Acer’s Aspire 3 is a big-screen budget laptop that delivers a roomy 15.6-inch display, a comfortable keyboard, and horsepower for productivity work—and even a bit more. Our $ 529.99 review model (Acer’s identifier is A315-41-R98U), based on an AMD Ryzen CPU with on-chip Vega graphics and an SSD boot drive, dips under $ 500 at times from retailers, and it keeps pace with other low-end and mainstream machines, including a few priced as high as $ 700. Before you get too excited about a $ 500 laptop sparring so far above its weight class, though, know the price mandates some sacrifices. The display is dull and a coarse 1,366-by-768-pixel native resolution; the battery life is hours shorter than competing models; and the touchpad is subpar. The Aspire 3’s raw compute and graphics power for the money is admirable, but an upsell to a model like the Asus VivoBook S15 will satisfy more folks.
Ryzen Pep in an Plain Shell
On the Aspire 3, the only departure from the basic black of its plastic enclosure is a brushed-texture pattern on the lid and keyboard deck. Otherwise, the Aspire 3 is about as vanilla as black laptops come. Silver Acer logos on the lid and bottom bezel, plus a pair of AMD stickers below the keyboard, are the only exceptions to the monochrome design.
At 4.3 pounds, the Aspire 3 forces you to carry a few more ounces than the 3.7-pound Lenovo IdeaPad 530S or the 3.97-pound Asus VivoBook S15, two other late-model 15-inch budget laptops. At an inch thick, it’s also a bit thicker than those two models. It measures 15 inches wide by 10.4 inches deep. With the combination of its thickness and the thin plastic used for the chassis, the Aspire 3 feels puffy, a bit like the laptop equivalent of a bag of potato chips before you open it.
That said, the hinges that hold the display feel sturdy enough. They keep the display in position with little to no wobble and offer assuring resistance when adjusting its angle. Although the keyboard deck and back panel flex inward a bit when you grip the laptop and pick it up, the keyboard itself feels solid underneath my fingers. I’m a heavy-fingered typist, and I felt no give as I thundered away on the keys.
The key action is quiet and offers good travel, for a responsive feel. The key layout feels roomy, too. That is no mean feat, given the presence of a dedicated number pad in the key-deck space afforded by a 15.6-inch screen.
Alas, the touchpad fails to match the firm feel or good vibe of the keyboard. The surface is loose and flimsy along its bottom edge. Also, when stroking it, the pad wobbles without being clicked, which makes performing an actual click feel like it requires more force than it should. Plus, a gap around the edge of the touchpad will be a trap for crumbs and grime.
Display and Connections: The Very Basics
Given the dodgy touchpad, I had hoped to avoid using it and instead rely upon touching the screen for some input. Not to be, though: This screen is not a touch panel, which means you and I are stuck using the touchpad, unless we want to attach a mouse.
In addition to lacking touch support, the Aspire 3’s display also comes up short on brightness and raw resolution. The screen remains somewhat dull even when you crank it up to max brightness, and the native resolution is a retro 1,366 by 768 pixels. A 1080p native resolution is more typical for a 15-inch laptop and results in a finer picture. This panel just feels like a throwback.
The integrated webcam, too, is below average. It offers only a 640-by-480-pixel resolution, which delivers grainy videos. The 720p webcam on the Asus VivoBook S15 or Lenovo IdeaPad 530S is a clear step up in picture quality.
The speakers are average, at best. Audio output is tinny, with barely enough oomph to project across a small room. This is not a laptop that will double as a sound system for a dorm room (few budget machines are), but its sound suffices for YouTube viewing when you are seated directly in front of it.
In the same vein as the screen, the Aspire 3’s port selection is sparse and dated. It lacks any newer-style USB Type-C ports, and it has more USB 2.0 ports than USB 3.0 ports. A USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, an Ethernet jack, and an SD card slot sit on the left side…
On the right side, you’ll find a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a headphone jack, and the power connector…
Cooling vents cover nearly half of the bottom panel, and large vents take up half of the back edge of the laptop, which makes it a bit uncomfortable to hold when carrying the closed laptop under your arm. That’s more visual venting than usual for a laptop with a mainstream mobile CPU and integrated graphics, but may be a consequence of the specific Ryzen chip used here.
In addition to its sea of venting, the bottom panel hides an unusual feature for a budget laptop: two small panels that afford easy access to the memory and hard drive (or rather, to a hard drive bay). The compartments’ lids are each held in place by a single screw. Behind one you’ll find the memory modules, and behind the other is an empty 2.5-inch drive bay.
The Aspire 3’s boot drive is a 256GB solid-state drive that lies elsewhere on the motherboard, so you can add a second drive (a Serial ATA 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD) to boost the storage. That’s actually a rare perk in a budget laptop, and the idea of a decent-size boot SSD paired with a roomy hard drive (you can find 1TB 2.5-inch hard drives for $ 50 or so) is an attractive deal.
More Power Than a Typical Budget Banger
PC Labs doesn’t get to see nearly as many AMD-based laptops as Intel-based ones, so this Ryzen 5-based unit is of special interest.
I compared the A315-41-R98U to a host of competing Intel-based machines in the same general pricing sphere. The Aspire 3’s AMD Ryzen 5 2500U processor competes directly with the Intel Core i5-8250U CPU that’s in the rest of this lot. The competing laptops’ core components are outlined below…
With its combination of a quad-core/eight-thread Ryzen 5 CPU and a speedy SSD, the Aspire 3 felt peppy for basic tasks. Windows booted quickly, apps loaded with snap, and I found a fair degree of multitasking possible before performance started to bog down (and the cooling fan kicked in). On the responsiveness front, this is no budget-laptop dog. Too many of the exterior hardware bits give away its entry-level status, but its performance is no slouch for the money.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 (Productivity Test) and PCMark 8 (Storage Test)
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the storage subsystem.
The Aspire 3’s PCMark 10 score of 3,163 was within the margin of error of most of the scores of the Core i5-8250U-based laptops, including an Optane Memory-equipped Aspire 5 that features only 4GB and a slower hard drive paired with the Optane module. Thanks to its speedy SSD, the Aspire 3’s PCMark 8 Storage score was squarely in the middle of the pack.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
The Aspire 3 turned in a strong second-place showing on Cinebench, trailing only the overachieving Asus VivoBook S15. You wouldn’t want to spend a day in a video-editing suite with the Aspire 3, but it does have the muscle for the occasional video-editing task without making you wait for long stretches for it to finish rendering.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. This task stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The systems were tightly grouped on our Photoshop test. These budget laptops are capable of some modest Photoshop work without making it feel too laborious.
3DMark Sky Diver and Fire Strike
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff.
The Ryzen 5 CPU includes AMD’s integrated Radeon Vega 8 graphics silicon. Now, this is not the equivalent of the Radeon RX Vega graphics on AMD’s desktop video cards, but in the rare times PC Labs has gotten to test laptops powered by mobile Vega, it has pleasantly surprised. (For example, see our review of the 2018 Dell XPS 15 2-in-1.) Here, it’s clearly well more capable than its integrated Intel competition. The Aspire 3 posted 3DMark scores that were nearly double that of the Intel-based systems.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s done up in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine. This different 3D workload scenario offers a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess.
You won’t mistake the Aspire 3 (or any laptop with integrated graphics) for a gaming machine, of course, but the Aspire 3 did post higher frame rates on our Superposition benchmarks than the Intel-based budget laptops. Still, with frame rates below the 30fps goal for smooth gameplay even at 720p, you’ll need to keep your gaming expectations in check.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in Airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 1080p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
The good performance news for the Aspire 3 ends here. It lasted only 5 hours and 33 minutes, at least three hours shorter than the next-best laptop in this competitive set. Notably, the Asus VivoBook S15 endured more than twice as long.
These Good Guts Need a Better Body
Thanks to its AMD Ryzen 5 processor and integrated Vega graphics, this Aspire 3 loadout impresses with some very well-rounded performance for a budget machine. The boost that the Radeon Vega 8 graphics confers is especially significant. Kudos go to AMD for the core hardware.
Alas, the battery life and the body are not up to snuff. Many users can swallow this sort of abbreviated battery runtime in a large 15-inch laptop, since it isn’t all that portable and will spend much of its life plugged in. But even for an entry-level machine, the Aspire 3’s design is, well, uninspired. The dull, low-resolution display and rackety touchpad make a recommendation difficult. The Editors’ Choice-winning Asus VivoBook S15 S530UA retains its belt as our current budget pick. It’s worth the added funds for its sleeker design, superior display, and similar performance.