Acer Aspire S3 £899
21st Dec 2011 | 15:32
A high-performing yet imperfect ultrabook
The first-generation ultrabook war is getting bloody, with the Toshiba Satellite Z830 and Lenovo Ideapad U300S emerging from the pits to take on the Asus Zenbook and this machine, the Acer Aspire S Series. This four-way battle royale should be a fierce contest, but can Acer do enough to beat down the super-thin-yet-powerful laptop competition?
The Taiwanese company certainly has experience producing every variety of laptop, from the ultra-portable Timeline range of models such as the Acer Aspire Timeline X 3820TZ to the mighty Ethos multimedia machines including the Acer Aspire Ethos 5943G.
One of its dinkiest offerings yet, the 13.3-inch Acer Aspire S3-951 is an appealing prospect for regular travellers.
The Intel Core i7 2637M version we tested is priced at £900 in the UK and costs $1300 in the US (where it has the more specific name of Acer Aspire S3-951-6432), which is enticing, considering the impressive specs list.
A less powerful Core i5 model can be bought for £700 in the UK, while in the US there are three cheaper Core i5 machines, two of which cost $900, while one retails at $1199.
At 1.38kg, the Acer Aspire S3-951 is a similar weight to the other ultrabooks and just slips in under Intel's specified 1.4kg ultrabook weight. Even a skinny eight-year-old could carry this laptop around all day, although we wouldn't trust some whippersnapper with a piece of kit like this.
With a thickness of 19mm at its widest point, the Acer Aspire S3-951 may not be as size-zero slender as the Toshiba Satellite Z830 or Asus Zenbook UX21, but it's certainly thin enough to slide into a backpack, briefcase or even an oversized handbag.
However, even though the lid is impressively slim, it's also tough enough to take a pounding. There's almost no flex in the centre, so the display remains protected even when the laptop is bumping around in a bag. The brushed aluminium surface repels fingerprints and other marks, keeping it clean and shiny.
We were also pleased to see sturdy hinges, which hold the screen still even when you're pounding the keyboard. This solid build quality continues throughout the rest of the chassis. We found no worrying weak spots, although we're not convinced that the Acer Aspire S3-951 would survive a fall from a desk.
One potential peril of compact laptops is that usability might suffer - the reduced chassis space means smaller keyboards, the nemesis of anyone with fat sausage fingers. Thankfully the Acer Aspire S3-951 doesn't suffer too much from its stunted stature.
Shift and Ctrl keys are well-sized, although the Enter key is squashed into a single row and the arrow keys are almost comically tiny. Touch typing was a breeze. We bashed out emails and articles for hours at a time without our hands cramping up, and with minimal errors. While the shallow key travel is unavoidable, it isn't as bad as the Asus Zenbook's (which feels like you're tapping on a solid piece of plastic).
The Acer Aspire S3-951's touchpad is also a decent size, but is cursed with integrated mouse buttons. Instead of having separate mouse buttons, you need to push the left and right corners of the pad down to simulate mouse clicks. Frankly, it's a horrible experience.
Anyone who's used one of these touchpads will know the deal. Often when you push the corners in to select a menu option, the cursor will skip across the screen, leading to incorrect menu selections. Considering how fiddly Windows menus can be, we came close to busting out the power tools and giving the Acer Aspire S3-951 a few new air vents.
Our advice is, stick to tapping the surface for mouse clicks. It's a little hit and miss, but might save your blood pressure.
The Acer Aspire S3-951's compact build means you're stuck with a small screen, but the 13.3-inch display is perfectly serviceable for both business and pleasure. It isn't the brightest screen ever, but the 1366 x 768-pixel resolution means images are sharp.
HD movies look crisp, if not particularly vibrant.
Although 13.3 inches doesn't give you a huge viewing area for the latest blockbuster films, it's perfectly fine when you're on the move and sat right in front of your laptop. The sharp resolution is also perfect when you're working on tables or spreadsheets.
However, the glossy Super-TFT finish is reflective, which is a hindrance if you want to use the Acer Aspire S3-951 outdoors. Anyone who's regularly out and about will prefer the matt screen of the Toshiba Satellite Z830.
Business users will be happy to see an HDMI port and two USB ports crammed onto the rear of the slender chassis. Accessing them is a little awkward, and fans of wired networking should check out the Toshiba Satellite Z830, which has a built-in Ethernet port. However, the Acer Aspire S3-951 is pretty much standard when it comes to ultrabooks.
If you have tons of files to lug around, you'll need to use one of the USB ports to hook up an external hard drive. Despite the specs listing a 240GB solid state drive, the Acer Aspire S3-951 only reported 200GB of storage space available. This fills up far too quickly, especially if you're hoping to carry some music or movies with you, although at least it gives you super speedy and reliable access to your data.
You also have an SD card reader for extra storage.
Aside from that, the Acer Aspire S3-951 is typically light on features. A 1.3MP webcam positioned just above the screen enables you to video chat with mates or colleagues, and that's your lot. However, at least the Acer Aspire S3-951 doesn't come laden with dozens of useless app trials that clog up your hard drive and constantly pester you with annoying pop-ups.
Cinebench 10: 8,827
3D Mark '06: 3,279
Battery Eater '05: 149 minutes
The real selling point of the Acer Aspire S3-951 is the impressive set of components stuffed in its tiny gullet. Gone are the days of clunky low-voltage CPUs plaguing ultra-portable laptops.
The dual-core Intel Core i7 2637M processor stormed through our Cinebench tests, proving well matched to any task we threw at it.
Backed up by 4GB of memory, we had no problem multitasking with all kinds of software. Applications loaded quickly (helped in part by that speedy solid state drive) and ran smoothly. In fact, the Acer Aspire S3-951 proved to be the most powerful ultrabook we've reviewed, narrowly beating the Core i7 Asus Zenbook UX31.
Graphical performance is dependable, thanks to the flexibility of the Sandy Bridge chipset. Although the GPU is integrated, it's still capable of running multimedia software such as photo and video editing suites, without suffering from glitches or crashes.
Of course, you aren't going to get any serious gaming done on an ultrabook. Older games will run as expected, and you won't have any trouble smashing your mates at a game of online Scrabble. But try testing it with a recent FPS game and you'll meet a stuttering mess.
Even when we ran fairly demanding software, we were impressed by how cool and quiet the Acer Aspire S3-951 remained. The SSD obviously helps, because there are no spinning discs to contend with. The area around the vents (positioned at the rear of the laptop) remains cool at all times.
Unfortunately the battery life was a lot less impressive. We ran HD video on loop and were disappointed when the Acer Aspire S3-951 died after just 149 minutes. This isn't a disastrous performance, but it is below average for a modern laptop - we usually get around three hours of movie action before the screen fades to black.
Considering this is an ultrabook built for portability, the result is even more disappointing. The Asus Zenbook, for example, survived for over four hours with the same test. If you're looking for a new laptop, you'll have to seriously consider what's more important to you - performance or longevity.
We've tested the first generation of ultrabooks, and so far we've liked what we've seen.
This attractive blend of performance and portability might not be new (as Apple fanboys will be quick to point out), and we're not sure why it's taken Intel's intervention to stimulate manufacturers into producing mini laptops such as the Acer Aspire S3-951. However, for anyone who's a regular road hog, the ultrabook is an enticing prospect.
The Acer Aspire S3-951's slender chassis may not be as stupefyingly thin or sleek as the Asus Zenbook, but it's still compact enough to fit in almost any bag. It's also impressively tough considering the girth, with a firm lid and tough body.
We were impressed by the excellent Intel Core i7 processor performance, and saw next to no slowdown when running several applications at once. Multimedia software runs fine, and the ultrabook starts up and shuts down in no time at all.
If you need a machine to bash out emails and documents on the move, the Acer Aspire S3-951's keyboard will do the job. It isn't too cramped, despite the compact frame, with the exception of the miniscule arrow keys.
Unfortunately, for a laptop marketed on its portability, the Acer Aspire S3-951's battery life is pants. Just two and a half hours of movie playback on a single charge is below average, even for a bog-standard entry-level laptop.
We also had massive issues with the touchpad. Those integrated mouse buttons are a massive pain, and we resorted to tapping the surface to select menu options instead.
Anyone with a huge media collection will need to cart around an external hard drive, because only 200GB of storage space is available on the 240GB SSD.
While the Acer Aspire S3-951 is a well-built and powerful ultrabook, which offers good value for money, we were more drawn to the Toshiba Satellite Z830 and the Asus Zenbook. However, a cut-price Core i5 version of the Acer Aspire S3-951 can be had if your budget is tight, and nobody will be disappointed by the excellent performance of this Core i7 model.