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Acer Aspire S3: sleek, sturdy and … cheap!

The Acer Aspire S3 looks elegant, works well and, most importantly, is cheap. SEAN BACHER thinks this Ultrabook will put up a strong fight against the Apple MacBook Air, which until recently had no competition at all.

In 2008, Apple designers came up with a different type of notebook. A notebook that was faster, lighter and sleeker. It named its new format the MacBook Air, and this ultra-light notebook became the first of what we now know as Ultrabooks.

Not many notebook manufacturers took notice of the MacBook Air, and were instead concentrating their efforts on jamming as many features as possible into a their netbooks and notebooks. But, this all changed when Intel announced the Ultrabook format around nine months ago. The result was that, at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, no more than twelve new major brand Ultrabooks were announced from a range of companies. The announcement of the HP Envy 14 range was just one example. (Read Arthur Goldstuck’s Charge of the new light brigade article here.)

It will be some time before we see most of these new Ultrabooks in South Africa, but companies like Samsung and Acer have taken some initiative and launched their MacBook Air competitors. We reviewed the Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook last year and found it was a definite Air contender, but its price counted heavily against it (see review here). Now, we put the Acer Aspire S3 through the Gadget Five Question User Test and see if it has a fighting chance.

1. Ease of use (including set-up)

Setting up the Acer Aspire S3 is no different to setting up any other computer using the Windows operating system. Out of the box, the S3 uses Windows 7 Home Premium. Enter your details, a Windows key and network connection settings, and the Ultrabook is ready. Once connected to the Internet, the relevant software updates will be automatically downloaded and installed, but you may be required to restart the machine a few times.

The S3’s shell is made from brushed aluminium, giving it a very cool, sleek and sturdy look and feel on the outside. But, when the lid is opened, tapping away at the keyboard and trackpad seems almost ‚plasticy‚ , ruining the initial impression. Worse, the trackpad moved the cursor around the screen as if it was on its own mission, infuriating me when I had to find the cursor on the screen and than track it all the way back to where I needed to click.

The S3 offers a few function keys for making quick adjustments to the sound, display and for turning the WiFi connection on and off. However, these and the QWERTY keyboard keys are not backlit as on the MacBook Air, and the S3 does not offer any other kind of key illumination as found on many other notebooks, making typing in the dark a bit more difficult.

Overall, the S3 is offers nothing out of the ordinary during setup or when being used. Its cheap-feeling trackpad and keyboard are a bit of a disappointment too.

Score: 13/20

2. General performance

The entry level Acer Aspire S3 uses a hybrid hard drive, meaning that the Ultrabook offers 20GB of Solid State Drive (SSD) storage space and 320GB of standard Hard Disk Drive (HDD) space. However, in the case of our review unit, the more powerful Intel Core i7, a 256GB SSD drive is used. SSD is one of the major features that differentiate an UltraBook from any other notebook or desktop. Firstly, a SSD is faster than standard hard drives, because of the lack of moving parts. The lack of moving parts means that less power is used when accessing data from the drive and the drive is less prone to crash when the computer is accidentally bumped.

This speed shows the second you boot it up. Windows 7 is renowned for taking ages to boot up and shut down. But, the S3 will boot up and be ready to run in under 30 seconds. Shutting it down takes a mere 5 seconds, even less if you just slam the lid closed without going through the menu. The machine then shuts itself down.

The Aspire S3’s battery life is amazing. A fully charged battery will last anywhere between seven and eight hours when performing mundane office tasks like checking e-mail and word processing. Watching videos will substantially shorten operating time, to around four hours. Although we were unable to test it, Acer claims that the S3’s battery is able to maintain its charge for up to 50 days. It is a tall order but, judging from the battery’s performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if it lived up to this promise.

As mentioned before, top-end Aspire S3 uses an Intel Core i7 processor, a high-performance processor that is designed specifically for mobile devices. This i7 CPU runs at 1.7Ghz which, combined with the 4GB of RAM and an Intel HD Graphic 3000 graphics card, means it will handle some of the most resource-intensive applications.

On the outside, the S3 offers two USB ports, as with the MacBook Air, but it goes one step further, with the addition of a HDMI port. It also houses an SD card reader and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Score: 19/20

3. Does it add value to your life?

The Acer Aspire S3 takes portability to the next level, with its 18mm thin body, which weighs just over 1.3kg, and that long battery life.

In addition, the Dolby Home Theatre sound and bright 13‚ 1366×768 screen will make the S3 a great machine for both work and play.


4. Innovation

Aside from the great battery life, the Aspire S3 does not offer much in the way of innovation. Its physical dimensions are much the same as the 13‚ version of the MacBook Air. If anything, the S3 could be considered a Windows version of the Air.


5. Value for money

The Acer Aspire S3 retails for R9 999. This price puts it at R7 000 less than the equivalent 13‚ MacBook Air and R4 000 less than the other available Windows competitor, the Samsung Series 9. Even the entry-level MacBook Air 13‚ , with 128GB SSD, costs R3 700 more than the S3.

Apart from its great battery life, its price is a huge selling point and, for that, it gets a rare full marks.



Total score: 84%

The pros far outweigh the cons. The pros include price, battery and speed. The only cons I could find were a flimsy keyboard and unresponsive trackpad. Yes, the two are vital to a good computing experience, but they are no reason to choose a far more expensive Ultrabook over the S3. This is a winner all the way.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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