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Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 review main stock 1020
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 review main stock 1020

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Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG review

Acer redefines the ultrabook, for better and for worse

What is an ultrabook? Intel has a pretty loose definition: as long as your laptop is less than 0.8 inches thin, has five hours of battery life, rapidly wakes from sleep, and has a second-generation Intel Core processor, you're basically part of the club. What "ultrabook" stands for, though, is an entirely different matter. The first wave of ultrabooks were designed specifically to compete with Apple's MacBook Air, and it showed: a teardrop-shaped wedge design, a metal frame, a 13-inch screen, a Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of memory, and integrated Intel graphics featured in almost every machine.

Why do I bring this up? Acer broke the mold. The Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 technically fulfills all of Intel's criteria, but it's nothing like the ultrabooks that came before: it's a 15-inch laptop with a plastic chassis, a low-res screen, a 10-key numpad, and a DVD drive. It's a sleeper, too. Underneath that unassuming polycarbonate exterior lies an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M dedicated graphics chip that can actually play graphically intensive games, unlike any other ultrabook on the market. There are plenty of tradeoffs, though. Are they worth it? Read on.

Hardware

Hardware / design

You could mistake it for higher-quality construction

The Aspire Ultra M3 may be primarily made of plastic, but it's actually a fairly handsome design. Save the gunmetal-grey keyboard tray and a pair of shiny silver Acer logos, the entire chassis has a sleek, textured matte black finish that feels good in the hand, resists fingerprints, and whose polished surfaces gleam when light hits them just right. It's a shame Acer had to cover the palmrest with Intel, Nvidia and Windows logo stickers, but amusingly Acer tries to make them blend in: they're of a greyish silver color that doesn't completely clash with the rest of the design. The lid has a thin aluminum alloy cover of the same matte black, which feels nice and cool to the touch. All in all, the Ultra M3 looks great when turned off, but build quality and ergonomics aren't nearly so good. The laptop's plastic and thin metal components don't make for a rigid enough frame to resist flexing and bending when you press down or even just open the lid, and on our review unit, there's a gap in the seam near the DVD drive and the right side of the keyboard tray bulges slightly. It's not nearly as bad as some plastic laptops I've used, but it feels flimsy and cheap compared to most of the aluminum ultrabooks I've reviewed.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 14.75 x 9.88 0.78 4.45
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
Dell XPS 13 12.4 x 8.1 0.24 - 0.71 2.99
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 12.8 x 8.5 0.58 2.90
Asus Zenbook UX31 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
Acer Aspire S3 12.6 x 8.5 0.51 - 0.68 2.98
Toshiba Portege Z835 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.47
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
Samsung Series 9 12.9 x 8.9 0.62 - 0.64 2.88

With a slimline, tray-loading DVD drive and a full-size SD card slot on the left side of the machine, and all the system's cooling inside the completely bare right, Acer couldn't find any room in the 20mm thin chassis for ports on either side. They're all around the back, every single one, and that means you'll have to reach around your 15-inch screen to plug in the power jack, up to three USB peripherals (including one USB 3.0), or even a pair of headphones. It's a constant annoyance. Gigabit Ethernet and HDMI ports are also around back, which does make some sense for docking purposes, but the location of Acer's power button does not: it's located on the front lip of the laptop, right beneath the touchpad, and it's a travesty. Whether I was holding the front of the laptop to stabilize it while using the touchpad, or simply using it on my lap or carrying it around, I constantly wound up accidentally putting the laptop to sleep or shutting it off by accidentally bumping that power button.

On the plus side, there's a removable upgrade panel on the bottom of the machine: you can swap out memory sticks, the mSATA solid state drive, the mini-PCIe wireless card, or even the 2.5-inch hard drive, with only a few minutes and a miniature Philips screwdriver to do so. The hard drive bay comes empty if you start with an SSD, so adding loads of magnetic storage is an exceptionally easy upgrade.

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Screen / Speakers

Screen and speakers

Pixel density enthusiasts need not apply
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If you buy the Acer Ultra M3, you'll be settling for one of the worst screens on an ultrabook yet. Like the display on the Dell XPS 13, it's a glossy 1366 x 768 LCD panel with truly terrible viewing angles, except here it's even worse: Acer's bumped up the size to 15 inches without increasing the resolution. What that means in plain English is that you can see some rough edges on your icons and in your images, and despite the physical size of the screen, there's not a lot of virtual real estate for multitasking. If you tilt the screen even slightly up or down, the colors will begin to invert or wash out, and there's not a single position you can place your head where the top and bottom edges of the screen will simultaneously display accurate color. It's also got a fairly large plastic bezel, and the hinges aren't as firm as I'd like: the screen is prone to shake slightly while typing.

At the very top of the chassis, right underneath the LCD screen, there's a logo that reads "Dolby Home Theatre | Professionally Tuned." If I were a professional working for Dolby, I'd probably try to sue. The speakers on the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 aren't just the worst I've heard on a laptop, they could possibly be the worst drivers I've ever heard on a device of any sort, including the tiny ones that go into cheap pack-in earbuds, corporate speakerphones, and the occasional singing birthday card. I might be exaggerating a tiny bit, but a quick listen of Adele's "Rumor Has It" made me wince, as the harsh, muddy sounds squelched their way out of the plastic echo chambers beneath the palmrests. Oh, did I forget to mention that Acer pointed the speakers straight down? If you use the Ultra M3 on a flat surface (or worse, your lap) you can add "muffled" to the list of adjectives describing their terrible sound.

Keyboard / Trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

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It's hard for an established manufacturer to make a truly bad PC keyboard these days, with years of practice under their belt, and user opinions can differ on what makes for a "good" keyboard, anyhow. Still, it's self-evident that Acer's keyboard isn't up to spec: the keys feel cheap, shallow, mushy and plasticy, and the keyboard tray flexes when you use them. They're basically the same set of flat, flimsy keys we disliked on the Acer Aspire S3, right down to the half-a-peanut sized arrow keys that double as volume and brightness adjustments. This time you also get a 10-key numpad that's equally troublesome. I wouldn't call the keyboard an absolute dealbreaker, though, unless you plan to type in the dark. There's no backlight.

One of the nice things about a 15-inch laptop is you can usually avoid touching the trackpad while you're typing on the keyboard, so even if palm rejection is poor, you probably won't accidentally cause a catastrophic incident by clicking something you didn't want to. Unfortunately, Acer doesn't take full advantage of that fact, as the Ultra M3's single-button Elan touchpad typically errs on the side of taking too much effort to use. It sometimes feels like you need to press down with a little effort to get two finger scrolling and other gestures to work reliably.

Between that effort and a lack of inertial scrolling, it can feel like a chore to slide down long lists with the default touchpad settings, but assuming you're technologically savvy enough to find the drivers, you can adjust them quite a bit. Also, the textured plastic surface feels good and you can tap-to-click fairly well, although the touchpad's physical button is pretty shallow. Honestly, it's surprisingly decent as far as Windows touchpads go. You will probably want to turn Drag and Drop off, though. Theoretically, if you tap an object twice and then drag, that object will follow your cursor until you let go, but in practice the Elan touchpad seemed to like to drag and drop even when I merely brushed objects on my way past them.

A surprisingly decent touchpad and a cheap keyboard
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Performance

Performance

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My Acer Ultra M3 review unit came with a dual-core 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-2637M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive, not to mention that Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU with 1GB of dedicated memory. It's a potent combination, to be sure. As usual, the silicon had no trouble powering through most Windows tasks, and I used it for two full days of work with plenty of Flash video, constant push email, music playing in the background, and dozens of auto-refreshing browser tabs, plus the occasional DVD movie, PDFs and photo editing software. The Ultra M3 uses a Lite-On SSD, just like the Razer Blade, but it's a faster one: the Lite-On LMT-256M3M booted into Windows in just 15 seconds, fully loading the operating system and startup apps in under 22 seconds in total. I also measured sequential read speeds of 492 MB/sec and 340 MB/sec writes, impressive considering the size of the drive, and the laptop woke from sleep in just around 1.6 seconds, our fastest result yet for an ultrabook.

Gaming

If you're seriously considering the Ultra M3, though, I'm guessing you've got games on the brain. While I'm afraid even the highest-specced Ultra M3 can't truly run Battlefield 3 at ultra settings and maintain a playable framerate — I averaged 23.37 frames per second in my benchmark run, which is quite low for a fast-paced shooting game — it is most definitely playable at medium settings, where I managed to keep the framerate in the high 30s and low 40s, and you can even bump it up to high settings if you're willing to tolerate slowdown during firefights. To put things in perspective, Battlefield 3 is probably one of the most graphically intensive games on PC, and to see it even run at medium on a laptop this thin is something special.

1366 x 768 resolution aside, these are impressive scores

Older games, like my benchmark favorite Just Cause 2, can run at maximum settings at up to 50FPS, and even add some anti-aliasing to smooth out the jagged edges without suffering greatly. For comparison, most other ultrabooks we tested could barely break 10FPS at the same level of detail. Skyrim, meanwhile, was nice and playable at high settings, varying between roughly 30FPS and 50FPS depending on the action.

Score
Windows Experience Index 5.6
PCMark Vantage 11,896
3DMark Vantage P6,813
X3,489
3DMark 11 P1,783
X586
3DMark 06 11,201
Just Cause 2 bench 50 fps
Boot Resume
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 15 1.6
HP Envy 14 Spectre 24 2.0
Dell XPS 13 17 1.8
Asus Zenbook UX31 20 2.0

HP Folio 13 33
4.8

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 25 4.9

*All times measured in seconds

The Ultra M3 has a couple of quirks you should probably be aware of, though. First, you're going to need to keep the AC adapter with you to enjoy its full potential, because game framerate plummets when the laptop isn't plugged into the wall. Nvidia confirmed that the system throttles itself when it's not plugged in, and there's no simple way to override that in software, so all the gaming and theoretical benchmarks you see here were run with the laptop constantly powered. Second, I'm not sure the Ultra M3's current display drivers are entirely stable. On three separate occasions, the machine blue-screened while I was running a game, and blamed those drivers for the failure. Mind you, the current Kepler drivers are in beta, and Nvidia's got a pretty good track record for updates, so I imagine issues will get ironed out soon. If you're buying an Ultra M3 tomorrow, though, it could be an issue.

Before you install those games, you'll probably want to spend some time removing gobs of bloatware, too, including trial versions of McAfee Internet Security, Norton Online Backup, NTI Media Maker, and MyWinLocker, as well as NewsXpresso, AUPEO! Personal Radio, Fooz Kids, a reskinned WildTangent called Acer Games, the Bing Bar, Nook, a pair of cheap Acer-branded iPhoto and iTunes look-alikes, and website shortcuts to eBay and Netflix. There are constant reminders to register bits and pieces of software, unless you nip them in the bud. It's not a pretty sight.

Battery / noise / heat

Battery life, noise, and heat

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While I obviously wasn't able to tell how long you can actually play games on the Ultra M3's battery (and that's kind of a shame), the non-removable lithium-ion pack actually did fairly with daily tasks. The system managed 5 hours and 42 minutes in our official Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res imagery with the screen brightness set to 65 percent, and I was able to get a full five hours of real-world use on two seperate occasions. Obviously that's not nearly as good as the eight hours of battery life that Acer and Nvidia promise and slightly behind the likes of a MacBook Pro running OS X, but it's well above average for a 15-inch laptop with gaming chops and not bad for an ultrabook either.

For everyday use, the Ultra M3 runs fairly cool and quiet, but that's not the case with games: the fan gets noisy, and the right rear corner can get uncomfortably hot when playing. Between the heat and the fact that you'd be obstructing a vent, you won't want to play anything with the laptop on your actual lap. That said, it's not too bad with the notebook placed on a desk, and both the palmrests and all-important WASD keys stay cool if you do that.

It gets hot in the least offensive spot
Battery Life
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:42
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
MacBook Air (13-inch, late 2011) 6:19
Asus Zenbook UX31 5:31
HP Folio 13 7:07
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
5:33
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27 / 10:34*
*With slice battery

As a traditional ultrabook, the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 isn't really a success. On almost every metric that matters for a portable machine, it falls short of the rest. As a 15-inch gaming laptop, though, it all comes down to price.

Acer needs to make these premium game-playing components affordable enough to offset the terrible speakers, poor screen, and so-so design, but he company hasn't yet revealed when the machine will come to the US, or what it might cost when it arrives. Ultra-low voltage Core i7 processors don't come cheap, and neither do brand-new Nvidia Kepler GPUs or speedy solid state drives. Acer tells us that the Ultra M3 chassis is currently on sale in Europe starting at €699 (roughly $927 USD), but that only includes a Core i3 CPU and integrated graphics, so it's hardly the same machine at all. Meanwhile, the full Core i7 / GT 640M / 256GB SSD I tested costs €1,299, or approximately $1,722 in US money. That said, we're hearing that the laptop might actually start at $799. If Acer can position the Ultra M3 as a loss leader and toss in a gaming GPU for that kind of money, it could possibly be worth the cash: there are definitely gamers looking for a portable machine who are willing to compromise on quality if they can get it for cheap. I used to be one myself.

Regardless of the fate of the Ultra M3, two things are for sure:

  1. Thin and light gaming PCs are nearly within reach.
  2. The word "ultrabook" doesn't mean all that much anymore.

Note: The score below doesn't reflect the price of the Ultra M3 at all. We'll be waiting on a price from Acer before we can give the laptop a final score.

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