There is no disputing the lure of an attractive, lightweight companion. No, I'm not telling you who you should be dating next. I'm only talking about the handful of ultrabook s that are slowly making their way into the Indian market.

Acer Inc. is one of the few players in the ultrabook market right now, which will see many more entrants in the following months.

Here are my first impressions, after playing around with the Acer Aspire S3, the company's first ultrabook.

Something new, something borrowed

Intel has laid down the skeleton around which every ‘ultrabook ' has to be designed. Aimed at taking on its capable competitor, Apple's MacBook Air series, each ultrabook has to more or less fulfil five requirements. Basically, it's not an Ultrabook if it's not light-weight, if it doesn't have quick processing and loading times, if the battery flashes red too soon and if it takes two months' salary to own.

The Acer Aspire S3 weighs in at a little less than 1.5 kg. You can pick it up with one hand every now and then, without having to worry about triggering off Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It's noteworthy that you can actually hold it up by one hand, in the first place; some models require real effort with two.

The notebook has a 13.3-inch HD LED display with a lid and bezel crafted out of aluminum. The default aspect ratio of the display is 16:9, ideal for watching movies on. During the couple of weeks I had it with me, I watched endless episodes of ‘Two And A Half Men' and a bunch of movies. The viewing angles on the laptop were pretty average. What turned out to be a real letdown was the sound quality, particularly the volume levels. This, despite the unit featuring a pair of professionally tuned speakers with Dolby Home Theater v4. The fact that the speakers are placed at the bottom of the laptop didn't help the situation at all.

Design

The Power button has found an unusual place on the Acer Aspire S3 – it sits on a slim panel right between the screen and the keyboard. The Bluetooth and battery power indicators are located to its right. It was interesting to note that all three buttons could be accessed even when the lid was shut, so it not only makes for a quick glance to check if you need to plug the power cord in but also to quickly switch the laptop on/off. The unibody trackpad on the S3 supports basic multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom. It looks sleek but seems like it's acting out every once in a while – detecting multi-touch gestures when you didn't intend any.

The island-style keyboard on the laptop is well laid out. However, the keyboard, like the Lenovo U300s, is not backlit. This is a bit of an inconvenience if you want to access any of the functions in the dark, for example, whenever I wanted to lower the volume while watching a movie, with the lights off, I had to flash my phone's torchlight or lower the lid to illuminate a bit of the keyboard. Also, there's a cluster of keys on the right extreme of the keyboard that includes Page up/Down and the function button to adjust volume and brightness levels. This space seems a little cramped and takes some getting used to.

One of the biggest pluses of the Acer Aspire S3 was the fact that it barely had any heating issues. I used it for hours on end, till the battery gave way, but it never felt like that ultrabook was any warmer than it should ideally be. The company attributes this to the design principles it has adopted. All the heat generating components have been placed away from the palm rest and touchpad area, and warm air is funnelled away from the back. They have also enabled venting throughout the keyboard to keep the system cool. And, the vent-free bottom allows it to be used comfortably on a lap or pillow without obstructing air flow.

Performance

The Acer Aspire S3 runs Intel's mid-range 2nd generation Core i5 processor. The graphics capabilities are taken care of by Intel HD Graphics 3000. The laptop has a 320GB hard drive and 4GB of memory. It is currently the only Ultrabook on the market to include both a solid state and hard disk drive.

One drawback, depending on your connectivity needs, might be the limited number of ports with which this Ultrabook is endowed. Two USB ports, an HDMI port, a multi-media card reader and the quintessential 3.5mm jack are all the options you have to plug in to on this machine. Over the weeks that we used the Acer Aspire S3, we realised that the battery life this delivers outdoes many other regular laptops in the block. At medium brightness, Wi-Fi connected and multimedia playing, the laptop gave us company for close to 6 hours before we had to plug the power source in.

Response time is right on top of the priority list if you look at Intel's eligibility criteria for Ultrabook s. It was a pleasant surprise then to realise that the Acer Aspire actually took very little time to wake up from sleep, just about 3-4 seconds. The boot up time, on an average, clocked in at 27-28 seconds and with all programs turned off, it took about 8-9 seconds to power down.

I ran the NovaBench benchmarking test on the Acer Aspire S3 and it gave us an aggregate of 476 points. The software tested the unit's RAM speed and CPU, graphics and hardware performance.

One last word

I'll admit that the idea of an ultrabook holds a lot of promise. It covers up all the little niggles that one would otherwise have with a regular laptop. “It's too bulky to be carried around” or “It takes forever to boot up” will probably be sentences long forgotten if you happen to own an ultrabook in the near future. The only thing you might have to compromise on is the acoustics and the tactile experience. Almost everything else – from the battery life to portability to power – is more or less taken care of well by the Acer Aspire S3.

Love: Lightweight, long battery life

Hate: Bad volume levels, average screen

Rs 49,500

mahananda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 27, 2011)
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