Ultrabooks hit the shelves: Acer Aspire S3 vs. Asus Zenbook UX31

They're thin, lightweight and elegant -- but how well do they work? We test two of the first ultrabooks to find out.

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Acer Aspire S3

While it's slightly smaller and costs 30% less than the MacBook Air, Acer's Aspire S3 fails to live up to the ultrabook ideal, mainly because of its disappointingly short battery life.

The Aspire is 0.7-in. thick at the front, slightly thicker than both the Zenbook and the MacBook Air; it measures 0.8-in. thick at the rear. At 12.6 x 8.5 in., it's slightly shorter and half an inch narrower than the Air.

Acer Aspire S3
Acer Aspire S3

The system's 3.0-lb. weight is on a par with the Air but is a couple of ounces lighter than the Zenbook. If you add the AC adapter, its travel weight rises to 3.7 lb. -- 2 oz. more than the Zenbook's travel weight. Charging the Aspire S3 requires a three-prong outlet, which can be inconvenient.

I liked the Aspire S3's dull-gray brushed aluminum case, but it couldn't compare to the Zenbook's sleek, silvery finish. In fact, the gray-on-gray design meant that at times it was hard to see the keys when typing.

The Aspire S3 is equipped with the Intel Core i5-2467M processor, which runs at 1.6GHz but can sprint briefly at up to 2.3GHz when needed. The system comes with its maximum 4GB RAM.

Hybrid storage

The big step forward is the Aspire S3's use of a hybrid storage system that mates a 320GB traditional hard drive with 20GB of solid state storage. In this setup, the most-used data and program code is kept in flash memory rather than in the slower hard drive. For me, this helped the system wake up from sleep mode in 3.3 seconds.

The Aspire S3's 13.3-in. display is just as bright and clear as the Zenbook's but offers 1366 x 768 resolution as opposed to the Zenbook's 1600 x 900 and the MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 resolutions. Strangely, the display kept wobbling if I simply touched it, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in its sturdiness.

Like the Zenbook, the Aspire S3 uses the Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics engine, but it has 128MB of dedicated video memory, twice what the Zenbook has. Both can boost video memory to 1.7GB by using system RAM.

Above the display is an HD webcam that can capture sharp stills and video. Its 1280 x 1024 resolution is roughly four times that of the Zenbook's low-resolution cam.

While neither of these ultrabooks can get particularly loud, each has a high-quality audio system. The Aspire S3 uses Dolby Home Theater software and sounded great when connected to external speakers, but its built-in speakers are underneath the system and sounded muffled and hollow.

As expected, the variety of ports on the Aspire S3 is limited. It has a pair of USB 2.0 (but no USB 3.0) ports, along with a full-size HDMI and audio ports, but it does without VGA or Ethernet ports. It offers 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a flash card reader that works with SD and MMC modules.

The system comes with Windows 7 Home Premium and can tap into Intel's Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technologies. It includes McAfee's Internet Security Suite with 30 days of updates. The Aspire S3's one-year warranty comes up short compared to the Zenbook's two-year warranty with one year of accident protection.

Performance testing

While the Zenbook provides the choice of several different operating modes, the Aspire S3 only has a single operating mode. However, the Aspire S3 did quite well in testing with a PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 score of 986.7 and CineBench 11.5 results of 1.92 and 7.79 for processor and graphics ability. That puts the Aspire S3 on a par with high-performance notebooks. (In comparison, the Zenbook scored a higher 1,280.1 when run in High Performance mode, but a mere 550.6 in Battery Saver mode.)

The Aspire S3's 3,280 mAh battery ran for 3 hours and 14 minutes on a charge while continuously playing HD videos from a USB drive compared to the Zenbook's rating of 3 hours and 57 minutes while in Battery Saver mode. In High Performance mode, the Zenbook ran for 2 hours and 59 minutes.

In addition to running a media-heavy PowerPoint presentation, the Aspire S3 handled YouTube HD videos without a problem. The Aspire S3 ran the BurnIn Test nonstop for 72 hours and went through more than 200 trillion operations without an error.

Bottom line

The Aspire S3 puts an end to the notion that you have to pay a lot to get a slim, light notebook that doesn't disappoint in terms of performance. If its battery could run longer on a charge and it could match some of the Zenbook's advantages -- a better warranty and variable performance modes -- the Aspire S3 would be a contender.

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