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Acer Aspire M5 review: the affordable all-purpose ultrabook

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Gallery Photo: Acer M5 555 300 1020 etc
Gallery Photo: Acer M5 555 300 1020 etc

Battlefield 3 on a power-sipping ultrabook? They said it couldn't be done. In March, however, Acer and Nvidia proved them wrong. Behind closed doors at the 2012 Game Developer's Conference, the sleek black 15.6-inch Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 ran the demanding game, thanks to a brand-new Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics chip with more bang per watt than anything else we'd seen. Unfortunately for the world, most every other part of that laptop was sorely lacking in quality, and the Timeline M3 was shelved.

That is, until Acer decided to turn that machine into the best bang-for-the-buck laptop on the market. The new Acer Aspire M5 starts at just $629.99 in the US for a solid set of ultrabook specs inside a much-improved chassis, and upgrades are relatively cheap: the $779.99 model adds dedicated GeForce GT 640M LE graphics for gaming, and for $799.99 you can find a touchscreen variant with Windows 8.

Over the past few months, we've put both the touchscreen and game-capable models of the 14-inch Aspire M5 to the test, and we've been pleased with what we've found. In fact, we've already featured the laptop in our Back to School and Holiday Gift Guides due to the results. If you've been holding off on a purchase, though, this review should help you decide once and for all. Let's take a close look at just why the Aspire M5 is worth your consideration, and where Acer still has room for improvement.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Learning from failure

You won't be turning many heads with the 14-inch Aspire M5, but that doesn't mean it isn't a handsome machine. Like its predecessor, it's rather thick compared to your average MacBook Air lookalike (around 0.81 inches) and it's primarily made of plastic, but Acer still put some real thought into the look and feel of this PC. The brushed aluminum lid and palmrest give the M5 a dull sheen, while the fiberglass-infused plastic base is practically as light and rigid as aluminum but better at insulating your lap from heat.

Where most cheap laptops have ugly, glossy plastic screen bezels, the M5 has a matte soft-touch rubber finish on the hinges and edges of the screen. On the original, that bezel is still pretty chunky, but the touchscreen model is nice and slim with edge-to-edge glass to facilitate Windows 8 gestures. The touchscreen unit is a couple of millimeters thicker, with has a silver base that blends nicely into the metal deck, while the original M5 has a slimming black base with a nice gritty, grippy texture. The chassis is quite solid, with very little flex even in the keyboard tray. The screen hinges happily hold the display at any angle you choose and yet you can still open the lid with one hand.

In short, you get most of the pros of metal and plastic without the cons of either one. Not bad for $629.

Twin laptops separated at birth

Port placement is where the M5 stumbles slightly. Acer actually includes a tray-loading DVD burner on the left edge, which can come in handy here and there, and there's an SD card slot and 3.5mm headphone jack on the right side. Some of Acer's most crucial ports, though, are on the notebook's behind. You have to reach all the way around the screen to get at the two USB 3.0 sockets, plug in the power cable, or make use of wired Ethernet or full-size HDMI video output. While some users might appreciate getting those cords out of the way of their mousing surface, for me it was pretty annoying. The rear-mounted USB ports are particularly difficult if you've got a thick USB dongle, like a chunky flash drive or cellular modem. If you tilt the screen past a certain angle, you can't fit them anymore.

The most controversial design decision on the Acer M5, though, is probably the placement of the power button. It's on the laptop's front edge. When I reviewed Acer's Timeline M3 and the Aspire S7, I constantly found myself accidentally turning off the laptop by pressing the edge-mounted power buttons with parts of my body. Surprisingly, it's not as quite much of an issue here. I haven't bumped it yet. Placed where it is, on the front right corner of the machine, it's not in a place where I typically touch a laptop. Still, your mileage may vary.

Screen / speakers

Screen and speakers

Acer shows its weaknesses

The Aspire M5 does not have a good screen. Everything looks washed out: the closest you'll get to black is a dark grey... unless you physically tilt the screen back so far that colors start to invert. I can also clearly see faint dark lines between rows of pixels from a normal viewing distance, particularly along color gradients. At 14 inches, the panel's 1366 x 768 resolution is also not dense enough to keep icons and text from looking pixelated, and there's not a lot of desktop real estate to speak of. The screen isn't a dealbreaker at this price — it didn't make my eyes bleed — but if you care about the visuals, you're going to want a more expensive machine. I shudder to think what the larger 15.6-inch M5-581 model's screen looks like, considering it will have even lower pixel density at 1366 x 768 resolution.

The M5's speakers are also not great, but they're not nearly as ludicrously bad as they were on the M3. The fiberglass-reinforced polymer frame makes a slightly better sound chamber than the previous cheap plastic did, and combined with Dolby Home Theatre processing they're no longer unbearable. They're tinny and harsh for music, and point straight down from the bottom of the laptop, which makes them easily muffled if you place them on an uneven surface, like your lap. Still, I watched some episodes of Castle on the M5, and I could hear Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic suggestively banter without experiencing any real displeasure. The speakers are merely harsh enough to serve as a constant reminder that headphones would be much better.

Keyboard / touchpad

Keyboard and touchpad


Flat, shallow, stiff, and cheap: these adjectives describe the feel of the Acer Aspire M5's black chiclet keys. They're not so exceptionally stiff and shallow to keep me from typing this entire review on the laptop itself, but I wouldn't call them a joy to use. Unlike the keys on Acer's Aspire S7, it can take a firm press to get them to reliably actuate, so it can be tiresome after a while. The full size keyboard layout isn't cramped, though, which is a plus. You get a half-height function row on top, a vertical row of Home, Page Up, Page Down and End keys on the right, and Acer's typical peanut-sized arrow keys. You'll need to hold down the Fn key to access hardware shortcuts like brightness and volume adjustments, which I actually like. One major improvement since the M3: the whole keyboard has LED backlighting.

If you do buy an Aspire M5, do not pass Go, do not collect $200: go straight to Acer's support webpage and download some touchpad drivers to replace the terrible ones that ship with the system. Without them, the touchpad sensitivity is totally out of whack: I'd end up launching random applications even when my finger wasn't physically touching the pad. With fresh drivers, the cursor control can actually be quite good, above average for a Windows notebook, but even then the Synaptics touchpad still has some issues with gestures. Pinch-to-zoom response is slow and jittery, and the M5 had some difficulty with two-finger scrolling, too. The touchpad seemed to scroll properly most of the time when I slid two fingers down, but when I pushed two fingers up the pad, the laptop often wouldn't recognize what I was doing.

Drivers wanted
Touchscreen / gaming

Touchscreen... or gaming?

Touchscreen (M5-481PT)

If you're considering an Aspire M5-481PT, though, the touchpad won't be your only option. The M5-481PT comes with a 10-point capacitive touchscreen to help you control Windows 8. In order to support the Windows 8 edge gestures, there's more glass on this unit, and less of the soft-touch grey bezel. It not only looks better, but the touchscreen works quite well, too. Still, I worry about the durability long-term. Every time I touch the screen, I can see the liquid ripple at the edges. Generally, manufacturers protect their touchscreens a little bit better.

The touchscreen really adds something to the Windows 8 experience.I'm finding it hard to go back. For one thing, the M5 hinge opens nearly 180 degrees, so you can hold it up like a tablet if you balance the rest of the machine on your lap. For another, even in laptop mode, I constantly found myself reaching up to the screen to swap between apps, scroll up and down, and even snap programs to the left and right of the screen in the Windows desktop.

If you're interested, the touchscreen-equipped M5-481PT is a Best Buy exclusive in the United States, for $799.99.



Gaming (M5-481TG)

If you don't need a touchscreen, there's another option you might really want to consider: the Aspire M5-481TG, which comes with Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE switchable graphics instead. "LE" might as well stand for "low-end," as it's not nearly as powerful a GPU as the original GT 640M, but it's still got quite a bit of oomph. I was able to run Battlefield 3 on low settings at the native 1366 x 768 resolution and maintain well over 30 frames per second, and it can run on medium in a pinch. In Max Payne 3, I managed to play through the first two levels at native resolution with all settings set to normal (except tessellation), and didn't have much difficulty.

Acer doesn't seem to offer a laptop with both the touchscreen and the dedicated graphics in the United States, but if you're interested, look for the M5-481PTG in parts of Europe and Asia.

Performance / software

Performance and software


For $629.99, the 14-inch Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 runs Windows on a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor with 4GB of memory, a 500GB, 5400RPM hard drive and a 20GB solid state cache. That basic set of specs doesn't change if you step up to the $779.99 model with Nvidia graphics, but the $799.99 touchscreen unit bumps the memory total to 6GB of RAM. Either way, you're looking at enough power to handle most any basic task you can throw at the system. I found both Windows 7 and Windows 8 versions of the system hummed along nicely with multiple push email accounts, a little bit of HD video, Pandora Radio playing in the background, and loads of auto-refreshing Chrome browser tabs.

Still, the M5 wasn't quite as responsive as other ultrabooks I've tested. Since Acer opted for a relatively slow 500GB hard drive and a small SSD cache rather than a pure solid state storage configuration, there's a lot more space, but the tradeoff is a little bit of speed. I often noticed it took a second or four longer than I expected to open an application, load a list of files, or switch to a Windows 8 app, and it's a little jarring to not have a program instantly react when you tap on it with the touchscreen. It also took up to 30 seconds to boot the M5, regardless of whether Windows 7 or Windows 8 was installed, and up to five seconds for it to wake from sleep. Both of those numbers are acceptable, and honestly faster than many laptops built just a couple years ago, but so far our Windows 8 machines have been booting a bit faster.

Also, be prepared to spend some of your first moments with the system cleaning up your desktop. Acer bundles quite a few applications with the Aspire M5, ranging the gamut from possibly useful (Netflix, Hulu Plus) to annoying (shortcuts to eBay and Amazon, a trial of McAfee Internet Security, WildTangent Games) to a whole host of apps Acer cooked up of dubious utility. Perhaps the most annoying part is that on Windows 8 (which we reviewed in full right here), Acer duplicates all the bloat across the classic desktop in addition to your Start menu. On the touch-equipped Acer M5, the Acer Ring is an interesting addition, though. If you tap five fingers on the screen anywhere, at any time, no matter whether you're using the Windows 8 Start Screen or the classic desktop mode, you'll pull up a responsive touchscreen interface that lets you quickly access computer settings and multimedia... although it seems you can only play them with Acer's own homebrew applications.

Battery / noise / heat

Battery life, noise, and heat


I think this is the first time in recent memory I've been able to say this: a laptop manufacturer has balanced the equation of battery life, noise, and heat while maintaining some degree of thinness. The Aspire M5 has a fan running the whole time, but it's nice and quiet unless you're seriously stressing the system. No part of the system gets hotter than what I'd describe as "comfortably warm" at any given time. And perhaps most importantly, I got well over five hours of real-world battery life, time and again.

With our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with the screen set to 65 percent brightness until the laptop dies, I clocked 5 hours, 34 minutes on the touchscreen-equipped M5-481PT and 5 hours, 37 minutes on the M5-481TG with Nvidia graphics. That's just about on par with the latest MacBook Air. I also do a separate real-world test, though, with my full workload and varying brightness depending on the conditions, and that's where most Windows laptops fall short. Here, though, I got over five hours of work with either system. We're still a long ways from all-day battery life, but again, that's pretty good for a $630 investment.

Acer balances the laptop anxiety trifecta
Battery Life
Acer Aspire M5-481TG 5:37
Acer Aspire M5-481PT 5:34
Dell XPS 12 4:33
Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch) 3:55
HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 5:11
Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13 5:08
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
HP Envy Spectre XT 5:21
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, X3C) 5:19
Dell XPS 13 4:55

Not everything to everyone, but still an easy recommendation

The Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 isn't close to a perfect laptop, but it ticks so many of the right boxes for so many people that it has some real appeal. The lackluster screen and speakers make it an iffy choice for a purely multimedia machine, and it's not as stylish or responsive as some of the bleeding-edge ultrabooks we've seen. But for an on-the-go individual looking for a computer with solid battery life, a durable chassis, a Windows 8 touchscreen or game-capable graphics, and a very reasonable price point, the 14-inch Aspire M5 is a fantastic deal.

Not everything to everyone, but still an easy recommendation

The Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 isn't close to a perfect laptop, but it ticks so many of the right boxes for so many people that it has some real appeal. The lackluster screen and speakers make it an iffy choice for a purely multimedia machine, and it's not as stylish or responsive as some of the bleeding-edge ultrabooks we've seen. But for an on-the-go individual looking for a computer with solid battery life, a durable chassis, a Windows 8 touchscreen or game-capable graphics, and a very reasonable price point, the 14-inch Aspire M5 is a fantastic deal.