The Windows 8 Ultrabook to Beat: Acer's Aspire S7

In the past, I've shared my review of the Lumia 900, and the LG Optimus G. Today, I bring you my thoughts on one of the best ultrabooks I've ever seen, despite its rare mention on these boards. This is cross-posted from my blog.

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While so many other com­pan­ies are bend­ing over back­wards (quite lit­er­ally) to fig­ure out what the best form factor for Win­dows 8 is, Acer has focused on the essen­tials and pro­duced a laptop whose mod­est acro­batic abil­ity and spe­cific­a­tions do noth­ing to dam­age its pos­i­tion as the mod­ern Win­dows ultra­book to beat.

It began inno­cently, as a trip to visit the new Microsoft Store that opened not too long ago here in Toronto.

Hav­ing heard that Microsoft had made an effort to make its in-store exper­i­ence some­thing spe­cial, I was only too happy to go for an after­noon out at the mall with my mother to see what was on offer. While it’s true that she was look­ing to replace her aging laptop, a stal­wart but tired Sam­sung, we did not go with the expli­cit inten­tion of buy­ing any­thing at all.

We walked out with the Acer Aspire S7, and while she pre­pares to retire her older machine, I’ve com­mand­eered the new one for a bit of crit­ical scrutiny.

Beauty

Someone at Acer has been pay­ing atten­tion to the details lately. I cer­tainly didn’t have Acer in the cat­egory of com­pan­ies that came to mind when I thought of slick design, but they have clearly made sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress this year — not only toward dis­pelling the notion of their brand as a mediocre one in the design depart­ment, but also in terms of the qual­ity of present­a­tion for their products. I hasten to men­tion that I refer to the products them­selves and not the bewil­der­ing mar­ket­ing cam­paigns involving Megan Fox and an embar­rass­ing level of "look, guys, we’re cool!" attitude.

The almost Apple-like box for the Aspire S7 is decept­ively thick con­sid­er­ing the form factor of its con­tents. Once opened, it reveals more than just the laptop: Acer includes a very com­fort­able Bluetooth mouse as well as a faux leather sleeve for the com­puter along with the expec­ted char­ger. These extras being included seems fair for the $1,200 base price tag, but with so many other com­pan­ies offer­ing noth­ing at all, let alone any­thing of qual­ity, these addi­tions to the S7’s pack­age really stand out.

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Gear lust begins imme­di­ately upon see­ing the ultra­book itself. The white lid is, uniquely, made of glass. This is argu­ably not very dur­able, but unless you’re in the habit of drop­ping and mis­hand­ling your laptop (which I am not), the design choice offers a huge aes­thetic leap over the grey plastic slabs you’ll be com­par­ing this com­puter against. Not only that, but for all its glassy styl­ish­ness, the laptop feels extremely robust; it does not flex or creak, and there’s a gen­eral impres­sion of sturdi­ness when you hold it.

It is also imme­di­ately evid­ent that this is an extremely thin machine. Without resort­ing to any taper­ing edge trick­ery, the Aspire S7 is eleg­antly thin and light. A sheet of white com­put­ing power with the sweetest screen I’ve ever looked at on an ultrabook.

Eye Candy

The full 1080p HD IPS dis­play is a thing of unmatched glory. It is the single most arrest­ing factor of the design that becomes evid­ent when you com­pare this laptop along­side its com­pet­it­ors in a store, which is exactly what we did. It is only when you see it this way that you real­ize Acer’s choice to invest in a good dis­play makes a tre­mend­ous dif­fer­ence in the way you per­ceive and use the machine.

While most Win­dows 8 laptops have either had a crappy touch­screen dis­play or a beau­ti­ful non-touch dis­play, the Aspire S7 is the first that I’ve seen with both qual­it­ies fully evid­ent on the same panel. Its stun­ning clar­ity, col­ours, and sharp­ness will make you the envy of all your com­par­at­ively low-res Mac­book Air colleagues.

Acer’s choice to invest in a good dis­play makes a tre­mend­ous dif­fer­ence in the way you per­ceive and use the machine.

Brawn

We don’t buy com­puters just because they look good though, and luck­ily the Aspire S7 is equipped with enough horsepower to tackle the tasks that one expects to throw at an ultra­book. The 4-core i5 pro­cessor is clocked at a solid 1.7GHz, and while it’s not the sort of machine you can do com­plex media work or math­em­at­ical mod­el­ling with, it is more than cap­able of hand­ling office, pro­ductiv­ity, brows­ing, and most photo edit­ing work.

Keep in mind that the i5 is sev­eral orders of mag­nitude more power­ful than any pro­cessor from just a few years ago, and people were cut­ting movies and run­ning busi­nesses from those old machines just fine.

The Aspire S7 suf­fers in the RAM depart­ment, with a max­imum of 4GB con­fig­ur­able, although when you con­sider this within the con­text of what you’re going to be using an ultra­book for, it’s unlikely that 4GB of RAM will be unable to cover those tasks for the fore­see­able future. As with any com­puter pur­chase, it’s import­ant to think about how your com­put­ing needs will evolve over the time you expect to own the device though.

Exper­i­ence

As with any com­puter run­ning the full Win­dows 8 (as opposed to RT), you’re get­ting the abil­ity to run any applic­a­tions that you’re used to using from your Win­dows 7 com­puter, as well as the Store apps that you access from the new Start menu. The health­ier eco­sys­tem of Microsoft apps has made the Start menu much more use­ful com­pared to the earlier days of Win­dows 8, and many users will now find them­selves able to live entirely within the new inter­face for the major­ity of tasks they’re likely to perform.

The health­ier eco­sys­tem of Microsoft apps has made the Start menu much more use­ful com­pared to the earlier days of Win­dows 8.

The abil­ity to inter­act with Win­dows 8 via touch is a trans­form­at­ive improve­ment over using a mouse, how­ever unfa­mil­iar it may ini­tially seem, and luck­ily the S7’s touch­screen is respons­ive and almost entirely reli­able. There were a few instances where touches were not registered and where swipes or scrolling was jerky and slug­gish, espe­cially when try­ing to close apps, but these occa­sions are both rel­at­ively rare.

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Acer has included 2 USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, and even a micro HDMI port for your con­nectiv­ity needs. One of the two USB ports is designed for devices that draw more power, and the micro HDMI port allowed for the expec­ted screen sharing/mirroring/extending options you’d expect, all of which per­formed admir­ably with no lag. In addi­tion, the WiFi and Bluetooth anten­nas are both top-of-the-line, and I encountered no net­work­ing issues dur­ing my time with the ultra­book, at home or at the coffeeshop.

Touch & Type

As happy as I am about the touch­screen, it is also very con­veni­ent to have the key­board avail­able for typ­ing con­tent — like this review, for example. The Aspire’s keys are an attract­ive sil­very col­our with back­light­ing and plenty of space between the keys for lar­ger hands. The travel is quite a bit shorter than I would like, lead­ing to moments where I wasn’t sure that a key press had even registered dur­ing faster typ­ing, but over­all it’s a com­fort­able enough key­board for a laptop.

The key­board itself is inset into a mer­ci­fully clean and rel­at­ively branding-free sur­face that, while attract­ive, doesn’t seem to make good use of space. A gigantic amount of dis­tance between the top of the key­board and the bot­tom of the screen res­ults in a track­pad that feels unne­ces­sar­ily squished on its ver­tical axis. While by no means unus­able, it does require that you lift your hand more often for scrolling than seems right.

Whatever genius Apple has made use of to ensure that their track­pads are con­sist­ently respons­ive, com­fort­able, and flex­ible con­tin­ues to elude all of the Win­dows competitors.

It almost goes without say­ing at this point, but the track­pad basic­ally sucks. It works, but whatever genius Apple has made use of to ensure that their track­pads are con­sist­ently respons­ive, com­fort­able, and flex­ible con­tin­ues to elude all of the Win­dows com­pet­it­ors. Ges­tures often mis­fire, the pointer some­times feels like it’s fight­ing against your attempts to move it, and the lack of basic set­tings like two-finger tap to right-click and three-finger slid­ing to click &drag ensures that I avoid the track­pad at any cost.

It really is a good thing that Acer includes the Bluetooth mouse.

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Gam­ing, Bat­tery, and Other Considerations

Since any­one con­sid­er­ing this machine is com­par­ing it against a very inter­est­ing diversity of altern­at­ives, it’s worth spend­ing a bit of time out­lining a few key dif­fer­ences that might inform your decision one way or the other.

For starters, if you’re into the whole hybrid form factor thing, this is not the com­puter you’re look­ing for. The Aspire S7 does not fold back­wards, its screen does not detach, and noth­ing swiv­els around. It is very much a tra­di­tional laptop form factor, with the one extra abil­ity to be opened com­pletely flat — for whatever that’s worth. On the other hand, this means that the hinge is gor­geous, feels very sturdy, and is min­im­al­istic enough not to add bulk to the razor thin silhouette.

Aspire-flat_medium

If you’re into the whole hybrid form factor thing, this is not the com­puter you’re look­ing for.

Like­wise, this is not a gam­ing machine. The onboard Intel HD4000 chip­set is a very com­mon and decently cap­able graph­ics solu­tion for basic photo edit­ing and gam­ing tasks, but you won’t want to play Bat­tle­field 3 on this thing. If your gam­ing acu­men stretches bey­ond Skulls of the Sho­gun and Fruit Ninja, then you might want to con­sider a dif­fer­ent laptop. This is espe­cially true if you’re bothered by fan noise, since the Aspire’s cool­ing fan can be dis­tinctly remin­is­cent of a dentist’s drill when you give the pro­cessor any­thing ser­i­ous to do.

Lastly, I need to men­tion the bat­tery life. It’s unlikely you’ll get more than 4 hours or so out of each charge with nor­mal usage, and that’s dis­ap­point­ing — it’s less than most other cur­rent ultra­books and even worse than a Mac­book Air run­ning Win­dows 8 (with no HD touch­screen or optim­ized drivers). Need­less to say, this is the major flaw in an oth­er­wise excep­tional choice of laptop.

Con­clu­sion

The Acer Aspire S7 was, by far, the most attract­ive and cap­able Win­dows 8 ultra­book on dis­play at the Microsoft Store. To the point where I was almost con­fused to see people spend­ing time examin­ing the other laptops there. Of course, this may not be an ideal time to invest in a laptop, with all the new pro­cessor tech­no­lo­gies just around the bend, but these are the sorts of thoughts that only we tech enthu­si­asts have, and at the end of the day there’s always another amaz­ing tech­no­logy just around the corner — at some point, you’ve got to make the leap.

This is by no means the budget machine, nor the dur­able military-grade tank, nor the quasi-portable super­com­puter you model epi­demic spread scen­arios and play Crysis 3 on, but if your com­put­ing goals involve only mod­est media edit­ing, or fall within the com­mon bound­ar­ies of email, office pro­ductiv­ity, cas­ual gam­ing, social net­work­ing, writ­ing, read­ing, and watch­ing videos, then you would be hard-pressed to find a more suit­able companion.

While it may not be for every­one, Acer has provided dis­cern­ing buy­ers with a com­pel­ling choice of ultra­book that sets a new bar, as far as I’m con­cerned, for what a qual­ity Win­dows 8 laptop exper­i­ence should be like.