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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.