Acer was the first company to add discrete graphics to Ultrabooks with the Timeline M3, and now it's back with the 15.6-inch Acer Aspire TimelineU M5. At $829, this sub-5-pound notebook packs Nvidia Kepler graphics for playing some of the latest games and Intel Ivy Bridge power for a lower cost. The M5 seems like a good bet for college students and gamers on the go who consume a lot of multimedia content, but is this thin-and-light machine versatile enough?
Essentially the same design as the Aspire Timeline Ultra M3, Acer keeps things pretty modest in terms of design on the M5. The lid of the M5 is swathed in a slate gray brushed aluminum with a lone chrome Acer insignia. When the lid is closed, the back ridge of the interior deck is exposed, displaying the Dolby Professionally Tuned logo.
While the same color as the lid, the interior of the notebook is constructed from anondized aluminum. A spacious keyboard resides in a shallow depression, while the touchpad is surrounded by a thin strip of chrome. The display, also wrapped in a very thin gray soft touch bezel, features a small chrome Acer logo at the bottom.
Acer has played hide-and-seek with the power button, placing it on the right front lip of the computer. We spent a while trying to locate the button, and there's a constant risk of accidentally shutting off the system when using it in your lap.
Another point of contention is Acer's decision to place all the ports on the notebook's rear, forcing us to reach around to plug in our various devices. The decision is all the more frustrating considering the amount of space available on the notebook's right side.
True to Ultrabook form, the 4.8-pound, 14.4 x 10.1 x 0.79-0.81-inch Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG is both lighter and slimmer than most 15.6-inch notebooks. The Sony VAIO E Series 15 (14.6 x x 9.9 x 1.0-1.3-inches) and the Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435 (15 x 9.9 x 0.9-1.3-inches) are larger and heavier at 5.4 and 5.6 pounds, respectively.
Display and Audio
The Timeline U M5's 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768p glossy LED-backlit display delivers eye-popping color with clean, sharp text. The 1080p Technicolor world of Oz in the "The Great and Wonderful Oz" trailer was populated with radiant blue-and-orange flowers. Mila Kunis' blood-red attire popped against a crystal-blue sky and lush green meadow.
Although the colors were vivid, the trailer suffered from shallow 45-degree viewing angles that inverted the colors as soon as we moved too far to the right or left. The 158 lux display was also rather dim, failing to match the 201 lux thin-and-light average. It was enough to outshine the VAIO E Series 15's 141 lux display, but both the Aspire V3's 212 lux display and the VAIO S Series 15's 270 lux display delivered a brighter picture.
Assisted by the Dolby Home Theater v4 software, the pair of bottom-mounted speakers bathed our small testing space in loud, clear sound -- provided it was on a hard surface. When we placed the notebook in our lap, the sound was immediately muffled. As we listened to Janelle Monae's "Tightrope," we were disappointed by the lack of bass and the flatness of the trumpets. However, Monae's staccato soprano still sounded gorgeous coasting over the uptempo track.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Timeline U M5 comes with a backlit island-style keyboard and full number pad that spans the length of the interior deck. The flat black matte keys are a little stiff but generously spaced, and the bright backlighting made typing in a dim setting a breeze. The Tab, Caps Lock and Left Shit keys were undersized while the Backspace, Enter and Right Shift keys were larger than normal. We scored 53 words per minutes with a zero percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, higher than our usual 50 wpm/1 percent error rate.
By including a number pad, Acer introduced a bit of Catch-22 when it came to positioning the touchpad on the M5. By centering it under the G and H keys -- as is most comfortable when your fingers are on the home row -- the pad left little room for our left hand on the deck.
Thankfully, the 4.2 x 3.1-inch Elan touchpad has good palm rejection, which prevented the cursor from accidentally sending the cursor skipping across the page. We had difficulty executing the two-finger rotate multitouch gesture (your thumb has to be above the lower third of the pad), but pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scroll and flick were relatively responsive, as was four-finger swipe.
After running a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes, the M5's touchpad measured 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and the space between the G and H keys and the bottom of the notebook registered 81 and 84 degrees, respectively, well below our 95 degree comfort threshold. However, when we played "Batman: Arkham City" for 15 minutes, temperatures jumped to uncomfortable levels. While the touchpad and the space between the G and H keys were a still-acceptable 81 and 94 degrees, the bottom of the keyboard was 103 degrees, and the space between the K and L keys measured a scorching 108 degrees.
The 1.3 megapixel webcam on the M5 captures stills and video in 1280 x 720 pixels using Acer Crystal Eye Webcam software. Overall, the images were fairly dark in both natural and fluorescent lighting. There was also a high level of visual noise.
The right side of the M5 notebook is empty save for a 2-in-1 card reader and a headset jack. A tray-loading DVD drive and a jack for the AC adapter sit on the left. A pair of USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet and a Kensington lock can be found along the notebook's rear.
Outfitted with a 1.7-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive with a 20GB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU with 1 GB of VRAM, the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 can hold its own against both thin-and-light and mainstream notebooks. We easily watched movies on Netflix despite having eight tabs open in Google Chrome and Internet Explorer while running a full-system virus scan.
During Geekbench, the M5 scored 5,706, well above the 5,290 thin-and-light category average. However, full-powered processors fared better: The Sony VAIO E15 and its 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M notched 7,090, while the Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435 and its 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU took the prize with 10,896.
The M5's hard drive duplicated 4.97GB of mixed-media files in 2 minutes and 58 seconds for a transfer rate of 28.6 MBps, slightly below the 30 MBps average. However it was enough to speed past the Aspire V3 (500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive) and the VAIO E15 (750GB 5,400-rpm hard drive), which notched 19.6 and 23 MBps. The XPS 15 and its hybrid drive (750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive/32GB mSSD) dished out a faster score of 37.1 MBps.
The M5 lost a step during the OpenOffice spreadsheet macro test, taking 5 minutes and 51 seconds to match 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses. Although that's 9 seconds faster than the 6:00 category average, the Aspire V3, E15 and XPS 15 completed the task in 4:35, 4:48 and 4:54, respectively.
Boot and Wake Times
Thanks to its 20GB SSD, the M5 booted Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) in a speedy 31 seconds, much faster than the 58-second category average. The E Series 15 and Aspire V3 booted in 0:50 and 0:55.
Acer has included its Green Instant-On feature that allows for nearly instantaneous wake from sleep times. During our testing, the M5 resumed from sleep in 2.3 seconds. Acer Always Connect claims to connect to the Web in 2.5 seconds via previous remembered Wi-Fi hotspots. After several tests, we found that the notebook connected to the Internet almost instantly after waking from sleep.
Unlike most Ultrabooks, the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 comes with discrete Nvidia graphics. That means gamers will be able to enjoy playing the majority of their favorite titles, just not on the highest settings.
During the 3DMark11 benchmark, the M5's Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU with 1GB of VRAM scored 1,824, more than double the 780 thin-and-light category average. The Acer Aspire V3-571G-9435, which features an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU with 2GB of VRAM, notched a slightly higher 1,929. The Sony VAIO E Series 15's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU delivered a low 643.
The M5 delivered an impressive frame rate of 137 fps on autodetect at 1366 x 768p on the "World of Warcraft" benchmark. That's well above the 53 fps category average, and enough to edge out the VAIO E15's score of 56 fps. However, the Aspire V3 reached a whopping 182 fps. When we switched to maximum, the M5 scored 77 fps, besting the 26 fps average and keeping pace with the Aspire V3 (78 fps).
When we played the more demanding "Batman: Arkham City" on low at 1366 x 768p, the M5's 36 fps edged out the 31 fps thin-and-light average. The Aspire V3 performed only slightly better with 37 fps. On high, the M5's frame rate dropped to 19 fps, topping the 12 fps category average, but that's still unplayable. The Aspire V3 reached 21 fps.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 lasted 7 hours and 29 minutes. That's 61 minutes longer than the 6:28 thin-and-light average. The Aspire V3 clocked in with 4:46, and the VAIO E15 petered out at 4:24.
Software and Warranty
Acer's recurring cast of first- and third-party software is pre-installed on the M5. Acer-branded software includes clear.fi Photo (pictured) and clear.fi Media, DNLA-compatible media sharing programs. As the name suggests, clear.fi Photo handles images while clear.fi Media takes care of video and music. There's also Acer Backup Manager and Charge Manager which allows users to set up the charging parameters for the designated charging USB 3.0 port.
Aupeo!, the Slacker-reminiscent music-streaming service with custom channels for artist, genre and mood, is also included. We were happy to see NewsXpresso RSS-feed reader made the cut. After exporting our feeds, NewsXpresso laid them out in its slick, magazine format.
Fooz Kids (pictured), a kid-friendly software suite, is also included. Comprised of 16 categories, including Crafts, Games, Web and Flix, Fooz Kids is full of age-appropriate content for kids aged 2-10,and that includes video and games. Parents control what their kids can interact with via the password-protected Parental Dashboard, including signing in and out of the software.
Other third-party software includes Skype, Microsoft Office Starter, Evernote, Windows Live, Adobe Reader X, a 30-day free trial of McAfee Internet Security Suite -- whose alerts constantly pop up -- and shortcuts for Nook for PC, eBay and Netflix.
Our $829 review unit of the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 comes with a 1.7-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive with a 20GB SSD and Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU with 1 GB of VRAM. The $779 base model has identical specs to our review model, but has an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU with 128MB of VRAM.
With most 15.6-inch notebooks, you're forced to lug around a bulky, heavy device, sacrificing thickness for power. The $829 Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 is a happy compromise, stuffing a slim 0.81-inch chassis with an Ivy Bridge CPU, discrete Nvidia graphics, and more than 7 hours of battery life, which will delight mobile gamers and multimedia consumers everywhere. If the M5 had better port placement as well as higher-resolution display, it would be a killer system, but as it stands, it's a solid choice for the money.