One simple problem has been troubling us since the arrival of the ultrabook category of thin, Intel-based premium laptops last year: Ultrabooks don't really deliver premium performance. Acer hopes to change that with the new Aspire Timeline Ultra M3; the first 15-inch ultrabook with high-performance NVIDIA GeForce 640M graphics inside. Can a thin-and-light ultrabook really give you "ultra" performance?
Build & Design
At first glance the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 looks like a basic widescreen laptop with a thin profile, but take a closer look and you'll see the all-metal exterior conceals a very well-equipped ultrabook with many ports and a nice keyboard. While the 15-inch footprint and 20mm thickness of the chassis makes this the largest "ultrabook" we've reviewed to date, that size provides just enough room for a tray-loading optical drive and some powerful internal components. It's fair to point out that the original concept for "ultrabooks" was premium thin laptops based on the 11-inch and 13-inch Apple MacBook Air, but it's also fair to point out that many people like larger screens and full-sized keyboards ... and 15-inch laptops remain the most popular notebook size in terms of sales here in the United States.
The magnesium alloy lid and chassis give the Ultra M3 the convenience of light weight and the durability of metal construction. The matte-black finish looks clean and professional while the chiclet-style keyboard and giant touchpad give this ultrabook more consumer appeal. Unlike some thin and light laptops with metal lids, the screen lid on the Ultra M3 is surprisingly strong and should provide ample protection for the screen when you're traveling. As for the chassis itself, Acer packed as many components inside as possible so the M3 feels solid when you pick it up; there are no weak spots or hollow sounds when you tap your fingers on the notebook.
A serious, rather tragic flaw in the design of the Ultra M3 is the location of the power button. For some reason that escapes me, someone at Acer decided to place the power button on the front edge of the laptop. Not only that, but the front edge is angled down slightly and the power button is a sensitive pressure-activated switch ... meaning that if you use the M3 as a "laptop" you can unintentionally press the power button with your lap just by pressing down firmly on the palmrest.
I hope someone at Acer is reading this. Whoever is responsible for the placement of this power button needs to be transferred to a different department at Acer. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to put a pressure-activated power button on the front edge of a laptop should not be designing laptops.
On a happier note, the Ultra M3 is surprisingly easy to upgrade compared to other ultrabooks. Most current ultrabooks have sealed chassis designs that prevent you from upgrading parts like RAM or the hard drive. The M3 features a convenient access panel on the bottom where you can swap out important parts like the RAM, Wi-Fi card, hard drive or the optional mSATA SSD. This gives the M3 a distinct advantage over the competition since it means you can upgrade components over time.
Ports and Features
As mentioned previously, the Ultra M3 has a good selection of ports for a thin and light laptop. You get two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port as well as a standard HDMI, Ethernet and a headphone jack. You also get the previously mentioned optical drive and a card reader. Unfortunately, all of the USB ports and the headphone jack are located on the back of the M3. This makes it hard to swap out a USB flash drive but it helps hide cords if you're using the M3 as a desktop replacement with external USB peripherals or external speakers. All descriptions shown below are listed from left to right.
Front: Power button, power indicator, battery indicator
Back: Fan exhaust, headphone jack, two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port, HDMI port, Ethernet RJ-45 port, DC-in jack
Left: Optical drive and 2-in-1 card reader
Right: Kensington lock slot
Screen and Speakers
The 15.6-inch glossy display is one Acer's "CineCrystal" screens with LED backlighting. There is just one screen resolution at the time of this writing; a rather unimpressive 1366x768. However, the glossy surface on this screen isn't as reflective as some of the glossy screens we've seen on other ultrabooks ... meaning you won't have to struggle with harsh glare and reflections as much. Still, a matte screen option would have been a welcomed feature to help with visibility outdoors under direct sunlight. The colors don't appear overly saturated at default settings and contrast is pretty average.
As with all TN panels, the viewing angles on the M3's screen are pretty average: The screen looks great when viewed from straight on or from a modest horizontal angle, but the colors appear washed out when viewed from above and colors look inverted when viewed from below. We would love it if every ultrabook featured an IPS display with near perfect colors at all viewing angles, but the higher cost probably isn't something the average consumer wants to pay. As long as you tilt the screen so your eyes are parallel to the screen you'll probably think the screen looks great.
When it comes to audio, The Ultra M3 features stereo speakers with Dolby Home Theater branding located on the bottom front edge of the chassis. The speakers are large enough to produce high volume with good clarity but the location means you can muffle the sound if you use the M3 on your lap and you're wearing thick clothing. On the other hand, the metal chassis is so thin that sound passes up through the palmrests even if you block the speakers on the bottom.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The full-size chiclet-style keyboard is a simple layout with a dedicated number pad and no LED backlighting. The individual keys are matte black with silver trim around the keyboard tray. The matte black keys are surrounded by the aluminum frame of the notebook. There are also dedicated home, page up, page down and end keys located above the number pad. The keyboard tray is quite firm with more than adequate support structure. There is no flex or keyboard bounce when typing with firm pressure. The individual keys have a short throw (the distance between pressed and unpressed) and the key action itself is very quiet; you won't disturb others while typing in a quiet office or classroom.
The ELAN touchpad is actually a massive "clickpad" (a touchpad surface which lets you press down anywhere to produce a click). There are no dedicated left and right mouse buttons but the clickpad has shallow feedback when pressed. The only complaint we have about this touchpad is that it sometimes has trouble understanding the difference between a left click and a right click unless you press down on the extreme left or extreme right bottom corner of the clickpad.
Our Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG review unit has the following specifications:
If you only glanced at the specifications shown above you might have missed the fact that this ultrabook packs something no previous ultrabook has: dedicated graphics. Specifically the Ultra M3 features the new NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M discrete graphics. At the time of this writing, NVIDIA still hasn't publically announced any details about the 600M series graphics, but online rumors say this graphics card is based on NVIDIA's new Kepler GPU core. What is so special about a new GT-class graphics card for a thin and light ultrabook? Nothing ... except the fact that this GPU outperforms mid-range GTX graphics cards found is thicker, heavier gaming notebooks from last year!
Performance and Benchmarks
Our configuration of the Ultra M3 is one of the more modest versions of the M3 that Acer plans to announce this year. This review unit features an Intel Core i5 dual-core CPU and a 500GB hard drive with a 20GB mSATA SSD cache drive that helps the ultrabook startup and resume from sleep faster than a hard drive alone (the mSATA SSD and hard drive work together to essentially create a high-performance hybrid drive). Acer representatives say the Ultra M3 will also be available with up to a 256GB SSD and a second-generation Intel Core i7 processor.
The Core i5 variant with hard drive delivers raw CPU performance and PCMark scores that put it squarely in the middle of the pack among ultrabooks, but everything changes as soon as you look at the performance of the graphics. The GeForce GT 640M isn't just "a little" more powerful than Intel integrated graphics, the 640M puts this ultrabook in a class all by itself. The 3DMark scores for the Ultra M3 with GT 640M show it has more than double the graphics performance of ultrabooks with Intel graphics alone. In fact, the 3DMark performance of the Ultra M3 even exceeds the performance of the Alienware M14x with GTX 555M graphics.
If you're a gamer who doesn't trust synthetic benchmarks then you might be interested in the fact that the GT 640M can play Battlefield 3 at more than 30fps at 1366x768 resolution with detail settings on HIGH. The results with Batman: Arkham City are even better with framerates above 40fps at 1366x768 with high detail settings. This means gamers don't have to choose between a heavy gaming notebook and an ultraportable with good battery life; you can have the performance you want in a lightweight package. Sure, hardcore gamers will always want bleeding edge performance, but getting 30+ frames per second in modern games on high detail settings is more than enough for many gamers ... particularly if it means you don't have to sacrifice battery life.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark which measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark 11 is a newer measure of overall graphics performance in DirectX 11 games (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
Heat and Noise
The cooling fan inside the Ultra M3 stays running most of the time and remains virtually silent during all but the most demanding activities. The fan gets loud enough to disturb other people in a small office or classroom if you're stressing the graphics with a game like Mass Effect 3 or Batman: Arkham City but you probably won't notice the cooling fan the rest of the time.
External temperatures are all pretty modest with the exception of a very nasty hot spot located near the RAM, mSATA SSD and Wi-Fi card which reached a maximum external temperature of 112 degrees Fahrenheit. This hot spot gets very uncomfortable over time and makes it difficult to use the Ultra M3 as a "laptop" at times. I suspect the real culprit is in fact the mSATA SSD, but regardless of which component is responsible for the heat, the thin chassis of the M3 just lacks the thermal design needed to properly manage that heat coming from this central location. Keep your legs away from the middle of the ultrabook and you should be fine. Interestingly enough, the temperatures of the CPU and GPU remained perfectly normal during our tests so at least the chassis is managing the heat for these components.
The Acer Timeline Ultra M3 lasted for 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous web surfing during our standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds). This isn't just good, it's amazing battery life when you consider this also has a powerful discrete graphics card inside. Of course, the GeForce GT 640M features NVIDIA's Optimus technology which automatically disables the graphics card and runs the display on the low-power Intel integrated graphics when the notebook isn't displaying visually intense content. That being the case, the NVIDIA graphics were automatically turned off during our web browsing battery exhaustion test.
Regardless, the important thing to note is that the Ultra M3 exceeds Acer's claim of "8-hour battery life" and that's impressive. Your mileage may vary if you buy the configuration of the Ultra M3 with a more power-hungry Intel Core i7 processor, but the run time from the integrated 3-cell lithium-polymer battery should still be excellent.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
The Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 is the most impressive ultrabook we've reviewed to date. Despite a few design annoyances, this 15-inch ultrabook delivers an exceptional balance of portability performance and a premium feel. We have a hard time overlooking things like a power button that is easy to press by accident and a complete lack of ports on the sides. Combine those two issues with a nasty hot spot on the bottom of the chassis and the Ultra M3 has three troublesome flaws.
Regardless, the Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 is our most recommendable choice for a large ultrabook. If you look beyond those previously mentioned complaints you'll find some genuinely impressive horsepower inside the Ultra M3. Not only is the NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M a quantum leap in terms of graphics performance for thin and light laptops, this discrete GPU even outperforms the graphics found in thick and heavy gaming laptops last year.
If you are in the market for an ultrabook with a large screen, excellent video editing and gaming performance, and a premium fit and finish then the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 deserves serious consideration.