Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 Review

This is among the best Ultrabooks we’ve ever handled, and it can be yours for under $800.
This is among the best Ultrabooks we’ve ever handled, and it can be yours for under $800.
This is among the best Ultrabooks we’ve ever handled, and it can be yours for under $800.

Highs

  • Attractive
  • Solid build quality
  • Large keyboard and touchpad
  • Good gaming performance
  • Inexpensive

Lows

  • Runs hot when GPU is engaged
  • Heavy and thick (for an ultrabook)

In early 2012 Acer “released” a laptop called the Acer Aspire M3. We place the word released in quotes because, although available in limited qualities and given out to journalists for review, the M3 was hard to find. It seemed to exist only so that Nvidia could announce the launch of its new GT 640M processor – a part that, even several months later, is only available in a handful of products.

This obscurity was a blessing, however, because the M3 wasn’t much of a laptop. Maybe that’s why Acer has already launched its successor, the Aspire M5.

Acer has expanded the lineup with its update. While the M3 was only available with a 15.6-inch display, the new M5 can be had in 14- and 15.6-inch models. Buyers also have a choice between integrated graphics and discrete graphics in both models. The 14-inch version with integrated graphics starts at $680.

Our review unit is a 14-inch variant with discrete graphics.

Acer has actually taken a step backwards with the GPU — the new version has the GT 640M LE, which is less powerful than the previous GT 640M. The smaller M5 also packs a Core i5-3317U low-voltage processor. These upgrades over the base model will set you back an extra $100.

The Acer Aspire M5 is a unique product. Aside from the M3, it’s the only Ultrabook available with discrete graphics in the North American market. It’s also one of the least expensive, even when equipped with the upgrades found in our review unit. Acer is well known for providing powerful hardware at a low price, but were sacrifices made to fit the price point? Let’s find out.

Video review

Design

From a distance, the Acer Aspire M5 looks like the Acer Aspire M3. Up close, it becomes clear that the M5 is more about edges than curves and is noticeably thicker. The M5 manages to overcome these potential disadvantages with simple, elegant aesthetics.

The gunmetal gray exterior, much of which is metal rather than plastic, provides the M5 with a surprisingly luxurious look and feel — and this impression is more than skin deep. Handling the laptop roughly does not elicit any groans of protest from the chassis and there’s no flex to be found on any surface. Even the display lid feels firm.

Acer Aspire M5 Review rear lid top intel ultrabookBuild quality is also good. The only noticeable panel gap exists at the top of the laptop’s interior and even it isn’t massive. All other surfaces appear tightly screwed together. We particularly like the display, which contrasts beautifully with its matte silver bezel.

Connectivity is average for the class. You’ll find two USB 3.0 ports around back along with HDMI and Ethernet. The M5 does offer an optical drive, which is rare for Ultrabooks regardless of size.

User interface

The M5 is not small for a 14-inch laptop. The keyboard has plenty of room to stretch out. Individual keys are of moderate size and key layout is excellent. We particularly like the size of the spacebar, shift, enter and backspace keys. Some laptops downsize them to squeeze in other features, such as a numpad, but this keyboard allows them room to grow.

We were less excited by key feel, however. All Ultrabooks have problems with key travel, but some are worse than others. The M5 is about average. Keys bottom out harshly and don’t offer much in the way of tactile feedback.

Acer Aspire M5 Review backlit keyboard intel ultrabookBacklighting was included on our review unit. There are no brightness options, which is a tad disappointing — but we weren’t really expecting more on a laptop sold at this price.

Touchpad quality is generally good. Users are given plenty of room to wander and the surface of the touchpad is lightly textured, providing a tactile connection with the cursor. Multi-touch scrolling works well, though multi-touch zoom is too sensitive by default. We didn’t like the integrated left and right mouse buttons — they require a bit too much pressure to activate, and separation between a left and right click is vague.

Display and audio quality

The Acer Aspire M5, like almost every Acer laptop, comes with a 1366 x 768 glossy display. It’s an average panel in almost every way: black levels, banding, contrast, viewing angles, brightness, etc. There are no surprises here, but also no disappointments.

We viewed some 720p YouTube videos and found them to be perfectly enjoyable if the display was kept at its optimal viewing angle. While we’d certainly like better quality to be the standard, it isn’t, and you won’t find anything superior to this in a laptop with a similar price.

Audio quality is excellent. Maximum volume can easily fill a small room, and music is generally enjoyable thanks to some minor bass and relatively clear sound. We did notice some distracting vibrations emanating from the laptop’s chassis from time to time, however. As good as the audio is, you’ll still be better off with a $50 pair of external speakers.

Cooling

One of the problems with the earlier Acer Aspire M3 was heat. The small chassis, combined with a discrete GPU, resulted in rather intense heat at load. The Acer Aspire M5 combats this problem with minor success, but ultimately fails to solve it. We noticed even idle temperatures flirted around 95 degrees Fahrenheit on the bottom-right of the laptop. This may be due to a fairly lax fan that rarely kicks in..

Gaming causes temperatures to soar. We measured a maximum reading of 113 degrees from the same hot-spot, which is more than a little toasty. Temperatures along the keyboard reached a high of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. That’ll give you a serious case of sweaty palms. At least the fan is moderate — it never spun itself into the hair-dryer frenzy common for laptops with gaming potential.

Portability

Acer is pushing the definition of an Ultrabook with the M5. Its thickness of .81 inches puts it about .1 inch under the maximum thickness defined by Intel, and its weight of 4.3 pounds is about a half-pound above the average in the category.

Acer Aspire M5 Review rear ports intel ultrabookWe’re confident most users won’t mind the extra baggage, however. The difference in size between this laptop and its thinner competitors (like the Lenovo U310s) is barely noticeable. Consider it the price we pay for optional discrete graphics.

The M5 ships with a three-cell 4850mAh battery. While three-cell may sound small the rated capacity of 4,850mAh is respectable. Battery Eater returned two hours and seventeen minutes of endurance while the light-load Reader’s Test extended life to seven hours and six minutes. These results are in the middle of the pack.

Software

Booting the M5 will introduce users to Acer’s standard array of bloatware and advertising agreements. There’s an eBay shortcut that leads to the website and a Netflix shortcut that encourages you to sign up for service. Other apps include Nook For PC, Clear.Fi Photo/Media, and Acer Theft Shield.

It’s all a bunch of nonsense — but it’s easily ignored nonsense. The only real annoyance is McAfee, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Performance

The Core i5-3317U processor is the entry-level product in Intel’s third-generation low-voltage lineup. It has a base clock of 1.7GHz and a maximum Turbo Boost clock of 2.6 GHz. What impact does this have on performance?

In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark we observed a combined score of 34.27 GOPS, while 7-Zip returned a combined score of 7,117. These scores are about 15 percent below those of the Acer Aspire S5, which packs a low-voltage Core i7 dual-core. The gap is noticeable in our tests but smaller than we expected. This entry-level processor is an extremely good value.

Acer Aspire M5 Review rear lid angle intel ultrabook

PCMark 7 provided an overall score of 2,476. This is a good, though not great, result. Ultrabook scores in PCMark 7 are dictated by the solid-state drive more than anything else, and the M5 only comes with a 20GB cache drive that assists a conventional mechanical drive. This combination is responsive, but will never match the raw transfer rates of a large SSD.

We tested the GT 640M LE when we reviewed the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480. We were impressed then, and we remain impressed now. It drove the laptop to a 3DMark 06 score of 9,729 and a 3DMark 11 score of 1,483. In real-world gaming, we found that the 640M LE capable of playing Diablo 3 at high detail at this laptop’s native resolution and we also were able to enjoy games such as Dawn of War 2 Retribution, Civilization 5 and Skyrim at medium detail or higher.

Conclusion

We can’t help but wonder if Acer is a bit confused. The company sent us two laptops for review simultaneously: the Acer Aspire M5 (priced at $780) and the Acer Aspire S5 (priced at $1,399). Between these, the M5 is clearly superior. It’s more attractive, nearly as quick, far better for games, and lasts longer on a charge. Maybe they accidentally switched the labels.

The only downside to the M5 is its size and weight — which perhaps speaks to the danger of designing a laptop that’s too thin. The M5’s thickness is no doubt the reason why it offers better battery life and a discrete GPU at a much lower price than its cousin.

Acer hasn’t just beaten itself with the M5. It’s also beaten the competition. We adored the aesthetically pleasing U310, but design is the only advantage is has over the M5. We can say the same about the Toshiba Z835, Samsung Series 5, and even similarly priced versions of the Zenbook. These products all offer less for more.

Acer’s transition from the Aspire M3 to the M5 is incredible. This is among the best Ultrabooks we’ve ever handled, and it can be yours for under $800.

Highs

  • Attractive
  • Solid build quality
  • Large keyboard and touchpad
  • Good gaming performance
  • Inexpensive

Lows

  • Runs hot when GPU is engaged 
  • Heavy and thick (for an ultrabook)
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