Thin, light and long-lasting, the Acer Aspire S 13 has pretty much everything you want in an ultraportable laptop, and all for an affordable $749. This 13-inch notebook packs a speedy Core i5 processor, a fairly roomy 256GB SSD and a colorful full-HD display into a handsome chassis that's only 0.57 inches thick. (A separate Core i7 model is also available.) The S 13 also offers robust Dolby sound and a comfy keyboard, although the touchpad can be pretty finicky at times. Overall, this Acer is one of the best values in its weight class.
Acer deserves credit for not going down the MacBook-clone path like so many others have done. Instead of being yet another silver slab, the Aspire S 13 stands out with its obsidian-black color and textured nano-imprint cover, which gives the notebook a slick, pinstripe aesthetic. (You can also get this system in white, which is even more striking.)
The area around the keyboard and wrist rest is made of aluminum, while the bottom has rubber paint with a nice soft-touch feel. I also dig the diamond-cut edges around the deck and touchpad. The only eyesore on this machine is the thick plastic bezel around the 13-inch display.
Measuring 12.9 x 9 x 0.57 inches and weighing 2.9 pounds, the Aspire S 13 is plenty light enough for frequent travelers and students. It's a bit lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air (12.8 x 8.9 x 0.11-0.68 inches, 3 pounds), but has a similar footprint to that device. The 2.8-pound HP Envy 13t is about the same size as the Acer, while the Asus UX303UA weighs a heavier 3.4 pounds. The XPS 13 is the lightest and most compact of the bunch, at 2.6 pounds and 12 x 7.9 x 0.3-0.6 inches, thanks to its nearly bezel-less design.
Despite its thin profile, the Aspire S 13 has all the ports you need for today and tomorrow. The left side houses a USB 3.0 port, SD Card slot and headphone/mic jack, while the right side has the power port, HDMI port, another USB 3.0 port and a USB Type-C port.
The Aspire S 13 I reviewed came with a nontouch 1080p display, but you can order it with a touch-screen panel. I'd stick with nontouch, as you'll get more battery life. Plus, this panel is plenty colorful and bright.
While watching the trailer for Suicide Squad on the S 13's display, I could make out every slicked-back lock in the Joker's green do, and I appreciated the shimmer from his black jacket. The viewing angles could be a bit wider, though, as I noticed colors shifting at about 35 degrees off-center.
The Acer's screen performed well on various lab tests, including a color gamut of 106.8 percent. That blows the doors off of the MacBook Air (66 percent) and beats the nontouch XPS 13 (92 percent) and HP Envy 13t (103 percent), but the Asus Zenbook UX303UA was even better, at 116 percent. The S 13's screen is also fairly accurate, as it turned in a Delta-E rating of 0.98 (0 is perfect).
I had no trouble working outdoors with the S 13; even on a bright, sunny day I could make out the screen, thanks to its 327 nits of brightness. That outshines most of the competition, with the exception of the MacBook Air (334 nits).
If you're going to be staring at the display for long periods of time, you can toggle the Acer Bluelight Shield setting, which is designed to lower blue-light emissions to reduce eyestrain and prevent fatigue. (You'll find this setting in the Acer Quick Access app.)
Turning this feature on gives the screen a yellowish, more book-like hue, which I found weird at first but comfortable after a while.
The stereo speakers on the Aspire S 13 are so powerful I had to turn the volume down so as not to scare the heck out of family members -- and that was just for email alerts in Outlook.
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I experienced room-filling audio when I played the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "The Impression That I Get" with a shockingly wide sound stage; I could easily hear Dicky Barrett's gravelly vocals over the peppy horns. The audio started to distort at closer to 100 percent volume, but at 90 percent or less there was still plenty of punch.
The Dolby Audio app allows you to choose from multiple sound profiles, including Music, Movie, Game and Voice, but I stuck with Dynamic most of the time, as it's supposed to change the profile on the fly. There's also an equalizer if you want to really dig deep.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The S 13's keyboard offers a comfy typing experience, but I would change a couple of things. Despite offering just 0.87 mm of travel (we prefer 1mm or more), the keys had a nice, pillowy feel as I typed, letting me reach 75 words per minute with just 2 errors. That's a bit faster than my 70 wpm average.
The layout offers two different stages of backlighting, one for dimly lit rooms and another that goes to full brightness. My problem with the layout is that the function keys are reversed for various shortcuts. For example, you need to press Fn and then the F8 button to mute the sound, as opposed to just F8 itself. Also, the function keys are tiny.
It may be called a Precision Touchpad, but I found the large, 4.1 x 2.5-inch touchpad less than precise. While two-finger scrolling was fairly smooth and I easily executed Windows 10 gestures (such as swiping three fingers up to see all apps), the cursor stuttered a bit as I navigated the desktop. This made selecting text a challenge. In addition, the cursor sometimes moved when I accidentally brushed the pad, and sometimes I would inadvertently select text. Better palm rejection would help.
With its 6th-Generation Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD, the Aspire S 13 proved swift in my testing. It ably juggled 16 tabs in Chrome while I played an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix in another window. Only when I added a 17th tab did I start to see a bit of slowdown.
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On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the Aspire S 13 scored 6,331, which is comparable to the showings of its closest competitors. The Core i7 model of the S 13 notched 6,925 on the same test.
The Asus UX303UA, which has the same processor as the Acer, notched a slightly lower 6,290, while the Dell XPS 13 nontouch (6,391) and HP Envy (6,306) -- also with the same CPU -- were neck and neck with the S 13. The MacBook Air was far behind, at 5,783, but it also has an older, 5th-Generation processor.
The S 13's SSD is faster than the average ultraportable's, but behind the best we've tested. It took the system 30 seconds to copy about 5GB worth of mixed-media files, giving it a transfer rate of 167.7 megabytes per second. That trumps the Asus UX303UA (159 MBps) and lowly HP 13t (77.1 MBps), but the Dell XPS 13 (231.3 MBps) and MacBook Air (358.4 MBps) are considerably faster.
You should have no problem crunching numbers with this notebook, as the Aspire S 13 took a brisk 4 minutes and 29 seconds to match 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice. That's the same amount of time as the Asus, slightly faster than the Dell XPS 13 (4:33) and only a second behind the HP Envy 13t. The MacBook Air was a much faster 4:03. The Core i7 version of the S 13 took the same amount of time as the Mac.
The Acer Aspire S 13 has the battery life to last a cross-country flight, and then some. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi (at 100 nits of screen brightness), the system lasted a strong 9 hours and 8 minutes. The Core i7 version of the S 13 we tested lasted an evern longer 9:48.
That run time smokes the HP Envy 13t (5:48) and also beats the Asus UX303UA (8:27) and the ultraportable category average (8:10). However, the more expensive Dell XPS 13 and 13-inch MacBook Air lasted much longer, at 11:54 and 14 hours, respectively.
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Most webcams on Windows laptops are terrible, but the Aspire S 13's 720p camera is pretty decent. My salmon-colored shirt looked accurate in a selfie, although my face was a bit blurry. I conducted one video call over Skype and another over BlueJeans, and other callers didn't have any complaints.
Acer includes a few useful utilities, along with more bloatware than we'd like. The compact Acer Quick Access app lets you toggle the Bluelight Shield function for when you want to reduce eye strain, use power-off USB charging (which lets you juice gadgets even when the system is powered down) and enable network sharing. Acer Care Center combines access to support, recovery management, updates and tune-ups in one app. The strangely redundant Acer Power Button app lets you turn off the display or tell the notebook to sleep, hibernate or shut down.
Acer bundles some third-party software that we'd rather download ourselves, and some we can live without altogether. The former camp includes Netflix and Skype, and the latter includes Amazon Kindle and WildTangent Games. There are also trials of Microsoft Office and McAfee Internet Security Suite.
We reviewed the Acer Aspire S13 S5-371-52JR, which retails for $749 and features a Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 13.3-inch and 1920 x 1080 display. Stepping up to the $799 white model (the S5-371T-58CC) gets you the white color and an IPS display with wider viewing angles. Acer also offers models with a Core i7 CPU and 512GB SSD for $999, or you could just get the larger SSD paired with a Core i5 chip for $899.
If you're looking for a great student laptop or a machine for frequent travel, or if you just want a lightweight laptop that can go the distance, the Acer Aspire S 13 is one of the best bargains around. For $749, you get a speedy Core i5 processor, a 256GB SSD, a colorful full-HD display and more than 9 hours of battery life, all wrapped up in a svelte package that doesn't ape Apple. The stereo speakers also impressed, delivering surprisingly robust audio. I just wish the touchpad weren't so sensitive, as it sometimes just got in the way.
The Dell XPS 13 is the better bet if you want longer battery life in a more compact design, but it costs a pricey $999 with a Core i5 processor and smaller 128GB SSD (and $1,149 with 256GB). The Asus UX303UA is another strong contender, offering comparable performance to the Aspire S 13 in an all-metal design for $799, but it offers lackluster audio and doesn't last quite as long on a charge as the Acer does. Overall, the Aspire S 13 is one heck of a value and one of our favorite ultraportable laptops.