"Acer" and "jaw dropping" don't usually appear in the same sentence, but that's exactly what the Aspire S7 is. Dubbed the world's thinnest Ultrabook, the S7 (starting at $1,399, $1,699 as tested) is also the most striking, sporting a white Gorilla Glass Glid and aluminum deck. It's just beautiful. That aesthetic appeal extends to the touch-screen display, which not only presents Windows 8 in all its 1080p glory but can bend all the way flat. However, all of this sweetness comes at price. Is this the best Ultrabook yet?
Editor's Note: We reviewed the Canadian version of the Aspire S7. The U.S. version features the same specs, but uses a different keyboard layout.
Sporting a scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 2 lid, aluminum unibody chassis and a 0.47-inch-thin design, the Aspire S7 is undoubtedly Acer's sleekest Ultrabook yet. In fact, this is the best looking Windows laptop we've seen in a long time. Like the MacBook Air, Acer's notebook boasts a distinctly minimalist look. An LED-backlit Acer logo supplies the only piece of flair on the glass lid, while the aluminum chassis remains untarnished by any extraneous stickers or icons. A strategically placed, rear-facing vent distributes heat away from the legs.
The deck is about a millimeter wider than the lid, which creates for an interesting design feature, but makes the lid slightly more dificult to open, despite a small metal tab.
By our measurements, the Aspire S7 takes the crown as the thinnest ultraportable currently on the market. Measuring 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.46 inches and weighing just 2.8 pounds, the Aspire S7 is positively featherweight compared to the Dell XPS 12, which weighs 3.4 pounds and measures 0.6-0.8 inches thick. The ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A (0.44-0.66 inches thick, 3.0 pounds) and the 13-inch MacBook Air (0.11-0.66 inches thick, 3.0 pounds) come close to matching the S7's form factor, but can't quite beat it.
While it may not be as flexible as Lenovo's new IdeaPad Yoga, the Aspire S7 can do some calisthenics of its own. The screen can open 180 degrees to lay completely flat. This should make the S7 useful for working with a partner, though, at its price, we would have preferred if the screen could rotate to turn the notebook into a tablet.
Our biggest beef with the design is that the power button sits on the left side of the system instead of on top of the deck. Why Acer, why?
Keyboard and Touchpad
Uncomfortably sharp palm rest aside, the Aspire S7's island-style, backlit keyboard proved accurate and reliable. We noticed virtually no flex as we wrote this review, and although the keys don't offer much travel, they're evenly spaced and deliver plenty of tactile feedback. On the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we achieved a rate of 63 words per minute, just below our average speed.
The 4.2 x 2.4-inch ELAN clickpad proved less dependable. Although spacious, the clickpad occasionally failed to register left clicks, and the cursor seemed to lag slightly behind the movement of our finger. Thankfully, multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and edge swiping, worked consistently in Windows 8.
The star of the show is the Aspire S7's 13-inch LCD touch screen. A rarity among 13-inch notebooks, the S7 features a full 1920 x 1080 display that looks incredibly sharp and boasts rich colors. Watching a 1080p trailer for "The Hobbit" on YouTube, we could make out the filagree on Bilbo's elven sword, and the deep greens of the Forest of Mirkwood popped off the screen. Viewing angles proved equally excellent -- we could move more than 45 degrees in either direction before losing clarity.
Still, at 215 lux, the S7's display is significantly dimmer than the competition's. The average ultraportable notebook registers a brightness of 234 lux, while the XPS 12 and the Zenbook Prime eclipse the S7 with readings of 434 and 423, respectively.
When we listened to Nick Arundel's sweeping score to "Batman: Arkham City," the pounding trumpets and staccato violins rang accurately from the Aspire S7's speakers. The audio isn't particularly loud compared to other systems, but will more than suffice when watching a movie with a small group of friends. Unfortunately, the speakers' placement on the bottom of the notebook often led to muffled audio when we used the S7 in our lap.
The Aspire S7 is the first Acer notebook we've tested that runs Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system. Fortunately, the notebook's 10-point touch screen let us experience Windows 8 the way Microsoft intended.
From the Start Screen, you can launch apps by tapping their respective tiles, or you can open a complete list of apps by either swiping down from the top of the screen or up from the bottom. To close an open app, swipe or drag it from the top of the screen to the bottom. The tiles themselves update depending on their context and usage. For instance, the Photos tile displays the latest picture you've taken with the S7's webcam, while the News tile shows the most recent headline and its accompanying photograph.
You can cycle through open apps by swiping your finger from the left side of the screen toward the center. Performing the same action, while keeping your finger on the app, allows you to open two apps simultaneously in split-screen mode.
Swiping your finger from the right side of the screen toward the center launches the Charms menu, from which you can return to the Start Screen, search for programs and files, share content, connect to devices and adjust settings. The settings sub-menu contains options to manage wireless settings, adjust volume, hide notifications, switch keyboard mode and turn off or restart the PC. But you'll need to use the control panel in desktop mode to access more settings.
One way or another, however, you'll eventually have to navigate in desktop mode. The Windows 8 desktop looks identical to its predecessor in Windows 7, with one glaring difference -- there's no Start Menu. First-time users will undoubtedly find this obnoxious, as opening new applications forces you to return to the Start Screen (either by swiping from the right side of the screen and selecting the Start button, or pressing the Windows button on the keyboard). Your best bet is to pin your favorite apps not just to the Start screen, but to the taskbar as well.
Thankfully, the Aspire S7's responsive touch screen and Windows 8-enabled clickpad make navigating both the modern and desktop UI a pleasure. Gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scrolling and edge swipe worked reliably, and transitioning between the operating system's dual interfaces was more intuitive than on traditional mouse-and-keyboard notebooks.
The Aspire S7 comes preloaded with a number of third-party apps, including ChaCha, an alternative search engine; Skitch, a rudimentary photo editing tool; and 7digital Music Store, a portal for music downloads. Additionally, apps for eBay, Encyclopedia Britannica, Netflix and Spotify -- as well as Microsoft-branded applications like Skype SkyDrive -- are included. Acer's sole Modern app is Social Jogger, which aggregates all of your social media feeds, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Acer also includes a number of its own desktop-based applications, such as Acer Recovery Management, which lets you restore the notebook to its factory settings, create a customized restore point or reinstall drivers and applications; Acer Theft Shield, which lets you set an alarm notification via Wi-Fi for when your notebook has been moved out of a specific range; Acer USB Charge Manager; Acer Backup Manager and Acer Instant Update Utility. Clear.fi Media and Clear.fi Photo, Acer's iTunes alternatives, also come preinstalled.
You can add more apps to the Start Screen by downloading them from the Windows Store -- just tap on the Tile that's labeled "Store." At the moment, the selection of apps for games, entertainment, music and video is very limited when compared with the hundreds of thousands of applications available for Android and iOS, but the selection is steadily improving.
Except for one spot on the bottom of the notebook, the Aspire S7 remained cool during our testing. After streaming Hulu for 15 minutes, the touchpad measured 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys 80 degrees and the underside an average of 80 degrees. The middle of the bottom near the rear vent reached 94 degrees, but, although warm, we don't consider that uncomfortable.
Ports and Webcam
Despite having such a thin design, the Aspire S7 manages to cram in a fair number of ports, including a microHDMI port and a headphone/microphone jack on the left, with two USB 3.0 ports and an SD/MMC card reader on the right. Unsurprisingly, the notebook lacks both an optical drive and an Ethernet port.
The S7's 0.9-megapixel webcam was a mixed bag. Although colorful, the photos and video we captured appeared grainy, and fine details such as the hairs in our beard were lost. Video also suffered from a fair amount of stuttering during playback.
Packing a 1.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 4GB of RAM and dual 128GB SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration, the Aspire S7 blew past our benchmark averages on almost every test. On PCMark 7, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the laptop notched a healthy 4,948, which is almost 1,800 points higher than the ultraportable average. The 4,727 achieved by the XPS 12 (1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD) fell just behind the S7, while the Zenbook Prime (1.9-GHz-3517U CPU, 4GB of RAM and 256GB SSD) squeaked by with a score of 4,989.
The S7's dual Lite-On CMT-128L3M SSDs delivered even more stunning speeds. On the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, the notebook copied 4.97GB of mixed media files in a mere 16 seconds, a rate of 318.1 MBps. This not only destroys the category average of 71 MBps, it leaves the competition in the dust. The ASUS Zenbook Prime turned in a measly 51 MBps, while the Dell XPS 12 managed to achieve a more admirable 150 MBps.
Thanks to its speedy SSD and the efficiency of Windows 8, the Aspire S7 boots the operating system in just 10 seconds. Acer also includes a feature in which the laptop turns on as soon as you open the lid, which makes booting into Windows feel even shorter.
On the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, the S7 matched 20,000 names and addresses in 5 minutes and 12 seconds. This beats the ultraportable average by more than 2 minutes, but falls short of the Zenbook Prime by 13 seconds. The XPS 12, by contrast, took an extra 22 seconds to complete the same test.
Although powered by only an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU, the Aspire S7 delivered fairly good performance on our graphics benchmarks. On 3DMark 11, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the notebook turned in a score of 657. This is almost 50 points higher than the Dell XPS 12 (602) and the ASUS Zenbook Prime (594), both of which also use Intel HD Graphics 4000 chips.
When we ran "World of Warcraft" on Good settings with the resolution set to the S7's native 1080p resolution, the notebook averaged a just-barely playable 30 frames per second. Bumping up the graphics to Ultra, however, caused the frame rate to plummet to 12 frames per second. The notebook saw slightly better performance when we downgraded the resolution to 1366 x 768, reaching 41 fps on Good settings.
Endurance proved to be the Aspire S7's greatest disappointment. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing on 40-percent brightness), this Ultrabook lasted a sad 4 hours and 10 minutes. The average ultraportable laptop, by contrast, lasts 6 hours and 25 minutes. By comparison, the Zenbook Prime lasted 6:28. Even the XPS 12, which we criticized for its below-average battery life, outlasted the Aspire S7 by an hour and a half.
Fortunately, Acer offers an external battery for the S7, a $150 option. In our tests, the battery increased the notebook's runtime to 9 hours and 17 minutes.
Configurations and Warranty
In addition to the 13-inch configuration we reviewed ($1,649 for a Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD), Acer also offers a $1,399 configuration that features a 1.7-GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.
For all configurations of the Aspire S7, Acer offers a one-year limited warranty, including parts and labor. See how Acer fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown and Best and Worst Brands Report.
With a killer 1080p touch screen, sexy-as-heck design and blazing SSDs, the Acer Aspire S7 seems poised for greatness. But in a $1,649 ultraportable, we expect at least 5 hours of battery life -- and supplying a little over 4 hours is a real shame. Road warriors will really need to spring for the optional extra-capacity battery to get the most out of this system.
Shoppers that can live without a touch screen may prefer the $1,099 ASUS Zenbook Prime, which sports a full HD display, brushed-metal design and more than 6 hours of battery life. But if you can't wait to get your hands on the sleekest Windows 8 machine on the planet, the Aspire S7 will make your MacBook Air-toting friends jealous. You'll just have to either bring the charger or that extra battery.