Hands-On Review: the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 Ultrabooks
I recently tested two new Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 notebook computers: the 14” M5-481T-6670 and the 15.6” M5-581T-6490. These laptops are officially classified as Ultrabooks—a new category of powerful computers that strive to be as thin and lightweight as possible—but just think of the M5 as an ultra-portable workhorse. It provides all of the capability that you would expect from a full-sized computer, with none of the Ultrabook compromises. Read on to discover how these surprisingly budget-friendly computers will make you reconsider what an Ultrabook is, and the impression they made on me.
People assume that if you get an Ultrabook, you can’t have a built-in optical drive. Ultrabooks are so svelte that there physically isn’t enough room for a CD/DVD burner. This isn’t so with the new Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 computers, as every model is outfitted with a built-in 8x DVD burner. You may not need to use discs very often these days, but when the occasion arises, you will be glad to have the optical drive at your disposal. It’s one less headache you’ll have going forward.
Another assumption people make is that Ultrabooks are priced at a premium because they have expensive components like solid-state hard drives and fancy metallic enclosures. The Acer M5 indeed comes with a 20GB SSD drive and a metallic case, but its price tag is perfectly in line with a normal, non-Ultrabook Windows laptop. A second built-in 500GB Serial ATA hard drive takes care of storage, and the processors are up to date and beefy: the 14” model features a second-generation dual-core Sandy Bridge 1.5 GHz Intel Core i3 processor and the 15.6” M5 has a third-generation dual-core Ivy Bridge 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5. Both processors have their own integrated graphics, but more on that later. Either way, you are outfitted with plenty of power for gaming and creating and consuming HD media.
The 500GB, 5400 rpm SATA drive and 20GB SSD architecture is in place to make the computer more responsive, faster and less noisy in operation. The additional SSD drive speeds up how quickly it wakes up from sleep mode. The M5 also automatically connects to the Internet when you turn it on or wake it up, and it updates your latest feeds without prompting.
The overall feel of the construction on both computers is solid. I applied pressure to see if they would flex, but they were both far too rigid and didn’t bend at all. The metallic surface on the lid and top panel give an impression of solidity. The base is a dense plastic, and there is no way to remove the battery. The design is clean and modern, yet very much has that classic “I’m a Windows laptop” look.
Display and Graphics
As mentioned earlier, the Acer M5 features dedicated graphics with 128MB of dedicated system memory, which is a first in the Ultrabook category. The 14” M5-481T-6670 features integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 and the 15.6” M5-581T-6490 has integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. The combination of the Intel HD graphics and the installed Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) operating system makes it possible to fluidly play graphics-intensive games like World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Madden NFL, and lighter titles like Journey to Fairyland.
Not surprisingly, the 15.6” display was more impressive than the 14”. Obviously, the larger screen had more real estate, but its integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 gave it an edge. I previewed the “Ribbons” screen saver side by side on both machines, and the graphical flares of color were far brighter and more vivid on the 15.6” unit. I turned the screen brightness all the way up on both machines with the dedicated brightness hot keys on the keyboard when conducting the test.
I moved my head from side to side in front of both monitors, and the colors would shift as my head moved. Most notably, the color black would brighten and darken. However, positioned directly in front of the computer, everything looked fine. I personally favor matte screens over glossy ones, and the edge-to-edge glass on these displays made them very shiny and reflective, so this is an advantage if you favor this type of display.
Speakers and Sound
Both computers featured down-firing stereo speakers on the underside of their two front corners. The sound system is marketed as “Dolby Home Theater Professionally Tuned,” but to my ears they just sounded like average laptop speakers. There are a lot of mid and treble frequencies, and very little lower mids and bass. They didn’t sound bad, it’s just that I have yet to encounter built-in computer speakers that sound good. When I plugged my headphones into the mini-plug headphone output, everything sounded great.
In a side-by-side test, the 15.6” M5-581T-6490 sounded slightly better. Perhaps the slightly larger frame allowed for more frequencies to resonate. I turned the volume all the way up and played the tune Kalimba by Mr. Scruff on both computers. They handled the funky beats pretty well. However, when I maxed out the volume and played the delicate Sleep Away by Bob Acri, the 14” M5-481T-6670 struggled a little. However, the sonic differences between these two computers are very subtle. Overall, I felt that they had a better than average sound quality for a laptop.
Keyboard and Touchpad
I found the chiclet-style keys on the M5’s full-sized keyboard to be very comfortable to use. The fact that they are backlit is a huge plus. Backlit keys are not featured on enough laptops or Ultrabooks. It’s something that I personally use so often that the lack of them is a deal killer.
There are a number of hot keys that control commonly used parameters, such as volume control, screen brightness, etc. In order to use them, you need to press the Function key and the hotkey that’s assigned to the command. I would’ve preferred not having to press the Function key. I need to quickly hit Mute far more often than I need to press F8. It should be noted that the keyboard on the 15.6” M5-581T-6490 also features a number pad.
The touchpad supports multi-touch gestures. Its overall feel is decent; not the best I’ve used but far better than the worst. The entire surface of the pad appears as one button, but if you click on lower the right side it registers as a right-click. It takes a while to get used to a new touchpad. I found that I would often intend to perform a normal click, but it would register as a right-click. I’m sure if I used this computer more regularly I would adjust without issues.
Software and Performance
Performance-wise, both computers zipped along quite nicely. The 15.6” M5 was slightly faster, but for relatively mundane tasks I carried out, the i3 processor in the 14” was just fine. The boot-up and power-down times were pretty quick. My stopwatch clocked the power-down time of the 15.6” M5 at 18 seconds. The computers also woke up quickly from sleep mode, as advertised. However, there were occasions where they took a bit longer to wake up, such as when I left them in sleep mode overnight.
When you first power up and register your Acer M5, the desktop appears with several icons that appeal to a broad range of users: Skype, Nook for PC, Acer Games, etc. McAfee Internet Security software is among them, but in general, I didn’t feel like these computers were loaded with lots of bloatware.
One app that I found interesting was the Acer USB Charge Manager. It allows you to control how the USB ports handle charging external devices. You can set it up so the computer continues to charge your USB connected mobile device even after the computer has been powered off. You can also have the computer stop charging the device when its battery reaches a specified charged percentage. I’ve always been a stickler about properly cycling the charges of my mobile gadgets, and these features really appealed to me.
The M5s that I used barely made a whisper the entire time they were on my desk. When I put my ear up to the rear cooling vent, I often heard nothing at all. I did hear the fan kick in on one occasion, but it was so quiet that I would never have heard it had I not been so close. Perhaps if you were working the CPU really hard in a hot environment it would be a different story, but in normal conditions these computers were nearly silent.
Battery Life and Heat
I didn’t have the opportunity to conduct a prolonged endurance test of the Acer M5s' battery. However, I did use them the same way that a normal human being uses a computer (checking my email, surfing the Web, listening to music and watching online videos), and the battery life seemed to live up to the bill. Acer claims that the M5 gets eight hours of use from a single charge, and my experience seemed to fall in line with this figure.
I tested these machines in an office where the air conditioning forces me to wear a fleece or a hoodie in the middle of the summer and, not surprisingly, neither computer got very warm when I used them. When I put my fingers up against the rear cooling vents, I felt a trickle of slightly warm air coming out, but that was the extent of it. In our Arctic-like office environment, the Acer M5 ran cool.
If you’re looking for a top-of-the-line, show-stopping computer, there are many higher-end options that may better suit your needs. However, if you want a computer that delivers a lot of bang for the buck in a compact and lightweight Ultrabook form factor, without the token Ultrabook compromises, the Acer M5 is a winner. I appreciated how they came with the RAM maxed out at 6GB, and an optical drive. When you buy one of these computers, you won’t have any nagging thoughts in the back of your mind about how you could potentially spend money on a RAM upgrade or an external disc drive. I also really appreciated the way they came with a spacious 500GB hard drive, and the additional SSD was a nice plus.
In a way, the Acer M5 makes you question if the term “Ultrabook” should be used at all. There are thin and light computers that feature an optical drive and dedicated graphics, and there are those that do not. However, the 14” Acer M5 weighs 4.3 pounds (1.95 kg) and the 15.6” model weighs 5.07 pounds (2.3 kg), both of which are a solid pound or two heavier than competing Ultrabooks.
The technology website theverge.com recently named the 14” Acer M5 the “best budget laptop” for students headed back to school. This distinction carries weight, because the reviewers at The Verge get their hands on many of the portable computers that come down the pike. If you like using the Windows OS, I would have to agree. However, I would personally spring for the larger 15.6” M5. To my eyes, the performance of the display was worth the additional size and weight.
|14" M5-481T-6670||15.6" M5-581T-6490|
|Processor||1.5 GHz Intel Core i3-2377M||1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Cache||L3: 3MB||L3: 3MB|
Capacity: 6GB (2GB Onboard + 4GB)
Capacity: 6GB (2GB Onboard + 4GB)
|Hard Drive||500 GB 5400 rpm Serial ATA
|500 GB 5400 rpm Serial ATA
|Optical Drive||8X SuperMulti DVD Burner||8X SuperMulti DVD Burner|
|Memory Card Slot||Yes - SD, SDHC, SDXC, MultiMediaCard (MMC)||Yes - SD, SDHC, SDXC, MultiMediaCard (MMC)|
|Screen Size||14" (35.56 cm)||15.6" (39.6 cm)|
|Resolution||1366 x 768 px||1366 x 768 px|
|Display Type||Active Matrix TFT Color LCD||Active Matrix TFT Color LCD|
|Graphics Processor||Intel HD 3000||Intel HD 4000|
|Dedicated Graphics Memory||128MB||128MB|
|Wi-Fi||Yes, Broadcom 43228||Yes, Broadcom 43228|
|Wi-Fi Standard||IEEE 802.11 b/g/n||IEEE 802.11 b/g/n|
|Ethernet||Yes, Gigabit Ethernet||Yes, Gigabit Ethernet|
|Bluetooth||Yes, Bluetooth 4.0||Yes, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Webcam and Mic||Yes||Yes|
|Speakers||Built-in stereo speakers||Built-in stereo speakers|
|Ports||1 x HDMI
2 x USB 3.0
1 x RJ-45 Network
|1 x HDMI
2 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 2.0
1 x RJ-45 Network
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium||Windows 7 Home Premium|
|Keyboard||Yes, standard size, backlit||Yes, standard size, backlit|
|Pointing Device||Multi-gesture touchpad||Multi-gesture touchpad|
|Battery||3-Cell Lithium Polymer
Capacity: 4850 mAh
Run Time: 8 hours
|3-Cell Lithium Polymer
Capacity: 4850 mAh
Run Time: 8 hours
|Dimensions||0.8 x 13.4 x 9.6" / 2.03 x 34.04 x
|0.8 x 14.4 x 10.1" / 2.03 x 36.58 x
|Weight||4.3 lb / 1.95 kg||5.07 lb / 2.3 kg|
What do you think? Is the Acer M5 currently the best budget laptop out there? Should the term Ultrabook even exist? We encourage you to share your thoughts by submitting a comment, below.