Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6535/acer-aspire-s7-ultrabook-acers-best-foot-forward



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

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: this is, bar none, the thinnest true laptop that I've ever handled. Ultrabooks are renowned for being thin—it’s a prerequisite in fact—but the Acer S7 is crazy thin and puts other Ultrabooks to shame. Measuring a whopping 0.5" (12.7mm) thick, and with a uniform thickness, the Aspire S7 strikes an amazing pose when you first set eyes on it. We received the model with Gorilla Glass 2 casing on top, which looks pretty awesome and serves to further set the S7 apart from other laptops. There is an alternate configuration with a silver aluminum casing, but we've seen that sort of styling plenty of times before and I'm definitely partial to the white glass coating.

While the thin factor is really impressive, the overall build quality is equally so. This is, simply put, an awesome looking laptop. I've long since left college, and I don't even travel all that much these days, but when I do I generally find one of the thinner, lighter laptops in my office and take that on the road. I'm still somewhat partial to slightly larger displays for regular use, but for travel purposes I find 13.3" or 14" displays (with their accompanying chassis size) to be my preferred option. At a half inch thick, the S7 is significantly lighter than most college textbooks and can still last through a day of moderate use. If you need something with eight or more hours of battery life, it's going to come up short, but the AC adapter isn't all that large and could easily be packed along for occasional charging.

The next item we need to get out of the way is the LCD: it's beautiful and bright and has a native 1080p resolution. Yes, we're talking about a high-end Acer Ultrabook that truly aims for the high-end. I've seen a few attempts by Acer to create higher class products, but this is the first that actually succeeds. The LCD is glossy, but since we're dealing with a touch screen LCD that's expected—unless you want your matte finish to show wear and tear as you use it, glossy is the way to go. Whether the touch screen is truly necessary is a different matter that I'll cover later, but it does work if you want to use it in place of the touchpad (which is still present below the keyboard), and over the coming year(s) as we see more Windows 8 Apps come out the presence of a touch screen could become increasingly important.

Taken purely on its aesthetic merits, the Aspire S7 rates as a highly desirable and extremely stylish Ultrabook. Tastes certainly vary, but I can't imagine many people looking at the S7 and saying, "Wow, that thing is ugly!" In fact, quite the opposite: pull it out at a coffee shop and I suspect you'll have more than a few inquiries about the laptop, and even the MacBook Air folks might cast an envious eye your way (note that I said "might"). What you want to do with your laptop will end up determining how well the S7 fits your needs, and there are some aspects of the S7 that might make me raise an eyebrow, but if price were no object I'd definitely want to have one. And that, unfortunately, is where we run into some problems.

Let's start with the quirky aspects first. The keyboard looks nice in pictures, but in practice there are some concerns. How serious they are really depends on how you use your computer—my wife didn't even notice the problems, but I grumble about them on a regular basis. There are two primary things that I don't like about the keyboard. The first is that the key travel is super shallow, which can make the typing experience a bit less pleasant though not impossible by any stretch. The second item is something that comes up far more often in my irritations column: the keyboard layout. I can adapt to just about everything given time, but Acer's decision to eliminate the row of dedicated function keys means many of my oft-used keyboard shortcuts now require an extra finger to press the Fn key. Alt+F4 becomes Fn+Alt+4 (effectively making it a two-handed key combination), pressing F2 (e.g. to edit the contents of a cell in Excel) is now Fn+2, F3 for search is now Fn+3, and so on. It's not the end of the world, particularly if you're not the type of person that uses keyboard shortcuts in the first place, but it does irritate me.

That brings us to the elephant in the room: on an Ultrabook selling for over $1400 I simply don't want to compromise. The overall design aesthetic is a win, the display is a win, and I can live with the battery life given the first two items. The keyboard is far more of a compromise but it's still tolerable. What I really have a problem with is the price of entry. Ultrabooks with 128GB SSDs and Core i5 Ivy Bridge processors can be had for under $1000, and Dell's new XPS 12 is roughly in the same category and comes with a 1080p touch screen starting at $1100. There will be plenty of other touch screen Ultrabooks in the near future (as well as some that are already shipping), and many are less expensive than the S7. That means we're looking at $200 to $300 more for the design. Will some people be happy to pay that much? Probably, but the market for high-end, high-cost Ultrabooks just doesn't seem that big.

Before we wrap up with some additional thoughts on the touch screen and overall experience, let’s get to the benchmarks and see how the S7 compares to the competition.



Performance, Now with Windows 8

As this is the first laptop we're testing with Windows 8, we've had to go back and revamp our testing suite a little bit. For example, PCMark Vantage simply refuses to complete under Windows 8 on the S7, and the same goes for a few other old Futuremark programs; we'll add the next versions of PCMark and 3DMark when they become available, but PCMark 7 and 3DMark 06 and 11 are the only Futuremark tests we’ll be running for now.

We're also taking the opportunity to upgrade several of our older benchmarks; we've been using the x264 HD 2.x encoding benchmark for a while now, but we're going to upgrade to 5.x with Windows 8—which, incidentally, takes about 10x as long to run. We will also be adding WinZip as a benchmark, with OpenCL acceleration enabled. Another benchmark we're adding with the S7 is TouchXPRT (currently in preview release) and a similar test from the same company called WebXPRT 2013. Anand has used both on the Clover Trail/Surface reviews, so it will be interesting to see what Ivy Bridge looks like by comparison. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the tablet comparisons in terms of performance, but I also ran most of the current suite of tablet benchmarks, which we’ll look at on the next page (SunSpider, Kraken, etc.)

For the time being, that should be sufficient, but we'll be certain to add other benchmarks and tests to the mix as we deem them appropriate, so if you have any recommendations or suggestions we're happy to hear them. We will begin as usual with PCMark 7, which gives us at least some inkling of overall performance, along with our usual suite of CPU-centric tests. We shouldn't see any major surprises here, as the Acer S7 has the same components as many other Ultrabooks that we've tested. Here’s the quick overview of the test components for the various laptops:

Laptop Configuration Overview
Laptop CPU Graphics Storage Battery
Acer Aspire S3-951-6432 Intel i7-2637M HD3000 256GB SSD 38Wh
Acer Aspire S5-391-9860 Intel i7-3517U HD4000 2x128GB SSD 35Wh
Acer Aspire S7-391-9886 Intel i7-3517U HD4000 2x128GB SSD 35Wh
Apple MacBook Air 13 (Mid-2012) Intel i5-3427U HD4000 256GB SSD 50Wh
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A-DB71 Intel i7-3517U HD4000 256GB SSD 50Wh
Dell XPS 13 Intel i7-2637M HD3000 256GB SSD 47Wh
HP Envy 14 Spectre Intel i7-3667U HD4000 2x128GB SSDs 56Wh
HP Folio 13 Intel i5-2467M HD3000 128GB SSD 60Wh
Intel IVB Ultrabook Prototype Intel i5-3427U HD4000 240GB SSD 47Wh
Toshiba Satellite U845-S406 Intel i5-3317U HD4000 500+32GB Hybrid 54Wh
Toshiba Satellite U845W-S410 Intel i5-3317U HD4000 500+32GB Hybrid 54Wh

Before we get to the actual tests, I want to make note of the fact that this is bar none the fastest booting laptop or PC that I've ever used! Just how fast does the laptop boot up? How about under 10 seconds? Granted, much of that is probably Windows 8 (Dell’s XPS 12 posts similar boot times), but it's still impressive nonetheless. Shutdown, hibernate, and resume are all equally fast, though if all you do is put the laptop to sleep and wake it up you won’t need to worry too much about such things.

PCMark 7 - PCMarks

Cinebench R11.5 - Single-Threaded Benchmark

Cinebench R11.5 - Multi-Threaded Benchmark

x264 HD Benchmark - First Pass

x264 HD Benchmark - Second Pass

Futuremark 3DMark 11

Futuremark 3DMark06

Our benchmarks start with an interesting piece of information: the Ivy Bridge prototype that Intel sent us still manages to hold onto the top spot in the overall PCMark 7 score, thanks in particular to its performance in the Creativity, Entertainment, and Computation suites—and this despite the fact that it’s equipped with a Core i5-3427U compared to the i7-3517U in other systems. (We only show the overall score above, but you can see the full set of PCMark7 results in Mobile Bench.)

It’s not quite clear what’s holding the S7 back, but while it has the top Storage score, it falls well short in the Lightweight and Productivity suites. Possibly Windows 8 is partly to blame, or more likely the combination of components (and possibly that RAID 0 storage setup) are coming into play. Then again, PCMark7 is prone to odd variations, and depending on the drivers (Quick Sync) and storage you can see large differences between what should otherwise be similar laptops—just look at how the earlier Aspire S5 with Windows 7 stacks up to the new Aspire S7!

The other benchmark charts are more in line with what we’d expect. HP’s Envy 14 Spectre snags the top spot for all of the CPU benchmarks, which makes sense considering it has the highest clocked i7-3667U processor of the bunch. The Acer S7 and ASUS UX31A are tied, which goes with their identical CPUs. 3DMark06 does show the Acer falling behind, but here again I’d look more at Windows 8 than anything specific to the S7. The march of time and/or drivers also shows a nice progression when looking at the S3, S5, and S7



Windows 8 Tablet Performance

As noted on the previous page, I’m going to run some of our hybrid laptops like the Aspire S7 through the tests we’re using on tablets. Much ado has been made about the performance of the latest ARM-based SoCs, and I think it’s good to put things in perspective. There are two major items of note: first is that battery life is quite a bit worse with Ivy Bridge compared to Atom and ARM SoCs; the second is that performance is nearly an order of magnitude faster in many tests.

For the tests below, note that I used the same Internet benchmark that we use for tablets, which is far less strenuous than our laptop Internet testing. In fact, the difference in battery life between our “webtest4d” and our idle battery life test is only a few minutes. Display brightness also seems to have a relatively minor impact on battery life with the S7, as it only gains an extra 5-20 minutes going from 200 nits to 100 nits brightness (depending on the test).

AnandTech Tablet Bench 2013 - Web Browsing Battery Life

Video Playback - H.264 720p High Profile (4Mbps)

WiFi Performance

JavaScript Performance - Mozilla Kraken Benchmark

JavaScript Performance - RIABench Focus Tests

JavaScript Performance - SunSpider 0.9.1

TouchXPRT 2013 - Photo Slideshow

TouchXPRT 2013 - Podcast MP3 Export

TouchXPRT 2013 - Video Sharing

TouchXPRT 2013 - Photo Sharing

TouchXPRT 2013 - Photo Enhance

WebXPRT - Overall Score

When people say that tablets are taking over for laptops, this is where we continue to fall short, and we’re not even talking about top-end laptop performance here. Bring in Haswell in the next few months and we might even see much of the battery life deficit disappear. Simply stated, ARM tablets will need much more than a doubling of performance to come anywhere near the performance level of Intel’s current ULV processors. Again, depending on what Intel manages with Haswell, it’s much more a question of whether tablets can become “fast enough” than whether they can actually catch Intel any time soon.

In terms of performance, the Aspire S7 is over 6x faster than the closest tablet in Kraken, 4.5x faster in RIABench, 5.5x faster in SunSpider, and basically 5.5x faster an all of the TouchXPRT/WebXPRT tests. In most tests, we’re looking at the Atom Z2760 as the runner up, but let’s focus on Tegra 3 just for a moment. There, Core i7-3517U is anywhere from 7-11x faster; Wayne needs to get here sooner rather than later.

It should go without saying that browsing in the Windows modern UI is smooth on the S7—though interestingly, while the touch screen interface scrolls nicely, using the touchpad to scroll around has some odd stuttering when you “coast”. Considering we have a laptop with four times as much RAM, a substantially faster SSD setup, and all that processing power, the Modern UI never appears to have a problem even on HD 4000. That’s going to make things a bit interesting for the folks at AMD and NVIDIA, depending on how the new UI and apps catch on. Then again, that new UI deserves some commentary.

Thoughts on the Windows 8 UI Experience

At best, I have serious concerns with Windows 8's new UI, at least from a laptop/desktop perspective. I said as much several months ago, and the final release has done virtually nothing to assuage my concerns. Using a touch screen to browse around works well enough, sure, but reaching across the keyboard to do so feels awkward at best. Then there’s the crazy switch between the Modern UI and the Classic Desktop UI, and the touch screen feels all but useless in the latter.

For tablets and smartphones, I think the Windows 8 UI makes tons of sense, but as soon as you slap a keyboard and touchpad in front of the user, it’s a different experience. Windows CE and earlier iterations of Windows Phone felt like Microsoft was trying to cram a full-blown desktop OS onto a handheld device without doing proper optimizations. Windows 8 feels like they’re now going the other way.

As for the Aspire S7, it does okay at straddling the line between the tablet and laptop worlds, but while I thought it was somewhat novel at first, when I got time with a Dell XPS 12 I really started to feel the faults with the S7 approach. Dell’s XPS 12 is much thicker, true, but even though the weight makes for a less than ideal tablet experience, it’s still a better tablet than the S7. Lenovo’s Yoga is another alternative, but I’m still iffy on the idea of having the keyboard exposed in tablet mode—I understand the keys all deactivate, but it just seems like a great way to get a lot of extra dirt into your keys over time. Acer has decided that instead of trying to make a true tablet-like experience, they would allow you to open the hinge 180 degrees and lay the S7 flat. I guess that can work, but in reality I almost never put a tablet flat on a table/desk; I hold it in my hands while I lounge on the couch, and the S7 doesn't feel natural in that environment.



Battery Life and Thermals

With the performance aspects out of the way, let's turn to battery life. I have to say, I've run more battery tests on the Acer S7 than perhaps on any other laptop in recent history. It's not that it needed extra testing, but as the first Windows 8 laptop in our labs I wanted to look at changing some of the tests. We discussed things among the various editors, and I worked to come up with some redesigned, hopefully better battery life tests.

First on the chopping block is the idle battery life test; rarely do people use workloads that are so light that it's meaningful to look at pure idle battery life, and going to the extreme of muting the volume and turning off WiFi is more than most are willing to do. We've decided to move to our Internet test as the baseline measurement, since it's representative of a moderate workload that conceivably might be used while running a laptop on battery power. With moderate Internet surfing (we load four pages every minute, simulating time for reading) as our light workload, for our heavy workload we crank up the frequency of page loads (the same pages, only loading every 10 seconds now) and add in playback of a bunch of 128kbps MP3 audio files. Finally, for our heavy workload we keep the Internet portion of the moderate testing but add in looped playback of a 1080p H.264 encoded video and have a constant 1Mbps download running from a local server.

With this being the first laptop to use our new Windows 8 test suite, we're in a bit of a state of flux so I've run both the new battery tests along with the old Windows 7 era tests (only with IE10 instead of IE8/9). I also ran a few other battery life tests just for reference: the three PowerMark tests. We're a little hesitant to use PowerMark as a standard, simply because it's limited to Windows platforms and has the potential to encourage optimizations for a benchmark as opposed to general optimizations; as you'll see, however, there's plenty of overlap between our tests and the results from PowerMark.

Battery Life - Idle

Battery Life - Internet

Battery Life - H.264 Playback

Battery Life Normalized - Idle

Battery Life Normalized - Internet

Battery Life Normalized - H.264

Starting with our older 2012 battery benchmarks, the Aspire S7 has a pretty poor showing. The 35Wh battery is the same capacity as the previous generation Aspire S5, and yet battery life is down substantially in all three tests. Whatever Acer (or Microsoft) has done in the past six months has not been helpful in this area. Normalizing for battery capacity does improve the situation a bit, but where it’s enough to move Acer past the two Toshiba Ultrabooks and the HP Envy 14, that’s not saying a lot—and higher battery capacities do count for something. The bottom line is that best-case, we were able to get just over five hours of running time out of the Aspire S7. Let’s look at some other results.

Acer Aspire S7 Additional Battery Tests
Battery Test Run Time
(Minutes)
Normalized
(Min/Wh)
AnandTech 2013 Light 240 6.86
AnandTech 2013 Medium 173 4.94
AnandTech 2013 Heavy 137 3.91
PowerMark Productivity 255 7.29
PowerMark Balanced 201 5.75
PowerMark Multimedia 172 4.91

Note that in the above tests, we’re using 200 nits for our 2013 test suite while PowerMark specifies 110 nits as their desired brightness level. Our Light test result is down 21 minutes from our previous Internet test result, most likely due to the increased LCD brightness. Elsewhere, our new Medium test drops us below the three hour mark, and our Heavy test is getting close to lasting only two hours. It’s not really realistic to expect a full day of use from a laptop when you’re going full-tilt the whole time, but considering the CPU load is only around 10-35% even in our Heavy test, we’re not pushing things that hard.



Display Quality

Now we get to the one area where so many laptops fall short: the display. I’m a bit torn on the overall LCD experience, because on the one hand it’s the best LCD I’ve ever seen in an Acer laptop, but on the other hand there’s still room for improvement. Let’s start with the good news first: Acer is using a 1080p IPS touch screen, which means great viewing angles (which are necessary for any tablet-like experience). Contrast and maximum brightness are also good.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that there’s a reddish cast to the display and the color gamut as well as color accuracy—even after calibration—are not as good as we would like. Apple is still the company to beat for out-of-box color accuracy, and area they’ve greatly improved on with their latest devices.

We’ve been talking about LCD quality in mobile devices for over six years, and finally it looks like companies are heading in the right direction, but we want to get there faster. The ideal would be to have every display calibrated at the factory to provide relatively accurate colors, but barring individual calibration of panels, we’d be happy with the general LCD family targeting a 6500K white point with a sub-3.0 average DeltaE on the Gretag MacBeth color chart. That might sound like we’re asking for professional display quality, but let me point out that: 1) it’s now 2013 and professionals have had the tools to do this for over two decades; 2) we’re looking at a minimum $1400 MSRP laptop, so this isn’t a budget-friendly device to begin with.

Most consumers wouldn’t recognize accurate colors in the first place, and sadly when you’re at the store and a salesperson has two displays next to each other in the bright retail lights, many people will prefer the less accurate but brighter colors that the S7 currently delivers. Even without perfect colors, however, the Acer S7’s AU Optronics B133HAN03.0 v1 panel is pleasing to use. Here are the numbers.

LCD Analysis - Contrast

LCD Analysis - White

LCD Analysis - Black

LCD Analysis - Delta E

LCD Analysis - Color Gamut

Contrast and brightness are good, though we’ve seen better. As I noted above with the colors being somewhat off before calibration, that carries over post-calibration with an average DeltaE that’s still around 2.5—ideally we’d like to see well under 2.0 for a quality display. The 58.6% color gamut is also less than what we’d like to see, which at a minimum would be the full sRGB color space (around 69%). What’s more, we chose the best calibration result for the above charts; with some of the other targets, the color gamut is a dismal 36%. If you’re okay with the native white point, you get a higher gamut, but if you want to target 6500K or D65, expect to see less than ideal results. 



Conclusion: One Big Step for Acer, One Smaller Step for Ultrabooks in General

If you’ll pardon my slaughtering of Neil Armstrong’s famous quote from the moon landing, there are two areas I want to focus on for the conclusion. First, there’s what Acer has done today relative to the Acer of years past; second is how the end result of those efforts compares with what other companies are doing.

For Acer as a company, the S7 is a massive improvement over previous offerings. It’s clear that Intel and others have been actively involved in helping Acer to create a more compelling Ultrabook, and outside of a few quirks this is one of the coolest looking laptops I’ve used in many years. I can’t overstate how impressively thin this thing is, and while I know that’s not the be-all, end-all goal of computing devices, it’s still a great way to garner attention. I like the silver and white aesthetic as well, and my biggest complaint (aesthetically) is that some of the seams between the pieces of the S7 are still a bit too noticeable. There’s another minor complaint with the way the laptop opens: the LCD piece and the keyboard piece are about the same weight, and the lip for opening the S7 just isn’t as easy to grab as I would like. These are relatively minor issues, but for all the good looks, there are other areas that detract from the overall experience, at least for me.

The keyboard action is something I’ve grown used to over the past month or so, and I’ve typed the majority of this review using the S7 without too much anger bubbling to the surface. I’d still like more key travel, but more importantly I find the missing function key row to be a constant irritation that forces me to frequently use an extra finger or hand to accomplish common shortcuts (Fn+Alt+F4 and Fn+Ctrl+Home/End being a couple examples that I use frequently). When I’m just writing text, the keyboard works well enough, but with web browsing or other general tasks the layout changes become more noticeable—and not in a good way (hello delete key where my right-control key should be!) The touchpad also seems to be somewhat lacking, with some choppiness on scrolling gestures—Acer uses Elan hardware instead of Synaptics, and I personally find the higher end Synaptics touchpads to be the best option right now. Also related to the touchpad, and leading in to our next section, the “reversed gesture direction” on Windows 8 is something I still routinely get wrong. Swiping down on the screen to scroll up makes sense, but not so much on a touchpad. That leads us to our discussion of the touch screen experience.

For the Windows 8 UI and apps, the touch screen works great, but in desktop applications (Word, surfing the Internet, email, etc.) it quickly falls short. Even with a touch screen right in front of my face, since this is a laptop I end up doing 95% of my interactions via the keyboard and touchpad. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the S7, but I just don’t find the touch screen experience to be something that I want or need unless I’m using a tablet/smartphone device. In my opinion, Acer needs something similar to the Lenovo Yoga (though I’m not sold on the exposed keyboard aspect when in tablet mode), the Dell XPS 12 (which is thicker, thanks to the convertible tablet aspect), or an ASUS Transformer (or a slider-type) design similar to what they have with their W510 tablet to really make the S7 work as a touch screen device. All of the approaches have some compromises involved, depending on your viewpoint, and I discussed this in an earlier Pipeline posting.

What we end up with in the Acer Aspire S7 is a device that looks great and works well, with some specific design elements that people will either love or hate. I know there are many users out there that don’t type as much in a month as I’ve done in this one review (nearly 6000 words, if you’re counting), so if you’re one of those users my keyboard comments become far less important. Likewise there are people that never use (and don’t even know about) the various keyboard shortcuts, and for them the “missing function keys” won’t matter a bit. On the performance side of things, there’s not too much to say for or against the S7: it’s as fast as most other Core i7 Ultrabooks, though the RAID 0 SSD is still an oddity for me—I’d rather have a good 256GB SSD from Samsung, Intel, or one of the other major names instead of a custom mSATA with dual-controllers card.

While I can’t give the S7 a recommendation without caveats, there are very few computer devices where I wouldn’t say the same thing. It’s a good Ultrabook and one of the most impressive Acer devices ever to hit retail. That alone makes me excited to see what Acer can do with the next iteration. The Aspire S5 was a daring move with its mechanize vent that I didn’t really care for, and the S7 might just be too thin for some people, but at least they’re distinct traits that other companies lack. The S7 has imperfections, but many can be overlooked…well, except for the pricing.

I wouldn’t be willing to fork over more than $1000 for an Ultrabook, and I would guess most people feel the same way. That’s the real problem, because it means Acer’s most innovative laptop in years could end up doing poorly at retail. That’s where Apple’s approach of building a premium brand name with devices that stand out from the crowd has been so successful. Say what you want about the company and their products, but the fact is that Apple sells more MacBooks than any other laptop brand I can name, and they sell more iPads than any other tablet brand. Acer and the other large OEMs have hundreds of competing laptops, and most of them are budget-friendly “Best Buy” models that cost less than half of what the Aspire S7 will set you back. That in turn leads to them selling well and the quality products like the S7 get left on the warehouse shelves.

As I said in the introduction, I’d love to see a reversal of this gradual downward trend in laptop quality all in the name of chasing lower prices. The S7 costs a lot, but at the same time it’s a step in the right direction for quality and innovation. For that reason if nothing else, I want the S7 to sell well and get some followers, but to do that it probably needs to be priced at least $300 lower. Whatever happens with the S7, Acer is big enough that they’re not going anywhere. Hopefully when we see Haswell based Ultrabooks, Acer will take all the good elements of the S3, S5, and S7 and improve once more. If they can keep doing that, another year or two could very well see them with some of the most compelling Ultrabooks on the block.

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