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Posted 23 Mar 2012

Acer Aspire S3: A First Look At An Affordable Ultrabook

, 23 Mar 2012
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A first look at an affordable Ultrabook

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 ( 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, but their goal is to get it to $499 regardless as the Ultrabook gets more popular.

Initial impressions:

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 including Evernote.

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.

Fig 1

The minimal packaging is nicely done, although not to the standards of Apple or other, more expensive Ultrabooks.

Fig 2

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 use.

Fig 3

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.

Fig 4

Look at the nice, thin profile – easy to carry around between meetings, on trips, etc.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Jeff Hadfield
United States United States
Jeff started with personal computers in the late seventies, when he learned to program BASIC on an Apple II (not an Apple II Plus, mind you). Since then, he’s learned Pascal, Fortran, COBOL and VB/VB.NET – all of which have been enough to show him that he’s not a born developer, but he can play one on TV, so to speak. (He's not bad at markup (HTML, CSS) but not good at JavaScript.)

Jeff has worked with developers and developer communities for 20 years. He is the former Editorial Director of WordPerfect Magazines (remember macros?). He's also the former Editor in Chief and Publisher of Visual Basic Programmer's Journal, Visual Studio Magazine, Java Pro magazine, Visual C++ Developers Journal, Exchange & Outlook Magazine, Enterprise Architect magazine, and Microsoft Architecture Journal. He also worked on the VBITS/VSLive! conferences and the various related websites for those publications and conferences. He has spoken and presented at many tech and marketing industry conferences and events.

He currently works to help businesses understand and reach developers better.

All things considered, he'd rather be cycling.

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