It’s easy to spend a lot on Ultrabooks. It’s less simple,
however, to try and make one affordable. You can find a lot of $500-$600 (USD)
laptops, and they’re perfectly fine for most people. They’ll probably have an
AMD or Intel i3 chipset, they’ll be a little heavy, but they’ll have a decent
keyboard, a big hard drive and a large screen.
Ultrabooks, however, demand a premium price because they’re
at least above average, if not premium products. (As 2012 wears on, however, I
expect the prices to fall.). This first crop of Ultrabooks is based on Intel’s
Sandy Bridge architecture – not the Intel’s Ivy Bridge architecture, which will
provide a power boost, etc. etc. (Intel recently announced a delay in shipping
the Ivy Bridge.)
But enough background – a little Web search will find all
the information you need on Ultrabook architectures. Here’s my take on what I
found to be the most affordable of the early crop of Ultrabooks: the Acer
Aspire S3. The specific model I reviewed was the Acer Aspire S3-951-6646
13.3-Inch Ultrabook. This first review will discuss my experience with it fresh
out of the box; a later review will give my impression of using it for a while.
So, again, my goal was to find something that was on the
lower end of the Ultrabook scale – while hopefully finding something that would
work as a developer’s daily machine for a dev who perhaps has to travel, even
if it’s among buildings.
This Acer Aspire S3 is reasonably priced, compared to other
Ultrabooks, even when I tried to spec out a reasonably powered box. The
configuration I chose – readily available at Amazon US (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005MR58MG/)
for $799 USD, $50 off the $849 list, puts it at least a few hundred cheaper
than other Ultrabooks. Where’s the cost savings? It’s largely in the storage:
instead of a 128GB SSD, Acer paired a 20GB SSD with a 320GB hard drive. While
the ultimate performance is not as fast (that’s foreshadowing), it’s an
interesting idea for storage-hungry devs. At that storage capacity you can
actually manage to run a VM on the fly. And at least in the initial playing
around, the "instant-on" capability worked well thanks to that 20GB SSD.
Other specs: Intel Core i5 1.6 GHz processor, 4 GB RAM (it’s
surprisingly hard to find 8GB RAM in a preconfigured unit), a 13.3-inch screen,
and Intel 3000 graphics. What does that mean? It’s reasonably fast but
definitely not a gaming machine.
One quick note before I talk about my impressions of the
unit: Acer claims they’re not making any profit off of the Ultrabook at the
$799 price point (see http://www.theverge.com/2012/3/6/2850436/acer-ultrabook-price-unsustainable),
but their goal is to get it to $499 regardless as the Ultrabook gets more
The packaging was minimalist and straightforward – just a
small box, nicely packaged, with the unit and the power cord. As with most
Windows 7 laptops, I "enjoyed" the initial configuration screens and then
booted into Windows.
The overall appearance is polished and finished – not quite
MacBook Air quality, but close. It was thin and light (Acer says it’s 0.7
inches thick and under 3 pounds).
A little too much crapware, in my opinion, in the initial
configuration, so I immediately spent time removing the Bing bar, the eBay icon
(seriously?), MacAfee, Norton Backup, Acer Games (a bunch of WildTangent
games), and a few others. I give credit to Acer, however, for at least
Acer did include a nice system update utility; however, I
found that the drivers were still out of date and manually updated the BIOS and
a couple of drivers after I visited Acer’s support site, which was
straightforward to navigate. All of that went quickly; no more than 20 minutes.
Initial impressions of the screen were that it seemed a bit
washed out, but was still crisp. Connections seemed straightforward, although I
don’t really like them on the back of the laptop because I have to lean around
to get into them, they’re awkward, and so forth.
I immediately noticed that unlike the Asus Ultrabooks, Acer
did not include a dongle for RGB connections – if you need video out you’re
using HDMI or getting your own dongle. (At that price point, I didn’t really
expect an included dongle.) It’s also missing an Ethernet port, but a quick
Internet search found me a hack to use my Apple USB to Ethernet adapter, and
that worked fine. Another cost-saving measure that did surprise me, however, is
that neither of the USB ports supported USB 3 – which I think is pretty
standard for a new laptop in 2012.
Installation of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Visual
Studio, along with my other must-have programs like Notepad++, Paint.NET, PDF
writers, Microsoft Security Essentials, went smoothly and quickly.
In the initial setup, however, I found it difficult to get
used to the trackpad, which I chalked up to getting used to a new device, and
also occasionally dropping letters while typing, which I again chalked up to
feel. In my next installment, after I’ve spent some time with the device, I’ll
report in on how I found it after I’d used it a while.
Initial verdict: If you’re looking to take the Ultrabook
plunge and don’t want to spend over $1200-$1400 USD on one, the Acer looks to
be a solid and attractive choice.
The minimal packaging is nicely done, although not to the
standards of Apple or other, more expensive Ultrabooks.
Here’s the Acer Aspire S3 fresh out of the box. Note the
sunglasses for size comparison. It’s reasonably sized but not too small for
There’s not a ton of ‘crapware’ on the machine, but there’s
still enough that you have to take some time to clean it off.
Look at the nice, thin profile – easy to carry around between
meetings, on trips, etc.