Acer Aspire S7: Welcome to the World of Touch Screen Ultrabooks

Acer has long been the poster child when it comes to the race to the bottom in consumer laptops. In the effort to get a laptop into every home, prices had to come down and the easiest path for doing that was to cut corners. We've often lauded Acer's products for being extremely affordable, but when it comes to overall impressions there are some concerns. These days, every big OEM has at least a few inexpensive laptops sitting on retail shelves, and they're all basically the same: AMD Llano or Trinity APUs or an Intel Celeron/Pentium/Core i3/Core i5 CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive, and a 1366x768 display. Wrap it all up in an injection molded plastic chassis and slap a $400 to $600 price tag on it, and you're done. The problem is that you get what you pay for, and in this case what you often end up with is a laptop that will start to fall apart after a year or two of moderate use, not to mention the slow hard drive and lousy display.

Chase these cost reducing measures for long enough and what you end up with is a 5% reduction in overall quality, compounded yearly. Ten years later, what we have are a bunch of laptops that are faster, but they're also about half the quality of what we used to see. What if, instead of iterating on lowering prices and quality, we went the other direction with quality while trying to keep pricing relatively constant? Instead of getting cheaper, what if someone were to make laptops that are 5% better each iteration—or maybe even 10% better? Compound that through multiple release cycles and now you're looking at a laptop that's not only faster (thanks to Moore's Law), but it's also built better. That in a nutshell is what I've been seeing with Ultrabooks for the past 18 months.

The first Ultrabooks were all very thin, but the quality ranged from decent down to quite poor, with some experiencing cooling problems, overheating, noisy fans, and of course most came with bottom-of-the-barrel 1366x768 displays. The second generation designs weren't a revolution, but at least we started to see a greater focus on improving the tangibles like the display and keyboard. Now that trend continues with Acer's S7, which is the first Windows 8 Ultrabook to hit our labs. Did I mention that it’s super thin?

Here are the specifications for our review unit:

Acer Aspire S7-391-9886 Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 (9-9-9-24-1T)
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 13.3" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B133HAN03.0)
Storage 2x128GB Lite On CMT-128L3M SSDs in RAID 0
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Qualcomm Atheros AR9462)
(Dual-band 2x2:2 300Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone combo jack
Battery/Power 4-cell, 8.4V, ~4160mAh, ~35Wh
65W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Power Button
Headphone/Microphone jack
Mini-HDMI
AC Power Connection
Right Side Memory Card Reader
1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 3.0 (Powered when sleeping)
Back Side N/A
(Exhaust vent located on bottom)
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit
Dimensions 12.7" x 8.8" x 0.5" (WxDxH)
(323mm x 224mm x 12.7mm)
Weight 2.87 lbs (1.3kg)
Extras HD Webcam
67-Key Backlit Keyboard
Flash reader (MMC /SD)
Warranty 1-year limited warranty
Price $1650 MSRP
Starting at $1540 online (1/03/2013)

When we look at the specifications for the S7, other than the nice 1080p IPS touch screen and the dimensions and weight, there's not a whole lot to separate it from the pack. The base model comes with a Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB onboard memory, and a 128GB RAID 0 SSD set and comes with an MSRP of $1399. There's an 11.6" S7 as well that has the same specs but starts at $1199.

As for our test unit, it comes with a faster Core i7-3517U processor and a 256GB RAID 0 SSD set but otherwise has the same components and design as the less expensive offering. Besides double the storage capacity, the Core i7 processor comes with a base clock that's 12% faster and a max turbo clock that's 15% higher. The ULV CPUs are a potential bottleneck, so if you're ready to spend $1400 then the extra $250 for more storage and a faster CPU is probably a reasonable upgrade—and thankfully, online pricing is about $100 less than the MSRP.

We do want to take a moment to talk about the storage configuration. Acer is going with a 2x64GB (or 2x128GB) RAID 0 set for some reason—I wish that weren’t the case, as a single good SSD is usually better than two in RAID 0 for most use cases. It’s difficult to find out details on the Lite On CMT-128L3M SSDs, but they appear to use a Marvell controller similar to the Plextor M3 and some other offerings, so performance should be similar (we assume Lite On is working with Plextor for the design, or vice versa). The SSD is essentially two controllers on a single mSATA card, which is novel if nothing else. Being RAID 0, that does mean that if either SSD goes kaput, you lose all your data, but then this is a specialty device where you would replace both “SSDs” simultaneously regardless. Meanwhile, the latest version of Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager supports TRIM with RAID arrays, which is one more obstacle for RAID out of the way. RAID 0 shouldn’t make performance any worse, and as we’ll see in the benchmarks the storage subsystem does appear slightly faster than some of the other options we’ve tested, but I’m still not sure it’s a worthwhile feature.

The more difficult prospect is in convincing someone to spend $1400+ on an Ultrabook right now. The good news is that this is an awesome looking laptop that has the cachet to hang with the best ultraportables out there. Carrying something like this around school or on business trips would be great. There are other competing Ultrabooks, with plenty more set to ship during the coming months, but I can't shake the feeling that the price is just a bit more than most are willing to pay. Even $1200 to $1400 is probably too much, but I'll leave that to others to decide. Let's forget the cost for a minute and just look at what the Aspire S7 has to offer.

Subjective Evaluation: If Looks Could Kill
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  • blue_urban_sky - Tuesday, January 08, 2013 - link

    Why stop there, make it an even 1" then you could have 2 memory slots and a removable hard drive. Or even better make it 1.5" and have a huge removable battery, an optical drive and a dedicated GPU! No make it 2" and 17" screen then you can have a full sized keyboard top of the range graphics high end CPU tons of storage and neon lights on the top of the shiny plastic case!!1!

    Not really aimed at you, just all the people who like there £300 lappy and can not possibly imagine a world where other people want different things.
    Reply
  • thesavvymage - Tuesday, January 08, 2013 - link

    you totally did not comprehend what i meant Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Wednesday, January 09, 2013 - link

    You can't see the point of making the thinest laptop.

    You think they should have made it fatter and increased the stats.

    You justify this by saying people could not tell the difference without a ruler.

    You fail to understand that increasing the height from 0.5"->0.7" is a 40% increase in volume where "overall volume are what matters the most" .
    Reply
  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    You completely failed to grasp his point. Making the thinnest laptop possible doesn't make any sense if it adds too much to the price. If it compromises too many variables, then it's obviously more logical to make a slightly thicker device. All you're doing is reconstructing his statements into a straw man. You're also using percentages to make your argument sound stronger, but nobody cares about percentages. We're talking about actual thickness here. You know, real world stuff. Nice try. Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Friday, January 11, 2013 - link

    Joy the straw man miss used again. They were to illustrate that I understood their position thus arguing against "you totally did not comprehend what i meant".

    Shall we dissect your truism :-

    "Making the thinnest laptop possible doesn't make any sense if it adds too much to the price"

    Is that too much according to you or is it a standardised figure? So your argument can be read as

    "Making the thinnest laptop possible makes sense if it doesn't add too much to the price"

    And:-

    "If it compromises too many variables, then it's obviously more logical to make a slightly thicker device."

    Compromises on variables that you hold above others. So this could be rearranged to

    "If it doesn't compromise too many variables, then it's obviously more logical to make a thinner device."

    Lastly

    "but nobody cares about percentages. We're talking about actual thickness here. You know, real world stuff."

    I commend that you went to the trouble of asking everyone (out of interest did you insult them as well?). Ahh I didn't realise we were talking about 'actual' thickness!

    You're also using 'actual' to make your argument sound stronger (sry couldn't resist).

    The real world works by iterative development things happen in small increments.
    Reply
  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    I'd even argue ergonomics are now more important than overall bulk. Modern laptops just aren't that thick or heavy anymore, so I don't understand why some people are claiming that a pound here or a half-inch there are worth the ridiculous price premium. I also don't understand what a touchscreen has to do with being light and thin, but I digress.

    I realized how much I appreciate the 15" size when I tried using an 11" netbook for an extended period of time. The keyboard was just far too cramped. 10 inches might be a good size for a tablet, but when I want keys, I'd rather give up some size and thickness for better keys and room for my hands to be comfortable. Having the extra screen space of a slightly larger chassis is a bonus, and coming from an 11" chassis, there's no comparison.

    I've got an old PII laptop that until recently I would occasionally use. That thing probably weighs about 9 or 10 pounds. It's nicely built, and even has a matte screen, but it does get heavy to hold. I can't help but think that the 5-and-a-half pound notebook I'm using right now is pretty darn light. It's lighter than the 6-lb bowling ball I used to throw when I was 8. It's also got a bigger screen and a much nicer keyboard than this Acer, and cost about a fourth of the price.

    Clearly, these ultrabooks are toys for suckers who think their social status depends on what kind of gadgets they own.
    Reply
  • Tech-Curious - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    Agreed. Well said. Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Friday, January 11, 2013 - link

    *sigh* You were doing well right up to your last paragraph.

    B-
    Reply
  • dszc - Wednesday, January 09, 2013 - link

    Jarred,

    Thanks for your review. And special extra thanks for emphasizing productivity features and ergonomics for people who actually work.

    I am a professional photographer and full-time businessman. I live in Photoshop, Excel, Word, eMail, and web research. That is what I must do and what I enjoy doing. I never play games.

    Your comments on the action and utility of the keyboard and its layout are crucial. Also the touchpad. The keyboard and its shortcuts, along with the touchpad is where most true workers live. We can get things done 10x faster with these interfaces than with a touchscreen.

    Thank you for continuing to harp on these issues, as they are critical. Yes, a pretty face is nice to look at, but the real beauty of a computer is in its function.

    As for price, I am by no means rich, but I am more than willing to pay for an excellent productivity tool. If a laptop must cost $1100 or 1200 or 1300 to have essential features such as a decent IPS panel and a decent backlit keyboard and a decent touchpad, then so be it. But if you take away the backlit keyboard to save $20 or $50 or whatever, then the laptop to me becomes useless.
    There are tons of functionally compromised laptops for the masses that are hobbled by pricepoint. But it is not right to reduce those of us who must work for a living to the lowest common denominator.

    Kudos to Acer for stepping up with an IPS screen. I would be MORE than willing to pay $1300 for this tool if Acer had bothered to get the little things right - excellent backlit keyboard with great layout; fantastic (rather than mediocre) touchpad; decently calibrated IPS panel. And I'd much rather pay $1400-$1500 to have these things RIGHT, than $1200-$1300 and have them not quite right.

    Thanks again, Jarred, for your great reviews.
    Thanks, Acer, for moving in the right direction. Please don't stop short of the goal.
    Reply
  • bobjones32 - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    I'm a huge tech dork as you'd expect considering I'm reading AnandTech. So when my wife decided to get this laptop, I gave her a quick Windows 8 tutorial as if I was teaching an alternate version of myself how to use it.

    "Just click the desktop"
    "Just use the trackpad, why use touch?"
    "You can mostly ignore the Metro stuff, that's just meant for tablets"

    Cut to my surprise when she basically ignores all that advice, and absolutely falls in love with the laptop using touch almost all the time, sticking in Metro apps almost all the time, and barely ever seeing the Desktop.

    When the laptop is sitting on a desk, she's always resting on her elbows anyway, so reaching toward the screen is natural. When the laptop is sitting on her lap, her thumbs are right there at the screen, so it's perfectly natural to reach out and touch it. Metro apps meet most of her needs for web browsing, playing games, and chatting with friends, so she really only uses the Desktop for Office.

    The keyboard is a bit annoying to her, but everything else about the laptop is nearly perfect. Even the battery life, considering that she's coming from a Vista-era laptop from 5-6 years ago that was upgraded to Windows 7.

    After observing her learn to use Windows 8 and eventually fall in love with it and this laptop, it really made me rethink my expectations for the OS in general. Maybe the tech press has it wrong because they're approaching it from expectations that normal people simply don't care about?
    Reply

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