Acer introduced its newest ultrabook one series, named Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG. Ultrabook is claimed is the first ultrabook equipped with NVIDIA GPU-based Kepler. Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG also said support for running games such as Battlefield 3.
The Ultra M3 is 4.4 pounds, but it is .79 inches thick. Of all of these, the biggest novelty of this Timeline is that it’s the first ultrabook (as defined by Intel) to feature Nvidia graphics. It won’t be the last.
Acer offers the M3 in multiple configurations, yet in each case an Intel ULV CPU is present. The Core i3-2367M (1.4 GHz) with a 320 GB HDD, 20 GB SSD cache and integrated graphics make up the entry level configuration for the device. The specs are upgradeable up to a Core i7-2637M, a fast 256 GB SSD and the aforementioned GeForce GT 640M, as in our test device. For this reason, prices can range from a little over 600 Euro to as much as 1200 Euro. The Core-i7 version with a 256 GB SSD is available in Germany as the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG-72634G25Mnk.
he 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.
The combined headset port (well-known on cell phones) is restrictive, for example, which greatly limits the range of headsets that can be used without requiring the use of an adapter. The HDMI port is good news for consumers indeed, yet it doesn’t work on high-resolution monitors of more than 1920 x 1200 pixels. The GeForce GT 640M should in theory be able to handle resolutions above 1080p, but because the output is handled solely by the Intel HD Graphics 3000, Optimus becomes the limiting factor. Furthermore, there are currently no monitors that can receive HDMI signals at a resolution higher than 1920 x 1200. Aside from that, it’s a shame that only one of the three USB ports supports the fast USB 3.0 standard. Both ports are driven by the new Intel HM77 chipset with integrated USB 3.0 support.
The performance of the USB 2.0 ports is as expected at about 27 MB/s. On the USB 3.0 connection, we could only read data from an Intel SSD 510 at a maximum of 121 MB/s. By comparison, the Alienware M18x performed much better here with 181 MB/s.
Apart from the card reader and the Kensington Lock, all connections are positioned on the rear of the device. This prevents cable clutter on your desktop, yet it means that plugging in headphones or USB sticks can be rather inconvenient.
The 15-inch display of the Aspire M3-581TG is clearly the device’s weakest point. It’s a reflective 16:9 widescreen display with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. The low resolution doesn’t leave much room to work with on the screen, but it’s at least well suited for gaming as the GT 640M can muster up sufficient performance levels from it – more on that later.
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.
The stereo speakers on the front lower edge aren’t particularly loud, but they’re clear enough for videos and audio playback in terms of quality. As is usual, the headset port can drive our high-impedance AKG K701 headphones just barely loud enough. However, no background noise could be discerned.
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.
The touchpad can’t quite keep up with the overall good keyboard. Indeed, the touchpad is a good size and has good gliding qualities, yet the lack of dedicated buttons, like on many Windows notebooks, proves to be a mistake. The problem here is quite clearly the software as the touchpad itself can be greatly overwhelmed by complex operations. For example, actions such as multi-touch, clicking and drag-and-drop constantly overwhelm the driver to the point where incorrect operations can become frequent. Above all, drag-and-drop actions have the highest chances of failing. Also, as we can see from Apple notebooks, using the lower region of the touchpad as dedicated mouse keys can potentially be for the worse as the driver cannot always correctly recognize clicks from multi-touch gestures.
Our test model is the most powerful configuration available with a Core i7-2637M processor (1.7 – 2.8 GHz), GeForce GT 640M graphics with 1 GB of DDR3 memory and a 256 GB SSD from LiteOn. Of the 4 GB PC3-10600 DDR3 RAM, 2 GB is soldered onto the mainboard and 2 GB is in the memory slot. Thanks to Optimus, the integrated Intel HD 3000 Graphics is utilized when the system is not under heavy load.
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.
As explained in the above section, the Geforce GT 640M in the Acer Ultrabook shows very strong performance levels. The relatively weak processor, however, greatly curbs the system, particular at low detail levels. The GT 640M is up to the native display resolution of 1366 x 768 and can run many current games with high detail levels. The promised ultra setting on Battlefield 3 in our demanding benchmark sequence can’t be played smoothly, however. Instead, it can only manage medium detail settings.
The 54 Wh lithium polymer battery helps the Aspire Ultrabook on its path to a considerably long battery life. Thanks to the ULV CPU and Optimus, up to 11 hours and 39 minutes in the BatteryEater Reader Test was possible when away from a power source. In our WLAN surfing test with brightness at 150 cd/m2, just over 6 hours was possible. Under load, the Acer reaches a very good battery life of 2 hours and 20 minutes, yet something is cheating here: the CPU was throttled to 1.7 GHz and the frame rates in Battlefield 3 sank from 60-70 to 28 fps. Gaming appears to be hindered and not at full potential if running solely from the battery.
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.
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.
Nvidia wants to put the “Ultra” in Ultrabooks with the GeForce GT 640M – or so the striking PR statement says. Fortunately, The performance fulfills this statement to no end. The graphics performance of the GT 640M is considerable, all the while maintaining energy consumption to reasonable limits. Admittedly, the Acer under review has very little in common with previous Ultrabooks because of its DVD drive and relatively large 15-inch display. If considered as a plain multimedia notebook, the Acer M3 does a lot right. The reviewed model has all the right components for both great gaming on the go and remarkable application performance. Thanks to Optimus, the battery performance doesn’t have to suffer here and on average allows six hours away from a power socket (two hours if gaming).
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.
- Potent gaming performance
- Good battery life
- Matte external surfaces
- Full-size ports
- Poor ergonomic design
- Materials feel cheap
- Ugly, low-res screen
- Terrible speakers