The Acer Aspire S3 was the first true ultrabook to hit the stores in late 2011 and, despite its affordable price tag and early success, has failed to make a strong impression and has trailed behind most recent releases, like the Asus UX31 or the Lenovo U300s.
After sharing some early thoughts on the Aspire S3 a while ago, it’s now time to dig a little deeper and to come up with this post: a thorough review of the Acer Aspire S3.
In the following lines I’ll try to go through all the details and features of this Acer ultrabook, both technical and design-related, details that any potential ultrabook buyer should take into consideration before making a decision.
You’ll also get the video review and if you’re here just for the conclusions, check the details on the right and this quick spoiler: the Acer Aspire S3 is the most affordable ultrabook on the market right now and while it’s sleek, light and fast when compared to regular laptops, it definitely trails behind most, if not all the other available ultrabooks. So it’s not necessarily a bad pick, but you do have to be aware that there are certain concessions you’ll have to make when going for a the budget option like this Aspire S3 from Acer.
Design and body
Even though a while back Acer caught our attention with some smartly taken photos and made us see the S3 as a potential jewel in terms of looks, the reality has been a bit disappointing.
Even though it’s thin and light, the S3 is not exactly the most elegant or reliable ultrabook today.
Unlike most other ultrabooks that offer metal bodies, the Acer Aspire S3 is made from plastic. And it’s not necessarily the best plastic either, it’s just… well, plastic. You get it on the laptop’s sides and bottom, plus on the interior, while the hood is covered with this thin aluminum foil, just to save the looks.
Opening the lid you get the same plastic and overall, the S3 feels cheap when compared to all the other ultrabooks out there. And that’s not something I’d want in my machine.
In terms of size though, the S3 fits where it should, being thin (0.51 inches at its thinnest point and 0.69 at the thickest) and also pretty light (2.98 pounds) – so that plastic case does help here.
Update: Of course, the Acer S3 is not really the only ultrabook to have a plastic case (see HP’s Folio 13), others went for the same approach on budget devices, so if you want something affordable that’s still decently solid built and thin/light, that’s gone be the way to go.
In terms of connectivity and ports, the Acer Aspire S3 is surprisingly ‘’gifted’’ and comes with pretty much all you could need, including WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB ports, Ethernet, HDMI and a card reader. You’ll notice that most of the ports are on the back of the laptop, so you’ll get less cluttered cables on the sides. Kudos! On the other hand, there’s no USB 3.0 port, a feature that should be a must for all laptops these days.
Keyboard and touchpad
Without a doubt, the keyboard on the S3 is utterly disappointing. The plastic keys are proper sized and spaced, but these are probably the only good things about them, as they are also wobbly, mushy and feel overall very cheap. There’s poor tactile feedback and little travel, thus typing on this keyboard was pretty much a pain.
Of course, as I’ve owned an acer 1825PT for a while, for an Acer, the S3 has a pretty decent keyboard. Unfortunately though, the S3 does have to compare with the likes of the Lenovo U300S or the HP Folio 13, which would be a better pick for typists in 10/10 cases.
While the S3’s touchpad is overall satisfying, the keyboard is highly disappointing.
The touchpad also looks and feels pretty cheap, but on the other hand, it is decently responsive and accurate, even with multitouch gestures. Sure, it’s nowhere near the trackpads found on the Macbook Air or the Lenovo U300s, plus it is a bit smaller than I’d want, but it’s at least satisfying, unlike the keyboard.
The 13.3-inch display with 1366 x 768 pixels resolution sported by the Acer Aspire S3 is standard for most ultrabooks these days and, even though it’s not great, it’s not very poor either.
The panel is glossy and the viewing angles are pretty limited (luckily you can bend the screen a lot on its back, which helps adjusting that viewing angle in most conditions), but the colors and brightness level are overall decent.
Hardware and performances
In terms of hardware, Acer hasn’t sacrificed as much as some of you might think and the Aspire S3 is actually pretty close to the other available ultrabooks when talking about everyday performances.
The 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor, 4 GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics therefore make for a good daily experience and the little fellow can also push video content at ease.
In order to keep the prices down though, Acer does not include an SSD on their S3, at least not on the base configuration, but a hybrid storage solution, with a 20 GB SSD and a 320 GB HDD. That SSD is not however accessible to the user, it’s used by the system for caching in order to speed things up.
For daily use Acer’s implementation does feel speedy, although I personally couldn’t see big differences from a regular laptop with a normal HDD. However, the S3 does take more than a minute to boot (while most ultrabooks do it in under 30 seconds and it’s not that snappy when resuming from sleep either (needs 3-4 seconds).
With a 4 Cell 36 Wh battery inside and no SSD, the Acer is way below the ultrabook average in terms of battery life, as it will only go go for three and a half – four hours between charges, on a daily average use.
Most ultrabooks though go for five, some even for six hours on a charge, so the S3 does loose serious points here.
Noise, heat, speakers and others
With heat and noise, Acer managed to get one thing right, as the Aspire S3 manages to run cool even when playing a 1080P video for a couple of hours. The fan is there, but it’s not too loud so you won’t hear it most of the time. In fact, you’ll rather hear the HDD cranking than the fan, which won’t happen on other ultrabooks (as they come with SSDs).
As far as other features go, the S3 comes with a 1.3 MPx webcam and two built-in Acer 3DSonic stereo speakers, coupled with a Dolby Home Theater audio enhancement system. While the camera is pretty much as nice as it comes these days, being able to shoot HD content, the sound system is muffled and overall disappointing, mainly because the speakers are tiny and placed beneath the laptop.
Pricing and availability
The Acer Aspire S3 is cheaper today than all the other ultrabooks available. Despite Acer listing it for $899 in its early days, you can find the S3 online these days for 800 bucks or less.
There are also some better versions, with 240 GB SSD and a Core i7 processor, which feel faster and provide about 30 minutes of extra battery life, but those go for $1000+.
All in all, the Acer S3 is an utter disappointment in comparison with other ultrabooks.
Acer’s first try at an ultrabook has been more or less a hit-and-miss, even though on paper, we had solid hopes for the Aspire S3.
Sure, the price tag is very enticing, the hardware is not that bad, the device is thin and light and the screen is on-par with most of the others you can find on ultrabooks today.
On the other hand, the S3 does mess out some important aspects, especially with its awful keyboard, poor quality body and low battery life, things that many competitors managed to get better, while not being a lot more expensive ( like the Toshiba Portege Z835, the HP Folio 13 and the newer Samsung Series 5 Ultra).
In the end, if you are on a limited budget and want a thin and light new computer, you could go for the Acer Aspire S3. As long as you don’t get high expectations and understand what you’ll be missing if going for the S3, you’ll be fine. However, no matter how you take it, the Aspire S3 is one of the worst ultrabooks out there and I’d advice most of you to shove an extra $100 for some of the other better available alternatives (see them in my post on the best available ultrabooks).