Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 Review: Kepler's First Laptop
Display and Audio Quality, Cooling, Portability, Software
Display And Audio Quality
The 15.6” display on this laptop offers the typical resolution of 1366x768. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it does a decent job of disguising its lack of pixels. You have to stick your nose very close to the display for the definition between pixels becomes obvious.
Gloss is the order of the day and can become a serious issue when using the laptop in a bright room. Believe it or not, the photos in this review were taken in a coffee shop on an overcast day. If the sun had come out you'd be hard pressed to see anything on the display at all. And this is with the backlight at maximum strength!
Test images and benchmarking revealed decent image quality for a laptop. Black levels are better than average and colors appear vibrant. Banding in the gradient test image is minor. Although this laptop is branded as a Timeline, the display seems more suited for media content and gaming than portability.
Audio quality is acceptable. At moderate volume the speakers perform best, delivering a fairly clear sound that even has a tiny hint of bass. Turning up the volume unfortunately causes more and more distortion, rendering complex music difficult to listen to and blowing out some loud sounds in games. Another issue with the speakers is there location at the front edge of the laptop. It’s easy to obscure the laptop’s sound if it is placed on anything besides a firm surface.
In our review of the GT 640M we hinted at a dynamic performance feature, but were restricted from saying more about it due to NDA. Now we can tell you the details.
The feature – which Nvidia has so far refused to name and is NOT the same as GPU Boost for desktops – is based off total system thermal design power. Every laptop has a cooling system that is built to exhaust a certain amount of heat. If too much is generated, it will overheat – obviously not an ideal condition, so designers build in some headroom. But that headroom also means that the system could handle more power. It’s wasted potential.
Nvidia’s dynamic performance feature aims to take advantage of that wasted potential. If internal sensors register that the laptop can handle additional heat the GPU can overclock itself, resulting in better performance.
An interesting side-effect of this is that different laptops with the same GPU could provide different performance. Nvidia said as much at their press conference. An Nvidia rep also stated that the maximum external temperatures tolerated by a laptop is ultimately up to the manufacturer.
This lead us to wonder – how well will the Acer handle the GT 640M’s heat? Physically squeezing a mid-range GPU into an ultrabook chassis is one thing. Cooling it is another.
The answer is "not well." While the palmrest remains in the mid-80s, the middle of the keyboard becomes extremely warm, reaching temperatures up to 105 degrees. That’s nothing compared to center-bottom of the laptop, where we read temperatures of up to 128 degrees after playing Battlefield 3 on Ultra. It's so warm that simply touching the laptop at its hottest point is uncomfortable.
It’s impressive that Nvidia and Acer managed to come together and develop a very thin laptop with a discrete GPU, but the high external temperatures are going to be a drag for many buyers. You can’t use this laptop in your lap without toasting your thighs if you do anything that engages in the GPU.
A 15.6” ultrabook such as this provides a strange blend of traits. It’s certainly thin, which makes it easy to carry around. But it’s also a 15.6” laptop and about as deep and wide as any other, which makes it no easier to fit in a messenger bag. And, at just over five pounds, it’s not particularly light.
As a result, this laptop does nothing to break the long-standing rules of the market. If you want portability, buy something with a 13.3” or perhaps a 14” display - it will be lighter and much easier to fit in a small to medium bag.
According to the box this Acer comes equipped with a 3-cell Lithium Ion battery. That sounds small, but it turns out to be sufficient. The new Nvidia GPU of course supports Optimus, so most of the time using the Acer is spent with the Intel IGP engaged, allowing for a Battery Eater Reader’s Test time of six hours and thirty-six minutes.
That’s not the best we’ve ever come across, but it’s on par for an ultrabook and competitive with most ultraportables. We think the average user will find that this Acer provides more endurance than is ever needed in one go.
Our Acer review unit came with a desktop full of pre-installed shortcuts. Ebay, Nook for PC, Netflix, clear.fi Media/Photo and several Acer icons all appeared the first time we turned the laptop on. Most of the icons are nothing more than shortcuts to websites, so simply deleting them gets rid of the annoyance - but it’s always disappointing to see that PC vendors consider it a-okay to load up a laptop a customer has paid for with advertising.
Of more concern is McAfee antivirus, which barges in early and often with warnings about protection and suggestions that you subscribe to the full versions after your trial expires. I was particularly annoyed that it picked its own scanning schedule without consulting me and thus interrupted a benchmark, causing me to scratch my head about why it wasn’t working right until I figured out that McAfee had decided 3:00 PM on a weekday would be a convenient time to start scanning.