|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have moved much closer to Intel’s original vision of thin, light, low-power (but still powerful) systems that eschew outdated components and usher in new features like ultra high resolutions and touchscreen displays.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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.