Acer Aspire S7 Ultrabook: Acer’s Best Foot Forwardby Jarred Walton on January 7, 2013 4:30 AM EST
Conclusion: One Big Step for Acer, One Smaller Step for Ultrabooks in General
If you’ll pardon my slaughtering of Neil Armstrong’s famous quote from the moon landing, there are two areas I want to focus on for the conclusion. First, there’s what Acer has done today relative to the Acer of years past; second is how the end result of those efforts compares with what other companies are doing.
For Acer as a company, the S7 is a massive improvement over previous offerings. It’s clear that Intel and others have been actively involved in helping Acer to create a more compelling Ultrabook, and outside of a few quirks this is one of the coolest looking laptops I’ve used in many years. I can’t overstate how impressively thin this thing is, and while I know that’s not the be-all, end-all goal of computing devices, it’s still a great way to garner attention. I like the silver and white aesthetic as well, and my biggest complaint (aesthetically) is that some of the seams between the pieces of the S7 are still a bit too noticeable. There’s another minor complaint with the way the laptop opens: the LCD piece and the keyboard piece are about the same weight, and the lip for opening the S7 just isn’t as easy to grab as I would like. These are relatively minor issues, but for all the good looks, there are other areas that detract from the overall experience, at least for me.
The keyboard action is something I’ve grown used to over the past month or so, and I’ve typed the majority of this review using the S7 without too much anger bubbling to the surface. I’d still like more key travel, but more importantly I find the missing function key row to be a constant irritation that forces me to frequently use an extra finger or hand to accomplish common shortcuts (Fn+Alt+F4 and Fn+Ctrl+Home/End being a couple examples that I use frequently). When I’m just writing text, the keyboard works well enough, but with web browsing or other general tasks the layout changes become more noticeable—and not in a good way (hello delete key where my right-control key should be!) The touchpad also seems to be somewhat lacking, with some choppiness on scrolling gestures—Acer uses Elan hardware instead of Synaptics, and I personally find the higher end Synaptics touchpads to be the best option right now. Also related to the touchpad, and leading in to our next section, the “reversed gesture direction” on Windows 8 is something I still routinely get wrong. Swiping down on the screen to scroll up makes sense, but not so much on a touchpad. That leads us to our discussion of the touch screen experience.
For the Windows 8 UI and apps, the touch screen works great, but in desktop applications (Word, surfing the Internet, email, etc.) it quickly falls short. Even with a touch screen right in front of my face, since this is a laptop I end up doing 95% of my interactions via the keyboard and touchpad. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the S7, but I just don’t find the touch screen experience to be something that I want or need unless I’m using a tablet/smartphone device. In my opinion, Acer needs something similar to the Lenovo Yoga (though I’m not sold on the exposed keyboard aspect when in tablet mode), the Dell XPS 12 (which is thicker, thanks to the convertible tablet aspect), or an ASUS Transformer (or a slider-type) design similar to what they have with their W510 tablet to really make the S7 work as a touch screen device. All of the approaches have some compromises involved, depending on your viewpoint, and I discussed this in an earlier Pipeline posting.
What we end up with in the Acer Aspire S7 is a device that looks great and works well, with some specific design elements that people will either love or hate. I know there are many users out there that don’t type as much in a month as I’ve done in this one review (nearly 6000 words, if you’re counting), so if you’re one of those users my keyboard comments become far less important. Likewise there are people that never use (and don’t even know about) the various keyboard shortcuts, and for them the “missing function keys” won’t matter a bit. On the performance side of things, there’s not too much to say for or against the S7: it’s as fast as most other Core i7 Ultrabooks, though the RAID 0 SSD is still an oddity for me—I’d rather have a good 256GB SSD from Samsung, Intel, or one of the other major names instead of a custom mSATA with dual-controllers card.
While I can’t give the S7 a recommendation without caveats, there are very few computer devices where I wouldn’t say the same thing. It’s a good Ultrabook and one of the most impressive Acer devices ever to hit retail. That alone makes me excited to see what Acer can do with the next iteration. The Aspire S5 was a daring move with its mechanize vent that I didn’t really care for, and the S7 might just be too thin for some people, but at least they’re distinct traits that other companies lack. The S7 has imperfections, but many can be overlooked…well, except for the pricing.
I wouldn’t be willing to fork over more than $1000 for an Ultrabook, and I would guess most people feel the same way. That’s the real problem, because it means Acer’s most innovative laptop in years could end up doing poorly at retail. That’s where Apple’s approach of building a premium brand name with devices that stand out from the crowd has been so successful. Say what you want about the company and their products, but the fact is that Apple sells more MacBooks than any other laptop brand I can name, and they sell more iPads than any other tablet brand. Acer and the other large OEMs have hundreds of competing laptops, and most of them are budget-friendly “Best Buy” models that cost less than half of what the Aspire S7 will set you back. That in turn leads to them selling well and the quality products like the S7 get left on the warehouse shelves.
As I said in the introduction, I’d love to see a reversal of this gradual downward trend in laptop quality all in the name of chasing lower prices. The S7 costs a lot, but at the same time it’s a step in the right direction for quality and innovation. For that reason if nothing else, I want the S7 to sell well and get some followers, but to do that it probably needs to be priced at least $300 lower. Whatever happens with the S7, Acer is big enough that they’re not going anywhere. Hopefully when we see Haswell based Ultrabooks, Acer will take all the good elements of the S3, S5, and S7 and improve once more. If they can keep doing that, another year or two could very well see them with some of the most compelling Ultrabooks on the block.