Apple might be suing Samsung for making products that are allegedly too similar to the iPad, but PC giant Acer is picking a fight with Apple's with its own take on the MacBook.
Acer's just-unveiled Aspire S3 is remarkably similar to the Air, even with the distinctive sculpted keyboard indentation in the top case.
But as Acer Australia's Nigel Gore told APC, when you make everything in a notebook smaller and smaller, the designs are inevitably going to bear some similarity. (Then he gave a long-winded justification about how it's hard to tell the difference between various models of car, but we'll spare you that one.)
APC had hands-on time with this gorgeous piece of engineering yesterday at the Australian launch event, and of course we smuggled in a MacBook Air to put next to it to compare.
So, how do they stack up against each other?
How it looks
This notebook is so slim it's barely there.
Thickness | Officially, the Aspire S3 is claimed to be 13mm thick. Put next to a MacBook Air that's 17mm thick at its thickest point, it was obvious that the Air is still thinner.
Mac ate nothing but Subway for six months and came away two millimetres thinner...
Yep, definitely a tad thinner.
It turns out the Aspire S3 is actually 17mm at its thickest point, not taking into account the rubber stoppers on the bottom, which add a couple more millimetres.
Putting aside a few thousandths of a metre between friends, it is an impressive form factor, and a surprisingly clean design for a PC notebook.
Das blinkenlights have been whittled down to a mere two tiny pin-prick LEDs beneath the screen -- one to indicate the notebook is on, and another to indicate low battery. (That's still two too many in our opinion, but hey, two are better than seven... we're looking at you, Toshiba Portege Z830.)
Surprisingly restrained blinkenlights...
Weight | The S3 tips the scale at "less than 1.35kg". Presumably, the weight varies a bit depending on whether you go for a hard drive or an SSD model.
That's competitive with the 13" MacBook Air, which weighs 1.3kg. Of course, the 11" MacBook Air is lighter at 1.08kg, but as the Aspire S3 is only coming in 13" models, it's not really a valid comparison.
Aesthetics | ... are in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there are some visual features worth pointing out.
The S3's casing is made of magnesium-aluminium alloy and finished with a lightly brushed texture. The MacBook Air is finished in a smooth, matte aluminium.
I'll take your smooth aluminium and raise you brushed magnesium alloy...
Unfortunately, the back of the S3 still has the big-arse air vent that Apple has been concealing inside the screen hinge of MacBooks for some years.
It's not pretty...
We didn't see any of those godawful affixed-with-superglue Microsoft and Intel stickers on the S3, but since we were looking at pre-production engineering samples, it may be that they just hadn't been stuck on yet.
Clean and unsullied by supplier logos...
The bottom of the notebook, while cleaner than most PC notebooks, has one very strange aspect: the bare face of the hard drive poking out. It turns out that to shave millimetres off the notebook, Acer decided to cut a hole in the bottom case and allow the hard drive to sit flush with the bottom of the case.
The exposed hard drive on the bottom of the case. Does that sit well with you?
Those quibbles aside, it's a nice looking notebook, taking obvious design-cues from the MacBook Air. The casing is rigid, and looks pretty durable.
Battery life | Both Apple and Acer use lithium polymer batteries sealed into the device. And both the Aspire S3 and the MacBook Air are rated as providing "up to seven hours" of battery life. We'll have to wait and see what the real-life results are like once we have a review unit of the S3.
Storage | One of the areas that Windows notebook makers have struggled to compete with Apple on is on availability of large SSDs in affordable notebooks, given its massive flash memory buying power due to the iPod/iPhone/iPad.
So we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Acer is offering up to 240GB of SSD storage in one model of the S3 for $1,699 -- $100 cheaper than the 256GB MacBook Air. What we don't know yet is what sort of performance to expect -- we'll only be able to evaluate that when we get a review unit into APC Labs for testing.
Acer has opted to use traditional 320GB hard drives in the lower-end models, which is a pragmatic if disappointing choice -- so much of the speed of the second-gen Intel Core CPUs will be cruelled by the mechanical hard drive. But, at the same time, the 64GB and 128GB SSDs used in Apple's lower-end MacBook Airs are pretty limiting.
One interesting aspect of the Aspire S3 is that all models -- even the ones with mechanical hard drives -- have 1GB SSD on a PCI Express Mini Card attached to the motherboard. This is used to cache key operating system files that make fast resume possible.
The powerplant | There are four variants of the S3. The $1,199 model packs a 1.3GHz Intel Core i3, the $1,399 and $1,699 models runs on a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 (the price difference being the 320GB hard drive vs a 240GB SSD), and the top-shelf $2,099 model packs a 1.7GHz Core i7.
This compares reasonably well against the MacBook Air -- the $1,449 and $1,799 13" models both run on a 1.7GHz Core i5. Apple provides an upgrade to a 1.8GHz Core i7 for $100 on the top model, though, which means you can get a MacBook Air with Core i7 and 256GB SSD for $1,899 -- $200 less than the lesser-specced Aspire S3.
All models of the Aspire S3 have 4GB RAM.
One notable difference is that Apple includes a lot more memory with the Intel HD Graphics 3000. The Aspire S3s only come with 128MB, while Apple provides 384MB. For GPU-accelerated apps and games, this could make a substantial difference to performance.
The display | The screen on the S3 is noticeably thicker than the ultra-slim panel on the MacBook Air. And, as you can see in this picture, the anti-reflective properties of the MacBook Air's display are vastly superior.
On the flipside, if you think you have something in your teeth, you can use it as a mirror...
MacBook Air also has an edge in resolution -- 1440 x 900 pixels, compared to the S3's more industry-standard 1377 x 768 pixels.
However, the screen quality in the S3 is better than average, with good brightness and viewing angles. Given it's competing around the same price-points as the MacBook Air with its outstanding display, it would have to be.
Ports | For a Windows notebook, the S3 is surprisingly sparse with its ports and connectors. On the right edge, there's an SD card reader, and on the left, there's a headphone jack. On the back edge there's two USB ports, a power socket and a full-size HDMI port.
The SD slot on the right-side of the Aspire S3
The lonely headphone port on the left side
And the rest of the ports on the back.
The MacBook Air has much the same ports -- two USB, a headphone jack, an SD card reader and a Thunderbolt port that can be used as a Mini DisplayPort, which in turn can be converted to HDMI, DVI or VGA with a massively overpriced adaptor.
Unfortunately, ASUS tells us it didn't have time to shrink its standard power-pack down in size to match the svelte Ultrabook dimensions, so it still ships with a heiffer power-pack.
In comparison, Apple provides a teeny-tiny 45w power-pack that's just a bit bigger than an iPod charger, which has the magnetic MagSafe power connector to prevent trips-on-the-cord pulling the MacBook off the desk. (Though, to be fair, the MacBook Air is so light that many people find the MagSafe cord still pulls it off the desk anyway.)
Clearly, Apple has the highground here in having scaled down the power adaptor appropriately.
Software | The Aspire S3 comes with Windows 7, while the MacBook Air comes with OS X 10.7 "Lion". Which OS is better is really a matter of taste. But it's definitely worth noting that the Mac comes with Apple's really excellent iLife pack -- iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband; three apps that are not only of saleable quality, but actually better than many of the commercial competitors.
Keyboard | The keyboard on the Aspire S3 is a chiclet-style keyboard, similar to what's on the MacBook Air. But it lacks Apple's superb fibre-optic backlighting; in fact, it lacks backlighting at all. We also noticed the keys have a fraction less travel than Apple's keyboards, but this is probably something that could be easily adjusted to.
The chiclet keyboard bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's.
Resume | One of the things that makes Macs special is the near-instant system resume. Microsoft has been protesting for years that Windows is equally capable, if only notebook makers would set their drivers up right.
Whatever Acer has done on the Aspire S3 has worked -- it resumes from sleep in about 1.5 seconds. This is partially made possible by the use of 1GB of SSD on all models to cache key system files.
Acer also claims that the notebook will fully reconnect to a usable state on Wi-Fi networks within 2.5 seconds, a claim we were unable to test at the demo event, but which is interesting if true.
The news is not so great on Windows' cold-boot time. Acer went to great lengths to provide examples of how long it takes smartphones to boot from a cold start, and so on, but there's no escaping the fact that a MacBook Air can boot from a cold start in 15 seconds.
Windows is still scratching its nuts and wondering whether the alarm really went off or whether that was just a bad dream 15 seconds in.
Other bits | The Aspire S3 has a 1.3 megapixel webcam, whereas the MacBook Air only has a paltry 0.3MP one. Apple's justification for this is that if it had gone for a higher-resolution component, the extremely slim display would have to have been made thicker.
The Aspire S3 is the closest thing we've seen to a Windows-centric MacBook Air yet. While Samsung's super-slim Notebook Series 9 might have beaten it to the punch in terms of dimensions, its pricing is way above where the MacBook Air is.
The fact that the Aspire S3 is a 13" notebook available for less than the MacBook Air at some specification levels is very impressive.
It's still not quite a match for the MacBook Air on some performance points, and the discipline in the case design isn't as tight as Apple's, but it's a great leap forward for the Windows notebook space.
The Aspire S3 will be on sale in Australia in next month.