At Acer's press conference in Taipei yesterday, the company announced some very welcome changes to one of our favorite ultrabooks of 2012: the Aspire S7. Our two primarily complaints with the machine — battery life and limited RAM — have been addressed, while everything we loved about the laptop — its solid construction and Gorilla Glass lid — has remained the same. It's a promising combination, and after handling the Aspire S7 here at Computex, it looks like Acer may have a winner on its hands.
The Aspire S7 remains an attractive ultrabook. Like before, Acer's used aluminum for the body and covered the white lid with Gorilla Glass, giving the laptop a premium look. As we noted yesterday when we first handled a (powered off) model, Acer has altered the aesthetics a bit, with the bottom tapering off towards the edges — making the machine somewhat too reminiscent of other ultrabooks and the MacBook Air. Still, the S7 is a handsome machine I'd be proud to tote into a Manhattan coffee shop. The company has also managed to fit a few ports on the side of the laptop, with two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, Mini DisplayPort, and an SD card reader.
It's not all just about looks, however. The company says it's increased key travel on the S7 over last year's model. The backlit chiclet keyboard is still shallow, but it's comfortable to use. It's worth noting that there are no dedicated function keys and caps lock is a minuscule button connected to the tilde, which may be frustrating depending on how you use the laptop (we don't think it's a problem). The touchpad is suitably roomy and smooth, though it doesn't quite reach the ever-elusive standard set by MacBooks.
While looks are important, that's never where the last-generation S7 struggled. The most significant update to the S7 comes to its power plant: Acer's using Intel's newly-minted (and very promising) Haswell processors, which are said to offer significantly improved battery life and integrated graphics performance. The model on display here at Computex featured an ultra-low voltage Core i7-4500U at 1.8GHz, though Core i5 models will be available as well. Performance was snappy when swiping through Windows 8's start screen, and selections took almost immediately. We'll need to do a full review to see how well Haswell delivers, so keep an eye out for that. Even if Haswell doesn't offer the battery life boost advertised, the new S7 should last far longer than the three hours and 55 minutes we eked out of the previous model. That's because Acer's added a 34 percent larger battery.
Lastly, Acer will offer a new 2560 x 1440 resolution display option in select regions. Unfortunately no demo unit was available, and we're told that the panel may not even be available in the US. For regions that do receive the high-resolution option, however, we're told it will come in at about a $500 price premium. The good news is that the 1080p, IPS display on the standard model is a quality unit. Viewing angles — which are especially important for a laptop with an 180-degree hinge — are excellent and colors are accurate.
The S7 isn't the only new ultrabook from Acer: it's also completely redesigned its less-expensive Aspire S3 with a lid similar to the S7 (though it's not Gorilla Glass) and, overall, a similar design to the company's flagship. It's certainly a good look for a machine in this category (and a huge improvement over the previous generation), though it's clear from first use that this isn't an S7. The 13.3-inch laptop is 0.7 inches thick, and it weighs nearly an entire pound more at 3.63 pounds. That certainly doesn't make the S3 the heftiest ultrabook we've seen, but it's a fairly dense laptop. The upside is that you get an option for a 1TB hard drive (with a small amount of flash storage for the OS) and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 735M GPU. The most notable difference from the S7, unfortunately, is the display. While Acer says that it's using a 1080p, IPS display, it's not of the same quality as the one on the S7. The screen is washed out and fairly dim even at max brightness, and viewing angles were not great at all (see update below). Thanks to its increased girth, however, the keyboard has a bit more travel than the one on the S7, and it's also backlit, which we're glad to see.
While the S3 is clearly a step down from the mighty (and attractive) Aspire S7, it may be an acceptable option for those looking for discrete graphics performance in a 13.3-inch machine — especially if the price is good. We'll need to do full testing before we can make a verdict however. Acer still won't pin down a price or release date, but we're told the S3 will be available in Q3 just in time for school in white, red, and yellow. The Aspire S7 will also come out in Q3, and it will sell for the same price as the previous generation: $1,299, which puts it squarely in MacBook Air territory. From what we've seen, however, it looks to be a very worthy competitor.
Update: Acer has informed us that the production models of the S3 will use the same 1080p, IPS displays as the ones used on the S7. If this is the case, the S3 could be a very compelling machine when it comes out later this year — we'll need to see a final model in person to be sure, though.