The Acer Aspire M5-481PT-6488 attempts to make a splash by combining the sleekness of an Ultrabook with a Windows 8-friendly touch screen. Inside this 14-incher's aluminum chassis is a Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive paired with a 20GB SSD for fast boots. You get all of that, plus a DVD drive, for $729. Find out if this system has what it takes to make it your first Windows 8 notebook.
No different than the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-481TG-6814, the Acer Aspire M5-481PT-6488's chassis has a sleek and elegant brushed aluminum gunmetal gray shell that felt cool to the touch. The top of the lid sports a chrome lowercase Acer logo and resists fingerprints well.
Opening the lid reveals the M5's 14-inch glossy display, which is surrounded by a glossy black bezel, a webcam on top and an Acer logo below. Like the lid, the deck is draped in brushed gunmetal aluminum and curves upward along the sides.
Other questionable design decisions remain from the older M5: The power button is on the right side of the lip, which makes it difficult to find but easy to accidentally activate. Plus, all the ports are still on the back edge, making them hard to reach.
The left and right sides are both relatively bare; the former stores an optical drive while the latter is home to an SD card reader as well as a combo 3.5mm audio/mic jack. Most of the M5's ports can be found in the back, including a pair of USB 3.0 connectors, a full-size HDMI-out, Ethernet, power and a Kensington lock slot.
At 13.4 x 9.6 x 0.9 inches and 4.4 pounds, the M5 is shorter and lighter than both the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 (13.5 x 9.3 x 0.9 inches/4.6 pounds) and the Toshiba Satellite P845t-S4310 (13.7 x 9.2 x 0.95 - 1.14 inches/4.8 pounds). The Envy is the only laptop in this bunch that lacks an optical drive.
When watching the "Skyfall" trailer on the Acer Aspire M5's 14-inch 1366 x 768 glossy display, the red bars on the British flag looked bright but somewhat fuzzy, while airborne pieces of debris appeared crisp and clear. James Bond's blue eyes were radiant and the wrinkles underneath them looked deep and worn. The reflective nature of the M5's screen was a little distracting when watching the trailer. Colors did wash out somewhat when we watched the clip at a 45-degree angle, but not enough for us to put down our popcorn.
The Aspire M5's touch screen interpreted Windows 8 gestures accurately, with stretch, pinch, two-finger scroll and rotate all working well. However, we sometimes had difficulty executing the gesture for closing an app, which involves dragging it to the bottom of the display. Sometimes the app wouldn't go past the middle of the screen. (It's best to be very deliberate.)
The Aspire M5's 134 lux display is well below the 236 lux thin-and-light category average, but falls between the P845t (166 lux) and the HP Envy (114 lux).
Aided by Dolby technology, the bottom-mounted speakers on the Aspire M5-481PT-6488 pumped out surprisingly good sound. When we listened to "Ride of the Valkyries" by Richard Wagner, wind instruments sounded grand and full. Heavier tracks such as "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden and "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses sounded slightly hollow and drums were a bit weaker, but overall audio was excellent.
The Dolby Home Theater v4 software sports three presets along with a graphic equalizer and the ability to create up to six custom user profiles. The Movie and Game presets sounded identical while listening the "Welcome to the Jungle," but the Music preset made the song sound hollow and distant.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The M5's island-style keyboard is well spaced and has decent travel. The tilde key is among the smallest of the bunch, and other keys including Tab, Caps Lock and Left Shift sport diminutive dimensions as well. Nevertheless, we averaged 72 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test. That's higher than our 68 wpm/3 error average. The keyboard is backlit, but has a single brightness level.
The roomy Elan touchpad measures 3.8 x 2.7 inches and is a darker shade of gray than the rest of the system. We wish the M5's pair of integrated buttons traveled a little farther, but they worked accurately and the buttons produced an audible "click" when pressed. Unfortunately, sometimes the notebook right-clicked when we wanted to left click.
Pulling off gestures proved erratic. Two-finger scrolling worked consistently, but sometimes the system mistook a rotate gesture for zooming in. Switching apps and opening the Charms menu was also a challenge. Instead of swiping in from the deck onto the touchpad, you actually need to start on the very far edge of the touchpad itself, which can result in a wayward cursor.
After powering on the M5, you're eventually greeted by Windows 8 and its tile-based Modern UI. Tiles are spread horizontally across the screen and grouped into Windows apps, Acer apps and user-installed apps.
A right swipe summons the Charms menu, which consists of a vertical black bar on the right that displays icons for Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. There's also a large black box on the left with date and time, battery and Wi-Fi status. Swiping left lets us cycle between open windows and apps. A fluid left-to-right-and-right-again swipe shows thumbnails of the five most recently used apps.
Selecting the Desktop tile took us to a Windows 7-like desktop screen. However, an Internet Explorer icon now nests in the spot that was previously occupied by the Start menu.
Bundled apps include Amazon deals, Kindle eBook store, eBay, Netflix, Skype, iCookbook, StumbleUpon, Acer Explorer, newsXpresso, McAfee Internet Security Suite, 7digital, Evernote, Skitch, a Gameloft title called "Shark Dash," WildTangent Games, ChaCha, Microsoft Office, Acer Cloud, Encyclopedia Britannica, Hulu Plus, Social Jogger and Acer Crystal Eye.
TuneIn connects you to a treasure trove of Internet radio stations. Social Jogger is a one-stop app that plugs you into major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter as well as YouTube and Yahoo. In the absence of dedicated Windows 8 apps for Facebook and Twitter, Social Jogger could be very useful, though we've seen better alternatives in the Windows Store like FlipToast, which sports a simpler interface. Acer Explorer offers brief descriptions of the apps that are included with the M5, and also contains tutorials along with links to warranty information and more.
The Desktop mode's taskbar contains shortcuts to several apps, but our favorite member of this flock is Acer Power Button. Labeled with the universal power insignia, Acer Power Button lets you shut down, restart and more, saving you from having to go back to the Modern UI to do so.
Acer Device Fast-Lane lets you toggle Wi-Fi, Caps Lock, Scroll Lock and more, but that are keyboard shortcuts that perform many of these functions. There's also a button that takes you directly to Amazon's homepage.
The Aspire M5-481PT-6488 ran reasonably cool. After running a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes, the touchpad registered 79 degrees Fahrenheit. The underside reached 82 degrees and the space between the G and H keys was the warmest area at 84 degrees. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable.
Unchanged since we last reviewed it, almost all of the M5's ports are in the back. There, you'll find a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a full-size HDMI, along with Ethernet, power and Kensington lock ports. The left side stores the DVD+/-RW drive, while the M5's right side houses an SD Card reader along with a combo audio/mic jack. We would have like to see an additional USB port.
This Ultrabook features a 1.3-megapixel webcam with its Crystal Eye software, which produced much more accurate and brighter images than Windows 8's camera app did. Crystal Eye can snap images and record videos at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720. This app allows you to add preloaded graphics to your images and even draw on them.
The Aspire M5-481PT-6488 is powered by a 1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400 rpm hard drive paired with a 20GB SSD and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 CPU. These components enabled the M5 to score 3,100 in the PCMark 7 test, which is higher than the ultraportable average of 2,748. Still, the HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 scored a higher 4,131, which has the same CPU as this Acer but 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD paired with a 500GB hard drive. The Toshiba Satellite P845t scored a lowly 2,568 with its identical Core i5 CPU, 6GB of RAM and 5,400-rpm hard drive with no SSD.
With an assist from its 20GB SSD, the M5 took only 16 seconds to boot Windows 8. While that's more than 66 percent faster than the 48-second Ultrabook category average, it's three ticks behind the Envy's time of 13 seconds. The P845t brought up the rear, clocking in at 20 seconds. In our LAPTOP File Transfer Test, the M5 wrote our 4.97GB test folder (which is filled with music, videos and photos) in 3 minutes and 55 seconds. That works out to a 21.7 MBps transfer rate, which is nearly half the 40 MBps category average. The Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 notched a higher 35 MBps, and the Toshiba P845t just beat out the M5 with 23 MBps).
In our OpenOffice Spreadsheet Test, where we match 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses, the M5 took 6 minutes and 8 seconds. That's 16 seconds behind the 5:52 category average. The Envy finished in 5:36, while the P845t took 5:55.
The M5's Intel HD 4000 Graphics certainly won't permit you to play through "Assassin's Creed III," but we've come to expect systems loaded with this GPU to handle casual games reasonably well. In 3DMark11, the M5 scored 617. That's significantly behind the 791 ultraportable category average. It does best the Envy's score of 570, while P845t (634) beat the M5 by a small margin.
The M5 did manage to handle "World of Warcraft." With the game's visuals set to "Good" and resolution turned to 1366 x 768, this Ultrabook ran the MMO at 37 frames per second. While that's 15 frames below the category average, the M5 still fared much better than the Envy TouchSmart 4, which could only muster 28 fps under the same conditions. The P845t was a faster 42 fps.
In our LAPTOP Battery Test, which consists of continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi with the display's brightness set to 40 percent, the M5's 3-cell lithium polymer battery lasted 6 hours and 3 minutes. That run time is 24 minutes below the thin-and-light category average, but this Acer outlasted the Envy's time of 5:36 as well as the P845t's time of 4:45.
Acer backs the Aspire M5-481PT-6488 with a one-year limited warranty. This consists of one year for parts and labor, one year for hardware technical support and 90 days of software support. See how Acer fared in our Best & Worst Brands report and Tech Support Showdown.
The Acer Aspire M5-481PT-6488 is an attractive Windows 8 Ultrabook in more ways than one. The brushed aluminum design gives this 14-inch laptop a premium vibe, as does the touch screen and high-quality speaker system. However, the M5 also has some blemishes, chief among them a touchpad that doesn't always cooperate. Among competitors, the HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 has a better touchpad and ports that are easier to access, but the Acer wins on battery life and its lighter weight. Despite a few flaws, the M5 is a good value for mainstream users and students alike looking for a portable and touch-optimized Windows 8 laptop at a fair price.