Acer Aspire S3 £828
10th Oct 2014 | 14:04
An Ultrabook-style laptop with dedicated gaming hardware
Introduction and design
The Acer Aspire S3 is an Ultrabook-style laptop with a difference. It's quite light, portable and good-looking, but also incorporates a dedicated graphics processor, making it one of the few laptops in its class that could be called a gaming device.
What's the price of this sort of versatility? The Acer Aspire S3 with the Nvidia GeForce 735M costs £799 (around US$1280, AU$1470), which is no more expensive than some Ultrabooks with effectively no gaming skills at all. Where you pay for it is with the battery life, so this isn't quite the perfect mix of all worlds – but it's not bad at all.
The Acer Aspire S3 has been around in various guises for a few years now, but the 2014 edition is quite a departure from the old models. Where the original Aspire S3 was quite rightly regarded as a bit of a MacBook Air rip-off in its looks, the new version looks a lot closer to the Acer Aspire S7, an Ultrabook with a snazzy glass lid.
In order to keep costs down, the Acer Aspire S3's lid isn't made of glass, but it still looks and feels as if it is. The aluminium frame is lacquered with several layers of glossy paint, providing a look quite unlike the metal underneath.
The rest of the Acer Aspire S3 design is sound, if not quite as pristine and perfect as the very priciest, prettiest Ultrabooks. The prevalence of obvious seams and the slightly uneven distribution of the chunky screen bezel mean it's not as pretty as a MacBook Air. But then few laptops are.
In practical terms, the Acer Aspire S3 is very good. It weighs 1.55kg and is 17.8mm thick at its thickest point. The S3 doesn't match the thinnest or lightest of Ultrabooks, but a couple of deliberate design choices prohibit that from being remotely possible.
First, there's the use of dedicated graphics: the vast majority of slim laptops use graphics processors integrated into the central processor chipset. There's also the storage type inside.
The Acer Aspire S3 uses a hybrid drive, which provides 500GB of traditional hard drive storage and 16GB of solid state memory to grease the system's cogs for the kind of instant-on performance people expect from an Ultrabook. Hard drives are, generally speaking, chunkier than SSDs. But they are also far cheaper if you want a decent amount of storage.
Unless the other laptop in contention for your cash is a 13-inch MacBook Air, which is significantly lighter at 1.35kg, the little sacrifices in dimensions aren't worth worrying about too much. Even the dedicated GPU-free, SSD-equipped Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite is still 1.44kg and 17mm thick. A clear difference? Yes, but not a grand one.
The connections you get on the body are sound for an Ultrabook. There are two USB 3.0 ports and another USB 2.0 one, plus an HDMI port for connection to a monitor or TV. There's also an SD card slot with a plastic bung to keep it free of grime when not in use. All the connections are on the sides, with the back reserved for a heat outlet.
There's no Ethernet port, though. Instead there's an Acer Converter port, which is a proprietary socket. With a separate (not included) cable, you can turn this into a VGA port, or a RJ45/VGA/USB 2.0 combo. What's missing? The obvious one is a Mini DisplayPort.
Display and keyboard
The Acer Aspire S3 bodywork is decent, if not quite deserving of any superlatives. It's the same story with the screen.
You get a 13.3-inch 1080p IPS screen offering a bright backlight, vibrant colours and the great viewing angles you normally get with IPS. It's a strong display, much better than the TN-type screen used in previous generations of Aspire S3. The tone of the screen is quite warm, giving whites a slightly yellow tone that skews the colours in general, but it's not too serious and the look of the display is perfectly pleasant. Viewing angles are good too.
The screen rotates around a full 180 degrees too, making it pretty easy to share the display – although obviously it's not quite as flexible as a removable screen tablet-laptop hybrid, or one that rotates around 360 degrees like the Lenovo Yoga. It's a 'normal' laptop screen in this respect.
The Acer Aspire S3's display has a standard glossy finish, making it a bit tricky to use outdoors. It doesn't have the nova-like brightness required to make using a laptop on a sunny day easy either, but few laptops do.
As you'd expect of a modern Windows Ultrabook, the screen is touch-enabled and supports 10-point multitouch. There's a fair bit of bezel around the actual display, but the entire top of the display is a single pane of glass, giving it that higher-end look.
You can expect future generations of Aspire S3 (if they come to be) to have QHD displays, and possibly ones that fill more of the screen surround. But Acer has really got the basics right this time – in previous generations they were distinctly iffy.
The Acer Aspire S3 has a keyboard typical of a slim and light laptop. It uses chiclet keys that poke through the single-piece aluminium keyboard surround, and their action is a little on the shallow side.
While the usual letter keys are large enough to allow for typing that doesn't feel cramped, the keys at the laptop's edges have had to be crushed together a little in order to fit everything in. The Caps lock is tiny, as is the left shift, and there are no dedicated function buttons.
Instead, almost half of the laptop's keys take on secondary duties, often for keys that might have their own buttons even in a slim laptop. It's because the Acer Aspire S3 is effectively missing a whole extra row of buttons compared with a full-size keyboard. You'll have to use the Fn button even more than usual here.
Why the Aspire S3 is quite so key-frugal is a bit of a mystery. There's a great big expanse of aluminium between the top of the keyboard and the screen, where keys would presumably have been fitted.
Of course, this could also have something to do with the Aspire S3 having to fit a graphics card, which may theoretically mandate a smaller-form keyboard. Yes, we're clutching at straws a bit here. But at worst it means the keyboard just takes a bit more getting used to, as its actual typing experience is sound. We were happy enough using as our main computer for a few days.
Another unfortunate effect of the keyboard's layout is that the trackpad is a little on the small side. There's plenty of room along the horizontal, but a little more room on the vertical scale would have been welcome for things like 3-finger gestures.
While clearly MacBook-inspired in its execution, the trackpad is not all that great in use either. There's a bit of pre-click give to the trackpad, and a light press actually functions as a click anyway, making the actual trackpad click a mere 'for show' extra. If this is deliberate, we'd much rather see Acer adopt a lighter trackpad action than have this odd two-stage approach.
However, the actual surface of the Aspire S3's trackpad is quite nice. It uses a similar sort of treated glass as the top Ultrabooks, offering a smooth surface that's less tacky feeling than plastic-derived trackpads.
One thing we're quite glad to see is an absence of brand tie-ins in the Acer Aspire S3. There are no Beats by Dre speakers on this computer, sucking up even more cash as marketing spend.
However, the speakers are actually fairly good. They fire from each side of the laptop, giving at least the person using the thing a good sense of stereo.
While there isn't an extra subwoofer driver to provide actual bass (or an approximation of it), the speakers go fairly loud and offer some of the mid-range bulk that's so often missing from laptop speakers. They'll more than do the trick for the odd YouTube video. It's good to see fair speaker performance in a slim laptop that doesn't boast too much about its internal speakers.
We have no such kind words for the webcam. You get a basic 720p webcam and its footage is very noisy with indoor lighting, where it's most likely to be used.
Stills capture is no better either – pictures are very noisy and low on detail.
Most of the Acer Aspire S3's specs are typical of a mid-range Ultrabook. You get an Intel Core i5 4200U, a pretty battery-conscious 1.6GHz dual-core CPU.
It's no cut-price solution, though – the lower-end version of the Acer Aspire S7 uses the same chipset. What's more likely to prove a bit of a performance bottleneck for some is the 4GB of RAM.
Most Ultrabooks at this price have 4GB of RAM, but if you're going to be doing any video editing or Photoshop editing of lots of high-resolution images at once, you may be better off with an 8GB laptop. There is no 8GB version of the Aspire S3, though, as it's intended largely as an entry-level model filling space between Acer's lower-frills laptops and the Aspire S7.
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 36838; Cloud Gate: 4853; Fire Strike: 1033
- Cinebench Graphics: 35.14 fps; CPU: 226 points
- PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2286 points
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours 26 minutes
In the PCMark 8 benchmark, the Acer Aspire S3 scores 2286 points, which is just what we'd expect from such a setup. It's similar power to what's on offer in the mid-spec Surface Pro 3, which has an Intel Core i5 4300U processor.
In terms of productivity, the limits depend more on your patience than the Aspire S3's specs. It's capable of running just about anything, it's just not a powerhouse.
Of course, in a laptop like this we're just as interested in its gaming performance. The Acer Aspire S3 is one of just a few slim laptops to offer dedicated graphics hardware.
Here's the full spec sheet of the laptop:
- CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U
- Graphics: GeForce 735M 1GB
- RAM: 4GB DDR3 SDRAM
- Screen: 13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080 IPS
- Storage: 500GB with 16GB SSD storage
- Ports: 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, HDMI-out, SD, Acer converter socket, headphone jack
- Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
- Camera: 720p webcam
- Weight: 1.55kg
- Size: 323.5 x 225 x 17.8mm
It has a GeForce 735M card with 1GB of RAM. This is a fair bit better than the integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics you'd get in a rival without a dedicated GPU. For example, its 1033 Fire Strike 3DMark score is about 70% better than what you'd get from an Intel HD 4400.
However, gamers looking for a true gaming Ultrabook need to manage their expectations. The GeForce 735M is a low-end card, and can only really handle fairly old games at anything but low-end settings. Don't buy the Aspire S3 thinking you'll be able to play some of the latest console ports at 1080p with AA and high detail settings.
For a more real-life test, we tried out Two Worlds II, released in late 2010. At 1080p resolution without AA, but with high detail and full shadow/lighting effect there were pretty bad frame rate dips as soon as we came to any busy moments or physics-heavy sections.
We needed to drop down to 1600 x 900 resolution to make the game playable, or reduce things like shadows, bloom lighting effects and texture detail to mid or low levels. The game still looks good, but let's remember – this is with a four year-old game. It still seems likely that the 735M will surpass the next generation, Intel Broadwell, integrated GPU performance at this Core i5 level, but it probably won't be too far off.
General performance is fairly good thanks to the 16GB SSD, which is used to offer faster booting from both a quick sleep and from cold. Just close down the Aspire S3 briefly and you'll be back up and running within about two seconds, or it takes around 10-12 seconds to boot the laptop from an actual shutdown. That's not bad.
We didn't find that the Aspire S3 got at all hot with general productivity use, staying mostly silent. If you're going to work in a very quiet environment you may notice the little clicks and whirrs of the laptop's HDD, but it's nothing major.
So you get the performance you expect from an Ultrabook, plus a smidge of extra gaming capability without adding a great deal to the Aspire S3's weight or thickness. What's not to like?
Whether it's down to the use of a dedicated GPU or relatively small 4-cell battery or, more likely, a combination of both, battery stamina is not very good for a device of this class. In our PCMark 8 battery benchmark, which measures general productivity/light gaming stamina with maximum screen brightness, the Acer Aspire S3 lasted for just three hours 26 minutes.
When using the laptop as normal work computer with brightness set around the 50% mark, we were able to increase this to around five hours. However, when you consider that the MacBook Air lasts for up to 13 hours, and the Acer Aspire S7 lasts for a good half hour more in the max brightness PCMark 8 test, it's an altogether disappointing result.
The Acer Aspire S3 is a mostly pleasant laptop with a light focus on gaming that may appeal to those looking for a work computer that can double up for some downtime fun. There are some minor quirks to the keyboard and trackpad, but the one thing that really holds it back is battery life. It's just not remotely close to the best out there, and stamina really matters in a portable laptop like this.
Adding dedicated graphics hasn't taken too much away from the slim and light body, which is good to see, and the 1080p IPS screen is just what we're after in a laptop like this, even if it has been superseded resolution-wise.
Performance is sound thanks to an Intel Core i5 processor and 16GB SSD cache.
Battery life is not great for an Ultrabook, missing out on all-day use away from the power plug. And while the GeForce 735M is a welcome addition, it's simply not very powerful.
There are also some questionable elements to the keyboard/trackpad design.
The Acer Aspire S3 isn't a top performer in any category, but it's an interesting splicing of an Ultrabook and a less portable laptop with its hybrid hard drive and dedicated GPU. It's a combo that works too, but the disappointing battery life will certainly put off a few potential buyers.