Acer Aspire S7: Welcome to the World of Touch Screen Ultrabooks

Acer has long been the poster child when it comes to the race to the bottom in consumer laptops. In the effort to get a laptop into every home, prices had to come down and the easiest path for doing that was to cut corners. We've often lauded Acer's products for being extremely affordable, but when it comes to overall impressions there are some concerns. These days, every big OEM has at least a few inexpensive laptops sitting on retail shelves, and they're all basically the same: AMD Llano or Trinity APUs or an Intel Celeron/Pentium/Core i3/Core i5 CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive, and a 1366x768 display. Wrap it all up in an injection molded plastic chassis and slap a $400 to $600 price tag on it, and you're done. The problem is that you get what you pay for, and in this case what you often end up with is a laptop that will start to fall apart after a year or two of moderate use, not to mention the slow hard drive and lousy display.

Chase these cost reducing measures for long enough and what you end up with is a 5% reduction in overall quality, compounded yearly. Ten years later, what we have are a bunch of laptops that are faster, but they're also about half the quality of what we used to see. What if, instead of iterating on lowering prices and quality, we went the other direction with quality while trying to keep pricing relatively constant? Instead of getting cheaper, what if someone were to make laptops that are 5% better each iteration—or maybe even 10% better? Compound that through multiple release cycles and now you're looking at a laptop that's not only faster (thanks to Moore's Law), but it's also built better. That in a nutshell is what I've been seeing with Ultrabooks for the past 18 months.

The first Ultrabooks were all very thin, but the quality ranged from decent down to quite poor, with some experiencing cooling problems, overheating, noisy fans, and of course most came with bottom-of-the-barrel 1366x768 displays. The second generation designs weren't a revolution, but at least we started to see a greater focus on improving the tangibles like the display and keyboard. Now that trend continues with Acer's S7, which is the first Windows 8 Ultrabook to hit our labs. Did I mention that it’s super thin?

Here are the specifications for our review unit:

Acer Aspire S7-391-9886 Specifications
Processor Intel i7-3517U
(Dual-core 1.90-3.00GHz, 4MB L3, 22nm, 17W)
Chipset HM76
Memory 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 (9-9-9-24-1T)
Note: RAM is soldered onto motherboard
Graphics Intel HD 4000
(16 EUs, up to 1150MHz)
Display 13.3" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B133HAN03.0)
Storage 2x128GB Lite On CMT-128L3M SSDs in RAID 0
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Qualcomm Atheros AR9462)
(Dual-band 2x2:2 300Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek ALC269
Stereo Speakers
Headphone/Microphone combo jack
Battery/Power 4-cell, 8.4V, ~4160mAh, ~35Wh
65W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Power Button
Headphone/Microphone jack
Mini-HDMI
AC Power Connection
Right Side Memory Card Reader
1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 3.0 (Powered when sleeping)
Back Side N/A
(Exhaust vent located on bottom)
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit
Dimensions 12.7" x 8.8" x 0.5" (WxDxH)
(323mm x 224mm x 12.7mm)
Weight 2.87 lbs (1.3kg)
Extras HD Webcam
67-Key Backlit Keyboard
Flash reader (MMC /SD)
Warranty 1-year limited warranty
Price $1650 MSRP
Starting at $1540 online (1/03/2013)

When we look at the specifications for the S7, other than the nice 1080p IPS touch screen and the dimensions and weight, there's not a whole lot to separate it from the pack. The base model comes with a Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB onboard memory, and a 128GB RAID 0 SSD set and comes with an MSRP of $1399. There's an 11.6" S7 as well that has the same specs but starts at $1199.

As for our test unit, it comes with a faster Core i7-3517U processor and a 256GB RAID 0 SSD set but otherwise has the same components and design as the less expensive offering. Besides double the storage capacity, the Core i7 processor comes with a base clock that's 12% faster and a max turbo clock that's 15% higher. The ULV CPUs are a potential bottleneck, so if you're ready to spend $1400 then the extra $250 for more storage and a faster CPU is probably a reasonable upgrade—and thankfully, online pricing is about $100 less than the MSRP.

We do want to take a moment to talk about the storage configuration. Acer is going with a 2x64GB (or 2x128GB) RAID 0 set for some reason—I wish that weren’t the case, as a single good SSD is usually better than two in RAID 0 for most use cases. It’s difficult to find out details on the Lite On CMT-128L3M SSDs, but they appear to use a Marvell controller similar to the Plextor M3 and some other offerings, so performance should be similar (we assume Lite On is working with Plextor for the design, or vice versa). The SSD is essentially two controllers on a single mSATA card, which is novel if nothing else. Being RAID 0, that does mean that if either SSD goes kaput, you lose all your data, but then this is a specialty device where you would replace both “SSDs” simultaneously regardless. Meanwhile, the latest version of Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager supports TRIM with RAID arrays, which is one more obstacle for RAID out of the way. RAID 0 shouldn’t make performance any worse, and as we’ll see in the benchmarks the storage subsystem does appear slightly faster than some of the other options we’ve tested, but I’m still not sure it’s a worthwhile feature.

The more difficult prospect is in convincing someone to spend $1400+ on an Ultrabook right now. The good news is that this is an awesome looking laptop that has the cachet to hang with the best ultraportables out there. Carrying something like this around school or on business trips would be great. There are other competing Ultrabooks, with plenty more set to ship during the coming months, but I can't shake the feeling that the price is just a bit more than most are willing to pay. Even $1200 to $1400 is probably too much, but I'll leave that to others to decide. Let's forget the cost for a minute and just look at what the Aspire S7 has to offer.

Subjective Evaluation: If Looks Could Kill
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  • mforce - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    I find it seriously difficult to justify spending more than 500$ on a laptop. I don't make that much but even if I did ... I'm not really sure what justifies and over 1000 $ price for a laptop, it's just way too much.
    And the fact that it's an Acer doesn't help things much, let's face it, Acer doesn't really have a premium brand and it's not Apple. If I'll want to sell it right after I buy it I probably won't get more than 1000$ for it.
    Besides even cheapo laptops often last quite a long time, I have an Acer I paid 400$ for and it's still running just fine 4 years later.
    Reply
  • Romberry - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    It's a conundrum eh? People like to complain that Windows-based notebooks aren't up to the build quality of Apple's MacBooks that go for well over a grand, but when confronted with a Windows-based notebook that rivals (or meets and in some cases exceeds) the build quality of Apple's MacBooks, the same crowd that bemoans the quality of the sub-500 dollar Windows machines balks.

    You can have cheap and (hopefully) acceptable, or you can have quality and the price that comes with it. If you're a 500 dollar and under laptop kind of person, then obviously this product is not for you.

    Personally? I tend to agree that paying well over a grand for a laptop is very hard to justify for most people. I wouldn't do it. Example? I'm typing this post on an old (five years plus) Dell Inspiron e1505 running a Core Duo (not Core 2) processor , 1680x1050 display, 4 gigs of RAM and a 500 gig Hitachi hard drive with 32 bit Vista Ultimate. Bought two of these in May of 2007 for about 500 dollars a whack new from Dell on special, one for me and one for my daughter. Does everything I need it to do and is comfortable like an old shoe.

    I have a Dell Latitude 6400 in the next room (Core 2 Duo P9600 at 2.66 GHz, 8 gigs RAM, 1920x1200 display, 128 gig Samsung 470 SSD primary drive, 500 gig WD Scorpio Black in the expansion bay in place of the optiical drive.) that I paid all of 400 dollars for off lease two years ago. (Added the SSD, upgraded the RAM and installed Win 7 x64.) It mostly sits unused because of the old shoe factor with the Inspiron.

    Neither are sleek or easily portable, but they are functional, stable and reasonably fast for what I do with 'em.

    I'm not sure just how big a market there is really for high end laptops. Apple sells a lot of MacBooks in terms of units, but in terms of overall market share...not that much. MacBooks are a niche. I think Winbooks built to these high standards are likely to be niche products as well, garnering about the same 3-5 percent share of the overall market as MacBooks. (Of course for many people I think those Apple MacBooks are as much a fashion accessory as they are a PC. Winbooks will likely never have that sort of purposeful snob appeal cachet. Then again, not everyone wants to be a snob.)
    Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    I agree with your statement about PC laptops not being able to win as they either feel cheap because they are or are too expensive. I would however like to draw some comparisons

    Galaxy S3 ~ £400
    iPad4 3g 64gb ~ £650

    so £1000 for an ultra-book is not out of place, Don't get me wrong they are all expensive and products like the nexus range start to chalenge these premium prices.

    Just so my bias is clear I own a S3, nexus 7 and brought my wife a yoga 13 for xmas as she is a dev and commutes with her laptop on the train so I wanted to find a nice light one. She loves it so money well spent.
    Reply
  • mforce - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    Sure but Nexus devices are cheaper and still quite good. And besides smartphones and tablets are all the rage these days , I don't think such a device can match that. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    200€ for a Nexus 7, 300-350€ for a Nexus 4, 400€ for a Nexus 10 and ~150-200€ for about any dual/quad A9 Chinese tablet and smartphone with specs similar to the current high end crop (800p, 1080p, 1200p ips screen @ tablet, 540p or 720p @ smartphone, 4-32GB NAND, 7.4Wh/25Wh batteries etc.). So I would argue that the prices you mention are just as overpriced. Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    Although there is an argument that the high end products profits from manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Apple (tho indirectly) go toward the R&D of next gen hardware. I cannot see those same chinese manufacturers coming out with a flexible display until the tech is matured by one of the larger players at significant cost.

    Overpriced is strong term, as mentioned in the article the PC community have enjoyed a race to the bottom with little thought to anything other than Power/Price. I for one am glad that companies are looking to push toward aesthetics. If a Bugatti Veyron costs £2M, Aston Martin Vanquish costs £180k and Suzuki Alto costs £6k which one is better to get a pint of milk from the store in? and would you really like to live in a world where there is no "Wow"?
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    Then disregard the Chinese offerings, but a Nexus 7 at 200/250€, a Nexus 4 at 300/350€ and a Nexus 10 at 400€ still significantly undercut his listed devices while offering comparable to arguably better specs.
    As for the rest of your comment that car analogy has nothing to do with my comment and you are reading things into my comment that are clearly of your own mind.
    Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Tuesday, January 08, 2013 - link

    The car comparison was just to illustrate that overpriced is highly subjective. The initial prices included the statement that the nexus range were challenging the sector, although google is not interested in profiting off these devices themselves.
    (http://crave.cnet.co.uk/mobiles/google-nexus-7-sel...

    I would think that these ultrabooks are not big earners due to high development costs and low unit sales, So rather than overpriced I think that maybe they are just expensive.
    Reply
  • mforce - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    I was just saying that Acer can't expect people to pay as much for their brand as they do for Apple or Sony ( if you want Windows laptops ) and that's the reality. Given the choice almost anyone would choose an Apple or Sony product ... sure it may not be better and I know that but this is how it works.
    Also I find the touchscreen on a laptop a bit useless maybe, I don't find myself using it much. I'd rather have a mouse :D
    Reply
  • blue_urban_sky - Monday, January 07, 2013 - link

    Poor old Acer, If they are trying to up there game good on them I think they know it will be an uphill battle winning consumers over and maybe they have made a product that is very well made with quality parts for that very reason.... Maybe. Reply

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