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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  • cknobman - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Hard to sell at such a high price when your competitors sell comparable (or better) items $500+ cheaper.

    The Asus UX31A is one of my favorites right now. 1080p touch screen, all aluminum build, core i5, 128gb SSD and
    UNDER $1100!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I am toying with getting this right now from best buy:
  • Zanegray - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    I have a ux31a-ab71 (same as db71 except a smaller ssd) and I LOVE the thing. I don't care for Windows so I put Linux on it and find it my favorite computing device. Under my usage the battery also last for 2 to 3 days at a time. It is snappier than I ever expected and the aluminum case is awesome looking.

    To summarize... It's just plain sexy.

    Paid just over 1000 dollars for it on black Friday too :-)
  • ironargonaut - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Is an IPS screen that fantastic on a 14in laptop that I should pay $700 more?
  • kyuu - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    You're not paying $700 for the IPS screen.
  • drjacko - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    Original: "I can’t understate how impressively thin this thing is"

    But the article is very good as a review as well as a commentary of the path taken by Acer.

    Would you have considered a side by side shots against MB counterparts and previous version of Acer's ultrabook?
  • rarson - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    For the life of me, I can't understand why someone would want one of these over a normal laptop. Am I the only person who cannot stand ultra-thin (and ultra-flimsy) notebooks? I feel like I'm going to break the thing just by opening it up. A crappy keyboard, touchscreen, and absurd pricing makes this about as useful as a Surface tablet. Which is to say, pretty f#&@ing useless.

    Even if you do like the ultra-thin junk, I still don't see why you'd want to pay such a premium for a touchscreen on a laptop, although I suppose when your keyboard is that crappy, you'll be yearning for some other kind of input device.

    If I want a consumption device, I'll buy a Nexus tablet or similar. If I want a computing device, then I'll buy a regular laptop. For the price of one of these, I could buy one of each and STILL save a chunk of change.
  • kyuu - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    1) These devices are not "ultra-flimsy", despite being very thin. If you "feel" like you're going to break it, that's your problem. You remind me of my grandmother arguing that you have to drive a gigantic Oldmobile or an SUV to be safe because smaller cars don't "seem" like they could be as safe.

    2) If you don't see the value proposition in a device like this, then obviously it's not for you. I don't see the value proposition in buying a Mercedes, for example, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be built.
  • Tech-Curious - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    To be fair, your grandmother is right: all else being equal, a lighter car is less safe, possibly a lot less safe depending on the particulars.
  • AnnoyedGrunt - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    Except that all else isn't equal, is it? Cars today are much, much safer than they have ever been, and even a small, modern car would be much safer than Granny's Oldsmobile.

    As far as the ultra-thin laptops go, I'm not a huge fan, but I can understand how someone who travels would really like the smaller, more portable size. My wife has a Macbook Pro 15 (non-retina), and I have a Dell Precision M4600 for work, and those are reasonable sizes for me.

    This Acer is interesting, very similar in cost to a Macbook Air, but with better specs in most areas. However, one thing the Macs have done MUCH better than Windows laptops is make the touchpad useful. I don't know if it's a combination of OSX and hardware, or better drivers, or what, but it is so much easier to use the touchpad on my wife's Macbook than the one on my Dell (and any other Windows laptop I've used). I don't feel the need to use a mouse on the Mac, but on the Dell I always feel handcuffed without it (and this is for things like MS Office, web browsing, etc.).

    I would have liked to see some Macbook Air battery life results and performance results, since I feel that is one of the biggest competitors for the Acer.

    Ovreall I'm happy to see some in the PC industry making products that move in the direction of quality rather than price. 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. Still would prefer something a bit thicker with a better keyboard and more battery life, though.

  • Tech-Curious - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 - link

    As to your first comment, I don't know that that's universally true. Sure, in general, a modern car will have safety advantages an older car doesn't -- but size does matter: Is a 2013 Smart Car as safe as granny's Oldsmobile? Not a chance. All the airbags in the world can't compensate for the loss of mass.

    Even today, there are significant differences in mass within the same class of car. So if you have a choice between otherwise analogous vehicles, choosing the heavier one is (generally) safer.

    The heavier option is probably also less fuel efficient, though, so like everything else, it's a trade-off.

    As to the rest, I have to agree.

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