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Design, portability, low weight and good battery autonomy are the selling points of the new ultrabook category. Yet different users have different needs, and due to the manufacturers’ insisting on an APU-integrated graphics chip up to now, gamers just couldn’t find them even remotely interesting. However, Acer’s latest model, Aspire TimelineU M3, announces new developments in this respect. Not only does it arrive to our office as the first ultrabook with discreet graphics, but it also brings along the very first representative of the Kepler generation, NVIDIA’s brand new graphics platform. This article will therefore concentrate on the notebook and its performance, while you can find out more on Kepler on a separate page.
The first thing to surprise us about this ultrabook is its size – we’re simply used to seeing models with 11” or 13” displays. Regardless of a larger display, however, M3 still keeps its slimness (sufficiently so to fit Intel’s ultrabook standards) and relative lightness. This model is the representative of the new branch in the very popular and much lauded Timeline family, now with a U suffix to designate the ultrabook standard.
We have to applaud the design team behind this model – there are no aggressive details, screaming colours and glossy surfaces often seen on Acer’s other models, which are a magnet for dust and fingerprints alike. Even the usual coloured stickers with CPU, OS and graphics card markings are now transposed into a grey, elegant colour scheme, which accentuates the business orientation of this computer. The combination of materials used to make this model is great, with the lid made of magnesium alloy, while the rest uses similarly coloured plastic.
When the notebook is closed, one can see how thin it is, and there isn’t much to spot on the sides. To the left, there’s the DVD drive, which comes as something of a surprise to us, but emphasises the notebook’s multimedia/gaming side. Right next to it is the card reader, while the right-hand side has nothing but the Kensington lock holes. Surprisingly, the power button, speakers and a few signal LEDs are all located on the front, so you can deduce that all the connectors are consequently situated on the back. Three USB ports are present, one of which is USB 3.0, as well as LAN and HDMI connectors. Even the power and sound output are on the back, and we can but regret that not a single USB port was placed on the side, as it’s undeniably more practical that way, especially for USB flash disks or other portable devices. The sound output is similar to that seen on smartphones, using a 2-in-1 connector for both output and input.
Cooling slots are visible from below and one side, and the notebook shouldn’t be covered in work, as all the cool air comes in through the slots next to the keys. The bottom contains a lid which can be removed to expose changeable components. There’s one memory slot and a 2.5” space containing a decent-capacity HDD. In order to speed up the system during startup or wakeup, an extra mSATA SSD with a capacity of 20 GB has been added, effectively behaving as a cache disk and invisible as a separate entity in the operating system. Expectedly for the ultrabook category, the battery can’t be easily replaced, but it’s surprisingly good, especially for the low number of cells it has. As you can see in the charts, autonomy is very good indeed, surprisingly so for a notebook of this size, in fact, extending to an entire workday (8 hours) in power-saving mode. Acer’s promises on the packaging hold true, it seems.
The keyboard is of decent size, and there’s even been room enough for a full numerical keypad. There’s no bending and swirling during typing, it’s very quiet, and we’d only preferred to have seen a more well-defined press. Under the keyboard is a humongous touchpad that doesn’t have separate left and right buttons. These are integrated into the touch-sensitive part – an interesting concept that requires some time to get used to. The already essential scroll on the right is present, and the touchpad is fully multitouch-capable. We can’t commend Acer’s decision to leave out glossy elements during the making of M3 TimelineU enough, so the entire casing, as well as the display and keyboard frames, are matted. This has efficiently dealt away with the danger of ultra-fast “greasing” of your new pet, and trust us, we’ve seen many an ultrabook completely covered in fingerprints after only a few days of use. Right below the lid is the “Dolby Home Theatre Professionally Tuned” sticker, excellent in capturing attention. We can’t really tell what it means, but the speakers are very good indeed. They’re mid-size, so there isn’t a lot of bass, but at least they’re quite loud and clear. They particularly rise to prominence during film-watching, when 5.1 sound is efficiently simulated.
The very thin lid barely has enough room for the display and a decent web camera. Unfortunately, the unexpectedly low resolution of the display is quite a deception. Regardless, the image is crisp and without pixelisation, and one of the reasons behind the choice of this particular resolution is likely the desire to present an entirely new graphics chip in a better light. Using a lower native resolution reduces the hardware requirements for games, so they’re playable even at high settings. In our opinion, a higher-resolution display coupled with GDDR5 graphics memory would’ve done performance a much better favour. The vertical viewing angles are very low, but horizontal ones are excellent, luckily, which makes multimedia an enjoyable experience for several people at once.
Owing to the use of a hybrid data storage system, system startup is pretty fast. Going in and out of proper hibernation takes about the same time, with or without the fast SSD, but sleep mode benefits greatly from this configuration. The system has a solid amount of RAM, an excellent and power-efficient mid-range CPU, as well as both integrated and discreet graphics. Usual tasks such as word processing in the Office environment or surfing the net won’t be a problem. A higher display resolution would have been welcome in this regard, just like the multimedia one, but watching films is very enjoyable regardless.
Despite its professional appearance, the segment in which we expected the most out of Acer TimelineU M3 is gaming. The latest graphics generation and a lower display resolution promise very good results, which have been confirmed through our test battery. As one of the colleagues remarked, any game can be deemed playable, without the usual suffix “if you reduce this and that”. Just look at the results for Metro 2033, the game that even the monster called GTX 480 couldn’t cope with successfully (albeit in a higher resolution). Battlefield 3, Skyrim, Diablo III and other games are no effort at all for this system. One of the novelties of the latest, Kepler architecture is the option for the graphics card to overclock itself dynamically, as long as the cooling system isn’t overloaded. This resulted in a major improvement in the graphics department, sometimes giving advantage of an entire 70% to the new chip over GT 540M. It’s interesting that GT 640M can do even better, but was unable to do so in this scenario for two reasons. Firstly, it’s coupled with GDDR3 memory, while GDDR5 would’ve doubled its memory bandwidth, improving performance greatly in the native resolution, as well as with postprocessing effects. Secondly, CPU performance was a limiting factor as well in a few cases, mostly games that are ill-optimised for multi-core CPUs, creating a bottleneck. The use of an i7 CPU working at a higher clock (and raising the final price significantly) would’ve definitely improved the overall performance, but that remains to be seen when models with stronger Kepler chips arrive into our office. It should be noted that the otherwise unnoticeable cooling system gets quite noisy when under full load for prolonged periods of time, although insufficiently so to divert a gamer’s attention from the game at hand.
|CPU||Intel Core i5 2467M 1,6 GHz (2,3 GHz Turbo)|
|Memory||4 GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1333 MHz|
|HDD [GB]||20 GB SSD + 500GB HDD hibrid|
|Optical Drive||DVD RW|
|Graphic||Intel HD3000 + NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M 1 GB GDDR3 (NVIDIA Optimus)|
|Screen||15,6'' 1366x768 pix, glare|
|Connections||1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, HDMI, LAN, 2.0 Dolby speakers|
|Other||WiFi, Bluetooth, card reader, 1,3 MP webcam|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit|
The mobile Kepler GPU
If you find it strange that we’re presenting a mobile graphics chip separately (and it’s our first time indeed), believe us, you’re not alone. Getting to know new architecture through a dedicated article is usually reserved for desktop models, and not even necessarily high-end ones, right? That’s why we felt like a promoter organising a concert for a well-known singer’s younger brother. He may be similar in looks and able to sing the songs equally, but it’s not what everyone’s been expecting, is it? Yet he’s the first one to appear on the market, and thus receives our full, perhaps unwanted, attention.
NVIDIA is set to continue their logical way of naming chips (which hasn’t always been the case in the past), with GeForce GT 640M replacing the mega-popular GT 540M. This chip is made in TSMC’s 28 nm production process and supports DirectX 11, which shows that NVIDIA no longer wishes to fall behind AMD again, as was the case with the DirectX 10 generation. ShaderModel 5.0 compatibility is also a given, so the Kepler family is completely in accordance with the latest standards and technologies.
The Kepler technology itself, from the looks of it, is trying to help NVIDIA get back on the right path, as significant changes have been made compared to the Fermi chip, and changes in the right direction at that. We won’t delve too deeply into these considerations, as we’ll have to do that when GTX 680 comes out. Besides, the mobile GPU is always rather simplified compared to the “real deal”, which makes drawing comparisons problematic, especially since the “Southern Islands” cards have yet to appear in their mobile versions, as well as the fact that mobile GPUs aren’t really representative of the new architecture’s full scope. Nevertheless, we have to mention the critical changes, and those that will improve mobile gaming as well as gaming in general.
First of all, the organisation of stream processors is much different than was previously the case. As you probably now, NVIDIA GPUs had stream processors working at twice the GPU clock up to now. This brought out the potential of the chips, as well as reduced the dye surface, but with high TDP as the consequence. This approach has been completely “forgotten” with Kepler, falling back to the unified chip frequency. With this change, the transition to a smaller production process and simplification of stream processors, the only possible outcome was the increase in the number of the latter. Yet even the TDP has been decreased, which pretty much solves all problems Fermi had. The direct consequence of all this is that GK107 (the codename of the chip featured on GT 640M) has 384 stream processors. These are split into two blocks of 192. The model in question is going to be the default one for all Kepler-based GPUs, whether in the desktop or the mobile segment. This number of stream processors is drastically higher than on GF108 used for 540M (which had four times less, i.e. 96 stream processors in total). This goes to show the clarity of the advancements that have been made in this domain. The rest of GK107’s specs are also excellent for a mid-class mobile GPU: 16 ROP and 32 texture units have been kept from GF108. Another interesting fact is the default clock of 625 MHz, but with the newly implemented Kepler ability of stretching further up as much as possible without breaking the confines of the factory-stated TDP. In our case, heavy-duty gaming caused the frequency to be constantly “nailed” to 705 MHz. Provided that our reading were correct, this goes to show how well Acer managed to design their cooling system. This technology is called “Boost”, clearly jumping on the bandwagon built by Intel’s TurboBoost and AMD’s TurboCore technologies, which is OK, as the principle is the same. Unfortunately, we are a bit let down by the memory subsystem. We were hoping that NVIDIA would finally overcome their ambiguous nature of using both GDDR3 and GDDR5 memory, but that hasn’t happened, and the GT 640M our model contained comes with GDDR3 chips, which effectively halved the memory bandwidth. This sort of leeway enables manufacturers to advertise GT 640M while implementing a cheaper version of the chip, affecting performance adversely and misguiding less-informed customers to a certain extent. Just like with GT 540M, the 128-bus is used, which would’ve been a much more effective solution in conjunction with GDDR5 chips. We strongly suggest you have a good look at the specifications of the model you’re buying, as you may end up with a graphics chip that has a memory bandwidth of 28.8 GB/s instead of 60 GB/s. It’s good to know that Optimus technology is still present, and allegedly working better than ever with the new ForceWare 300 drivers, but time shall tell. Even if you’re having trouble with particular applications, NVIDIA has added the ability to right-click the desired .exe file and use the “Run with graphics processor” option to select whether it’s to run on integrated graphics or the mobile GeForce chip.
In terms of performance, the improvements are obvious, and although stream processors work at a much lower frequency than before, their numbers are great enough to compensate. We believe that NVIDIA has made the change in the right moment and direction. Even with ill-polished drivers, the bottleneck memory bandwidth and Core i5 2467M, GeForce GT 640M is a clear improvement over GT 540M. Simply enough, the new architecture is much, much better, and we can’t wait to get our hands on a more “serious” notebook hardware-wise and see just how well this graphics card can run. As you well know, regardless whether we’re talking about CPUs or GPUs, clocks are the initial limiting factor when new generations are being developed. Yet IT history teaches us that maximising chip clocks has never led to significant progress. Suffice to remember Intel and their plan for Pentium 4 to eventually reach 10 GHz. NVIDIA has obviously bumped into a similar problem and been forced to rethink their architecture in order to advance with the new production process. It remains open for discussion whether that should’ve happened much earlier, since it’s now clear that monolithic GPUs such as GF100 and GT200 couldn’t have advanced with future revisions whatsoever. Performance was unquestionable at the time they were presented, but now that we’ve had a look at the bigger picture, we can but affirm our previous statement. All in all, NVIDIA has definitely turned a new page, and its focus on Kepler promises another high in the history of this company, comparable to the success of G80 and NV40.
Results and conclusion
|GPU (1366x768 0xAA 0xAF)|
|3DMark 11 (performance) GPU Score||1.542|
|3DMark Vantage (performance) GPU Score||7.958|
|Unigine Heaven 3.0 (DX11, medium, tesselation off/normal) [fps]||27,4 / 38,7|
|Crysis Warhead (DX10, Mainstream/Gamer/Enthusiast) [fps]||50,1 / 29,9 / 21,3|
|Resident Evil 5 (DX10, High) [fps]||58,2|
|Metro 2033 (DX11, medium/high, tesselation) [fps]||37,6 / 29,8|
|AvP DX11 (DX11, high) [fps]||31,7|
|Lost Planet 2, Test B (DX11, medium/high) [fps]||25 / 22,2|
|3DMark 11 CPU Score||2.683|
|3DMark Vantage CPU Score||6.268|
|AIDA64 2.0.0 Extreme|
|Memory Benchmark (Read / Write / Copy) [MB/s]||14.258 / 12.737 / 13.722|
|Memory latency [ns]||58,1|
|Cinebench 11.5 64bit (OpenGL / CPU) [fps/pts]||27.81 / 1.91|
|7-Zip Compressing / Decompressing [KB/s]||5.029 / 62.201|
|x264 Benchmark HD 3.0 [fps]||10,63|
|Powermark Productivity/Balanced/Entertainment||7h 23' / / 1h 53'|
With this latest example of the TimelineU series, namely M3, Acer has presented the market with a very interesting notebook. Although its display dimensions and weight don’t really make it the definition of the ultrabook category, it still fulfils the width and autonomy requirements for it. Acer has selected all components with a balanced view and excellent finish, which resulted in an unexpectedly powerful notebook for this price range.
The only two drawbacks are the placement of virtually all connectors on the back and an underwhelming lower-resolution display, although the latter has resulted in excellent gaming performance even in the latest games, something unheard of on the ultrabook market up to now. Of course, this is chiefly the work of NVIDIA’s latest notebook graphics, together with the great selection of CPU, memory and hybrid storage system. The graphics chip in question has managed to increase performance by an average of 50% without impacting power consumption, which is a very rare feat. Acer TimelineU M3 is an agile notebook, good for a multitude of usage scenarios, and as long as its price tag sticks in line with its competition (which it seems it will), it’s bound to be the top seller in its class.