Review: Timeline M3: Acer's first Gaming Ultrabook

By Pat Pilcher

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Acer's new Timeline M3. Photo / Supplied
Acer's new Timeline M3. Photo / Supplied

Could Acer have launched the first gaming centric ultrabook? Graphics hardware manufacturer, Nvidia thinks so, as the Acer Timeline M3 packs a GeForce GT 640M inside its nondescript black chassis.

The Ultrabook specification was originally conceived by Intel and has led to the emergence of a class of slim, portable no compromise notebook PCs that can run for anything up 5 hours or more away from a wall socket. About the only real downside with Ultrabooks (at least until the M3 launched) was that they struggled with anything beyond casual gaming. Now with the addition of Nvidia's latest silicon, the era of the gaming ultrabook is finally upon us.

Look and feel

I don't know about you, but to me the term "Ultrabook" conjures up images of razor thin PCs that'll run for an eternity. The M3 is bit of a chubber and mightn't look much like your stereotypical ultra-petite ultrabook. Its black on black finish means it mightn't win any beauty prizes either, but it does possess an understated yet business-like look and feel.

Best of all, it also feels solidly constructed with little flex or give in its chassis or screen.

This said, beauty is only skin deep, and whilst the M3 mightn't be as slim or as glam as Acers first Ultrabook, the S3, its size is a relative thing, especially when you consider the sheer bulk of most notebook gaming rigs currently on the market. That the M3 weighs in at a fraction of their heft, yet can crank out comparable frame rates made me realise it really is something special, even if its beauty is hides underneath a pedestrian outer layer from the darth vader school of design.

Under the Hood

Whilst other notebook gaming rigs are out there that pack wiz-bang quad-core processors and SLI graphics, they also have some pretty serious shortcomings. Sitting a gaming notebook on your lap can result in scorch marks and sprained limbs. If gaming away from the power socket, gaming sessions also tend to be short as most notebook gaming PCs are dead after only an hour at best.

The review unit Acer supplied was the top-end Aspire Timeline U M3.

In non techie speak this essentially means about the only thing missing specs-wise from it was a kitchen sink. Whilst there is a slightly more affordable model running a Core i5 available for $1699, this baby Packed an Intel Core i7-2637M CPU, which is a dual-core, HyperThreaded beast running at 1.7GHz (but capable of automatically switching to a gamer pleasing 2.4Ghz via Turbo boost), 4GB DDR3 memory as well as a roomy yet zippy 500GB hybrid hard drive.

Staying on the storage front, the M3 also sported a DVD - /+/R/RW drive, which is something I've sorely missed with ultrabooks, that made installing MS-office, internet security suites and a bunch of other goodies just much more straightforward. Last but by no means least, Acer also bundled Windows 7 64-bit home premium edition.

The star of the show however (at least for most gamers) is Nvidia's GPU. The GeForce GT 640M series is pretty much the latest generation of Nvidia's mobile graphics silicon. For all of this hype, the reality is that the GT640M is really all about performance per watt.

So whilst earlier gaming silicon such as the GTX 555M is technically faster, the GT 640M draws far less power whilst delivering similar results. Much of this magic is due to the move by Nvidia to a teensy 28nm chipmaking process which equates to far less power being consumed and far less heat whilst the graphics goods are well and truly delivered.

In a mobile setting this is definitely good news, as it means far less strain is placed on the battery, and there's much less heat (which if like me you sit with your notebook on your lap for hours is definitely a good thing). It also means far less cooling is needed so things are also much more quieter (which is a real boon for nearby family members).

The M3 also comes with a relatively low-resolution LCD, LED backlit display. With a 1,366 x 768 resolution it's not exactly a full HD media monster. But then the M3 was designed with gaming as its reason for existing so a lower native resolution it allows the GT 640M GPU to deliver usable frame rates even with high settings enabled.

In Use

Firing up a pretty a pretty demanding title like Battlefield 3, I set all video settings to maximum, and the M3 played with no hiccups, dropped frames or stutters. Even with all graphical eye-candy enabled it went like a dream. I was in love! About the only thing I could do to make the frame rates drop was to play it away from a wall socket, but even then, gaming on the go wasn't impossible, and with a lower graphics setting frame rates kicked right back into high gear.

The Not-so-Good News

So If that's the good news, the bad news comes in the form of the M3's trackpad. Any notebook PC lives or dies by both its trackpad and keyboard. Unfortunately Acer have done what a growing number of notebook makers are doing, and moved to a clickpad design, which in use I found to be somewhat tricky. I frequently found myself missing on-screen icons or even more frustratingly, accidentally firing up apps. Perhaps we need to start a petition to convince notebook makers not to use clickpads as they annoy the bejesus out of me.

Clickpad rants aside, the M3's keyboard was actually pretty good, Being a chiclet design, the keys could have done with a little more travel, but the addition of numeric keypad will be a welcome addition for anyone working with numbers. I was also pleased to see that there was sufficient spacing between individual keys to avoid accidental typos.

Verdict

The M3 mightn't be a looker, but it does have the goods where it counts. Being able to have a laptop on your lap and play a game for several hours without setting ones pants or the sofa on fire is has to be a good thing.

Avoiding accidental fires and computing for close to five hours before the M3 begs for a wall socket is simply brilliant, even if that number shrinks down to three hours for hard out gaming sessions. As the first gamers ultrabook to hit the streets, I and gamers (not to mention their chiropractors) world over are eternally grateful Acer. In short the M3 rocks.


Tech Specs

RRP: $1,999.99

Display: 15.6" LED backlit LCD (1366x768 resolution)

OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

CPU: Core i7 2637M

Integrated graphics: Intel HD 3000 graphics

Dedicated graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M (1GB)

memory: 4Gb DDR3 1066

Storage: 500Gb Hybrid

DVD Super Multi optical drive

Networking: 802.11 B/G/N Wi-Fi

Camera: HD bezel mounted Webcam

Battery: 3-cell Lithium-Polymer battery

Weight: 1.9kg.

Dimensions: (w) 375.9mm x (L) 254mm x (D)20mm

Pros & Cons

Pros:

gaming performance

Low heat

Battery life

Build quality

Cons:

trackpad


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