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Acer Timeline Ultra M3 & NVIDIA GT 640M Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Ultrabooks were originally introduced as a way for PC manufacturers to compete with Apple’s MacBook Air series and for the most part, they have struggled to find traction. Not only do traditional Ultrabooks concentrate upon form over functionality (a longtime issue with Apple’s wares as well) but due to their slim profile chassis necessitating the use of ultra low voltage processors, performance suffers as well. However, things are rapidly changing in the Ultrabook product space as companies come to grips with next generation technologies, allowing for some quick evolutionary changes. The first products to blur the imaginary line between these featherweight laptops and standard notebooks are the new Timeline Ultra series from Acer.

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The first of the Ultras is the M3 which is supposed to change people’s preconceptions about typical Ultrabook performance, or a lack thereof. It boasts an ultra low voltage Core i5 2467M processor but the most important addition here is the NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M graphics processor. Based upon the new Kepler architecture, this GPU boasts 384 cores along with 2GB of dedicated GDDR3 video memory (a GDDR5 versions will also be available) which are the kind of specs we’ve come to expect from full size notebooks rather than a slim Ultrabook. We’ll go into the details of this graphics processor and its capabilities a bit later in this review but for the time being, let’s just say that it takes the Timeline Ultra’s performance to the next level in certain tests.

Other than the inclusion of an i5 mobile processor and a high performance graphics subsystem, the M3’s remaining specifications are pretty much par for the course in the ultra portable space. The only thing that really jumps out as a step above the competition is the included 20GB mSSD cache drive which is supposed to speed up booth times of your most used programs. 4GB of memory is the bare minimum these days but it can be upped to 8GB relatively easily and we think that’s a necessity considering the M3’s massive 2GB+ idle memory footprint –more on that later. Unfortunately, Acer has gone “feature lite” here so there’s no Bluetooth, Intel WiDi or WiMax module support.

Before going any further in this review you should know a few things about the Timeline Ultra M3 that may stop your reading dead in its tracks. First and foremost, no firm North American launch date has been communicated to us, nor has a price been set for this particular model. Discrete graphics chips, i5 ULV mobile processors and hybrid storage solutions certainly don’t come cheap and we’re guessing this configuration will cost upwards of $1200 which is expensive, especially for an Ultrabook. Speaking of the configuration, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the M3 get an Ivy Bridge overhaul for its launch here in North America in the coming months.

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The M3’s exterior casing is fabricated out of aluminum alloy which is coated in a fingerprint resistant matte finish. This is a welcome departure from some of the glossy exteriors some manufacturers use that become ungodly messes after a few hours.

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At first glance, Acer’s new Timeline U M3 is like no other Ultrabook out there since it is quite thick at 0.78”, has a larger footprint (which is mostly due to a screen size of 15.6” versus the 13.3” panel that most others come with) and weighs in at a hefty 4.45 lbs. When put next to a quintessential Ultrabook like the ASUS Zenbook, the differences are abundantly apparent.

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The M3 also eschews the aluminum unibody design of its compatriots by going with high strength plastic for the interior surfaces. Unfortunately, this gives it a bit of a cheapish feel but long term durability shouldn’t be a concern and the black palmrest resists greasy palm print marks.

Build quality isn’t the best either with a few wide open gaps around the DVD drive and some notable bezel flex. None of these are things we’ve become accustomed to seeing in most Ultrabooks since they are typically defined by high quality construction and paper thin material seams.


Connectivity options on this Ultrabook are good with two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 connector, a LAN jack, a headphone jack and a HDMI 1.4a output but their location is just horrible. Housing all of these connectors on the back edge of the M3 means you’ll have to fumble around the 15.6” screen every time you want to plug a peripheral in. To make matters even worse, Acer decided to put the power connector here as well, causing untold amounts of frustration. Further limiting this Ultrabook’s uses is the lack of a VGA connector or a HDMI to VGA adaptor so forget about using it with most conference room projectors or docking stations.

The left hand side meanwhile contains the DVD drive along with the yawning gap between it and the topmost piece of chassis plastic and an SD card reader. The right edge is completely blank with only a Kensington lock for company.

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The front edge of the Timeline Ultra M3 features one of the worst placed power buttons we’ve ever come across. Whether it is being used on your lap or on a solid surface, the button WILL be pressed by a wayward finger, a belt buckle, a fold in the fabric of your pants or anything else for that matter.

The fun doesn’t stop there either since there’s a power and recharge light placed alongside the power button but a disk usage / hard drive indicator LED is missing in action. In addition, even though the recharge LED illuminates during charging, ours didn’t turn off so there’s no indicator of when the M3’s battery is topped up.
 

SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad


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The Acer Timeline U’s keyboard is absolutely massive as is usually the case for notebooks sporting 15” screens but that doesn’t mean it is any good. While the full size, handy number pad may give you all the space in the world, typing feels more like a chore than anything else.

The keys have very little vertical throw which results in a faintly mushy feel and next to no tactile feedback. This came as a surprise considering the Timeline U’s chassis is actually thicker than most other Ultrabooks but we’re told that extra space was taken up by a robust cooling assembly. A backlighting option isn’t even offered. Luckily, Acer’s spacing is well done with plenty of distance between each chiclet-style key and its neighbor but with the Enter and backslash keys touching, be prepared for at least some frustration and wayward cursor movement.


This keyboard feels a bit cheap and pales in comparison to the ones included on some much lower priced options. There are some oddball choices here as well. Key placement seems to be random at times with the volume up / down functions located down by the arrow keys while the Mute button is floating up there on the F8 key. The LCD dimming icons and their functionality have also been reversed with the right arrow holding the universal “Dim LCD” pictogram even though it is actually used to boost brightness.

The dwarf-like directional pad is yet another oddity on an Ultrabook that’s supposedly been designed with gamers in mind. Sure it can be use to control and onscreen character but you’ll flail around aimlessly while trying in vain to find the tiny buttons. We suggest using the more typical WASD keys but due to their lack feedback, gaming will quickly become an chore.

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The situation doesn’t get any better as we move down to the trackpad. Built around the Elan software and hardware stack, it works well for pinch to zoom and double finger scrolling but not much else. We believe that buttonless trackpads are one of the worst “innovations” to come to notebooks in the last decade and this one doesn’t improve our opinion one iota. It constantly misses inputs, like the keyboard the integrated buttons lack feedback and you’ll constantly find yourself dragging icons around your desktop rather than actually opening their associated programs.

On the positive side of things, this touchpad is larger than the screens on most smartphones despite its ability to deliver a downright maddening computing experience. It is so large in fact that people with smaller hands will often find themselves touching two sides of it, resulting in multiple erroneous inputs.

The touchpad’s offset position may allow it to align with the keyboard’s center line (which is great for typing in most cases) but we found that our left hand would constantly miss the small area intended for it and slip off the M3’s side.


Upgrade Options



Most Ultrabooks feature limited to no possibility of component upgrading but Acer has charted a different course with the M3. By removing a few screws access is granted to the memory, hard drive and mSSD. Just take note that there is only one accessible memory slot which means you’ll need a lone 8GB module to double this notebook’s available memory.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Screen & Audio Quality / Pre Installed Software

Screen Quality


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With over fifteen inches of real estate, the M3’s screen offers more space than any other Ultrabook on the market. Normally, glossy screens are a major pain in the ass and this one’s mirror-like qualities make it all but impossible to use outdoors but we’ll let it slide here since finding a matte screen outside of professional-oriented products is becoming harder and harder. Plus, studies done by various notebook manufacturers have show that gamers have a bewildering preference for glossy screens.

Acer did do a great job with the rather large bezel since it retains the matte finish of chassis, cutting down on the possibility of even more unwanted reflections. A webcam is well integrated too.

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What can’t be forgiven is the use of a resolution of 1366 x 768. On 13” and 14” Ultrabooks this resolution doesn’t pose all that much of a problem but by stretching those pixels out onto a 15.6” screen, Acer has seriously lowered the display quality of their flagship ultra portable. Not only are Windows icons large enough for half blind seniors to see but the onboard GT 640M simply goes to waste playing 720P videos instead of the industry standard 1080P format.

Our opinion of the overall picture quality isn’t any better since the M3 is a melting pot of sorts for every hallmark of a low quality TN panel. Contrast is disappointing, colours look washed out, brightness is lacking even at maximum output and black level performance is atrocious. It may not be the worst out there but we have to wonder how this particular panel made it onto Acer’s high end Ultrabook.


As you may have already come to expect, the use of TN technology leads to subpar viewing angles. Move your head a few degrees off of center and you’ll be greeted by washed out colours and plummeting contrast.


Audio Quality


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Use the M3 on a flat surface and you’ll likely be quite impressed by the sound its Dolby Home Theater certified sound system can pump out. Its bass profile is all but missing and the treble can be muddy at times but for a notebook it is a cut above.

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Unfortunately, audio performance rapidly fluctuates depending upon the surface where the Timeline Ultra used. This oddity is caused by Acer breaking a cardinal rule of notebook design: they’ve installed the speaker UNDER the chassis. If you have a glass tabletop, be prepared for overly crisp sound. Using the M3 on your lap? Muffled voices and a lack of output will plague the listening experience.


Pre Installed Software


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Over the years, the amount of manufacturer installed software on notebooks has been rapidly spiraling out of control and no product better demonstrates this than the Timeline Ultra M3. The amount of preinstalled junk residing on this system is simply staggering. From the ebook reader program Nook to ass-backwards game platforms to the bewildering clear.fi media applications and a shameless eBay plug, we’ve yet to see another system that even comes close to this level of bloatware. To add insult to injury, Acer has concocted a way to have Norton and McAfee programs on the same system, each performing its own tasks while annoying users with endless popup messages.

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The truly infuriating part of this whole equation is how much of the system’s meager resources are gobbled up by these supposedly “invisible” background programs. Just how much? Of the 4GB of installed memory, the 103 idle processes require a record setting 2.09GB be set aside just for programs running in the background.

Take McAfee for example; on an idle Windows desktop, it required over 190MB of system memory to run all of its services. For comparison’s sake, Microsoft’s free Security Essentials took up a mere 49MB when installed onto the M3.

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This isn’t to say there aren’t diamonds among the rough since a few of Acer’s own applications stand out as quite handy. The USB Charge Manager allows you to charge your mobile devices off of the M3’s USB ports even when the notebook isn’t on, which can come in handy when your cell phone needs a quick charge. Meanwhile, the Backup Manager allows for quick and easy data protection.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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The GT 640M; Kepler Comes to Ultrabooks

The GT 640M; Kepler Comes to Ultrabooks


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A few weeks ago, the world saw what NVIDIA’s new Kepler architecture was all about. Unlike many of the previous generation’s cores, the GK104 within the GTX 680 was both efficient and preeminently powerful but that was the desktop version. For notebooks, the 600-series of mobile parts is primarily focused upon providing increased performance per watt and longer battery life within the mid to lower tiered market brackets.

In order to accomplish their goals, NVIDIA is moving forward with a two pronged approach that combines Kepler and Fermi mobile GPUs parts into a cohesive product lineup. Starting at the top, we have the GTX 675M and GTX 670M which are essentially holdouts from the previous generation and have simply been renamed. Some may decry this move but high end mobile gaming isn’t Kepler’s primary goal….at least not yet anyways. Plus, less and less people want to carry around a brick-like gaming notebook these days.

Things kick into gear within the quickly growing “sweet spot” of the mobile space: thin and light notebooks that have long battery life. Products here feature what we call adaptable productivity; they boast a feature rich environment for the everyday user while moonlighting as an entry level gaming / HD decoding rig if need be. This is where the Kepler architecture can really stretch its legs and as a result the GTX 660M, GT 650M and GT 640M (minus the “LE” version) all lay claim to the new advanced 28nm manufacturing process, miserly power consumption numbers and an updated design. We should also mention that NVIDIA’s Optimus technology will be available on all of their new mobile GPUs. However, desktop-centric technologies like Adaptive V-Sync and GPU boost aren’t included here.

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Due to a giant leap forward in terms of performance per watt, the Kepler architecture arguably means more for the mobile market than it does for desktop systems. Notebook manufacturers can now shoehorn additional graphics capability into a smaller package. In a market that’s increasingly focused upon using the GPU in even the most basic of applications, the new 600M series becomes a no brainer in most cases.

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The current darling of NVIDIA’s lineup is the GT 640M, a low power graphics processor that comes equipped with 384 cores but consumes substantially less power than similarly performing GT 500M-series parts. To some, this may not sound like a worthwhile improvement but for mobile users these types of advances translate directly into a better all-round computing experience without having to sacrifice performance for battery life.

Due to its aforementioned capabilities, the GT 640M has become a prime candidate for Intel’s upcoming generation of Ultrabooks. Even though the Ivy Bridge processors will supposedly include an improved graphics engine, some consumers will still be craving more. That’s where NVIDIA steps into the equation. While a discrete GPU may not be in the cards for every Ultrabook due to cost, heat and numerous other factors, we’ll likely see the GT 640M make its way into several Ivy Bridge based models.

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NVIDIA claims the GT 640M will be “putting the Ultra back into Ultrabook” by introducing a whole new market to the wonders of high definition gaming. You see, before this GPU was introduced, Ultrabooks had to make do with integrated graphics that didn’t provide enough horsepower to play today’s latest games at low detail settings. With Kepler, the goal posts have moved since a reasonable amount of rendering ability can now be packed into a slim notebook design.

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In order to break into such a lucrative up and coming niche, NVIDIA knew they had to focus upon two core aspects: optimizing power consumption while maintaining some level of performance. Kepler achieves both goals but the trick was to find a perfect balance of each aspect to create a graphics processor that large OEMs would want to use. We’ll go into a bit more detail about how this was accomplished on the next page but let’s just say that a fair amount of engineering resources were dedicated towards solving this problem.

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Throughout the years, manufacturers have been gradually miniaturizing their designs but through more efficient components, battery life increased and weight decreased. With the GT 640M, this slow process of improvement has taken a quantum leap forward. We now have a GPU with the power of a GTX 285M that can be installed in a 20mm thick chassis that weighs under 6lbs and when placed into a compatible system, still achieve up to eight hours of battery life.

This kind of forward progress is quietly pushing us towards a world where notebooks have most of a desktop system’s performance but can be carted around without a problem. For argument’s sake, let’s call this the first step towards a true synergy between the GPU and CPU in order to create a single class of portable computers that can do everything from homework to gaming to photo editing.

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NVIDIA has a few more tricks up their sleeve as well and while we have covered the Optimus technology in depth before, it remains the last word in GPU efficiency for notebooks. Among other things, it allows the discrete GPU to enter a dormant state in order to conserve power and prolong battery life.

What differentiates Optimus from other solutions is the way it handles the switch between the dGPU and the coprocessor housed on the CPU. Instead of requiring a manual switchover, it detects accelerated programs and enables the discrete GPU only when required, without user intervention. In theory, you should never know that it is working since the screen doesn’t flash, nor is there switch to be toggled.

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Driver support is another reason why NVIDIA has claimed the edge over competing solutions in the mobile market. As 2011 progressed, NVIDIA released 16 consecutive updates for their drivers and while not all manufacturers (Sony among them) decided to roll these out to their customers, the intent for compatibility evolution was certainly there. Intel on the other hand entered a phase of comfort with their driver stack and while their rollout program has seen vast improvement over previous generations, a little over six revisions isn’t going to cut it these days. Drivers –be it for notebooks or desktops- just don’t work that way anymore since new applications are released on a regular basis that require optimizations.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Thinner, More Powerful Notebooks Through Efficient Design

Thinner, More Powerful Notebooks Through Efficient Design



Bringing the Kepler architecture over to notebooks isn’t all about achieving the highest performance in every benchmark, nor has it been solely focused upon extending battery life. As we alluded to in the previous section, reducing the GPUs heat output is an integral part of the GT 640M’s Ultrabook equation.

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Within modern notebook computers, there are several major heat contributors, some of which you may not have realized. The GPU, CPU and all other major components are usually cooled down by an extensive cooling setup that dissipates the heat via a heatpipe and fan system. This means lowering the heat of one area will help improve the efficiency of the entire cooling system housed within a notebook.

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Unfortunately, a discrete GPU adds exponentially more heat to a system that would otherwise use the CPU for both processing and graphics-heavy tasks. The only real way around this debilitating limitation was to seriously beef up the heatsink assembly, leading to thicker “gaming” notebooks. Meanwhile, all of these issues made it nearly impossible to integrate a graphics processor into a slim notebook design while still retaining high performance in other critical areas.

The solution to this complex problem may have been previously out of reach but it always remained the same: design a higher efficiency GPU. And that is exactly what NVIDIA has done with the 600M-series. The GT 640M and GT 620M’s use of TSMC’s 28nm manufacturing process have allowed them to retain excellent gaming while allowing for integration into sub-25mm thick notebooks.

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We’ve talked a lot about performance per watt since that’s exactly what the GT 640M is meant to provide. While the 28nm process does have quite a bit to do with this newfound efficiency, NVIDIA has also been able to increase the core counts and rendering efficiency of these new GPUs without needing any additional power. And that’s exactly why the GT 640M will likely be the go-to graphics processor for manufacturers who want ultra slim designs without sacrificing performance.
 

SKYMTL

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IGP vs GT 640M Testing

IGP vs GT 640M Testing


If someone paying a premium for a notebook that sports a discrete GPU, they’re hoping for above average performance in today’s most popular games. The GT 640M claims to take gaming to the next level by acting as an inter-generational bridge the outgoing (and lower efficiency) GT 500 series and the higher end cards within NVIDIA’s own lineup. In this section we take a look at how the GT 640M can expand your gameplay experience over integrated graphics.

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First and foremost, we didn’t test any DX11 applications simply because Intel’s current Sandy Bridge HD3000 IGPs don’t support the API. But even in DX9 and DX10 games as expected the NVIIDA GT 640M reigns supreme with playable framerates while the HD3000 struggles to maintain results that go above the single digits. Even if Ivy Bridge manages to double Sandy Bridge’s graphics performance, it still won’t come close to the framerates offered by the GT 640M.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.

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The performance of the M3 in standard system related benchmarks hovers around where we thought it would: near the rear of the pack. This somewhat poor showing is mostly due to its ULV processor holding benchmark scores back and the large memory footprint needed by the pre-installed programs doesn’t help either.

We do see that the onboard 20GB mSSD’s cache space is put to good use during system startup (unfortunately, Shut Down times don’t seem to be affected) and after a few runs of PCMark. Meanwhile, the slow 5400RPM hard drive gives this Acer a nearly last placed finish in Crystal DiskMark. Luckily, the cache drive allows this system to “feel” much faster than it actually is.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.

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The tests in this section actually showed the M3 in completely different positions depending upon the benchmark that was being run. On one hand, if a program relied upon the standard system resources (ie: CPU, memory, hard drive), this notebook struggled to keep up with the competition. However, any application that incorporated CUDA compatibility and allowed the onboard GT 640M to do the heavy listing saw the M3’s performance skyrocket. This really does go a long way towards showing how a low level discrete GPU can elevate the standing of an otherwise mediocre product.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.


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Once again we see how GPU acceleration can bring with it some impressive results. NVIDIA’s new architecture seems to excel at media decoding tasks.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.


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Mobile devices like the M3 live and die by their capability to search out, located and connect with wireless hotspots and luckily, this Ultrabook does a relatively good job. Granted, it couldn’t reach the level of some lower-priced options but performance here is firmly within the middle of the pack.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.

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Here we see some interesting results since it looks like certain tests (3DMark06 and Street Fighter) are bottlenecked by the low voltage processor. This causes the GT 640M to consistently trail the GT 555M equipped Alienware M14x but as rendering needs increase and the processor takes a back seat, the Ultra M3’s ranking surges. Without a doubt, the GT 640M is a potent little graphics processor but it needs a fast CPU or higher detail settings to really shine.
 
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