⌚ October 12, 2012
The Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabookis a superb netbook for running Linux, and after over a year of constant usage, how well does it continue to perform? Are there any issues to be aware of? Here are a few thoughts from my personal experience.
Let’s start with the not-so-positive issues that have revealed themselves over time. You know, the things not mentioned on the front of the box and the things that nobody tells you about before you buy.
Like all Lithium-Ion batteries, the S3 battery deteriorates over time until it holds less and less of a full charge. When purchased brand new, this Ultrabook offered a six-hour battery life on a full charge. Realistically, this meant 4 to 5 hours of run time given moderate use.
After one year, the battery life only offers 3 to 4 hours given the same use. Under slightly heavier use, the battery life shrinks to 2.5 to 3 hours.
Is it worth replacing the battery? In my opinion, no. First, finding a battery is a challenge, and second, where I did find a battery, it was so expensive compared to the rest of the unit, that it would be more cost-efficient to purchase a brand new Ultrabook. Also, I had little success in finding a longer-lasting battery. Any replacement battery would only provide the same life.
Update January 2014: The battery life now lasts barely 2 hours from a full 100% charge when performing web browsing, writing text files, or playing music. Anything that requires more demanding processing will reduce the battery life to 1 hour 30 minutes or less.
By comparison, the Acer Aspire One 722 netbook, which is older and has seen as much use, still offers about a 5-hour battery life at a 100% charge.
Fan Noise and Heat
The fan has grown noticeably louder over time, and the system heats up much more than it did brand new. The fan was never whisper quiet to begin with, but now, it is so loud that it can be heard distinctly nearly 3 meters away in a quiet room.
When the system is at idle, the fan is practically silent, but when doing anything, such as opening Firefox, reading a text file, or playing a video, then fan blows at full blast.
Heat has become another issue. Originally, the top-left underside of the unit where the fan and CPU are located became warm but nothing uncomfortable. Now, after about an hour of use, this area becomes so hot that it is barely touchable and feels like it will burn the fingers. When resting on a lap, it creates a burning sensation through clothing. Yes, it is that hot.
I opened the unit for cleaning thinking that dust might have accumulated, but this is a system that cannot be serviced well by the end user. No dust was found, and the fan appeared clean. Not sure why it gets so hot so soon after mild use.
The Ultrabook has unexpectedly and suddenly shutdown twice during its life under my care, which, I am guessing, was due to excessive heat. The system must have shutdown to prevent overheating. And, no, I am certain that this is not a Linux issue because the Ultrabook running Linux never experienced this until the past three months. Newer kernels have been installed over time, but older kernels do the same — including the default kernel installed with a new Linux Mint 15 installation.
Update for January 2014: The fan runs constantly at full blast most of the time. For example, reading a web page using the Firefox web browser (the only program open) will cause the fan to ramp up to full speed about a minute after a cold boot. Only at full idle or when editing a text file will the fan quiet down — momentarily. Then, the fan ramps up again. Installing Linux Mint 16 and kernel 3.12.7 had no effect on reducing fan noise.
The Aspire S3 does not have buttons around the touchpad, so you must press the left and right sides of the pad to register mouse button clicks. The right-click action does not always register and sometimes takes a few tries. Practice is needed to adjust to this touchpad since Linux Mint 15 (what I am using with this Ultrabook) does not seem to support the touchpad as well and Windows 8. Gestures are possible under Linux, but extra configuration is necessary so I use the touchpad as a regular mouse.
Of course, a USB mouse works fine. The R.A.T.7 and M.M.O.7 both work with this Ultrabook the same as they work with a desktop system. Just be sure to modify /etc/xorg.conf to avoid the unresponsive mouse button issue experienced with these mice.
Due to its slim design and custom parts, the innards cannot be upgraded (aside from the hard drive). Want more memory? Want a terabyte hard drive? Too bad. You are stuck with what you buy, so make sure you get an Ultrabook that has what you want when you buy it.
The hard drive is the 7mm height style, so anything larger will not fit. This unit is not easy to disassemble, so I could never find the memory. My guess is that it is soldered to the board. If not, then I cannot find it, and I do not want to risk damaging the unit by taking it apart entirely. Everything works well, so why try to fix it?
The fan is glued to the CPU so it cannot be replaced without special tools. The 20 GB SSD card might be replaceable, but it appears to be a custom unit. Needs more research. However, the 20 GB SSD is plenty for the system side of Linux.
While the Acer AO722 could be upgraded with any laptop hard drive (1 TB is possible) and any standard SO-DIMM module to give it 8 GB of RAM, the Ultrabook cannot be upgraded like that. However, the 500 GB hard drive and 4 GB RAM have been enough, so this is not a major issue. But it would have been nice to upgrade the Ultrabook to a 1TB hard drive and 16 GB of RAM.
The above points are really the only negatives I have experienced. There are so many positives that outweigh the negatives, that they can make the negatives seem forgettable while using the system. This really is an excellent netbook, so here are a few highlights to counter the apparent doom and gloom.
The Acer Aspire S3 is designed for Windows 8, and it originally had Windows 8 installed. (Windows 7 versions also exist, but mine was a Windows 8 version.) However, Windows 8 felt like a clunky, bloated version of GNOME 3, so it had to go. I installed Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon, and it worked like a charm. Ubuntu 12.04.1 also works, but I prefer Linux Mint 15. Installation was painless, and Linux Mint 15 was fast and snappy. In fact, you can install Linux to the internal 20 GB SSD for even faster performance and mount /home to the 500 GB hard drive. The Aspire S3 is a 64-bit system, so be sure to use a 64-bit Linux distribution.
Yes, there are a few Linux-specific quirks to work out. One example is that the Fn screen brightness key combinations do not work with Linux, but this is easily remedied with xbindkeys and xdotool. However, this is a minor point because the Aspire S3 was never intended to run Linux in the first place. Over a year later, Linux runs as fast and snappy as it did when it was first installed, and in my opinion, Linux runs faster (or at least seems faster and more responsive) than Windows 8 on this system. Even kernel 3.10.13 runs without problems. The fact that Linux even runs at all on this Ultrabook with little tweaking is impressive.
The bright, glossy screen is beautiful, and it has never degraded or shown any flaws or dead pixels. Neither is there any backlight bleed. The screen on my unit is almost perfect and offers better quality than a much more expensive Samsung desktop monitor I once used.
The lid opens to expose the screen like any other netbook or laptop, and this relies upon a hinge mechanism. On some other laptops, the hinge can have the tendency to loosen with time, but with this Ultrabook, the hinge is just as snug and easy to open and shut as the day it was purchased — and it has seen much heavy use.
The keys have a pleasing feel to type with, and they continue to withstand repeated typing without any keyboard flex or bowing. Even the white labeling on the keys remains intact.
Slim and Lightweight
This is still a lightweight unit compared to the Acer AO722, and the slim design looks pleasing. Never does the S3 feel bulky to carry around since it is smaller than a laptop yet slightly larger than a netbook.
The metal-like finish on the lid feels good to the touch and helps protect the screen from drops to the top. Items have accidentally dropped on the lid with resounding thuds, but the lid has resisted any scratch attempts that would have damaged plain plastic lids. Also, the screen remains undamaged due to the better quality lid that offers more protection. Of course, avoid dropping anything on it if possible.
There are only two USB 3.0 ports, but they are well worth the speed and convenience when used with a USB 3.0 device. This might sound like a small feature, but it is a tremendous time-saver when transferring many files to and from the Ultrabook.
This is easily the best portable computer I have used, and it is superb for running Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon and Linux Mint 16 Cinnamon. Linux Mint 16 is my favorite Linux for this system because it runs so well, and, from my experience and usage, it runs better than Windows 8 on this Ultrabook.
For those seeking a stylish, light-weight netbook with enough CPU power close to a medium-end desktop and those who wish to run Linux, then the Acer Aspire S3 is worth investigating. Keep in mind that this has been on the market for a little over a year, but in my opinion, it still looks attractive and performs well. The system is plenty fast for portable computing, and it even plays high-bitrate 1080p high-definition videos in VLC without skipping (video enhancements disabled). The 500 GB hard drive can be replaced with an SSD or another hard drive in case it fails, but the replacement drive is limited to the 7mm hard drive form factor.
Despite the drawbacks this Ultrabook is a winner with Linux and has never let me down. Highly recommended.
For more information, here is my original review: Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook and Ubuntu 12.04.1