Acer Aspire S7 ultrabook review (Windows 8 touchscreen notebook)
The Acer Aspire S7 may be the most powerful laptop I’ve ever used. It features a speedy 1.9 GHz Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 256GB solid state disk, and a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel touchscreen display.
At the same time, the laptop measures less than half an inch thick and weighs less than 3 pounds.
But the Aspire S7 is also one of the more frustrating ultrabooks I’ve used recently. That high resolution display is a bit of a double-edged sword when running traditional Windows apps, the keyboard takes some getting used to, and the laptop has one of the loudest fans I’ve ever heard on a computer.
Those things could make the high price tag difficult to justify. But there’s no denying the laptop has excellent build quality and impressive specs and performance… with the possible exception of battery life.
Acer’s $1400 model features a 128GB SSD and Core i5 processor. The company also offers an 11.6 version of the Aspire S7 which has a $1200 price tag, Core i5 processor, 128GB of storage, a smaller battery, and a 1080p HD touchscreen display.
Acer loaned me an Acer Aspire S7-391-9886 ultrabook for the purposes of this review. It has a list price of $1650, but the best street price I’ve seen for this model is at B&H, which sells the notebook for $1540.
Design and Overview
The Acer Aspire S7 is a thin and light ultrabook that doesn’t sacrifice specs in order to keep down the size and weight… except for two important specs: battery life and fan noise. But we’ll get to those in the performance section.
Acer equips the S7 with a Core i5 or Core i7 processor, and the model I reviewed has a Core i7-3517U Ivy Bridge processor, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid state disk.
It also packs WiFi and Bluetooth, and while there’s not room for full-sized VGA or Ethernet adapters, Acer includes adapters which let you plug either type of cable into the laptop.
The Aspire S7 has an aluminum unibody chassis with a matte silver/gray finish, but the top of the lid is actually covered with the same scratch-resistant, sturdy Gorilla Glass 2 as the lid. This gives the white lid a distinctive, glossy look — as does the Acer logo which glows when the laptop is in use.
It’s actually a little tough to open the lid because the lid is a little thinner than the base of the computer. There’s a small lip at the part of the lid that rests near the touchpad, but it’s easier to grab it with a fingernail than a fingertip in order to pry the lid away from the base of the laptop.
Despite (or possibly because of) the glass lid, the Aspire S7 is a svelte machine, measuring 12.73″ x 8.79″ x 0.47″ and weighing 2.86 pounds. That makes it one of the thinnest and lightest 13 inch laptops you’re likely to find.
On the bottom you’ll find vents near the back of the laptop and stereo speakers which sound reasonably good… for laptop speakers. What you won’t find are any access panels. The RAM, storage, and battery are not user replaceable.
That’s too bad, since the 4680mAh battery doesn’t come close to lasting the 6 hours Acer promises, and Acer doesn’t offer an S7 ultrabook configuration with more than 4GB of RAM.
The Acer Aspire S7 has a 1.3MP webcam, 2 USB 3.0 ports, a micro HDMI port, an SD card slot (which is surprisingly difficult to open, at least on the demo model Acer sent me).
There’s also a headset jack on the side of the laptop, as well as a power button, which is positioned in a spot that’s just a little to easy to accidentally hit when you pick up the laptop.
Although the Acer Aspire S7 isn’t a tablet, it has an excellent tablet-like display. It’s a 13.3 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display with wide viewing angles, support for 10-point multitouch input, and Corning Gorilla Glass 2 for scratch resistance.
Unfortunately a 13.3 inch, 1080p display is a bit of a mixed blessing on a Windows 8 notebook. While Windows 8-style apps downloaded from the Windows Store generally look great on high-resolution screens, desktop-style apps don’t work nearly as well.
For instance, when I load the Google Chrome web browser, menus, icons in the user interface look tiny, text and pictures on website are small enough that I have to lean forward in my chair or squint to see them properly, and if I reach my hand up to the screen to tap on a link, there’s a good chance I’ll hit the wrong element because my finger is fatter than the spot on the screen I’m trying to touch.
Some of these problems can be alleviated by adjusting the Windows 8 DPI settings using the “Change the size of all items” option. At 125%, the Windows 8 taskbar and desktop icons look pretty good, as do native Windows apps such as Internet Explorer.
But adjusting that setting seems to have no effect on the default zoom level in Google Chrome, and only affects menus in some other third party apps, not the actual text and graphics in the main body of those apps.
At a time when plenty of folks are blasting PC makers for continuing to ship notebooks with anemic 1366 x 768 pixel displays, it feels a bit silly to complain that the Aspire S7 screen might have too many pixels, but the truth is Windows 8 only handles high pixel-density displays well if and when it’s running apps that are either designed for the Metro-style full-screen interface or which work well with DPI adjustments.
Hopefully as we see more high-resolution displays on Windows notebooks and tablets we’ll see more software that plays well with those screens. For now, I had to tweak the Windows 8 desktop settings and adjust zoom levels in apps to comfortably use the high resolution screen on this laptop.
The good news is that images, text, and videos look great on the screen and it supports wide viewing angles, which means you can watch a video with someone sitting next to you or push the screen back 180 degrees without the colors starting to look washed out.
Speaking of pushing the screen back, Acer has put some special attention into the hinge on this laptop. When you first lift the lid, it opens quickly and easily. But the hinge gets stiff once the display is at a roughly 90 degree angle to the keyboard. You can continue to push the screen back until it rests flat on the tablet behind the keyboard, but you’ll have to push harder.
What that means is that the screen locks pretty tightly into place and doesn’t wobble while you type — or when you poke the screen with your finger. That’s a nice feature to have on a laptop with a touchscreen display and support for Windows 8 gestures.
There’s a relatively thin bezel around the display, and the Aspire S7 features a touchscreen that almost stretches edge to edge. This lets you use edge-swiping gestures to bring up the Windows 8 Charms Menu, switch between running apps, or perform other actions.
Unfortunately it also means that if you do grab the lid with one hand to push it back or tilt it forward, you run the risk of accidentally tapping on the touchscreen display. I accidentally clicked a link in a web browser and left my current page while doing that before I got used to gripping just the very edge of the lid.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Acer provides the S7 with a backlit keyboard plus an automatic light sensor, so the keys are illuminated to make them easier to see in darker environments. But if you’re outdoors or in a bright room the keys don’t glow at all.
Like most other ultrabooks, the Aspire S7 has flat chiclet-style keys with small spaces between them. There’s little to no flex in the keyboard, which means you have to press down pretty hard in the center of the keyboard before the keyboard starts to bend inward.
Overall typing on the keyboard is quite comfortable, but the keyboard does have a few quirks.
There’s no dedicated row of Fn keys above the row of number keys. Instead, if you want to hit F5, you have to hit Fn+F5.
Since there are no dedicated Fn keys, that means the row of special feature keys you find on most notebooks have been moved down to the top row of letters. So if you want to mute the laptop, you hold down the Fn + W keys. Want to disable wireless? That’ll take a Fn + Q keypress.
Acer says this design provides more space for the built-in battery, but in practice, it means the keyboard can take a little getting used to.
Below the space bar is a feature that’s pretty standard on ultrabooks: a large touchpad with no dedicated left or right buttons. You can slide your finger over the entire surface to slide a cursor across the screen, or swipe from the edges to initiate Windows 8 gestures such as switching between apps or bringing up menus.
The TouchPad also supports multi-touch gestures including two-finger scrolling or tapping or using a 4-finger swipe to switch between Metro and Desktop modes.
Using the default settings, the touchpad wasn’t as sensitive as I would have liked — sometimes I tried to tap on a link or icon and it took a moment to realize that the tap hadn’t been registered and I needed to tap again.
But the Aspire S7′s touchpad is certainly serviceable, and it’s only one way to interact with Windows 8 on this ultrabook. Personally I prefer to plug in a mouse unless I’m using the laptop on my lap — when the touchscreen is at least as easy to use as the touchpad most of the time.
I write about affordable portable computers for a living, not supercomputers or high-end gaming machines. So take this next sentence with a grain of salt, but the Acer Aspire S7 is probably the fastest laptop I’ve ever tested.
It zipped through my standard raft of benchmarks faster than any other laptop I’ve used, handled 1080p HD video playback without a glitch, and I had no problems surfing the web with over a dozen browser tabs open while listening to music.
While my benchmarks involve some audio and video transcoding tests, I’m using old software and video codecs for those tests — in order to get scores I compare with results from laptops I tested a few years ago.
In real-world performance, I was able to transcode video files even more quickly using modern apps such as Handbrake. And the Acer Aspire S7 comes with Cyberlink MediaEspresso which takes advantage of the Intel HD 4000 graphics core to transcode HD videos into H.264 at even faster speeds.
But here’s the thing — the Aspire S7 wasn’t that much faster than other laptops I’ve tested which have Intel Ivy Bridge processors. It’s the first model I’ve tested with a 3rd generation Core i7 chip, but the performance difference between a Core i7 and Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor isn’t really that great in most tasks.
In other words, if you want the best performance available, you’ll want to spend extra to get the model with the Core i7 chip. But if you decide to save some money and go with a Core i5 version, I doubt you’d notice much difference.
My Liliputing Benchmarks look at how long it takes to transcode audio and video files and how long it takes to create a ZIP archive containing over 2,000 files.
I pitted the Aspire S7 against the Lenovo IdeaPad U310, Acer Aspire V5-171 and Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D which I’ve tested recently, and the S7 came out on top in every test — but not by a very wide margin.
To test gaming and graphics performance, I ran the Street Fighter IV and 3DMark06 tests, and this time added the HP Pavilion dm1 to the mix. While it has a much slower AMD E2-1800 processor, that laptop has Radeon HD graphics which let it hold its own in at least one of the tests — and that’s interesting, since it sells for literally about 1/4th as much as the Aspire S7.
While the laptop is fast, with great power comes great exhaust fans. There’s a big vent on the back of the laptop which blows out hot air to help keep the computer cool.
You’ll know when the fan is working, because you’ll be able to hear the jet engine noise down the street.
OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but honestly the first time I heard the noise this laptop makes when the fan kicks in, I had to double check to make sure the sound was coming from the fan and not the speakers. It seriously sounds like a white noise generator.
Acer calls the cooling system on the S7 “TwinAir,” and claims it can help keep the computer cool while prolonging battery life. I can’t really say how well that system works, but I can certainly hear it working.
After using the laptop for a few weeks, I feel like the fan kicks into high gear a little less often than it used to, possibly due to an automatic software update. But it’s still very noticeable when it’s running full blast.
If TwinAir helps extend battery life, I’d hate to see how this laptop battery performs without the cooling system in place. I was only able to get about 4 hours of run time while using the laptop to surf the web, compose documents, and watch a YouTube video or two.
Expect even less time if you plan to stream HD videos over the internet, play 3D games, or perform other CPU-intensive tasks.
Acer plans to offer an optional external battery which should double the run time of the Aspire S7, but it will also add a little weight to the 2.86 pounds laptop.
According to Acer, the S7 should get up to 6 hours of run time, and up to 12 hours with the extended battery. So I’m guessing that the extra battery actually lets you use the laptop for up to 8 or 9 hours.
I haven’t seen any stores offering the external battery for this ultrabook yet.
The Acer Aspire S7 ships with Windows 8 and comes with a number of apps preloaded including Evernote, Amazon Kindle, Netflix, and Hulu Plus.
You can ignore or uninstall most of this bloatware if you don’t need or want these apps. But there are a few nifty additions including Acer Theft Shield — an app that sets off an alarm if your laptop is moved more than 10 feet away from a designated WiFi signal.
Unfortunately I haven’t found an easy way to disable UEFI Secure Boot on this laptop, which means if you want to replace Windows or dual boot another operating system, it will have to be one that supports Secure Boot such as the latest versions of Ubuntu or Fedora Linux.
Acer has designed an ultrabook that’s thin, light, attractive, sturdy, and powerful. But it’s not a perfect portable computer.
The Acer Aspire S7 is hampered by lousy battery life, an odd keyboard, a high-resolution display that’s both a blessing and a curse (depending on how you use it), and a jet engine-like exhaust fan.
I’d kind of hoped for a bit more of a no-compromise experience from a $1650 laptop.
There aren’t a lot of other options on the market for 3 pound laptops with 1080p touchscreen displays and support for up to a Core i7 processor. So if you don’t want to wait for a cheaper model to come along, the S7 might fit your needs… as long as you’re not greedy about battery life.
If you’re just looking for a thin and light ultrabook and don’t need the touchscreen, the Samsung Series 9 might be a better option. Or if you’re looking for a touchscreen notebook but don’t care as much about performance or battery life, the Asus VivoBook X202e isn’t a bad option.