Of the major planks of Intel's Ultrabook platform -- fast performance, powerful graphics, efficient energy usage, instant-on responsiveness and always-on synchronization -- the Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook fulfills all but one. And to my knowledge, nobody's doing always-on yet.
With the S3's paper-thin physique, comparisons to Apple's MacBook Air are inevitable. The slender beauty is just as thin as the Air at its thickest (0.68 inches); both units taper near the edges and a brushed aluminum exterior protects both units from fingerprints. Similarities continue inside. The S3's flat Chicklet-sized keys and trackpad with integrated buttons have the look and feel of a MacBook, though the S3's trackpad is significantly smaller than Apple's, by about a half-inch in both directions and is limited to two-finger gestures (Apple's supports four).
Opening the lid, Acer's so-called Green Instant On and Instant Connect have the Ultrabook awake and alive in less than 3 seconds, another Mac OS X-like trait. The machine Acer sent the CRN Test Center was equipped with an Intel Core i5 dual-core, 1.6 GHz processor (just like Apple's base unit) running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium on 4 GB of memory. Geekbench 2.0 turned in a respectable top score of 5,657, but only after we removed or disabled McAfee and Microsoft nagware and set Windows for fastest performance.
Part of Intel's Ultrabook idea was to create machines that not only provide a fast and seamless user experience, but that look good doing it. The handsome S3 fills that bill nicely with its simple, uncluttered design. The left edge has but one port; for a headset. Similarly unencumbered is the right edge, which is home to an SD/MMC reader. The rear is home to a pair of USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port (which can output 1080p resolution) and connector for the right-angle canon plug. We usually prefer a rear edge free of any connectors and the danger of stressing them. Small LEDs for hard drive battery/power status are visible with the 13.3-inch screen is in the open or closed position.
The S3's Lithium polymer three-cell battery performed better than we expected. With all power saving features turned off and the WiFi radio on and connected, Paramount's 48 Hours played continuously from the hard drive at full screen and full brightness for five and a half hours. After putting itself to sleep due to low power, the S3 awoke in just a few seconds by reading its state from a 20-GB SSD that's dedicated to the job. A deep sleep mode preserves battery life for as many as 50 days, according to Acer. A separate 320-GB spinning hard drive stores the operating system, apps and user data. The MacBook Air offers no spinning drive and a maximum of 256 GB of storage (all flash).
The Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook alone tips the scales at a feather less than three pounds; the power adapter and its 12-foot cord adds another 11 ounces. The S3 generates minimal heat, measuring its hottest at 90 degrees along left edge and left side of the keyboard. Everywhere else on the machine was around between 80 and 85 degrees, slightly warm to the touch. The S3's work deck measures 12.5 x 8.5 inches.
If the Ultrabook portends the future of mobile computing, then we favor the design for its slim good looks, fast performance, and suitability to task (not to mention similarity to Apple products). For $899, including Windows 7 and a one-year warranty, the Acer Aspire S3 is a terrific product that costs several hundred dollars less than a comparably equipped MacBook Air. It's also a recommended product by the CRN Test Center.