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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  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    First of all, it depends on the type of accident. I can guarantee you that a head-on collision with a wall at, say, 30 mph will be safer in a Smart Car than an Oldsmobrick.

    The fact of the matter is that when it comes to protecting the passenger, crumple zones and safety cages are more important than mass. Today's cars are designed to absorb the energy of the crash, to soften the impact on the passenger. Older cars were designed with the mentality that if the car survived mostly unscathed, then the passenger would as well, which is obviously incorrect. If safety is your primary concern, then you're better off looking at crash testing than vehicle size or weight. But the absolute best way to increase your safety is to become a better driver.
  • Tech-Curious - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    I can guarantee you that a head-on collision with a wall at, say, 30 mph will be safer in a Smart Car than an Oldsmobrick.

    The fact of the matter is that when it comes to protecting the passenger, crumple zones and safety cages are more important than mass.

    It's a matter of mass and size. Your guarantee is preposterous, because a Smart Car has precious little space within which to crumple, without also crumpling the people inside of it. The size of the wheelbase, the cabin, and yes, the mass of the vehicle are all important.

    I've been in a head-on collision in a compact car with a much heavier object (a semi-truck). Trust me when I say that I'm lucky to be alive; if I hadn't swerved at the last second, I would have been vaporized, because the truck literally drove through the right side of my engine compartment, and didn't come to rest until its front bumper was sitting on my passenger seat.

    Thank god no one was sitting there. The truck's damage? A cracked headlight.

    Now, if I had been involved in the same accident in an Oldsmobrick, as you call it, the car would much more likely have kept something approaching its original shape. A passenger or I could have died from the internal trauma caused by the savage stop; that's true -- but the passenger would have died in more-or-less one piece.

    Let's not kid ourselves: The Smart Car is little more than a roofed motorcycle, for all the protection it offers your body. Many modern cars are safer than their (often heavier) ancestors, but I chose the Smart Car because it represents an extreme, and I thought (erroneously, as it happens) that the extreme example would illustrate the point without courting controversy.

    And yes, good driving habits comprise the best safety measure available -- but it's a mistake to assume that you're ever 100% in control of any situation on the road. The essence of safe driving is to understand that you don't have that control, to minimize your risk by putting yourself into the best position to react to sudden hazards. Even so, not all hazards are avoidable.
  • Tech-Curious - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    Oh, and with regard to crash testing, you have to be very careful. Tested safety ratings might rule out weight and size: for instance, the Smart Car recently got a safety rating similar to the Trailblazer's -- but you'd have to be out of your mind to conclude that both vehicles are equally safe.

    The Trailblazer is simply at the same level, relative to its analogues, as a Smart Car. A couple of statements from (or paraphrases of) the president of the Insurance Institute from Highway Safety follow:

    “All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better. But among the smallest cars, the engineers of the Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package,” Lund said.


    In new crash tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rammed three automakers' smallest cars into their midsize models. Although the small cars had passed other IIHS tests, they flunked in collisions with larger but still-fuel-efficient sedans. "The safety trade-offs are clear," IIHS President Adrian Lund says. "There are healthier ways to save gas."

    "We're hearing people say, 'Everything gets a 'good' rating now, so I might as well buy a small car,' " Lund says. "A lot of people are forgetting that the laws of physics still hold" and even a little bit bigger still is safer.

    And finally, the tale in pictures. Trailblazer:

    Smart Car:
  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    "Once you get to the point where the price isn't as much of an issue (especially for something you'll be using for 4-5 years) the enjoyment of using something that has high-quality interface points (monitor, keyboard, etc.) quickly overcomes the cost difference."

    In that case, the Acer (and the Macbook Air) fail completely. I've got a $350 Trinity laptop that I'm using right now that has a much better keyboard than both of these, and even my old PII Compaq laptop is DRASTICALLY better. I understand what you're saying about touchpads (the laptop I'm using definitely has some quirks that can make the touchpad frustrating), but I find it laughable when people call these devices "high quality" when they have such terrible keyboards.
  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    1) Uh, every device that I've tried feels fragile in my hands due to the actual thickness, not the construction or materials. That's why I said I "feel" like I'm going to break the thing.

    2) Well that's just absurd. Anyone can easily see the value of a Mercedes. You can't tell the difference between a car with solid body construction and quality sound deadening? It's a pretty marked difference between, say, a typical economy car. You don't seem to understand the difference between seeing the value and actually desiring it.

    There's no exceptional build quality here. The device isn't going to last longer or significantly outperform a comparably equipped, but much cheaper laptop. All you're getting is a decent display (with the added cost of touch), a slimmer chassis, and an unjustifiably higher price. So where exactly is the value proposition here?
  • The0ne - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    This is an Ultrabook laptop. These are usually not cheap to begin with because they are Ultrabooks. Why are people comparing these to notebooks that are not even in the same class? These are not even in the same class as business notebooks as well. Subjectively, these are expensive because they are light and thin. Most of the readers here won't even consider buying one to be honest or may have never own an ultrabook before. The market for these are business travelers where they need the light weight and thinness to carry it around for long periods of time.

    I just don't understand why people would complain about something that they don't begin to comprehend what it is and what market it is aimed at.
  • rarson - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    You're right, I don't comprehend what market these are aimed at, since a regular laptop is only about a pound heavier than this thing, and might actually offer a decent keyboard and slightly larger screen real estate, things that I'm pretty sure would be far more important to the average businessman than "thin and light," at a significantly lower price, no less.

    Perhaps you could explain to me why a businessman would need a touchscreen on a laptop, or 1080p resolution in a 13" screen.

    You said it above: "These are usually not cheap to begin with because they are Ultrabooks." Right, they are'nt cheap because they're marketed as expensive devices. I'm sure it costs more money to make the thinner, lighter chassis. But that doesn't mean that it makes sense to pay more for it.
  • jabber - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    .....did we get a indication of what this machine is like out of the box?

    In other words -

    1. How long did it take from first switch on till actually being able to use it properly?

    2. How much crapware was installed and how long did it take to uninstall?

    I have known Acer laptops (and others from similar companies) to take a couple of hours messing around till you can actually use them. I love the ones that force you to burn a set of recovery disks at start up and threaten thats its a once in a lifetime deal.
  • bobjones32 - Thursday, January 10, 2013 - link

    I posted elsewhere in this thread with my impressions, but my wife purchased this from a Microsoft Store. That means it comes with a Signature image, so no bloatware, and ready to use straight out of the box.

    The thing turned on instantly, set up quickly, and she was using it fully within just a few minutes.
  • thesavvymage - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    I seriously do not understand on having the "thinnest" laptop you can have. You dont hold it in your hands, it sits on your lap. The screen size and overall volume are what matters the most (for bulk). This laptop is .5" thick. If they even increased it to .7", they couldve added a bigger batter and better cooling, and it wouldnt even seem that different to anyone without a milimeter caliper.

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