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.

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  • mforce - Monday, January 7, 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 7, 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 7, 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 7, 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 7, 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 7, 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 7, 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 8, 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 7, 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 7, 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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