For the past few years Asus has kind of dominated the affordable ultrabook space with its Zenbook UX305 line of 13.3 inch notebooks weighing around 3 pounds or less and selling for around $699 and up.
But this year Acer decided to get in on the action with the launch of the 3 pound Acer Aspire S 13 ultrabook with a starting price of $699. Unlike most Zenbook UX305 models, Acer’s compact laptop has a backlit keyboard. And while the cheapest Zenbook laptops have Intel Core M processors, all of the 2016 Acer Aspire S 13 laptops have Core i5 or faster chips.
After using the same Samsung Series 9 laptop for 4 years, I was in the market for a new laptop with a faster processor and better battery life. So when the Microsoft Store recently knocked $200 off the price of the Acer Aspire S 13 I decided to pick up a model with a Core i7-6500U processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a matte touchscreen display.
Normally this model would sell for $899, but I was able to score one for $699. After spending a few weeks with the laptop, I can say it’s probably worth the list price, and it’s definitely a good deal if you can find one on sale like I did.
But that’s not to say Acer’s laptops are no-compromise computers. The Aspire S13 has a fan that can get rather loud at times. The bezel around the screen is large enough to annoy people who don’t like big bezels. And I’m still getting used to Acer’s quirky keyboard layout.
In terms of performance, battery life, and display quality though, I have few complaints.
Overview and design
The model featured in this review is an Acer Aspire S 13 with a Core i7 Skylake processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a 1920 x 1080 pixel matte IPS touchscreen display. It features Windows 10 Home 64-bit software, 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth and a backlit keyboard.
Unlike most of the computers I review, I bought this laptop with my own money and paid $699 plus tax for it.
The notebook has some premium design elements, but it’s relatively affordable for a machine that measures 0.6 inches thick, weighs 3 pounds, and features a Core i7 processor, touchscreen, a full HD display, and a magnesium-alloy body (with some plastic around the lid and display area).
It’s available two different color schemes: white with gold-colored trim, and black with a silver/chrome trim. My model has the dark design.
The laptop measures 12.9″ x 9″ x 0.6″, which makes it just enough bigger than my old laptop to keep it from fitting comfortably into my old slip cover, so I had to spend a little money on a new one.
It’s also about half a pound heavier than my Samsung Series 9 notebook… but I’m willing to put up with a little extra weight for a battery that lasts more than twice as long.
On the right there’s a USB 3.0 port, a full-sized HDMI port, a status LED and a power jack. There’s also a USB 3.1 Type-C port which is used for data, but not for charging.
The left side of the laptop has another full-sized USB port, a headphone/microphone combo jack and a full-sized SD card reader.
About that card reader though: you’re probably not going to want to leave an SD card plugged in permanently, because it will stick out quite a bit from the side of the laptop.
The fact that storage cards don’t sit flush with the laptop probably isn’t a big deal if you’re just trying to copy some pictures from your camera before returning the card to your DSLR. But if you were hoping to use an SD card to supplement the laptop’s built-in storage, you’ll ruin the aesthetics of the computer a bit and maybe run the risk of having it bump into things and fall out.
There’s no Ethernet port, and unlike some laptops that lack an RJ-45 jack, the Aspire S 13 didn’t come with an adapter. So I picked up an Aukey USB C USB C hub with 3 USB 3.0 ports and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. It’s not something I’ll use often, but it comes in handy when I’m working remotely at events like the Consumer Electronics Show.
While some bezel-haters will take one look at the screen and get too distracted by the thick borders around the sides to focus on the display itself, I personally have nothing against a bezel — and sometimes they can come in handy.
While the Dell XPS 13 line of laptops look pretty sleek thanks to their super-slim bezels, the border above the screen is too small to accommodate a webcam, so Dell awkwardly squeezes one into the space below the screen — where it gets a good view of your chin (or other body parts) while you’re on a video call… assuming your fingers aren’t in the way. That’s not a problem with the Acer Aspire S 13, which has a camera above the display.
As for the screen itself, it’s a full HD display with wide viewing angles and a matte finish. That means some colors might not pop the way they do on a glossy screen. But it’s much easier to use laptops with matte displays outdoors or near windows since they don’t reflect as much glare from the sun or other bright light sources.
The screen also supports a respectable range of brightness settings, allowing you to dim the display when you’re in a dark room or brighten it to make the screen easier to see outdoors or in other bright spaces.
The laptop’s hinge can open wide, allowing you to push back the screen more than 160 degrees. It doesn’t quite fold down flat, but it comes pretty close.
Matte screens are a rarity these days, but the Aspire S 13 featured in this review is something of a unicorn: it has a matte display and a touchscreen. While this is a notebook and not a tablet, I’ve found that sometimes it does feel comfortable to reach up and touch the screen to open apps, drag and drop files, or perform other actions.
This is especially true when the notebook is resting on my lap or when I’m standing over the laptop as it rests on a table. When I’m using it from a seating position with my arms outstretched and palms resting to the sides of the touchpad, it’s often more comfortable to use the touchpad or a mouse.
Still, it’s nice to have the option of tapping, swiping, and dragging. I did disable the on-screen keyboard so that it wouldn’t show up every time I touched a text input box.
One weird quirk about the Aspire S 13’s display is that it doesn’t feature the same edge-to-edge glass that you’d normally expect from a touchscreen laptop with a glossy screen. Instead, the display panel is recessed a bit, and that means when you try to tap on something close to the edge of the screen your finger may hit the bezel instead of the touchscreen.
That can make it hard to do things like select web browser tabs or other elements at the top of the screen. It also makes swiping from the edge of the screen a little odd, since your finger will often start on the bezel, and then slip backward a bit to reach the screen.
I also adjusted the display scaling to 126 percent in order to comfortably view the software I use most on a laptop. While you could certainly use 100 percent scaling, I find that I often have to squint or move my head too close to the screen to read text on a 13.3 inch full HD display when I do that.
Things look much better at 125 percent scaling, but at that setting the Google Chrome web browser gives me an inconsistent view: web content looks larger, but the menu bar, tabs, and other navigational components look too small. Using a custom scaling option of 126 percent resolves that issue. Go figure.
Like most portable notebooks released in the last few years, the Aspire S 13 has a battery that’s not meant to be removed and a case that’s not meant to be opened. But if you flip over the computer you’ll find that the bottom panel is held on my 10 screws which are fairly easy to remove.
Once inside, you can swap out the M.2 SSD if you want more than 256GB of storage. The WiFi module can also theoretically be replaced if something goes wrong with the one that comes with the laptop.
The RAM, however, is soldered to the motherboard. If you think you might need more than 8GB, then you may want to invest in a different laptop.
While we’re on the bottom of the laptop, I should point out that there are vents near the back of the machine, as well as vents built into the hinge. The good news is that they help keep the laptop relatively cool. The less good news is that if you use the notebook in a quiet environment you will certainly hear the fans blowing pretty regularly.
The system has stereo speakers which are also facing the bottom of the laptop. But they’re position near the left and right edges so that audio sounds reasonably clear when the laptop is placed on a desk or table. Audio can be a bit muffled if the notebook is placed on your lap.
Like most laptop speakers, the ones Acer used for the Aspire S 13 don’t provide a lot of bass, but the audio is surprisingly loud, which means you can crank up the volume on treble-heavy music and have no trouble hearing it from across the room.
The lid has grooves that make it look a bit like a record… if records were rectangular rather than round. The area around the keyboard and touchpad has a brushed metal finish. It’s nice to look at initially, but the metal surface has a habit of showing off oil smudges from your palms and fingerprints.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Acer outfitted the laptop with a Precision touchpad, which means that you can manage all of its settings through Windows 10’s mouse and touchpad settings.
It supports multi-finger taps and swipes, edge gestures, and just about anything else you’d expect from a modern touchpad.
I find it makes an audible click when pressed, but that might only really be noticeable because the keys on the keyboard are significantly quieter (the keyboard is also less noisy than the one on the Samsuner Series 9 notebook I’m replacing).
As for the keyboard, it features decent spacing, comfortable travel, and a backlight which helps you to see when using the laptop in a dark environment.
I have no problem typing at full speed on the keyboard when entering most text. But there are a few quirks in Acer’s keyboard layout that I’m not a fan of.
First, there are six special function keys built into a small space on the lower right side of the keyboard. Each is half-height, which means these six keys take up the same amount of space as three full-sized keys. And each has a special function when used with the Fn key held down, which means it’s kind of like there are 12 keys in this space.
Here’s the layout:
- Page Up, Page Down, Page Down (or Home, Volume Up, End)
- Left, Down, Right (or Brightness Up, Volume Down, Brightness Down)
It’s annoying that these keys are half-height, because it can be tough to get a sense of which key you’re pressing without looking at the keyboard. But it’s even more annoying that I have to remember to associate Home with Page Up, Brightness Up with Left-arrow, etc, because these combinations don’t really feel that intuitive to me — especially since the volume keys are all the way in the lower left corner, but the Mute button is F8, above the number keys.
Anyway, I complain about this almost every time I use an Acer laptop. But it’s also been years since I’ve owned an Acer computer, so usually I only have a test model for a few weeks before writing a review. I’m already starting to get used to the position of these keys, but it’ll probably be a while before I can consistently find the right key by feel. For now, I just have to look at the keyboard from time to time when adjusting the screen brightness or using the Home or End functions.
Another quirk I’m getting used to? The position of the Power and Del buttons. While many laptops put the power button above the keyboard, the Acer Aspire S 13 has a power button that looks just like any other key on the keyboard. It’s in the upper right corner, where you’d often find the Del key. In this case, the Del key is just to the left of the power button.
If you’re coming from a computer that doesn’t have the power button in this location, you may find yourself accidentally putting the Aspire S 13 to sleep when you meant to delete something. But it shouldn’t take too long to get used to this layout.
In fact, I haven’t accidentally put the machine once in the weeks that I’ve been using it… possibly because the last laptop I reviewed had a similar Power/Del key setup.
Yes, I bought a notebook with a 2015 processor in 2016. That means I’m getting a 6th-gen Core i7 “Skylake” chip instead of a 7th-gen “Kaby Lake” part. But while the new chips offer a slight performance boost, better graphics, and better energy efficiency… the laptop I’m upgrading from has a 2nd-gen Intel Core i5 “Sandy Bridge” processor.
The upshot? My ne laptop is almost twice as fast as my old one at some common tasks. For instance, here’s how long it took to transcode a 4 minute video using the Handbrake video encoder on my new Acer Aspire S 13, my old Samsung Series 9, and several other computers I’ve reviewed recently.
Generally speaking, the Aspire S 13 is one of the fastest laptops I’ve ever tested… although the difference between this computer with a Core i7-7500U processor and other recent models with Core i5-6200U chips isn’t all that noticeable in day-to-day performance.
I probably could have saved a little money by picking up the Core i5 version of this laptop, but since I tend to hang onto laptops for at least 3-5 years, I figured it was worth spending a little more money on the Core i7 version in hopes of making my purchase a little more future-proof.
It’s one of the fastest at transcoding audio and video files, and it scores higher in graphics and gaming benchmarks, including 3DMark’s Sky Diver, Fire Strike, and Cloud Gate tests.
I’m not a heavy PC gamer, but it’s nice to know that the system can handle some older games or newer casual gaming titles with ease. And I’ve had no problems streaming HD video over the internet.
Recently I’ve started running the PCMark benchmark on some systems. I don’t have a lot of data points, but the Aspire S 13 achieves the best score of any system I’ve tested to date (which is only three):
What I have spent a lot of time doing with this laptop is blogging — which means opening a dozen or more Google Chrome browser tabs at once to do research in one browser window while writing in another. Thanks to the laptop’s 8GB of RAM, speedy processor, and reasonably fast solid state storage, the laptop never got bogged down by that type of activity… something that can cause some cheaper laptops to grind to a halt.
The Aspire S 13 also boots and resumes from sleep pretty quickly, has no problem maintaining a strong signal to my home’s 802.11ac WiFi network, and gets around 7 hours of battery life under pretty heavy usage.
It’s possible you could squeeze an extra hour or two out of the battery if you don’t spend as much time with Google’s Chrome web browser open. While Google is working to reduce the browser’s resource usage, it’s known to be a bit of an energy hog, but it’s probably the most important app for my work flow.
Other things I’ve spent time doing with this laptop include streaming videos from YouTube and Netflix, watching local videos using the VLC media player, viewing and editing documents with LibreOffice, and editing images with Irfanview and GIMP.
Overall, the laptop has been a pleasure to use, but as I mentioned above, when using the Aspire S 13 in a quiet room, the fan noise can be pretty noticeable. The fan makes a rather high-pitched whine which could be annoying if there’s not some music or other noise to help drown it out.
The fan does seem to be doing its job though: the bottom of the laptop gets a little warm under heavy usage, but it hasn’t ever become uncomfortably hot.
I’ve read some reports about Acer Aspire S 13 laptops coming with a bit of bloatware, but the model I purchased is a Microsoft Store “Signature Edition” laptop, which means it basically comes with Windows 10 Home and just a few Acer utilities including:
- Acer Care Center app with system information and a backup/restore utility
- Acer Power Button app for quickly turning off the display, shutting down the PC, putting it to sleep, or entering hibernation
- Acer Quick Access for features including a Blue light shield (for night usage), and an option to enable or disable the ability to use a USB port to charge gadgets when the PC is turned off
- Dolby Audio app which lets you choose from a series of audio preset including music, voice, movie, and game
Not a fan of Windows? I haven’t extensively tested Ubuntu or other Linux-based software on this laptop, but I can tell you that despite some reports to the contrary, not all “Signature Edition” laptops purchased from the Microsoft Store are tied to Windows 10.
If you hit F2 during boot, you can go into the BIOS/UEFI settings and enable support for legacy boot mode, which should make it easy to load any operating systems that might not run readily with Secure Boot enabled.
Once legacy boot mode is enabled, you can either change the boot order so your computer will boot from a USB drive or you can enable the F12 boot menu, allowing you to select which device to boot from manually the next time you turn on the PC.
While I haven’t tried installing an alternate operating system, I did run a recent daily build of Ubuntu 16.10 from a USB flash drive in a LiveUSB environment.
The touchscreen, WiFi, Bluetooth, and audio all worked out of the box with no problems. I was also able to use the laptop’s keyboard shortcuts to adjust screen brightness and volume.
I bought the Acer Aspire S 13 because I was looking for an affordable machine that would offer better performance and longer battery life than my 4-year-old laptop. While the Aspire S 13 has a reasonably attractive price tag, I’ll admit that it wasn’t really at the top of my list for “Brad’s next laptop” until Microsoft marked down the price by $200.
When I saw that I could snag a 3 pound, 13 inch laptop with a Core i7 Skylake processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage for $699, I pulled the trigger. And so far I’ve been pretty happy with my purchase.
The laptop isn’t perfect. I’m still getting used to the keyboard layout. There are models that a bit thinner or lighter, or which have slimmer screen bezels. And the fan is rather loud.
But not only does the laptop offer good performance in a compact and affordable package, but it also has a few premium touches that entry-level ultrabooks from Dell and Asus lack, such as a backlit keyboard and a touchscreen display.
I’m also a fan of matte displays, so the fact that this laptop had one was a bit of a bonus. And I appreciate that this notebook has a USB 3.1 Type-C port in addition to two full-sized USB 3.0 ports. I feel like that makes it slightly more future proof than some other laptops on the market.
While I can’t charge the laptop through that USB port, I know that any USB Type-C cables I purchase for use with my next smartphone will probably also work with this laptop. Over time, I suspect there will be fewer and fewer USB Type-A and micro USB cables in my house and more USB C cables.
I probably wouldn’t have bought this laptop for its list price of $899 — but that’s only because that’s more money than I was looking to spend on a laptop. I do think the laptop is worth that price, although if you’re looking to save a few bucks, the Core i5 model typically sells for $100 less, and it should only be a little slower.
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