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Acer Aspire S7 Ultrabook Review
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Date: Dec 19, 2013
Section:Mobile
Author: Joshua Gulick
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Introduction & Specifications
Intel's 4th generation Core processors, based on the company's Haswell microarchitecture, have done good things for ultrabooks this year. Thanks to Haswell, Ultrabooks have moved much closer to Intel’s original vision of thin, light, low-power (but still powerful) systems that eschew outdated components and usher in new features like ultra high resolutions and touchscreen displays. Acer’s recently-updated Aspire S7 is a good example of how far ultrabooks have come and where they are headed.



Acer sent us an Aspire S7-392-6411 for review and evaluation. The model rings in at $1,399.99 at Acer’s online store and seems to be consistently-priced among the usual online retail suspects, though the Microsoft Store is touting free shipping. If you like the S7 and want to price shop online, poke around using S7-392 as your keyword – you’ll find there are a couple configurations at different price points. But don’t mistake the S7-391 models for what we’re reviewing today – those are older versions. With the shopping tips out of the way, let’s dig into the Aspire S7’s hardware.

Acer Aspire S7-392-6411
Specifications & Features
Processor:
Intel Core i5-4200U Dual-Core 1.6GHz (TurboBoost to 2.6GHz) 
Graphics:
Intel HD 4400
Memory:
8GB DDR3L 1600MHz SDRAM (4GB x2)
Storage:
128GB SSD (64GB x2 in RAID-0)
Display:
13.3-inch LED-backlit, multi-touch at 1920 x 1080 with IPS
Webcam:
Yes
Sound:
Dolby Home Theater v4
Interface:
2 USB 3.0 ports, SD memory card slot, WiDi, Bluetooth 4.0, headphone/mic jack
Networking:
Intel Dual-Band Wireless N 7260 802.11a/b/g/n
Backlit Keyboard:
Yes: Auto EL
Battery:
4-Cell Li-Polymer (not user replaceable); estimated 8 hour max run time
Power Adapter:
45W AC Adapter
Dimensions:
12.7 x 8.8 x .5 (WxDxH)
Weight:
2.87 pounds
Enclosure:
Aluminum Unibody and Gorilla Glass 2
Warranty:
One-Year Limited
Software:
Windows 8 64-bit
 Price:  $1,399.99


The Aspire S7’s 13.3-inch display has all the right stuff, including a full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, LED backlighting, and ten-point touch. Of course, touch means fingerprints on your screen, but we found the Aspire S7’s display to be fairly resistant to smudges. That’s probably thanks to the Corning Gorilla Glass, which covers the display and is built into the ultrabook’s case.

The display also features an IPS panel. In-Plane Switching is an important feature if you sometimes share your screen with friends or co-workers or care about accurate color reproduction. If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie on a laptop that doesn’t have a wide viewing angle, you know how much IPS matters: colors get skewed and dark scenes become unwatchable. That’s not an issue with the Aspire S7.

Anchoring the Aspire S7’s hardware is a 4th generation Intel Core i5-4200U CPU. A brand-new processor (it was launched only a few months ago), the 1.6GHz i5-4200U boasts dual cores (plus HyperThreading) and Turbo Boost speeds up to 2.6GHz. It also features an Intel HD 4400 graphics controller, which supports DirectX 11.1 and should offer better performance than the HD 4000 we’ve seen in recent ultrabooks.


The i5-4200U supports low-power DDR3L memory up to 16GB, but Acer opted for 8GB of memory in this model. That’s on par with other ultrabooks we’ve seen lately, including the KIRAbook, Toshiba’s high-end offering. But Acer mixed things up when it decided on two 64GB SSDs in RAID-0 for the ultrabook’s storage. On the one hand, SSDs are clearly a better choice for ultrabooks versus the hard drives or even SSD-HDD combos we’ve seen in other systems. But on the other hand, storage space can get scarce fast when 128GB is your internal max. In the end, it comes down to how you use your system and where you store your data. If you’re a heavy cloud user, a striped SSD array probably sounds like a good trade-off considering the performance improvements it should offer.

Ethernet ports are passé for many hip new ultrabooks these days, so it’s no surprise that the glossy Aspire S7 doesn’t have one. As for wireless, it has 802.11a/b/g/n connectivity and Bluetooth 4.0.
 
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Design & Accessories
If you were hoping to see a display that flips 180 degrees to face the person across from you, you’re thinking of the Aspire R7. Still, the Acer Aspire S7 display has its own trick, and it’s almost as good: the screen folds down flat and the image reorients (with the push of a button) so that the person sitting across from you can see it too. If the two of you are at a smallish table, this works well and the display's touch support makes it so your friend can engage with whatever you’re showing.



As far as day-to-day use goes, the display feature that will probably matter more to you is the dual-torque hinge, which keeps the display in place while you swipe and tap the screen. The hinge works as advertised, and adds to sense of sturdiness you get when using the ultrabook. As thin as the Aspire S7 is (it’s a hair over half an inch thick at its thickest point), the system feels remarkably solid.



Hinge aside, the S7 owes that sturdiness to the aluminum unibody and the Gorilla Glass casing. Paired with the white background, the Gorilla Glass gives the S7’s lid a sophisticated, stylish look. The fancy lid may not be for everyone, but it’s a welcome break from the aluminum (or aluminum-colored plastic) showing up on most laptops and ultrabooks these days. A fan near the back of the ultrabook pulls in cool air and expels warm, all with nearly inaudible noise.

The S7 isn’t loaded with interface options, but it covers the bases. The USB 3.0 ports (there are only two) sit on either side of the system, near the back. The Acer converter port, HDMI port and microphone jack are all on the right side. One quibble we have (and it doesn’t even make it into the cons list in our summary) is that, with the headphone jack near the back of the ultrabook, it’s easy for a headphone cord to slide up onto the keyboard. The SD slot and power button flank the USB 3.0 port on the left side of the S7.


The Aspire S7's new TwinAir cooling system pulls cool air in from side vents and a back vent (the left-hand vent in this image) and expels it from a separate back vent. (In this image, that's the right-hand vent.)



As for audio, the volume is fine for an ultrabook, thanks in part to the speakers, which are located at the front bottom of the system. If you’re watching a movie or listening to tunes in a small-ish room, the S7’s speakers have you covered.

The trackpad is large enough to accommodate long swipes and is very responsive. In fact, it’s one of the better trackpads we’ve used. The keyboard keys are responsive, too, but the layout might throw you. Where laptops (and even many ultrabooks) generally have six rows of keys, the Aspire S7 has five. That means the top bank does triple duty: numbers by default, symbols with the shift key, and function 1-10 with the function key. Despite all that, Acer still found itself short on space and ended up moving the delete key to the bottom row of the keyboard. It also made the caps lock button very small and paired it with the tilde. We got used to the new delete key placement over time, but we were still hitting the tilde by accident by the end of this review.

You'll need to get used to the tiny caps lock key and the unusual placement of the delete key.

One thing that we love about the keyboard is the electroluminescent backlighting, which is light sensitive. Finding keyboard keys in the dark is not a problem with the Aspire S7.




As for accessories, this ultrabook travels light. It includes an AC adapter and a nice faux-leather sleeve that ought to provide reasonable protection from your keys and other sharp objects in your laptop bag.
 
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Software
Software is one area where less is more, generally speaking. Most PC makers have gotten the hint about bloatware and the software you’ll find on an Acer system is more likely to be Acer’s own branded applications, which are typically unobtrusive and sometimes come in quite handy.


Bloatware? Forget it. The Acer Aspire S7 is practically a blank slate when it arrives, which is just the way it should be.

The Aspire S7 comes with Windows 8 64-bit and is upgradable to 8.1. Buy it from the Microsoft store and a local Windows Store will handle the upgrade for free. Of course, you can also install the update yourself at no charge, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re buying an ultrabook for someone less technology-savvy.

Acer Recovery Management is one of the first applications you’ll want to check out, as you can use it to create a custom backup on whatever media you prefer. If things go south later on, the Acer Recovery Management tool can help you restore the system back to a previous state. You can also use this tool to restore the Aspire S7 to its factory settings, which is handy when you want to start with a clean slate or are passing the ultrabook along to someone else.


Setting up a proper backup is the sort of thing that's easy to put off until it's too late, but you have options even if you've never backed up. If you run into trouble, check out Acer's Recovery Management tool.

Acer Live Update is also worth checking out. It can look for updates as often (or as rarely) as you’d like. And if you often charge your smartphone by plugging its USB cord into your ultrabook, the Acer Charge Manager is worthwhile too. It lets you choose how low the S7 will let its own battery go before cutting off power to your smartphone.


The Aspire's pre-installed programs are mostly simple, no-frills tools that don't take up significant drive space.



Acer Crystal Eye gives you everything you need for shooting selfies and videos with the built-in camera. And, Crystal Eye is a touch-friendly app, so you can use all of its features by tapping the screen.  The camera’s image quality isn’t bad, even in somewhat dim lighting.

Those are the more useful freebies on the S7. As we said, it isn’t loaded down with software. Now, let’s dig into the benchmarks.
 
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Cinebench & SiSoft SANDRA
We kicked off testing with Cinebench and SiSoft SANDRA. The SiSoft suite offers a range of diagnostic and system utilities, including several benchmarks. These tests are designed to test particular components, including the processor, memory, graphics card, and the computer's main storage device. 

SiSoft SANDRA
Synthetic Benchmarks
 
SiSoft SANDRA
 SiSoft SANDRA has a variety of tests that stress specific components or simulate certain tasks. We put the Aspire S7 through the CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, and Physical Disks tests. SANDRA receives frequent updates, so if you use the benchmark, check to make sure you have the latest version.


The Arithmetic test is a good measure of processor performance and the Aspire S7’s Core i5-4200U performs as expected, though it did finish a bit behind in the multi-media test.


The Acer Aspire S7’s memory score is a little on the low side, coming in just behind its closest competitor (in terms of relevant configuration), the Dell XPS 13. Still, the score gap isn’t wide enough to throw up any red flags. The Aspire S7’s storage performance, however, is noteworthy. The score shows just how blazingly fast an ultrabook can be with SSDs in a striped array. If you favor speed over capacity, this is clearly the way to go.

Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
Content Creation Performance
 
Cinebench
Based on Maxon Cinema 4D software, this test uses a 3D scene and polygon and texture manipulation to assess GPU and CPU performance. The Main Processor Performance (CPU) test builds a still scene containing about 2,000 objects for a total polygon count above 300,000. The Graphics Card Performance (OpenGL) scene uses nearly 1 million polygons and various lighting and environment scenarios to measure graphics performance. Cinebench displays results for the CPU test in points and the OpenGL (GPU) test in frames per second.


As you might expect, the Aspire S7 handled the OpenGL test very well, providing one of the top scores, though it couldn't top the larger Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro. The Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD maintains the crown in this category, but that’s comparing apples to oranges because the Zenbook has a discrete graphics card.
 
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PCMark 7 and 8
Over the years, Futuremark has made a name for itself with comprehensive benchmarks that provide consistent results for comparing granular and big-picture performance. We put the Acer Aspire S7 through PCMark 7, which has been around for a while, and PCMark 8, which is the latest benchmark in the series. With PCMark 7 we've provided overall scores, while PCMark 8 tests are broken out into three key modules.

Futuremark PCMark 7
Simulated Application Performance
 
PCMark 7
PCMark 7 runs through the types of tasks your ultrabook is likely to encounter during ordinary home and office use. It tests the system’s graphics capabilities as part of the process, but you should think of PCMark 7 as an indicator of system’s general usage performance. We’ll get to the gaming-oriented benchmarks on the next page.  



The Aspire S7 has all the right hardware to score well in a general usage benchmark, and it does. The striped SSDs likely helped quite a bit, putting the S7 near the top of the pack. Still, processor speed is important to PCMark 7, so the KIRAbook’s Core i7-3537U helps it out here.

Futuremark PCMark 8
Simulated Application Performance

PCMark 8
 
Futuremark recently launched PCMark 8, which has several separate benchmarks. The Home test measures a system's ability to handle basic tasks: video chatting, web browsing, photo editing, and similar day-to-day activities. The test is designed to be run on just about any Windows 7 or 8 computer. The Creative test offers some of the same types of tasks, but puts more stress on the system and is meant for mid-range and higher-end systems. The Work test simulates the workflow of a typical office user. And the Storage test - you guessed it - benchmark's your system’s data storage performance. 



The Acer Aspire S7 manages to edge out even the similarly-configured Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro in this benchmark. And, it's strong performer in the Work test, coming closer to Core i7 laptop's score than any of the other ultrabooks.

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Gaming Benchmarks
Most ultrabooks aren't meant to be serious gaming systems – though we’ve seen some ultrabooks with discrete graphics that can certainly hold their own. The Acer Aspire S7 has an integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics controller, which is generally recognized to be a much better graphics core than Intel's previous generation IGP, so we were interested to see how the system would perform against other ultrabooks.

Futuremark 3DMark 11
Simulated Gaming Performance

3DMark 11
Although Futuremark’s 3DMark 11 has been around for several years, it still provides a good look at a system’s gaming capabilities. It's also handy tool for benchmarking machines that still run Windows 7. We ran this benchmark on the Performance preset, at 1280 x 720 resolution. If you download the free version of this benchmark, make sure you're using the Performance preset to avoid comparing scores that were run with different test configurations.



Here, we get a good look at what the Intel HD 4400 brings to the table. The fastest ultrabook of the bunch is the Zenbook Prime with it's discrete NVIDIA GeForce 620M GPU, but the Aspire S7 and Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro aren't far behind with Intel HD 4400 graphics.

Futuremark 3DMark Cloud Gate
Simulated Gaming Performance

3DMark Cloud Gate
 The flagship benchmark in Futuremark’s catalog, 3DMark is a popular choice for testing everything from gaming PCs to mobile devices. Of course, the technology differences between a game machine and a smartphone are significant, so 3DMark has a separate test suite for each device category. The Cloud Gate test is aimed at entry-level PCs and laptops, and has two subtests: a processor- intensive physics test and two graphics tests. We run the test suite at its default 1280 x 720 resolution and at default rendering quality settings. Keep in mind that 3DMark Cloud Gate scores aren’t comparable to scores from say, 3DMark Fire Strike (gaming PCs) or Ice Storm (smartphones and tablets).



As you would expect, the Aspire S7 also fared well in Futuremark’s newest benchmark. For comparison purposes, we brought in the score from Samsung’s ATIV Book 6, which is laptop we recently tested. The ATIV has a discrete graphics card, which gives it an unfair advantage, but even in the shadow of the ATIV, the S7’s graphics performance looks pretty good.

Ubisoft Far Cry 2
DX10 Gaming Performance

Far Cry 2
When it comes to lush vegetation in a steaming, sinister jungle, no one pulls it off quite like Ubisoft does in its Far Cry series. Far Cry 2 uses high-quality textures, complex shaders, and dynamic lighting to create a realistic environment. The game’s built-in benchmark gives us a good look at a system’s performance with DirectX 10.  



The Aspire S7’s performance in Far Cry 2 seals the deal.  With Intel's HD 4400 graphics core, it’ll easily beat out systems running the older HD 4000 and it’s certainly equipped to make casual gaming fun. But in the end, you have to set expectations accordingly with integrated graphics solutions.
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Battery Life
Ultrabook battery life is a primary concern for PC makers, and previous versions of the S7 offered an abysmal four hours of battery life during regular use. That’s not enough to get you through a typical flight, let alone a workday. Acer revamped the battery situation with their new S7-392 models and touts eight hours of battery life for the new ultrabook.

Battery Eater Pro
Battery Life Testing
To put the Aspire S7 through its paces, we ran two tests. In the first test, the ultrabook refreshes a web page every few minutes until it taps the battery. If you were to do eight hours of casual Web surfing, this is the kind of battery life you might expect to see. For the second test, we run Battery Eater Pro, which gives the ultrabook a much heavier load, to approximate heavy use.


        

The Aspire S7 didn’t last the full eight hours Acer is promoting, but that’s not uncommon – our usage scenarios aren’t the same as Acer used to reach its eight-hour claim. More important is how the system performed compared to other ultrabooks, and for once, the S7 isn’t the clear winner. It lasted 2:01 (hours: minutes) in BEP, and 7:01 in our Web browsing test. Although that’s not as long as some of its competitors lasted, it’s close enough to still be very competitive.

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Performance Summary & Conclusion
At the outset of this evaluation, we said that the Acer Aspire S7 gives us a look at how far ultrabooks have come, but also lets us peek at where they’re headed. The Aspire S7 solves some of the major problems of early ultrabooks (like less than optimal battery life and performance that lagged too far behind that of full-sized laptops). Current ultrabooks are a competent tool that will rarely make you feel like you’re sacrificing performance for size. As for what the S7 says about the future of ultrabooks, it's more a testament to what advancing mobile technologies can and will enable. Manufacturers are more at liberty now to push the boundaries of creativity and aesthetics when thermal and power consumption constraints aren't as much of a limiting factor.


Enough about the future, though. The latest Acer Aspire S7 is a hardworking, flexible, and stylish ultrabook with good battery life. That’s not to say that Acer can’t improve there, though. We’d love to see future models improve battery life even futher. Intel's Haswell ULT processor family is maturing and the Aspire S7 benefits from that, offering both better all-around performance and specifically better graphics performance versus systems running older versions of Intel’s ULT line-up with integrated graphics.

As for its design, the Aspire S7 has the polish you’d expect in a system with this kind of price tag ($1399 as tested though you can find cheaper configs). The Gorilla Glass is a nice touch, and the thought Acer put into this ultrabook really shows: USB ports on both sides of the machine, excellent keyboard backlighting, a display that folds flat, and a knock-out trackpad.

The Aspire S7 isn’t perfect, but it is going to be a solid choice for a lot of users – particularly those who want a stylish machine that looks as good in the conference room as it does in the coffee shop.


   
  •  Strong performance in office applications and reasonable graphics capabilities
  •  Keyboard layout puts important keys in unexpected places
  •  Dual-torque hinge means you can touch the screen without moving the display
  •  Drive space is limited (though extremely fast)
  •  Solid battery life, although there is room for improvement here
 
  •  Sturdy, light chassis that should withstand day-to-day bumps and bangs
 


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