Since the introduction of the MacBook Air in early 2008, the market has been flooded with laptop models meant to replicate the experience provided by Apple's flagship machine. Along these lines, Intel introduced the marketing term ultrabook, meant to define a class of higher-end laptops that are reduced in size and weight but without compromise of battery life or overall performance. The Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook that I recently tested is a member of this category of machines.

 Figure 1: Acer Aspire S3
Figure 1: Acer Aspire S3

The demo unit that Acer provided me with for the purpose of this review came equipped with an Intel Core i5 processor (1.6GHz) with 4GB of RAM, a hybrid hard-disk solution, 13.3" Widescreen eXtended Graphics Array (WXGA) display, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The hybrid hard-disk solution consisted of a 320GB magnetic disk and 20GB solid state disk (SSD). I spent three full days using the Aspire S3 as my primary work machine to see how well an IT pro would fare using such a machine.

I was pleased that the machine proved capable at meeting my everyday workload. I was able to connect to my wireless LAN (WLAN) without any issues and loaded the machine with my usual gamut of applications, including Microsoft Office 2010, Google Chrome, and a plethora of utilities such as PuTTY and the Sysinternals Suite of tools. All of my applications performed well without any noticeable performance problems. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have no need to run a hypervisor on my laptop for demos or testing. If I did, it's unlikely that this machine would be able to pass muster. However, for my daily use, its performance proved more than adequate.

Disappointments

I was disappointed, however, that the machine included some preinstalled software that I would have otherwise chosen not to install. The installed Bing toolbar, for example, was one of the first applications that I removed. I won't dispute the usefulness of such software, but most IT pros (myself included) prefer to start with as blank a slate as possible when configuring machines. This problem was highlighted by the inclusion of McAfee anti-malware software, which immediately nagged me to connect to the Internet and update it on my first boot of the laptop. I didn't even have the chance to connect the laptop to my WLAN before this occurred. If this were my own machine and not a review unit, I would've likely stopped at this point and wiped the machine completely so I could start from a clean slate.

I was further disappointed to see a hybrid hard-disk solution instead of an SSD, but the laptop didn't seem to suffer from it, with the exception of some extra heat and the accompanying hard disk noise. What did impact my day-to-day usage was the placement of the USB ports. The laptop's two USB ports are located on the rear of the unit in the center where they were hard to get to. I was constantly reaching behind the machine to ensure that any USB disk or wireless WAN (WWAN) adapter I installed wasn't being bent or otherwise coming out of the port due to my movement of the machine around my office during the day. There appears to be ample space on the left and right sides of the unit, so I can't be sure why Acer didn't include at least one USB port on either side.

Impressed with Three-cell Battery

I was impressed with the three-cell battery, which provided me with approximately four hours of continuous use. I didn't alter my computer usage during testing and was often running multiple applications. I had the screen brightness set to approximately 50 percent, and Wi-Fi was always on. I also didn't deter from using browser add-ins, such as Adobe Flash Player or Java. The battery life proved capable in all of these situations.

I felt the display, keyboard, and trackpad were only adequate. I would've preferred a matte display over the glossy one Acer chose to use, but this is more a personal choice than a ding against the machine. The keyboard felt fine to type on, but I would've preferred if there were more contrast between the keyboard and the laptop itself. Both are a shade of platinum, leaving little contrast, thereby making the keyboard harder to use in low-light situations. As for the trackpad, I initially had some trouble with it not registering clicks, but I was able to remedy this by turning off the "tap to click" feature and adjusting the sensitivity with a Control Panel applet.

Nothing to get overly excited about

My only major complaint is that there isn't anything about this laptop to get overly excited about. Having used and personally owned dozens of laptops over the past two decades, there isn't anything that the Aspire S3 does to make me want to go out and buy the product immediately. That being said, overall Acer has done a good job with its first entry in the ultrabook category. Aspire S3 is a fine choice to put on your shopping list if you're looking for a MacBook Air that's not a MacBook Air.

 

Acer Aspire S3
PROS: Sleek, thin laptop with good performance for everyday workloads
CONS: Hybrid hard-disk solution; no side USB ports
RATING: 3 out of 5
PRICE: $900 for unit tested (prices vary based on features and hard disk size)
RECOMMENDATION: The Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook is a solid addition to the burgeoning ultrabook market segment.
CONTACT: Acer • 408-533-7700 • http://us.acer.com/