Let’s cut to the chase here. If you’re pondering buying the Acer Aspire S3, it’s because you desperately want an Apple MacBook Air but are too freaking cheap to pony up the $1,300 (minimum) for the 13-inch model.
The Aspire S3 is a glorious knock-off of the Air — stripped down to the basics and slashed to just $900. Is a 30 percent price cut a compelling enough reason to buy it over its inspiration? That’s debatable, but it’s at least worth a look.
The tale of the tape tells the story the best: The Acer Aspire S3 is almost dead-on the same size as the Air in every dimension — just a fraction of an inch less deep (front to back) — right down to the weight, just a shade under three pounds. The design also closely mimics the Air, including the upturned-saucer-shaped lower chassis, spacious clickpad, and silvery-gray color scheme. Slap an Apple sticker over the Acer logo on the back and unless someone touches it (it’s plastic, not metal like the Air), or closely examines the profile (it’s flatter and untapered), no one will be the wiser that you went the budget route.
But the tradeoffs, they are a-plenty — a necessity to get the price down, of course. The resolution on the 13.3-inch display is lower, 1366 x 768 pixels versus 1440 x 900 on the Air. Also, the brightness of the Aspire’s display leaves much to be desired, especially if you’re not viewing the screen absolutely head-on.
Performance is another key issue. Despite the 1.6GHz Core i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM, benchmarks were just average on general apps and on par with most netbooks I see when graphics (there’s only Intel’s integrated GPU) got involved. I’m not sure what to make of the hard drive solution: There’s a 320GB standard hard drive plus a 20GB SSD (non-user-accessible) that Acer says it uses to store various system files as part of a quick-boot scheme. Acer makes a bigger deal out of this than I would; while it’s faster to wake from sleep most laptops, it’s not fast enough to be a deal-maker or -breaker.
I also didn’t love the somewhat creepy, rubbery keyboard, its white-on-gray buttons difficult to make out in low light (keyboard backlighting is also axed here), and featuring arrow keys smaller than the tip of my pinky. It doesn’t help that Page Up and Down keys are wedged in that box too, making it near impossible to use any of them to navigate efficiently. You might have better luck with the clickpad, but I found its utility to be only average compared to most others. I’d prefer discrete buttons, but the multitouch pad at least worked well enough most of the time.
The bottom line is that with this ultrabook, Acer is at least sending a message that real price competition can exist in this rarefied category of notebooks. Whether that will actually amount to a real price war is still an open question, but if nothing else, this category has at least become one worth watching now.
WIRED A rather inexpensive and decent way to play dress up and fit in and Starbucks. A nice feat of engineering at a respectable price. Fair enough battery life (four and half hours under load).
TIRED Two USB ports may mimic the MacBook Air, but it’s still not enough. Performance is average at best. Surprisingly loud and aggressive fan. Stuffed to the gills with shovelware (When’s the last time you saw an eBay icon on the desktop?).
Photos by Jim Merithew/Wired