Acer may be in a distant fourth place behind the top three PC manufacturers – Lenovo, HP and Dell – but its latest Aspire S3-392G Ultrabook proves that it can produce attractive designs at a competitive price. Updated for 2014, the Aspire S3 now includes a 13.3-inch touch-sensitive display and a Haswell processor for £750 (ex. VAT). That’s quite affordable compared to many of its Ultrabook rivals, so the Aspire S3 is certainly worth considering if you’re looking for a lightweight laptop for business travel.
Design & Build
The Aspire S3 makes a good first impression, as it measures just 18mm thick and weighs only 1.65kg. It’s not the lightest 13-inch laptop, but you can still pick it up with one hand quite easily and carry it around with little effort when you’re ready to leave the office.
The white top panel gives the Aspire S3 quite a distinctive look, while the aluminium casing for the keyboard panel looks smart and is also sturdy enough to withstand the occasional bump when you’re out and about. The keyboard feels firm and comfortable when typing for long periods, and the large trackpad is also comfortable to use. However, closer inspection does reveal a few small flaws.
The keyboard lacks the top row of function keys found on most laptops. This means that if you want to adjust the keyboard backlight or turn off the Wi-Fi for ‘airplane mode’ when you’re travelling then you’ll have to look around for these controls elsewhere on the keyboard, rather than quickly finding them amongst the normal function keys.
Other keys, such as the ‘Esc’ and ‘Page Up/Down’ keys are unusually small and can feel a little awkward if you’re typing at speed. That seems like a poor design decision – especially given the amount of empty space surrounding the keyboard that could easily have been used to add those missing function keys.
Sound & Vision
Fortunately, there’s no such criticism to be made of the 13.3-inch screen. Business users may not be swayed by the touch-sensitive screen – which seems like little more than a box-ticking exercise – but they will certainly notice the vibrant image quality produced by the Aspire S3’s high-definition IPS display.
Its 1920×1080 resolution produces a sharp and detailed image that works well for Web browsing, streaming video or simply entering data into large spreadsheets. The IPS display will also be particularly well suited to presentations work, as it produces a very bright image with viewing angles that come close to a full 180 degrees.
The sturdy design of the Aspire S3 comes in useful here too, as the hinge of the screen panel is specially designed to hold the screen firmly in place so that you don’t need to keep adjusting the angle of the screen. Even the speakers are a cut above average, providing surprisingly high volume for such a compact laptop. They’ll certainly allow you to run presentations for quite a large audience without having to plug in a set of external speakers.
Last year’s Ivy Bridge edition of the Aspire S3 is still available for a bargain-basement price of around £400 (ex. VAT). However, this new 2014 edition is only available in a single configuration, priced at £750 (ex. VAT) with a Haswell i5 processor running at 1.6GHz, 4GB memory and 500GB hard disk.
The i5 processor includes a Turboboost option that can increase clock speed to a maximum of 2.6GHz, and the Aspire S3 also includes both integrated HD 4400 graphics and a separate nVidia GeForce GT 735M to boost graphics performance.
That combination will certainly allow it to run Microsoft Office with ease, as well as more graphics-intensive tasks such as photo- or video-editing if you need to prepare material for multimedia presentations. The 500GB hard disk provides plenty of room for storing files and other data, and although the hard drive itself is only rated at 5400rpm it does include a 16GB solid-state module that helps to improve performance. The Aspire S3 certainly feels quicker and more responsive than we had initially expected, waking from sleep as soon as you open the screen panel, and taking just 20 seconds to start from a completely cold boot.
Battery & Connectivity
The only disappointment in the Aspire S3’s performance is its battery life. Acer quotes a maximum of 6.5 hours of battery life, and our light-usage tests confirm that this is a fairly accurate estimate. That’s close to a full day’s work, but there are Haswell laptops such as Apple’s MacBook Air that can comfortably stretch to 10 hours or even longer, so the Aspire S3 does leave room for improvement. There’s no easy option for replacing the battery, either. The base of the Aspire S3 is held in place with several Torx screws, which means that you can’t simply swap in a new battery pack if you need one.
Connectivity is also rather limited. Like most Ultrabooks, the Aspire S3 omits a DVD drive in order to keep its size and weight to a minimum. That’s an acceptable compromise, and the two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 are quite adequate for connecting peripherals such as printers and hard disks.
There’s also an HDMI interface for connecting the S3 to a larger monitor or TV screen. However, there’s no Ethernet interface for connecting to a wired office network, and you’ll need to pay £16.66 (ex. VAT) for a special Ethernet adapter. There’s no option to add a 3G or 4G SIM for mobile broadband either.
Ready To Go
Business travellers who spend most of their time on the road may prefer a laptop with greater battery life and connectivity. Yet the Aspire S3 is still attractive, lightweight, and provides good performance for a lower price than many of its Ultrabook rivals. The battery life leaves room for improvement, but the Aspire S3 will still earn its keep for presentations and other tasks that require good graphics performance and a high-quality display.