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
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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  • calyth - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Well, $500 laptop is fine for most uses, until you try to do anything that generates a lot of heat. Playing a game, converting video, etc etc.

    Most of the windows laptop in that range has heatsinks that copes with the average uses, but any spikes, and it would just wear out pretty quickly over time.

    While MacBooks may have that aluminum frame advantage (in terms of heat dissipation), none of the current line up use anything particularly better than an Intel IGP. Getting the 650M requires $1700 bucks or more.

    I don't particularly think that Acer's attempt here is bad, and Windows laptop gets close to Apple styling for more bang for the buck anyways. But for me, I kinda wish to get a decent laptop that could cope with work loads a little better, for reasonable cost, and not look like a brick (e.g. Dell Lattitudes). Thats' still not really happening.
  • Silma - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    I almost purchased Acer's Aspire S7 but I didn't in the end because of the following shortcomings which are often shared by all PC manufacturers:
    - Acer, who do you think you are, mutilating the keyboard for no good reason?
    - Battery. I would prefer a 1 or 2mm thicker Ultrabook any day for a (replaceable) decently sized battery, e.g. 70 Wh or more.
    - Cooling and noise. Please add value, don't be an assembler and work harder on cooling and noise. Most owner reviews complain about both.
    - Soldered memory. If you absolutely want to solder memory instead of making it upgradable, then you need to offer 8 GB at the very least, especially at this super premium price. Even better offer an Ultrabook with upgradable memory.
    - Non replaceable SSD. Again, for a super-premium laptop, one should expect at least 3 years of usage, which means upgrading the SSD down the road.

    It is really a shame as the following points made the Aspire S7 extremely endearing:
    - Kudos for the choice of a touch-enabled, full HD and IPS panel, which makes this screen 3x better than most offering (hall of shame: Lenovo X1 Carbon super crappy screen at $1.5k +)
    - Kudos for the aesthetic. It won't please all people, but at least it went further than most manufacturers
    - Kudos for the very decent computing power.
  • DanNeely - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    I've seen speculation elsewhere that it's the touchscreen that are responsible for the poorer battery life seen in w8 laptops vs their w7 ancestors; but I haven't seen anyone try to confirm this by disabling it and rerunning any of the battery tests.
  • CadentOrange - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    We've established that they're gunning for Macbook air prices, but other than that is it really comparable?

    How does the keyboard feel? I've seen the keyboard panned in the Ars review, and I tend to agree with them. If I'm spending $1500 on a laptop, I'd like a keyboard that doesn't feel clobbered together. Where are the function keys? Why is there no space between the "\" key and "Enter"? Does that annoy in practice?

    The battery life is abysmal. If you're going to charge as much as an Air, you really should perform like an Air. I'm no Apple fanboy, I have a 2nd hand Macbook and all my other PCs and server run Linux. It's in my interest that PC manufacturers produce products that rival Apple's. This is sadly not even close.
  • KPOM - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Compared to the 13.3" MacBook Air with 256GB, which retails for $1499 with the 1.8GHz i5 and $1599 with 2.0GHz i7, the Asus has a better display (1920x1080 IPS touchscreen vs 1440x900 TFT non-touch), a processor that splits the difference, and lighter weight. Battery life is a bit disappointing, but overall it looks like a competitive package. The challenge is that PC buyers aren't used to paying these kinds of prices. The quality appears to be there (though the keyboard discussion is a bit worrying).
  • ananduser - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    The machine reviewed is an Acer not an Asus.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Those are the things I would like to see. I don't want RAID 0, the battery needs to be bigger for me (and I don't care that much about height, so make it 2cm and double the capacity or something) and 4GB of RAM are a joke in this day and age. The rest looks fine enough. :)
  • Tech-Curious - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Yeah, the RAID and the RAM are the dealbreakers for me -- and perhaps amusingly, those are the two cheapest things to fix. Switch off RAID and instantly the value proposition of the storage system is doubled. As for the memory, yeah; my old Clevo laptop's 4GB of RAM was impressive back in early 2008. Now, not so much. C'mon Acer, spring for 8GB.

    Those two changes represent maybe $30 of extra cost in parts, but they'd increase the perceived value of the whole product by $200-300, IMO, and maybe more to the general consumer.

    I wonder how much money Acer would save by swapping out the touch screen. :)
  • Death666Angel - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    I would like to meat the person who made those 2 decisions and get their explanation for it. With graphics cards, companies/marketing brag about 3GB on a GT630 or something, but with many Ultrabooks, they don't deliver even though the added cost is likely to be very low.
    Also, the missing F-Keys is not very nice. I don't use them super frequently, but they do add to my productivity in certain scenarios and it looks like they would have fitted on the laptop easily.
    And lastly, I just ran Kraken on my desktop PC (i7 860 which is quite old by PC standards): 2515.1ms +/- 2.7%... didn't expect that much to be honest. :)
  • Death666Angel - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    And my Galaxy Nexus manages 25,728.6ms /+-11.9%. That is strange.

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