Update: this review has been modified to take into account new information. Specifically, we've confirmed the S3 does contain 20GB of flash memory compared to the earlier thought 16GB.
So, here it is: the first of the "ultrabooks", thinly veiled MacBook Air clones for the Windows crowd. Forgive the direct comparisons; it's hard to think of this new rash of laptops in any other way, given the obvious inspirations.
This one happens to be from Acer, although Asus and Toshiba should follow up shortly. We have no doubt that each will try to out-thin the other, like some sort of perverse fashion model competition.
Acer doesn't quite manage to outdo the Air in this field — at its thickest, it's 17.5mm, half a millimetre thicker than the Air — but we're not too fussed. Interestingly enough, we've found that there comes a point when you stop caring how slim a laptop is, and you start worrying about how heavy it is, or how solid it feels.
In this regard, the Aspire S3 is definitely the Air's inferior. Lift it up by the corner, and you can feel the chassis flex slightly, the lesser rigidity making the S3 feel heavier than it is. It's meant to be magnesium alloy and aluminium, but it feels like cheap plastic.
That's not to say that it's heavy, even if Acer chooses to use the disingenuous "less than 1.4kg", rather than quoting the real weight. We'd figure on 1.399kg, but we don't have scales sensitive enough to verify the hunch.
For a 13.3-inch machine, the available SKUs are priced higher than we'd expect, too, especially considering that the two base models come with a mechanical hard drive.
For a Core i3 1.4GHz machine with a 320GB hard drive, Acer prices it at AU$1199. Upgrade that to a Core i5 1.6GHz, and the price increases to AU$1399. Switch over to a 240GB SSD, and things increase once more to AU$1699. Push that one more time to a Core i7 1.7GHz, and you've hit AU$1999. They all come with 4GB of RAM, Bluetooth and, disappointingly, only 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi.
Acer throws a pair of Toshiba TH58TVG6S2FBA89 toggle NAND chips on-board as well — flash memory cache that helps reduce resume time, and appears as a 20GB SSD to the system. These two chips only account for 16GB of the 20GB — the remaining 4GB chip seemingly out of sight.
The resume reduction isn't noticeable if you've suspended to RAM (that is, powered the machine down briefly), but if you've suspended to disk (left the machine off for an extended time, or the battery has run flat), the time is reduced significantly, from around 25-30 seconds to two seconds. It's a small thing, but welcome.
Ordinarily, you'd expect a Windows-based manufacturer to try to trump Apple on warranty, but this doesn't happen here, with Acer peddling a similar one-year duration.
So, what does it offer that the Air doesn't? A full-sized, native HDMI port, for one. And ... well, it runs Windows. Which, interestingly enough, you could pick up for the price difference between the Air and the S3, and run it on your Mac instead.
While the outside is fashionable enough with its faux-brushed-aluminium look, internally it's a drab grey that fails to inspire, the lack of backlit keyboard immediately becoming obvious.
Also failing to impress is the power button, mounted at a harsh vertical angle on the hinge, making powering on the device fiddly.
The user experience, once you're in the operating system, is the same as Windows has always been, enhanced by the Elantech multi-touch touch pad providing a decent approximation of the Air's pad. Pinch to zoom and rotate work as expected — a nice change from the norm. Two-finger scroll is in; four-finger swiping will show the desktop; and you can configure two-finger tap to be interpreted as right click. If you're old fashioned, you can still press down the touch pad in the bottom left or right to get the solid click of physical mouse buttons. The pad itself is a little higher friction than we'd like, but still usable.
The 13.3-inch 1366x768 screen is, similarly, reasonable, even if the Air outdoes it at 1440x900. What isn't so reasonable is that the S3's screen visibly wobbles every time you type. It's not huge, but it's there.
Frustratingly, nearly all of the ports have been moved to the back. An SD card reader can be found on the right and a headset port on the left, but the two USB 2.0 ports and the HDMI port sit on the rear. While the rear is fine for video ports, we find it vastly annoying for the likes of USB ports, which are used considerably more frequently.
Firing up 3DMark06 and PCMark05 gave us expected results for the hardware involved, returning 3282 and 5540, respectively. The S3 isn't a gaming machine, but it should handle work tasks just fine. One thing of note is the fan noise — when working hard, the S3's fan has a quite audible high-pitched whine, which isn't pleasant at all.
Turning off all power-saving features, setting screen brightness and volume to maximum and playing back an XviD file saw the laptop last three hours and 25 minutes before the battery expired — a decent result, but we'd have hoped for more, given the integrated nature of the battery.
The first ultrabook is a glimpse of what's yet to come. As it stands, though — and we thought we'd never say this about an Apple product — you get more for less money with the MacBook Air.