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Acer Aspire S3: sleek, sturdy and … cheap!

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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.

18/20

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.

14/20

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.

20/20

Conclusion

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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Amazfit Bip – An unassuming smartwatch competitor

The Amazfit Bip has everything a smartwatch needs: notifications, heart rate monitoring and a month-long battery life, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Amazfit Bip is one of the most appealing devices in the smartwatch lineup from Huami, a low-cost brand backed by Xiaomi.

Coming in at around R1500 depending on where you shop, the price point puts the Bip into the budget smartwatch space. Combined with a large set of offerings, it makes one wonder: “Why aren’t more smartwatches like this?”

Aesthetically, the rectangular face is similar to the Apple Watch but, on closer inspection, is more reminiscent of the Pebble Time smartwatch. Ergonomically, the Bip has a single button which mostly acts as an unlock button and a back button in menus. The watch strap is made of hypoallergenic silicone and is replaceable. 

The Bip has an always-on transflective colour screen with a backlight for darker situations. This kind of display is very similar to a 90’s Gameboy, and happens to be quite the power saver. The display is covered with 2.5D curved Corning Gorilla glass with an anti-fingerprint coating, giving that extra bit of knock resistance.

The unit is 18 grams without the strap and 32 with it on, making for an extremely light smartwatch that’s roughly half the weight of the Apple Watch. While the Bip is rated IP68 in terms of waterproofing and dustproofing (meaning it can withstand 30 minutes of being under 1.5 meters of water), Huami’s website says that it should not be used while swimming, diving or bathing, and should not be taken into a sauna. When the Bip we used got dirty from rock climbing, it was washed with a soap-free cleanser (as Fitbit recommends) and a soft-bristled toothbrush.

GPS tracking with a visual route of a run.

The number of sensors in the Bip is astonishing: heart rate sensor, accelerometer, geomagnetic sensor, barometer, and GPS. This sensor set is usually reserved for the premium smartwatch market but budget Bip packs all of these. Most interestingly, the geomagnetic sensor allows for compass readings (as well as assisting the GPS in locating the watch while it’s moving) and the barometer for measuring elevation by detecting changes in pressure. 

Battery life has been optimised to a month of regular use, with some reports measuring up to 45-days with the heart rate sensor off. Huami claims the smartwatch can last for 4 months with only step and sleep tracking on. The 190mAh battery was run down in 28 hours with the GPS, barometer and heart rate sensor set to permanently on.

The built-in software is basic and lacks app support but redeems itself in other areas. Firstly, the customisation of watch faces is limited but can be easily changed with a third party app. Notifications are handled well, available for viewing only, and require the phone for replying or other interactions. 

A notification from Telegram on the Bip with the backlight on.

The menu options become available with a swipe left, notification settings with a swipe down, past notifications with a swipe up and the weather with a swipe right. The menu has options for checking one’s current status (steps, heart rate, distance, calories), followed by quick activity tracking (running, cycling, walking weather (a five-day forecast with icons), alarms, timers, compass and settings.

The companion app, Mi Fit, is well-designed and syncs quickly with the Bip. Mi Fit is where the watch and sync settings can be fine-tuned. Mi Fit also gives very detailed sleep analytics, including showing how much time one spent sleeping compared to other Mi Fit users. 

Overall, the Bip is an attractive smartwatch for those who are looking to purchase a device that provides value for money while being highly-functional.

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Samsung A51: Saviour of the mid-range

For a few years, Samsung has delivered some less than favourable mid-range devices compared to the competition. The Galaxy A51 is here to change all that, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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It’s not often one can look at a mid-range phone and mistake it for a flagship. That’s what you can expect to experience when taking the Galaxy A51 out into the open.

Samsung went back to the drawing board with its new range of devices, and it shows. The latest Galaxy A range features some of the highest quality, budget-friendly devices we’ve seen so far. The Samsung Galaxy A51 is one of the best phones we’ve seen in a while, not just aesthetically, but in what it packs into a sub-R7000 price tag.

Looking at the device briefly, it’s very easy to mistake it for a flagship. It features a four-camera array on the back, and an Infinity-O punch-hole display – both of which are features of the high-end Samsung devices. In fact, it features a similar camera array as the Galaxy Note10 Lite but features an additional lens in the array. The cameras line up in an L-shape, clearly avoiding looking like a stovetop.

Apart from the camera array, the back of the handset features a striking pattern called Prism Crush, a pattern of pastel shades that come in black, white, blue, and pink. For the review, we used the Prism Crush Blue colour and it looks really great. The feel is clearly plastic, which isn’t too surprising for a mid-range device, but the design is definitely something that will make users opt for a clear case. It’s also great to see a design pattern that deviates from the standard single iridescent colours many manufacturers have copied from Huawei’s design.

Along the sides, it features a metal-like frame, but again, it’s plastic. On the left side, we find a SIM and microSD card tray while the right side houses the power button and volume rocker. The bottom of the phone features a very welcome USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack, which isn’t too uncommon for mid-range phones.

On the front, the device is pretty much all screen, at an 87.4% screen-to-body ratio, thanks to a tiny chin at the bottom and the small punch hole for the camera. The earpiece has also been hidden inside the frame in attempts to maximise this screen-to-body ratio. When powered on, the 6.5-inch display looks vivid and sharp. That’s because Samsung opted to put a Super AMOLED display into this midrange unit, giving it a resolution of 1080 x 2400 (at 405 ppi) in a 20:9 format. This makes the display FullHD+, and perfect for consuming video content like Netflix and YouTube in HD.

Hidden underneath the display is an in-screen fingerprint sensor, which is very surprising to find in a mid-range device. While it is extremely accurate, it takes some getting used to because the sensor is so large that one needs to put one’s entire finger over the right part of the display to unlock it. Most other types of non-in-screen fingerprint sensors don’t mind a partial fingerprint. The display itself feels nothing like the back and that’s because it’s not plastic, but rather Gorilla Glass 3, to prevent the screen from shattering easily.

What’s interesting about this device is finding accessories which aren’t quite available in phone stores yet. When browsing online for screen protectors, one has to be on the lookout for screen protectors that are compatible with the in-screen fingerprint sensor. Make sure to check out the reviews of users before purchasing them.

In terms of software, Samsung has made a great deal of effort to make the experience slick. Gone are the days of TouchWiz (thank goodness) and now we have OneUI in its second version. OneUI makes the phone easier to use by putting most of the interaction on the bottom half of the screen and most of the view on the top part of the screen, where one’s thumbs don’t usually reach.

Out of the box, the device came with Android 10. This is a huge step forward in terms of commitment to running the latest software for major feature updates as well as for Android security patches to keep the device secure.

It also has most of the cool features from the flagship devices, like Samsung Pay, Bixby, and Link to Windows. Samsung Pay is an absolute pleasure to use, even if it still confuses the person taking your payments. From linking my cards, I have stopped taking my wallet out with me because all merchants that accept tap-to-pay will accept Samsung Pay on the A51.

Bixby is useful if you’re in the Samsung app ecosystem, especially for owners of SmartThings devices like Samsung TVs and SmartThings-enabled smart home devices. Otherwise, Google Assistant is still accessible for those who still want to use the standard Google experience.

Link to Windows is an interesting feature that started with the Galaxy Note10 and has since trickled down into the mid-range. It allows users to send SMS messages, view recently taken photos, and receive notifications from the phone, all on a Windows 10 PC. This can be enabled by going to the Your Phone app found in the start menu.

The rear camera is phenomenal for a mid-range device and features a 48MP wide sensor. The photos come out as 12MP images, which is a common trick of many manufacturers to achieve high-quality photography. It does this by combining 4 pixels into a single superpixel to get the best colours out of the picture, while still remaining sharp. It also performs surprisingly well in low light, which is not something we were expecting from a mid-range device.

The 12MP ultra-wide angle lens spans 123-degrees, which is very wide and also useful for getting shots in where one can’t move back further. It’s not as great as the main lens but does the trick for getting everyone in for a group photo in a galley kitchen.

The 5MP depth-sensing lens supplements the portrait mode, which adds a blur effect to the background of the photo – the same lens as its predecessor, the Galaxy A50. It features a 32MP wide-angle selfie camera, which is perfect for fitting everyone into a large group selfie.

The processor is an Exynos 9611, which is an Octa-core processor. It performs well in most situations, and there is software built in to give games a boost, so it performs well with graphically intensive games too. In terms of RAM, there are 4GB, 6GB, and 8GB variants, so keep an eye out for which one you are trying. For the review, we had the 4GB, and it performs well with multitasking and day-to-day tasks.

For storage, it comes in a 128GB model on Samsung’s website, which seems to be the standard size. This is extremely welcome in the mid-range segment and is the largest we’ve seen for internal storage capacity as a starting point.

At a recommended selling price of R6,999, the Samsung Galaxy A51 marks the beginning of a great era for Samsung, because it provides a feature-rich handset at an affordable price.

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