When Ultrabooks were first announced it seemed doubtful that manufacturers could turn out these wannabe MacBook Airs at the sub-$1,000 price Intel was promising. Acer put those doubts to rest with the Aspire S3, which debuted at $900. Given its relative affordability, it’s not surprising that the Aspire S3 makes a few compromises in its Air aspirations.
Measuring .68 inches at its thickest, the ever-so-slightly wedged three-pound chassis is matte silver throughout, save for its black rubber hinge and gray keyboard. An attractive brushed-aluminum lid lends the S3 a solid feel and a classy countenance—at least when the notebook is closed. The inside and underneath are all plastic. Nevertheless, the S3 feels rigid when held by one corner, and we like that it opens almost 180 degrees.
Overall, the S3’s island keyboard is comfortable to type on, although the key press is a bit shallow and many of the oft-used keys around the periphery, such as Enter, Shift, Backspace, etc. are truncated. That’s particularly true of the arrow keys, which also double as volume and screen-brightness controls. Using the S3’s unified clickpad, which supports multitouch functions, didn’t give us any woes.
Closed, the S3 cuts a more impressive figure, with its handsome brushed metal lid on display.
Port selection is spare, a quality of all Ultrabooks, and here consists of a headphone/mic, a media reader, HDMI, and two USB 2.0 ports—the S3 is the only Ultrabook in this roundup not to feature USB 3.0.
Acer tapped the Core i5-2467M for processing duty. While the base clock is just 1.6GHz, it can Turbo up to 2.3GHz, and thus performed better in most benchmarks than the 2.13GHz Core i7-640LM Arrandale CPU in our zero-point ultraportable rig. The S3’s lagging score in Quake III is no doubt the result of its single-channel RAM, which is particularly problematic in older titles. Conversely, its score in Quake 4 demonstrates the advances of Sandy Bridge’s integrated graphics, although the gaming chops of any ultraportable out right now will be pretty limited.
In our video playback test, the S3’s battery lasted five hours; it recharged to full capacity in half that time. Videos themselves looked crisp and color-accurate on the S3’s 1366x768 glossy screen if the screen was tilted just so. Otherwise, color and detail were diminished to varying degrees.
The S3 is unique among these Ultrabooks for featuring a mechanical hard drive, but it’s paired with 20GB of NAND flash for SSD caching, using Intel’s Smart Response Technology (SRT). Thus, your most-often used programs benefit from the SSD’s faster performance. The S3’s boot time of approximately 39 seconds, however, was a good deal slower than that of the SSD competition.
Acer also offers a $1,300 S3 model with a Core i7 and a 240GB SSD. But truth be told, the body is better suited to the lower-cost category, where it must make due with the modest praise of being a decent budget option.