Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 Review: Kepler's First Laptop
Introduction, The Kepler Scoop, Design, User Interface
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The Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 is a unique laptop. It was the first product on the market to contain a GPU based of Nvidia’s new Kepler architecture, beating out not only other laptops but also the desktop video cards. It’s also a rare 15.6” ultrabook. Though a lot of companies have talked about them, not many have actually offered them.
You might expect, considering this two facts, that the Acer Aspire M3 would be outrageously expensive. But this is Acer we’re talking about, and if there’s anything the company stands for, it’s value. This laptop, should you find it on store shelves (it is a globe product with limited production, and they don’t seem to have hit North America quite yet), will retail for around $800. Or so we’ve been told - given the so far limited supply, we would not be surprised if prices were a bit higher until more units are made available to quell demand.
So, what’s inside this ultra-sized ultrabook? Besides the GT 640M, nothing surprising.
Though large enough to accommodate a decent discrete GPU, this laptop still has a low-voltage Core i5 processor. That’s going to put some limits on the overall performance of the laptop, but it also should help extend battery life.
This is likely to be the only Kepler based laptop on the market for a month or two. The reason for this is Ivy Bridge - most of the manufacturers are waiting for Intel’s processor update before they go to the trouble of designing new products.
Kepler For Mobile – The Scoop
With the NDA now lifted, we’re able to say anything that we’d like about Kepler for mobile. And there’s certainly a lot to say.
Nvidia’s focus, with both the desktop and laptop parts, is improved performance-per-watt. The company says that the new parts offer twice the powerformance-per-watt of the previous, Fermi derived components.
That’s particularly exciting news for laptops because it means a more powerful component can be crammed in to a smaller space. Three months ago the idea of cramming a mid-range GPU into an ultrabook chassis was laughable. No one had tried to use even an entry-level part, like the GT 520M. We are more than a little surprised by the green team’s boldness.
What are the specifics of the GT 640M? It has 384 cores spread across two of Nvidia's new "SMX" units, which contain 192 cores each. The core clock can reach 625 MHz, though it doesn't hang out there all the time - we read a core clock of 405 MHz at idle. Our review unit's GT 640M came with 1GB of DDR3 and 128 bit memory bus, but other versions may feature up to 2GB of RAM and use DDR5, which allows a maximum bandwidth of 64 GB/s. Our modestly equipped GT 640M has a much lower bandwidth of 28.8 GB/s.
A number of Kepler parts are currently planned. They include the GT 640M, GT 640M LE, GT 650M and GTX 660M. All of these new parts include for Nvidia's Optimus switchable graphics technology. These components also support a new dynamic performance feature, which we'll discuss more in the Cooling section of this review.
As you can see in the table above, Nvidia hasn’t stopped its tradition of blending new and old parts in the same product line. Older Fermi parts will be (or in a few cases, already have been) re-purposed for the GT 610M, GT 620M, GT 635M and a version of the GT 640M LE. On the high-end you'll see re-worked Fermi based chips sold as the GTX 670M and GTX 675M.
The fact that we aren't going to see Kepler in new 600 series mobile GPUs across the board is disappointing and confusing. A perfect example is the GT 640M LE, which will come in both Kepler and Fermi versions. The Kepler version will have up to 384 cores clocked at up to 500 MHz, while the Fermi version will have just 96 cores clocked at up to 762 MHz. We can only wonder why Nvidia thinks it is a good idea to give two entirely different GPUs the same name.
Of course, while these products are all announced, this Acer is the only Kepler equipped laptop you can buy today. We saw a number of other laptop designs at Nvidia’s press conference, but we can’t talk specifics. Why? They’re all covered by the Ivy Bridge NDA. That should give you a good indication of when to expect the lion’s share of Kepler equipped laptops to become available.
We’ve heard about possible 15-inch ultrabooks for some time now, but examples of them in the wild have been rare. This isn’t surprising. There was simply no need for a larger chassis to accommodate the hardware that was available in the first production ultrabooks.
That’s going to change, however, with the launch of faster processors and Nvidia’s new Kepler based discrete GPUs. And so we have the Acer Aspire M3 - a large, matte black slab that has the same 15.6” display found on mainstream laptops but is only 20mm (or .8 inches) thick.
One potential problem with large ultrabooks is additional chassis flex, but there’s no evidence of an issue here. Of course, the Acer Aspire M3 isn’t that thin. But at least it provides evidence that a 15.6” ultrabook can be built well even if it retails at a low price.
Frankly, there’s not a lot to say about the aesthetics of this laptop. Matte black is the order of the day, which serves as a ward against both fingerprints and excitement. The keyboard is surrounded by silver plastic, but the key caps are matte black once again. This isn’t a matter of form over function - in this case, Acer has paid little attention to either.
This is most apparent at the front, where you’ll find the power button located on the edge of the laptop just below the touchpad. A small change like this seems innocent at first - but in everyday use you’ll quickly come to realize that the power button location causes it to be casually bumped far too easily. When using the laptop on your lap you can accidentally turn off the laptop for too easily. You change the power button’s function so it does not turn off the laptop using Window’s settings, but that should not be necessary.
All of the ports are on the rear of the laptop. In total you’ll find find two USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, HDMI and Ethernet along with a combo headphone/microphone jack. Placing connectivity on the back of a laptop often isn’t a bad idea, but placing all the ports back there leaves users without any easy location to attach a USB drive. Connecting headphones to this laptop is a hassle, as well, because the jack location causes the headphone cord to constantly interfere with normal use.
The size of this laptop provides plenty of room for keys, so Acer has thrown in a full keyboard with numpad that is nearly edge-to-edge. Most keys are of medium size, but some keys are particularly large, such as the right side shift key. The function keys are as small as you’ll find on some ultraportables, however.
Moderate key travel is available, which is surprising given the laptop’s thin frame. Key action is linear and bottoms out firmly. While there are better options for typists, this is among the better ultrabook keyboards I’ve sampled so far. Most people won’t have trouble using this laptop to get their Word on.
This somewhat-above-average vibe continues to the touchpad, which makes ample use of the additional space available. You’ll find that there’s plenty of room to wag your fingers. Figuring out where to wag or not wag may be a problem, however, because the border between the touchpad and the rest of the interior is easy to miss with both your visual and tactile senses.
Also easy to miss are the left/right touchpad buttons. As is the modern trend, they are activated by depressing the lower portion of the touchpad. This action seems unresponsive at times and requires firm pressure. Though I was able to adjust, I think some users will find the sloppy left/right clicks to be frustrating.