- Relatively slim and light
- Attractive, reasonably robust chassis
- Very affordable
- Good battery life
- USB 3.0
- Horrible connectivity placement
- Average screen
- No hybrid SSD/HDD on this model
- Review Price: £475.00
- 15.6in glossy 1366 x 768 display
- Core i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB 5,400rpm HDD
- Slim (less than 21mm) and light (around 2kg)
- USB 3.0, optical drive
For example, there’s the 581TG-6736 version with Nvidia GeForce Series 6 ‘Keppler’ GT 640M graphics backed by a Core i5 CPU and 500GB hybrid storage, which is one of the first Ultrabooks you can actually do some decent 3D gaming on. The version we’re looking at today, however, is the cheapest model in the range, with a Core i3, integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive.
In fact, the lack of hybrid SSD storage means we’re not sure this laptop has a right to be called an Ultrabook anymore, but hey – if it looks like an Ultrabook, feels like an Ultrabook and, erm, smells like an Ultrabook (?)… With all that out of the way, let’s see how the cheapest ‘Ultrabook’ we’ve yet seen holds up.
At just a few grams over 2kg, this Aspire is certainly one of the lightest 15.6in laptops going, and it manages to maintain a thickness under 21mm so is quite slim too, especially considering it packs in an optical drive.
But it’s not just slim and light, the gunmetal-grey Timeline U M3 also looks and feels very good for such an affordable machine. Its all-metal lid is matched immaculately by the plastics Acer has gone with on the rest of this Ultrabook’s body, to the extent that they’re visually indistinguishable. Panels are immaculately fitted and build quality is again far better than the price would lead you to expect – perhaps a symptom of this same chassis being used on far more expensive models in the range. The plastics are high-quality moulded stuff that feels almost as good as the metal bits, though there is a little flex here and there.
Unfortunately, connectivity is where we hit our first pothole on the road. The selection on offer is quite good, with a memory card slot, optical drive, twin USB 2.0 ports, a single USB 3.0, full-size HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet and headphone/microphone jack.
However, most of it is located around the rear which makes it difficult to get at. This not only forces you to stand up and loom over the top of the machine if it’s sat on your desk with any peripherals attached, but it also makes it far too easy to bend or even break memory sticks when you lift the laptop off whatever flat surface it might happen to be on. Mind you, Acer is hardly alone in this poor ergonomic choice and it does have the advantage of keeping cable clutter out of sight, but we always prefer function over form.
While we’re on the topic of awkward locations, the Aspire Timeline U M3 Ultra’s power button is also quite difficult to access – and in fact, it took two of us looking at different times a nearly minute to find it. Where practically every other laptop has it near its keyboard or at the side, the Timeline U M3 has it hidden at the front under the palm rest’s lip. Once you know it’s there it obviously stops being as much of an issue, but it is still a case of needing to feel where it is every time you want to turn your laptop on.
So far we have a great chassis with good if poorly located connectivity, but what’s the Acer Aspire Timeline U M3 Ultra like to use? Thankfully, though its keyboard is not backlit it still provides a very nice typing experience. Number crunchers will be happy to hear that the Timeline U M3’s 15.6in form factor gives enough room for a full number pad. Keys are spaced a tad too far apart but well laid out, and offer decent feedback along with crisp action – which is what we want most from any laptop keyboard when you get right down to it.
The huge matt touchpad is likewise a pleasure to use, as it offers a smooth, sensitive surface along with easy to press ‘buttons’.
The screen is often the most dangerous area for laptops, especially affordable ones, since the TN panels used in the majority usually suffer from poor viewing angles and other annoyances. The 15.6in affair Acer has used here is no exception, but doesn’t fare badly at all compared to other affordable Ultrabooks. It sports the usual 1,366 x 768 resolution, and while this isn’t really what we like to see on a display of this size, we can’t complain considering the Aspire Timeline U M3 Ultra 581T-32364G34Mnkk’s sub-£500 price.
It sports a glossy finish that does cause annoying reflections but also gives colours that bit of extra verve and further enhances the already fairly deep blacks. Dark detailing is good if not perfect, as only the darkest shades are indistinguishable. And though vertical angles are as poor as ever meaning you need to tilt the screen carefully, vertically they’re quite strong with only the merest hint of contrast shift. In other words, it’s ‘good enough’ for the majority of work or play.
As you would hope given the extra chassis space, this 15in Ultrabook kicks most of the current 13in crop to the curb when it comes to audio. The Dolby processing-enhanced stereo speakers manage quite a bit of depth and clarity, and while they lack punch in the bass department they’re rarely in tinny territory. Unless you’re listening to music or trying to get the most out of a movie, headphones are not required.
It’s when it comes to what’s under the hood that this particular version of the Aspire Timeline U M3 Ultra really betrays its budget price. The M3 Ultra 581T-32364G34Mnkk sports a Sandy Bridge/second generation Intel Core i3 processor, rather than the Ivy Bridge/third generation CPUs you’ll find in many more expensive or just announced laptops.
Thankfully the days where cheap laptops came with 2GB of RAM appear to be permanently behind us, and the usual 4GB quotient is present to make everything run fairly smoothly. However, for those hoping that Ultrabooks heralded the end of traditional hard drive storage we have some bad news: this version of the Aspire Timeline U M3 uses a slow 320GB platter-spinner at 5,400rpm.
Mind you, we didn’t find the laptop particularly sluggish in use, but neither is it nearly as nippy as a hybrid model. In this case, there’s actually little reason left to go for the Acer Aspire Timeline U M3 581T over any other slim 15in laptop; though build and weight are above average for the size, you can find plenty of cheaper deals with better specs.
Graphics, naturally, are of the Intel integrated HD 3000 variety, rather than the U M3 581TG-6736’s dedicated Nvidia GT 640M. As such, only the lightest 3D gaming is on the menu. Though with the latest driver version the HD 3000 produced a smooth 30fps average in TrackMania, in stalker it barely limped along on 16fps, and that’s at medium detail and at below-native 1,280 x 720 resolution. If you want to see just how much difference the 640M would have made, we’ll be reviewing that model soon.
(40 percent screen brightness, wireless radios disabled, mixed productivity)
Usually battery life suffers on larger laptops, but since the Timeline U M3 is – in most of its incarnations – an Ultrabook, it should last a minimum of five hours. In fact, our test machine surprised us pleasantly by managing over seven hours, which is a very impressive result by both Ultrabook and 15.6in laptop standards. As with most of its kind, the battery is not user replaceable.
This is a tough one. Currently the Acer Aspire Timeline U M3 581T-32364G34Mnkk (urgh) is available for £475. The closest model up in the Timeline U M3 family will set you back £650, for a Core i5 and 500GB hybrid hard drive. Depending on your likely usage, this bump may not be worth the extra, and puts the Timeline U M3 into direct competition with Acer’s own Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook which is far lighter and better-built, if not as longevous away from a socket.
Back to our 32364G34Mnkk, it’s essentially the cheapest big-brand Ultrabook currently on the market, even if its physical-only hard drive means you’re not getting Ultrabook performance. It’s also one of the lightest 15in laptops available. If either of these factors qualify it for you, it’s a well-built and very usable machine with no major negatives aside from the horrendous placement of its connections. It’s also worth keeping in mind smaller manufacturers like Novatech, which currently offers a 14in Ultrabook with 128GB SSD for £535.
If on the other hand you’re just after an affordable desktop replacement, there are many models that will offer the same performance for less. As a similarly-priced alternative, the HP Pavilion DM4-2101 makes up for its greater weight and lack of USB 3.0, with even longer battery life and better connection placement.
This particular 581T-32364G34Mnkk configuration of the Acer Aspire Timeline U M3 makes it one of the cheapest ‘Ultrabooks’ available, or from another perspective, one of the lightest and slimmest affordable 15in laptops on the market. If this appeals to you it’s well worth considering thanks to decent looks, good build, nice usability and strong battery life. Otherwise you can get similar features and less awkward connection placement for the money elsewhere.
Score in detail
Screen Quality 7
Battery Life 8
Processor, Memory & Storage
|Processor||Intel Core i3|
|Memory (RAM) (Gigabyte)||4GB|
|Hard Disk Drive (HDD) (Gigabyte)||320GB|
|Hard Disk Drive Speed (RPM)||5400rpm|
|DVD Optical Drive||Yes|
Graphics & Sound
|Graphics||Intel integrated HD 3000|
|Resolution||1366 x 768|
|Operating System||Windows 7|
|Battery life (Hour)||7hr|
|Weight (With Battery) (Kilogram)||2.07kg|