Hey... this looks kind of familiar (Acer clones the MacBook Air).  (Source: Pocket Lint/Popular Mechanics)

Lenovo has the right idea, picking a dedicated mobile GPU. Unfortunately its pick is about the weakest dedicated GPU you can find, offering minimal gains over Intel's HD 3000.  (Source: Lenovo via Hot Hardware)
Acer hopes to use ultraportable to recover from netbook slump

Faced with an evaporating netbook market, Acer Inc. (TPE:2353) has dropped to fourth place in global, fifth place in U.S. sales.  In full scale panic mode, the company has vowed to transform itself to be more like Apple, Inc. (AAPL).

I. Acer Clones the MacBook Air -- Will it "Just Work"?

A critical first step in that transformation was revealed [press release] on Friday at Germany's IFA 2011 technology show in Berlin.  Acer pulled the wraps off its first "ultrabook", a slick ultra-portable mid-size laptop with decent power.

Dubbed the Acer Aspire S3, the ultrabook clearly targets Apple's popular MacBook Air, following it closely in looks.  It features a slender thin hybrid plastic-metal design, which pairs an outer light metal lid with a plastic body.  The lid is 17 mm tall at its thickest point (identical to the MacBook Air) and tapers to 13 mm.  

The S3 can be found in a 13.3-inch and 11.6-inch design.  They pack a 1376x768 pixel display.  The 13.3-inch model weighs "less than 1.4 kg (3 lbs.)", which, according to sources, is 1.35 kg (2.976 lb), to be precise.  That places it roughly in line with the 2.96 lb. 13.3-inch MacBook Air.

The trackpad could also be mistaken for the MacBook Air's, almost -- it features the same multi-touch capable flat glass design which disguises clickable buttons in the bottom half of the depressed rectangle. 

The peripheral ports are almost identical to the MacBook Air's with a 3.5 mm headphone jack, SD card slot, and twin USB 2.0 ports.  It trades Apple's proprietary ThunderBolt connector for a more widely used full-sized HDMI port.  There's 1.3 MP camera and microphone for Skype chats, just like the Air.  And likewise Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity is also supported.

The laptop features a 20 GB SSD, which holds the fast-booting Windows installation and media you want to play at faster speeds.  The Acer Green Instant On features leverages this to promise 2.5 second boot times from sleep and 6 second boots from deep sleep.  The battery promises 7 hours of life (identical) to the MacBook Air.

So what's different between the S3 and the MacBook Air?  Well, as we mentioned the case implementation is a bit divergent.  And the price is significantly lower -- 799 € (appr. $1,150 USD) for a model equipped with a 1.7 GHz ultra-low voltage (ULV) second-generation Core i5 CPU from Intel Corp. (INTC) and 4 GB of RAM.  

A comparable MacBook Air is $150 more, at $1,300.  However, the Acer comes with a slower 320 GB traditional HDD in its stock configuration, where the Apple comes with a 128 GB SSD.  Given the internal small-size SSD for the OS, about the affects of this swap should be limited to slower times for some application launches, large file saves, or large copies -- OS launch time will be spared.

The price on the fully loaded model is moderately attractive given the larger amount of RAM.  With a 240 GB SSD, 1.7 GHz ULV Core i7 CPU, and 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, you will have to spend 1199 € ($1,720 USD) -- versus $1700 USD for a comparable MacBook Air with a 256 GB SSD, but only 4 GB RAM.

Like Apple, the biggest disappointment in this portable is the lack of dedicated graphics, which will make GPU-accelerated applications like Photoshop, web browsers, and video games slower.

Acer must beware, its competitors -- Toshiba Corp. (TYO:6502) and ASUSTEK Computer Inc. (TPE:2357) both plan to launch similar ultraportables at under $1,000 USD.  

Also given Apple's propensity for suing competitors, it would be unsurprising to see Acer smacked with a lawsuit, given its remarkable similarity to Apple's MacBook Air.  Of course we've already stated that we feel such claims are legally baseless -- but Apple does have the tendency to make them.

II. Lenovo U300 Packs Graphics Punch

Lenovo Group, Ltd. (HKG: 0992) -- the fastest growing brand internationally -- pulled the wraps off an ultrabook of its own -- the slick U300

Retailing at $1,200 USD in its base configuration, the device is moderately pricey like its Acer and Apple competitors.  The design is lightweight and thin, but looks less MacBook Air clone-like than the Acer S3, as it features a shorter taper at the edges.

Overall the specs are similar to the competitors' designs, with one fairly significant difference.  The Lenovo U300 packs a Radeon 5470M (1 GB memory) dedicated graphics chip courtesy of Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD).  

The bad news here is that the Radeon 5470M isn't really that much more powerful than the stock Intel HD 3000 (found in the Core series chips), barely edging it in some benchmarks.  Still, the idea of including a dedicated GPU is a worthy one, so Lenovo's design is important from the standpoint of supporting dedicated mobile GPUs, even if it picks the wrong chip for the job.

Hopefully similar designs will come along soon with beefier chips (e.g. NVIDIA Corp.'s (NVDA) GeForce 540M GT chip).

The Toshiba, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUSTEK products will all ship sometime this fall.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls

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