybrid solution is probably the biggest contributor to making this unit more affordable by at least Php10k-15k. The drawback is that it’s typically slower compared to an all-SSD storage.

On the contrary, you get much higher capacity for cheap. I reckon I can slap my 2.5” 1TB Western Digital HDD in here and go dual-boot. Coming from using a Macbook Air with only 64GB of SSD, 320GB of HDD on the Aspire S3 is much better. For one, I can now run iTunes and download podcasts and manage songs from the S3 when I could not do it on my MBA for fear of using up all the disk space.

The track pad is wide, smooth and easy to use. It supports some multi-touch gestures like pinch and zoom or two-finger scrolling. There’s no dedicated left and right buttons and, just like the Air, they’re built-into the trackpad itself.

However, the gestures doesn’t feel very fluid or responsive even after several adjustments in the settings. Sometimes it’s also jerky that you’d accidentally activate unwanted or extra commands.

The full-qwerty keyboard uses chiclet-type keys and is well-spaced. Some keys are smaller than usual, like the Enter key. The arrow keys on the lower right corner are so small they’re almost un-usable. Like the 13-inch MBA, there seems to be an awful waste of space where the keyboard space is not maximized. The biggest disappointment here is the absence of back-lit keyboard.

Performance of the Aspire S3 is actually really good. The Windows Experience Index scores show above average scores for the processor (6.3) and gaming graphics (6.1) while the sub-score for Windows Aero is the lowest at 4.6 (probably because Acer only allotted 128MB RAM on the graphics chip).

Applications don’t load as fast as it would on a Mac Air running an SSD but it does the job right (Adobe CS5 loads in 5 seconds on the MBA while it takes almost twice as long on the Aspire S3). Over-all, it’s still pretty good.

The combination of the Core i5 processor and the 4GB DDR3 RAM practically takes care of all the other computing needs. The Intel HD 3000 GPU offers entry-mid level graphics processing.

Acer Aspire S3 specs:
13.3″ LCD display @ 1366×768 pixels
Intel Core i5 2467M 1.6GHz dual-core
Intel HD Graphics 3000 w/ 128MB RAM
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
1.3MP webcam
2-in-1 card reader
2 x USB 2.0 port
HDMI port
Windows 7 Home Premium

Note that this is just the mid-range configuration. Acer will also offer the Core i3 and Core i7 variants with options for a full SSD storage. The performance on those models will definitely be different than this one, obviously, as well as the retail price.

Acer also included a Dolby Home Theater and the sound is actually better than expected, especially during movie playback. You don’t get a whole lot of bass but the volume has a good range and the sound quality is pretty decent.

Battery life is something we’re eager to discover with the S3. Acer claims up to 6 hours on a single full charge but our experience in the more than one week of usage, it averages only around 4.5 hours. A little power-saving tweak might push it over 5 hours which isn’t that bad though I was hoping for a bit more.

With a suggested retail price of only Php44,900, the Acer Aspire S3 is actually the cheapest of all the ultrabooks currently in town, and that includes the Php66k Macbook Air 13 and the Php67k Samsung Series 9 notebooks. The more than Php20k price difference is mainly attributed to the use of a slower 320GB HDD instead of the 128GB SSD, a reasonable trade-off if you asked me. I reckon the upcoming Asus Zenbook would be in the Php60+k range as well.

What Acer is offering here is a balance between specs and pricing although the latter obviously has a little more weight in this case (read: price positioning). The Aspire S3 is the closest Windows-based machine we can actually compare to the MBA and there was obviously some design inspirations taken by the S3 from the Air which is the reason we can’t stop ourselves from comparing them. The choice between Windows 7 and OS X Lion is a matter of personal taste so we’ll not go there.

The S3 is by no means perfect, and it has its shortcomings, but it offers a great and much cheaper alternative in the ultrabook category. Too bad they don’t have an 11-inch variant — that would have been more portable and lighter.