Back in June, when Acer first announced the Aspire S7 Series, two things seemed noteworthy: these were the company's first touchscreen Ultrabooks, for one, and they were easily its best-made. Whereas the earlier S3 and S5 skew a bit boring, the S7 is made of aluminum, with either a metal or Gorilla Glass lid, depending on whether you choose the 11- or 13-inch version. What's more, it has a 1080p IPS display, which looked just as nice in our initial hands-on as the spec sheet would have you believe. Throw in a choice of Core i5 and i7 processors and a RAID 0 SSD configuration, and you can easily expect the same fast performance we recorded on the S5. So is this it? Has Acer finally built an Ultrabook we can heartily recommend? More to the point, does the 13-inch model get enough things right to justify that $1,400 starting price? Find out in our review after the break.
Smooth glass, sharp edges and cold aluminum. You can forget Acer's reputation for putting out cheap plastic stuff: the S7 is as nice to touch as it is to look at, and is easily the prettiest, most tactile laptop the company has ever made. On both the 11- and 13-inch models the keyboard deck is fashioned out of smooth aluminum, with a large trackpad and metal keys. Though it looks like the screen has a bezel, it's actually an edge-to-edge glass display, with a border that matches the white lid. To be clear, when we talk about that white lid, we're referring to the 13-inch model, specifically: that bigger version has a white Gorilla Glass cover, while the 11-incher has a metal lid. Both look nice; just don't expect one to be a shrunken version of the other. Since we tested the glass-clad model, in particular, we can speak to that more directly: the white surface picks up fingerprints but, as promised, it doesn't get scratched.
At 2.86 pounds, the 13-inch version we tested weighs even less than the Acer Aspire S5, which was itself pretty light for an Ultrabook. That seems like a feat, given that the 13-inch S7 has a glass cover -- after all, the last time we reviewed a laptop with a glass lid we ended up making excuses for its relatively heavy build. The 13-inch model is thinner, too (0.47 vs. 0.59 inch), which is noteworthy given that the S5 was once touted as the "world's thinnest" Ultrabook. (The S5 had a motorized drop-down port door in the back, so it sort of had to be thicker than the S7.) Even if you don't have the S5 lying around for comparison's sake, we think you'll be able to appreciate how impressively thin this is. It really does feel slimmer and lighter than other 13-inch Ultrabooks. And again, the S7 is handicapped in that a glass lid and touchscreen should theoretically add more heft. So well done, Acer.
On the bottom side, the notebook is sealed in such a way that you can't easily get at the battery, SSD or RAM. (This is pretty typical for Ultrabooks.) That bottom surface is also where you'll find the speaker strip, which is somewhat unusual: laptop speakers are usually located in the keyboard area or around the sides. The back edge of the machine is completely taken up by the vent, which will make its presence known quite frequently (more on that when we dive into performance).
As for ports, the S7 offers almost everything you'd expect in a 13-inch Ultrabook: two USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD reader. (We only expect an Ethernet jack on thicker systems.) The one thing you might have wanted that you won't get is a full-size HDMI socket; there's just a micro version here. Happily, though, you do get USB-to-Ethernet and micro-HDMI-to-VGA HP Pavilion DV6000 Adapter, along with a carrying case and mouse, so hopefully there won't be any hard feelings.
The story of the trackpad matches what we've seen from some other new Windows 8 laptops: it does a good job of handling native Windows 8 gestures, but isn't as good at single-finger navigation. For instance, you should have no problem swiping in from the right to expose the Charms Bar; that's a trick that really doesn't require much practice. When it comes to dragging the cursor around the screen, though, the arrow often stops before you get to whatever you meant to click on. Other times, the touchpad registered a left click, when all we were doing was moving the cursor around the screen. We had a similar issue when doing pinch-to-zoom (though the zooming itself was otherwise smooth). So, if we weren't careful, we'd accidentally open apps when we didn't mean to. Good thing the computer was quick to react when we hit the Start button as a way of backing out.
Simply put, the S7's 1080p, IPS screen is one of the loveliest laptop displays we've seen in some time, the sort of panel that puts other laptops to shame. You might think that 1,366 x 768 is sufficient for a 13-inch screen -- and you'd be right -- but once you've used the S7 it's difficult to go back. Everything from desktop items to Windows 8 apps looks noticeably crisper. Color reproduction is good: blacks are black, whites are white and colors are vibrant without looking cartoonishly saturated. Lastly, that IPS panel made for some good viewing angles. We can't promise you won't suffer any screen glare (this is a glossy panel, after all) but you should be able to work with the notebook in your lap and not have to worry about fiddling with the screen angle. If you plan on having a Netflix-streaming party, the screen is also easily viewable nearly edge-on, with colors still looking potent even at severe off-angles.
As you've no doubt noticed, this isn't the sort of Windows 8 machine you can use in tablet mode, though that doesn't mean it isn't capable of contorting at all: the screen on the 13-inch model can be pushed all the way back, so that the whole thing system lies flat. We confess we're not sure when you'd use it this way, beyond the occasional board game or painting app, but it is a nice parlor trick nonetheless.
Performance and battery life
|PCMark7||3DMark06||3DMark11||ATTO (top disk speeds)|
|Acer Aspire S7 (2.4GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000)||5,011||4,918||E1035 / P620 / X208||934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)|
|Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000)||4,422||4,415|| |
E917 / P572
|278 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)|
|Toshiba Satellite U925t (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000)||4,381||4,210|| |
E989 / P563
|521 MB/s (reads); 265 MB/s (writes)|
|Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000)||4,673||4,520||N/A||516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)|
"LOUD NOISES." That's the note I wrote to myself in the performance section of this review, back when I was still gathering my impressions and felt the need to leave a placeholder. It's odd, in a way, to begin this part without a discussion of speeds and feeds, but then again, once you get rolling you might not pause to think about the fact that your $1,650 laptop has a 2.4GHz Core i7-3517U processor. That fan noise, though -- that will follow you everywhere. It would be an understatement to say the machine pipes up during gaming, and other graphics-intensive tasks; it gets loud even when it's mostly idle, or when you open a single app, like Maps.
It's too bad the machine gets so distractingly loud, because underneath all the noise it's an impressively fast, capable system. Like the Aspire S5 before it, the S7 has two solid-state drives arranged in a RAID 0 setup, which allows for some screaming I/O speeds. In the disk benchmark ATTO, we saw top read speeds of 934 MB/s with writes maxing out at 686 MB/s. A quick look at the chart will tell you that's light years beyond any other high-end Windows 8 Ultrabook we've tested recently. The rest of its benchmarks -- variations on PCMark and 3DMark -- are more in line with the competition, if slightly better. Same deal for start-up times: it cold boots in about 12 seconds, which is on par with, if not faster than, other machines on the market.
|Acer Aspire S7||4:18|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)||7:29|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||7:19|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012)||7:02|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012)||6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)|
|Dell XPS 14||6:18|
|HP Folio 13||6:08|
|HP Envy Sleekbook 6z||5:51|
|Toshiba Portege Z835||5:49|
|Sony VAIO T13||5:39|
|Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13||5:32|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011)||5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)|
|Dell XPS 12||5:30|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre||5:30|
|Toshiba Satellite U845W||5:13|
|Toshiba Satellite U845||5:12|
|Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3||5:11|
|Toshiba Satellite U925t||5:10|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon||5:07|
|Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012)||5:06|
|Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5||5:05|
|Dell XPS 13||4:58|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||4:57|
|Acer Aspire S5||4:35|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011)||4:20|
|ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A||4:19|
|Acer Aspire S3||4:11|
|Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch)||3:57|
Acer claims the Aspire 7's 4,680mAh Acer AS07A41 Laptop Battery can last up to six hours on a charge, which is already a modest rating compared to other Ultrabooks. In our video rundown test, which was designed to be taxing, we never came close to that. Even after running the test several times, the best we could muster was four hours and 18 minutes. For those of you new to Engadget reviews, that was with a video looping off the local drive, WiFi on and brightness fixed at 50 percent.
We were so taken aback by these scores that we contacted Acer to rule out the possibility that we had received a lemon. As it turns out, Acer's own internal testing team has been getting around five hours of runtime on its own test. That's longer battery life than what we saw, but then again, comparing Acer's test to Engadget's isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Interestingly, the battery life we recorded is in line with what we got on Acer's previous two Ultrabooks, the S3 and S5.
And besides, even if our machine did last five hours, that would've still been a poorer showing than we saw from other Windows 8 Ultrabooks, like the Dell XPS 12 and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. And even those machines don't last as long as some non-touch Ultrabooks we've tested this year. So, the runtime here really is pretty bad, a large step below mediocre. And that's a shame: if not for the awful battery life, this would be a killer ultraportable.