Acer Aspire S7 11.6-inch Ultrabook brings style, premium to portables (April 1st, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Acer
Price: $999 and up
- Dual-SSD storage
- Precise, clean finish
- Brilliant touchscreen
- Many bundled accessories
- Abysmal battery life
- Poor audio performance
- 4GB RAM limit
- Limited to Windows 8
Ultrabooks abound. Just about every major manufacturer makes them, and too many look like the MacBook Air. The 2011 Intel spec for ultrabooks is very detailed, and gives guidelines for performance, enhancements, and even battery life. As defined by Intel, ultrabooks are designed for reduced bulk without a corresponding hit on performance and battery life. Nearly all of them are "inspired" by Apple's ultralight notebook, and feature solid-state drives and specific engineering to keep the laptop strong and durable. Does the new 11.6-inch Acer Aspire S7 Ultrabook live up to the lofty goals set forth by Intel?
Deboxing the S7 was a treat -- individual boxed compartments hold accessories for the laptop, such as video dongles, the AC adapter, an included mouse -- and unexpectedly, an external booster battery. The unit we were loaned for examination has an i5-3317U processor, with a 1.7GHz base speed and a "turbo boost " of up to 2.6GHz. Soldered onto the motherboard (and thus un-upgradeable) is 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM. A pair of 64GB SSDs in RAID-0 are provided for storage. The 11.6-inch IPS LED backlit touch screen features FullHD resolution at 1920x1080, and is driven by the Intel HD Graphics 4000 along with by the i5 processor.
A pair of USB 3.0 ports are mounted left and right, with a mini-HDMI port on the back of the laptop for video mirroring. Wi-Fi is 802.11a/b/g/n powered by an Atheros chipset. A 2-in-1 media reader supports SD and MMC formats. Bluetooth 4.0 and a 1.3MP webcam round out the input and output options.
Ultrabooks sometimes suffer from finish issues. Some models we've looked at are imprecise in fit, have problems with coatings, or have a cheap keyboard. The Aspire S7 we tested suffers from none of this -- the keyboard feels nice with a good key spring, and the seams from the unusually thin laptop are tight. We initially thought our loaner unit had an overly sharp front bezel, but after taking a trip to the local mega-electronics store to compare, we found this to be a feature and not a bug. Curiously, the speakers on the unit are downward-facing, and we preferred the sound from them with the laptop on a stand, rather than on a table or desk directly, but more on this in a little while. Regardless, if high-quality audio is a must, these speakers don't do the job.
We have had some issues with touch screen laptops in the past -- either the hinges have too much give, making using the screen a chore, or too tight preventing smooth opening and risking deformation of very thin cases prevalent in ultrabooks. The S7's hinges have a smooth feel and a full-range of travel out to 180 degrees, which Acer calls its "touch and show mode." In actuality, we didn't find much use for this mode. The screen itself we had no technical issues with, responding well and accurately to our commands. We do recommend keeping a lens cloth in the "go-bag" for the laptop -- as with all touchscreens, skin oil builds up very quickly with use.
Drive speed is no slouch. Sequential writes peaked at 360.2MBps, with sequential reads maxing out at 802.0MBps. 4K Reads peaked at 18.2MBps. Futuremark PCMark 7 placed the laptop at 4798 marks.
One initial departure from the ultrabook spec we may have discovered is battery life. The Intel definition requires ultrabooks to have a five-hour battery life, but using the Aspire S7 under very moderate use -- with the keyboard backlight off and no external peripherals plugged in -- we ran the battery from full charge to forced shutdown in less than three hours. With normal use consisting of web surfing (with Flash and Java disabled) and word processing use, and just the internal battery, we delivered two hours and 47 minutes of use average over three runs, with a difference of only two minutes between five battery-draining runs.
Clamping on the external battery pack adds nearly three hours to this, with us running the battery down to flat after five hours and 26 minutes average after five charge/discharge cycles. The external battery pack raises the laptop's back end up nearly 0.4 inches, and has the possibly-unintended side effect of improving the audio from the downward-facing speakers. Bottom line: the Acer with the battery booster couldn't match the current MacBook Air battery without a booster.
The Acer S7 processing benchmarks are comparable to that of the 11-inch MacBook Air, released in 2012, and handily beating the 2011 model. FPU numbers, as well as input/output are nearly identical, but oddly given the same Intel HD 4000 integral graphics, the MacBook's graphical performance handily beat out the S7 by nearly 25 percent, with the MacBook Air in Windows 8 as well.
For the technically inclined, the machine uses EFI, but has no ability to turn off the secure boot feature of the BIOS. Unfortunately, this limits the laptop to Windows 8, making the more pervasive Windows 7, or varieties of Linux unusable on the machine. Most users won't find a major issue with this, but some will -- and for those few, it may be a deal-breaker.
It does what it does, and it does it well. The poor battery life is an issue for travelers, but the external battery back offsets that somewhat. We mentioned the sub-par audio, but the ultrabook line isn't really aimed at A/V aficionados. RAM is limited to the 4GB soldered to the motherboard, but this is a standard "feature" of ultrabooks. All in all, the Acer S7 is effectively a premium ultrabook, in all but battery life. It boasts an attractive design, is well-finished, and provides a nice suite of bundled accessories to boot.