Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook VS. Apple MacBook Air, Ultra-thin Notebook Review
Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook VS. Apple MacBook Air, Ultra-thin Notebook Review
Acer is picking a fight with Apple’s with its own take on the MacBook.
Acer’s just-unveiled Aspire S3 is remarkably similar to the Air, even with the distinctive sculpted keyboard indentation in the top case.
But as Acer Australia’s Nigel Gore told APC, when you make everything in a notebook smaller and smaller, the designs are inevitably going to bear some similarity. (Then he gave a long-winded justification about how it’s hard to tell the difference between various models of car, but we’ll spare you that one.)
APC had hands-on time with this gorgeous piece of engineering yesterday at the Australian launch event, and of course we smuggled in a MacBook Air to put next to it to compare.
So, how do they stack up against each other?
How it looks
This notebook is so slim it’s barely there.
Thickness | Officially, the Aspire S3 is claimed to be 13mm thick. Put next to a MacBook Air that’s 17 mm thick at its thickest point, it was obvious that the Air is still thinner.
Mac ate nothing but Subway for six months and came away two millimetres thinner…
It turns out the Aspire S3 is actually 17mm at its thickest point, not taking into account the rubber stoppers on the bottom, which add a couple more millimetres.
Putting aside a few thousandths of a metre between friends, it is an impressive form factor, and a surprisingly clean design for a PC notebook.
Das blinkenlights have been whittled down to a mere two tiny pin-prick LEDs beneath the screen — one to indicate the notebook is on, and another to indicate low battery. (That’s still two too many in our opinion, but hey, two are better than seven… we’re looking at you, Toshiba Portege Z830.)
Weight | The S3 tips the scale at “less than 1.35kg”. Presumably, the weight varies a bit depending on whether you go for a hard drive or an SSD model.
That’s competitive with the 13″ MacBook Air, which weighs 1.3kg. Of course, the 11″ MacBook Air is lighter at 1.08kg, but as the Aspire S3 is only coming in 13″ models, it’s not really a valid comparison.
Aesthetics | … are in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there are some visual features worth pointing out.
The S3′s casing is made of magnesium-aluminium alloy and finished with a lightly brushed texture. The MacBook Air is finished in a smooth, matte aluminium.
We didn’t see any of those godawful affixed-with-superglue Microsoft and Intel stickers on the S3, but since we were looking at pre-production engineering samples, it may be that they just hadn’t been stuck on yet.
Clean and unsullied by supplier logos
The bottom of the notebook, while cleaner than most PC notebooks, has one very strange aspect: the bare face of the hard drive poking out. It turns out that to shave millimetres off the notebook, Acer decided to cut a hole in the bottom case and allow the hard drive to sit flush with the bottom of the case.
The exposed hard drive on the bottom of the case. Does that sit well with you?
Those quibbles aside, it’s a nice looking notebook, taking obvious design-cues from the MacBook Air. The casing is rigid, and looks pretty durable.
Standby and Battery Life | Acer Aspire S3-951 Ultrabook: Another viewPart of Intel’s hopes for Ultrabooks is they would offer instant-on functionality similar to the MacBook Air. Acer says the S3-951 can resume from sleep in about 2 seconds and 6 seconds from what the company calls “deep sleep mode,” which is probably just a fancy term for hibernate. Apple does not provide benchmarks for its so-called “instant-on” technology.
Each device maker is also claiming substantial standby time and battery life for their ultrathin laptops. Acer says the Aspire can last for up to 6 hours of regular use, and Apple says the Air will last for up to 7 hours when doing wireless Web browsing. Acer is also claiming an astounding 50 days of standby time, which is 20 days more than the Apple’s 30-day claim for the Air. But it’s important to remember that manufacturer claims often differ from third-party battery life tests. So it’s best not to count on Acer’s claims until the S3 has been thoroughly tested.
Storage | The new S3 has a solid state drive just as Intel hoped manufacturers would use for new Ultrabooks. Unfortunately, the SSD is just there to house Windows 7. For storing all your files, Acer turned to a 320GB hard drive. The MacBook Air, meanwhile, sports 128GB SSD. Solid state drives are often admired for their ability to significantly increase a computer’s performance speed compared to a device with a traditional spinning drive.
The powerplant | There are four variants of the S3. The $1,199 model packs a 1.3GHz Intel Core i3, the $1,399 and $1,699 models runs on a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 (the price difference being the 320GB hard drive vs a 240GB SSD), and the top-shelf $2,099 model packs a 1.7GHz Core i7.
This compares reasonably well against the MacBook Air — the $1,449 and $1,799 13″ models both run on a 1.7GHz Corei5. Apple provides an upgrade to a 1.8GHz Core i7 for $100 on the top model, though, which means you can get a MacBook Air with Core i7 and 256GB SSD for $1,899 — $200 less than the lesser-specced Aspire S3.
All models of the Aspire S3 have 4GB RAM.
One notable difference is that Apple includes a lot more memory with the Intel HD Graphics 3000. The Aspire S3s only come with 128MB, while Apple provides 384MB. For GPU-accelerated apps and games, this could make a substantial difference to performance.
The display | The screen on the S3 is noticeably thicker than the ultra-slim panel on the MacBook Air. And, as you can see in this picture, the anti-reflective properties of the MacBook Air’s display are vastly superior.
On the flipside, if you think you have something in your teeth, you can use it as a mirror…
MacBook Air also has an edge in resolution — 1440 x 900 pixels, compared to the S3′s more industry-standard 1377 x 768 pixels.
However, the screen quality in the S3 is better than average, with good brightness and viewing angles. Given it’s competing around the same price-points as the MacBook Air with its outstanding display, it would have to be.
Software | The Aspire S3 comes with Windows 7, while the MacBook Air comes with OS X 10.7 “Lion”. Which OS is better is really a matter of taste. But it’s definitely worth noting that the Mac comes with Apple’s really excellent iLife pack — iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband; three apps that are not only of saleable quality, but actually better than many of the commercial competitors.
Keyboard | The keyboard on the Aspire S3 is a chiclet-style keyboard, similar to what’s on the MacBook Air. But it lacks Apple’s superb fibre-optic backlighting; in fact, it lacks backlighting at all. We also noticed the keys have a fraction less travel than Apple’s keyboards, but this is probably something that could be easily adjusted to.
The chiclet keyboard bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple’s.
The Aspire S3 is the closest thing we’ve seen to a Windows-centric MacBook Air yet. While Samsung’s super-slim Notebook Series 9 might have beaten it to the punch in terms of dimensions, its pricing is way above where the MacBook Air is.
The fact that the Aspire S3 is a 13″ notebook available for less than the MacBook Air at some specification levels is very impressive.
It’s still not quite a match for the MacBook Air on some performance points, and the discipline in the case design isn’t as tight as Apple’s, but it’s a great leap forward for the Windows notebook space.
The Aspire S3 will be on sale in Australia in next month
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