The Aspire S7 didn’t need much of an upgrade. Acer came close to a Windows 8 dream machine last year, with design both gorgeous and slim. Now the attractive S7 has been given this season’s most fashionable upgrade, a 2560 x 1440 IPS touchscreen.
While the merits of such a sharp screen are suspect – and more readily visible if you’re keeping up with the optometrist – it’s definite future-proofing, and good defense against pixel envy from the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.
Acer isn’t just bumping up specs, it’s working on the overall Aspire experience. Just 0.3mm of extra keyboard travel of overall last year’s model may not sound like much, but let me assure you that means an excellent typing experience.
Look out, Apple: For typing and easy transportation, the Acer Aspire S7 is getting dangerously close to your 13-inch MacBook Air. And it’s even punchier than what’s on offer from the Dell XPS 13. Now, if only it could squeeze as much battery life out of its Haswell processor, and I wouldn’t mind if it centered up that touchpad, either.
The changes to the Aspire S7 are hardly skin deep, and for good reason. It had a gorgeous design to begin with, and Acer has stuck with it. This is the same aluminum frame wrapping a pearly white plastic and Gorilla Glass encasement. There’s the same aluminum keyboard deck with silver plastic keys, and the laptop’s underside is coated in soft touch plastic, just like it was last year.
Subtle adjustments have been made, like the larger power button near the hinge. It’s more prominently placed near the power port – rather than next to the audio jack on the side of last year’s S7 – making it much easier to find. The S7 still maintains a clean, MacBook-like look, with a lot of space between the function keys and hinges.
Before we start getting into internals, I should mention that Acer has revisited its cooling solution for the Aspire S7. It’s kept the dual fans just above the keyboard, but reduced the amount of fan blades and is now running them at 10,000 rpm. Fan noise was a common complaint with last year’s model, that it sounded like a jumbo jet when streaming Netflix or a little Photoshop.
These fans suck less power, and while you may not see it on your electric bill, they do make for an incredibly cool and quiet computing experience, which is rare get from an Ultrabook.
Welcome to Tweak Town
The overarching theme with the new Aspire S7 is tweaks, changes that don’t mess with what has already earned Acer acclaim from critics. Moving power buttons, adjusting fan speeds and increasing key travel aren’t back of the box, bullet point-type changes, but together, they make a for an improved computing experience.
There wasn’t much more that Acer needed to do to keep pace with the competition (or even earn our “Recommended” Award). But the vendor managed to make an already-premium system look and feel even more so than before. Just as importantly, Acer didn’t cut anything critics loved last time, either.
You’ve gotta love the sci-fi electroluminescent backlighting on the Aspire keyboard. Not only does it set the S7 aesthetic apart, it’s easier on the eyes in low light than many Windows 8.1 notebook keyboards.
The edge-to-edge glass screen – which can bend back 180 degrees and lay flat – on the Aspire S7 is also a fantastic touch. This makes gestures feel seamless as you draw your index finger in from the right edge of the panel to summon the Charms menu.
Of course, there’s plenty more that Acer tweaked, like introducing the Aspire S7 to Intel’s latest mobile chips, the fourth generation Core i series. But how does it stack up to some of the existing holders of Haswell?
There’s no denying that the Acer Aspire S7 is one of the most attractive Ultrabooks on the market today, and this update changes little in that regard. You’re still looking at an all-aluminum frame, save for the Gorilla Glass lid and bezel along with the smooth, white matte plastic underside.
Acer’s leading laptop measures 12.72 x 8.78 x 0.51 inches (W x D x H) and weighs 2.87 pounds, making it one of the lightest 13.3-inch laptops I’ve tested yet. But the competition right now is tough, and looks just as nice.
Take the 13-inch MacBook Air – arguably the inspiration for Intel’s Ultrabook clean aluminum initiative – for instance: At 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11 – 0.68 inches and 2.95 pounds, Acer’s unit comes in lighter, but the difference is hardly noticeable except on a scale. The differences between the Aspire S7 and Dell XPS 13 are easier to see, with the latter coming in at 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.2 – 0.7 inches and 3.03 pounds.
Looks are important to these premium clamshells, but the true battle lies in what they’re capable of, and at what cost. The Aspire S7 maintains a great aesthetic, and upgrades like quieter fans and a punchier keyboard go beyond mere style, so let’s see what else Acer brought to the Aspire for 2014.
This is the Acer Aspire S7 configuration sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 2.6GHz with Turbo Boost)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4400
- RAM: 8GB DDR3
- Screen: 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1440 IPS, LED backlit display with 10 finger multi-touch
- Storage: 128GB SSD in RAID 0
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 (1 with power-off charging) ports, 1 HDMI, 1 combo headphone/mic jack, 1 Acer converter port, 1 SD card reader
- Connectivity: Intel Centrino Advanced-N7260, 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi with MIMO, Bluetooth 4.0, Intel Wireless Display
- Camera: 1280 x 720 HD webcam
- Weight: 2.87 pounds
- Size: 12.72 x 8.78 x 0.51 inches (W x D x H)
What you see here is the entry level configuration for an Aspire S7 with a shiny new WQHD touchscreen, and it calls for $1,399 (about £841, AU$1,536). Not quite entry level pricing, but what you’re paying extra for is that display. You can score a similarly-configured model sans hyper-HD panel for $1,299.
If you wanted to go all out on an Aspire S7, it would cost you an even steeper $1,599. That would net you a punchier Core i7-4500U clocked at 1.8GHz, twice the solid-state storage capacity … and that’s it – not even a bump up to 802.11ac networking. You won’t get a drastically improved experience for that extra $300, so stick with the entry-level WQHD option. There are always external drives, cloud storage or streaming to better serve media nuts. Now, what can Dell and Apple offer for the same $1,400?
Aside from its 1920 x 1080 touchscreen, the XPS 13 meets the Aspire S7 part for part, right down to the Core i5-4200U chip, for $1,299. Plus, Dell does Acer one better with 802.11ac networking. The next available model goes for $1,649, which bumps it up to a Core i7 chip clocked at 1.8GHz, but still doesn’t match Acer’s 1440p display.
Surprisingly enough, the MacBook Air can nearly match the Aspire S7 for $50 less. You can score the same SSD capacity and beef up the processor to a 1.7GHz Core i7 (dual-core) and match the Aspire S7’s 8GB of RAM for $1,349. The MacBook Air is still stuck with a rather dull 1440 x 900 panel, but also offers superior 802.11ac WiFi.
Stacked up against these two machines, there’s one driving question with the new Aspire S7: do you want a laptop that can keep up with the 802.11ac router you’ll buy in a few years, or one with a super sharp screen that will be ready for the next step in media? While the lack of 802.11ac WiFi here is a bummer, what you’re getting in exchange is another form of future-proofing for your system. But what about how it performs now?
The Acer Aspire S7, like most Core i5-packing laptops, performs admirably. Couple that with plenty of RAM and a snappy SSD, and it becomes tough to slow this system down with the everyday tasks and apps that folks are most likely to use on it, much less with benchmarks. The results failed to send me reeling:
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 41,360; Cloud Gate: 4,429; Fire Strike: 644
- Cinebench CPU: 231 points
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hours, 57 minutes
These numbers are directly in line with how the Dell XPS 13 scored, and the 13-inch MacBook Air reported similar Cinebench results in my experience. That said, the Aspire S7 takes a hit in battery life, likely thanks to those extra pixels its pushing. While the PCMark 8 battery test is conducted on the laptop’s “High performance” setting and with the screen at its highest brightness, this machine didn’t fare much better under more favorable conditions.
To get a sense of a how long the Aspire S7 could last under what I consider a normal workload, I knocked the screen brightness down to 60%, the power setting to “Balanced”, the volume to around 20% and kept the keyboard backlit. Then, I ran Google Chrome with over 10 tabs open, Spotify streaming high bitrate audio, an image-heavy chat app, TweetDeck and a PDF reader. Doing this, with the occasional HD video, the Aspire S7 lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes.
That figure is well below Acer’s claim of up to 7 hours of battery life, though Acer has its own parameters for testing endurance. This puts the Aspire S7 in the same class as the XPS 13 (4 hours and 33 minutes on a similar test). And while neither can hold a candle to the MacBook Air’s true 7- plus hours of lasting power, remember its far lower pixel count and low-frequency CPU.
Super sharp, but super necessary?
The Aspire S7 is one of Acer’s first laptops to come rocking a 2560 x 1440 display, or what the marketers call WQHD. (Which literally stands for “Wide Quad High-Definition.” No, really.) But, as with all device screens that have gone beyond HD, it begs the question, “Do we even need such high resolutions?”
Make no mistake, 1080p is not the end of the road for screen sharpness. The TV industry shows as much every single January at CES. But it’s the content, not to mention the pipes and software, that need some catching up. While watching a 3-minute video in 1440p on the Aspire S7, not only did it have to buffer every 20 seconds, but YouTube’s intense compression made for an image that looked barely 720p.
I like to think that I have an OK wireless internet connection, able to stream full HD video to my TV through Netflix and other apps without issue. That I could barely get through 3 minutes of 1440p video is telling of whether WQHD or UHD or WQUVWXYZHD is even necessary yet. That said, I enjoyed reading articles online with nary a pixel showing through Internet Explorer – Chrome has yet to catch up on Windows. Plus, the Gorilla Glass bezel and screen made touch gestures feel seamless, if still unecessary.
Acer cares for the keyboard
Now, this is a company that understands the importance of a laptop’s keyboard, especially when it comes to a premium machine. Acer even claims to have adjusted the depth of each key’s travel by three tenths of a millimeter. While I can’t necessarily tell the difference, I can say that it makes for quite a snappy typing experience.
What’s even more interesting is this keyboard’s backlighting. Acer’s electroluminescent backlighting is said to be a gentler, thinner lighting solution for keyboards than LEDs. The result is an aquamarine glow emanating from each key, which the company says produces less bleeding light than LEDs. This might be true, but I’ve noticed some bleed here and there. The sci-fi-like effect that turning on the backlight produces, illuminating the keys slowly and dramatically, is more exciting anyway.
As for the touchpad, I’ve had no issues scrolling through web pages, clicking and dragging files or summoning the Windows 8.1 Charms menu. The tracking space is nice and wide, albeit lacking a bit of depth. And it would be nice if Acer centered the touchpad in reference to the keyboard deck – not the space bar.
Before moving on, Acer’s goofy key layout won’t get off scot-free. For one, the Caps Lock and Tilde keys are smushed together where otherwise a single Caps Lock key would be. There’s also the Delete key nudged next to the navigation keys, and the function keys superimposed on top of the number keys. A six-row keyboard would be nice, but the trade-off might have been a much hotter laptop.
Not so hot, hot heat
Any other Ultrabook this thin would easily double as a heating pad. Not so with the Aspire S7. Acer has employed an upgraded cooling method with this laptop, dropping the amount of blades in each of its two fans (one for intake, one for output) from 29 to 23. Acer claims that this thermal design grants a boost to battery life.
But all I’ve noticed is a much cooler, quieter laptop than most in Intel’s Ultrabook class. So much as an HD video would cause most thin-and-light notebooks to burn up, whereas the Aspire S7 keeps it cool. This is a boon for travelers and couch potatoes alike.
Acer is extremely light on bloatware, to the point of being dull. It’s nevertheless an admirable move, but aside from some PureVoice microphone-enhancing tech and a user guide PDF masquerading as an app, there are only three original or third-party apps to speak of. The upside? Plenty more of that 128GB SSD is available to you from the start.
- IDCard: Nothing more than a window detailing your PC’s identity, which is useful for support-related purposes.
- Live Updater: This pulls driver and software updates right from Acer’s servers, eliminating the need to go to Acer’s website to keep current.
- Recovery Management: An easy way to restore your PC to its factory settings and reinstall drivers, though Windows already offers these tools inherently.
Premium inside and out, the Acer Aspire S7 is undoubtedly a luxurious laptop. From its sleek build to its super sharp touchscreen and glowing keyboard, this laptop looks and feels futuristic. Something designed to future proof you technologically should do as much, though this machine lacks one piece of tech that could have it 100% ready for the next four years.
While I’m torn on the utility of such a sharp display in 2014, it’s purpose is clear. This 2560 x 1440 panel is prepared for the day when hyper-HD content is finally viable to watch over wireless internet. In the now, text looks gorgeous, as do images – thus adding to the near-future feel of this device.
The build quality on display here, from the Aspire S7’s aluminum and Gorilla Glass frame (a shame about the underside, though), is palpable. That goes for the snappy keyboard, with its fancy electroluminescent lighting, too. And just try to make that screen wobble, I dare you.
That the Aspire S7 never gets uncomfortably hot – at least running the apps and tasks I use on a daily basis – is a major plus. Frequent travelers and bathroom laptop users (you know who you are) need not worry about scorching their laps here.
Frankly, there’s nothing to hate about this machine, except for the lack of an 802.11ac network adapter. If not for now, then for when this notebook is three years old and the faster WiFi standard is all the rage. You might have the screen to watch the 1440p content, but will you have the connection?
That super HD display is a bit of a double-edged sword overall. For one, only the fastest, most expensive wireless internet connections can handily stream media at 1440p. Secondly, not many content providers even offer such pixel-rich video right now. Sure, web pages and images pop on such a screen, but is that worth a potential cut to battery life pushing those extra pixels?
Now for the more nagging points. For one, the keyboard layout will definitely take some getting used to, with some goofy placement choices. Speaking of which, the touchpad would benefit from being centered in reference to the keyboard deck, not the space bar. Also, the soft touch plastic (rather than aluminum) underside detracts from the elite look and feel a bit. And finally, I wasn’t blown away by the battery life on display, though its in line with competing Ultrabooks.
The Aspire S7 will make the decision over your next laptop a difficult one. Acer isn’t the only manufacturer to jump on the hyper-HD bandwagon without adding the advanced 802.11ac network cards that can help so much for 1440p streaming. Both the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro and Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus offer even sharper 3200 x 1800 screens, but lack the advanced wireless standard to support them, not to mention how far out those resolutions are from where the media world is right now.
At any rate, the Aspire S7 truly feels like a machine built for the now, 2014, and one that you won’t mind using well into 2016, possibly longer. So love the Aspire S7 for its cutting edge build, fine typing experience and premium specs. Lament the lack of next-gen WiFi and lukewarm battery life dragged down by that pixel-dense 2560 x 1440 IPS touchscreen. The 13-inch MacBook Air is more of a scrappy road warrior, but the Acer Aspire S7 is the luxury model, and a smart one at that.