Review: Acer Aspire Timeline M3

When it came to Ultrabooks, Acer launched the S3 early, but the Timeline M3 is the flagship product. Despite the Ultrabook form factor, this model includes a dedicated GPU and optical drive.

NameLaptop: Acer Aspire M3 (M3-581TG)
At a glance:1366 x 768-pixel screen, 15.6-inch Ultrabook,Has an optical drive and dedicated graphics card,Performs well, but the screen is a let-down
Summary:A great laptop that runs a little on the warm side and has an awful screen.
RRP:$1,699 (Core i5), $1,999 (Core i7, as tested)

Compared to the Samsung Notebook Series 9 and the Dell XPS 14 also reviewed in August 2012, the Acer Aspire Timeline M3 is far from attractive. But it’s worth looking beyond the plain exterior for several reasons. From the optical drive – yes, there’s an optical drive – to the dedicated graphics card, it has features many other Ultrabooks lack, and all in a 15-inch package that’s just 2.1kg.

Acer has long been at the forefront of Intel’s push for thin and light laptops. It was the first manufacturer to launch in Intel’s narrowly defined ‘Thin and Light’ form factor with the super-lightweight Timeline series, and followed up each new iteration of lower-voltage Intel chips with well-performing Timeline models that didn’t dent your wallet too heavily. When it came to Ultrabooks, Acer launched the S3 early, but the Timeline M3 is the flagship product. Timeline has always stood for long battery life without compromise – the question is, how does the newest instalment fare?

Everything about the M3 is understated, given the specifications. The chassis is a fingerprint-resistant matte black, as are the keys of the isolated keyboard – with number pad, mind. There are a few nods to this being at the higher end of Acer’s range, such as the delicately curved rear of the base and large trackpad, but ‘functional and utilitarian’ is the dominant aesthetic.

The base is resistant to torsion and pressure, but the lid is held on only by two hinges. I’m a fan of barrel hinges, and the setup that Acer uses here allows far too much flex in the lid, in my opinion. It might mean extra protection is advisable when travelling, but if your laptop is more staycation than vacation, it definitely won’t cause issues.

While we’re looking at the lid in detail, let’s talk about the screen. It’s 1366 x 768 resolution, which, for a 15.6-inch screen, is disappointing. Compare that to the Samsung Series 9 and Dell XPS 14, which both have 1600 x 900 screens, with smaller overall screen size. The horizontal viewing angle isn’t enormous, either. The colours seem a little muddy, despite the glossy screen. Given the DVD drive, you can at least view 720p video, but your games are going to look so-so.

The Timeline is designed to be a mobile desktop replacement – emphasis on the mobile – so comfort and usability are important. There are both good points and bad points here for the Timeline. On the negative side, the on/off switch was just under the curved edge at the front of the laptop. That would have been okay if I hadn’t used it in my lap. It’s in a spot that several times collided with my body when I shifted position on the sofa, giving me a sudden ‘shutting down’ notification that I wasn’t expecting. Also poor, from my perspective, was that all ports are on the back of the laptop. Even the headphone port is at the rear, which caused some interesting issues. Still, you get three USB ports – one USB 3.0 – as well as HDMI-out and a full-sized Ethernet port, even on a laptop with a 21mm thick chassis, so it’s a bit cheeky of me to complain. But while I am... the touchpad, too, I found over-responsive, resulting in a few wayward cursors. However, many of the usability negatives are outweighed by the fact that the Timeline has a truly comfortable keyboard. It has excellent travel, with just the right amount of bounce to make you feel as though you could type all day.

The model we looked at is a Sandy Bridge version – still on shelves, though the Ivy Bridge model will replace it in a month or two. The processor is a top-end 1.7GHz Intel second generation Core i7-2637, with a handy 4GB RAM to ensure multitasking is nimble. The included graphics chip is an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M with 1GB of dedicated RAM. It’s one of the newest Nvidia mobile processors, released in March and based on its 28nm Kepler architecture. Finally, a 500GB hard drive gives plenty of space for multimedia, even if it’s not as speedy as an SSD.

In our benchmarks, that performance shone through. The results for most of our benchmarks even outdid the Ivy Bridge-based Dell XPS 14. There were exceptions, though – for multi-processor tasks using just the CPU, we saw clear wins for both of the Ivy Bridge systems we tested this issue. The gaming benchmarks showed a 20-30% increase in framerates over the XPS 14, showing the advantages of a higher-spec GPU.

While the M3 handled all our benchmarks without breaking a sweat, I found its Achilles heel. I played Diablo III extensively on the M3, and – until a timely BIOS update – it bluescreened on me a few times and ran so hot that the back right corner, in particular, couldn’t be rested against bare skin. It was only during this intensive gameplay that I observed this issue.

It was so bad that we contacted Acer: they offered to send a second laptop, which we agreed to, but as the second laptop arrived, so did a BIOS update for the system. Thankfully, the BIOS update fixed everything, and I was able to play without it overheating. For me, the Timeline’s ability to play Diablo III with high texture settings at decent framerates is one of the main reasons that this laptop is worth buying. Still, we’d recommend a decent laptop cooler to go alongside your purchase. The side benefit of a laptop cooler is that it will prevent you from accidentally pressing the on/off button, too.

The battery life, for such a powerful machine, is decent. On our Productivity benchmark, which represents a heavy load of continuous use, the Acer managed three hours and fourty-four minutes. Nothing like the times achieved by either Ivy Bridge system tested this issue, but impressive for a laptop of this size and specification, nonetheless.

It’s clear that Acer has made tradeoffs here to keep the Timeline affordable and capable of the ‘8 hours of battery life’ that Intel demands of an Ultrabook. One tradeoff is to add a graphics card to improve performance, but to keep battery usage lower, reduce the display resolution. The performance is outstanding – there’s no denying that – and the fact that it squeezes everything into a 2kg package is impressive, but the low resolution screen means we can’t give it a top score.

Related products: Samsung Notebook Series 9 | Dell XPS 14

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Zara Baxter

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