Acer Aspire S5 review

With dozens and dozens of Ultrabooks on parade, you'd be forgiven if one skinny laptop with an ultra-low voltage processor started to look like the next. Even so, it's tough to forget the Acer Aspire S5: of all the ultraportables we've seen these last nine months, this is the only one with a motorized port cover. Yeah, that one. It's an intriguing product, to be sure, and the stakes are especially high given that $1,400 price: you'd have to really enjoy that form factor (and everything else) to choose it over some less expensive ultraportable. So is it worth it? Is that drop-down door anything more than a gimmick? Questions for the ages, and ones we'll tackle in our full review after the break.

Acer Aspire S5 review

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Acer Aspire S5

Pros

  • Thin, lightweight design
  • Insanely fast SSD performance
  • One of few PCs with a Thunderbolt port

Cons

  • Poor screen quality for the price
  • Drop-down port cover is tedious to use
  • Subpar battery life
  • Loud fan noise
Summary

The S5 is thin and light with blazing disk performance, but this overpriced laptop is marred by serious usability issues, including short battery life and inconvenient port placement.

Hardware

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

The S5 feels durable, but lacks the design flair you'd expect from a premium machine.

Back in January when it was announced at CES, the S5 was touted as the "world's thinnest" Ultrabook, at 15mm (0.59 inches) thick. Nearly seven months later, we're not sure the S5 still qualifies for that title (the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 widens to 0.5 inches), but no matter: it still cuts a skinnier figure than most of the Ultrabooks we've tested. In contrast to last year's Aspire S3, which costs about half the price, the S5 marks an improvement in craftsmanship, with magnesium alloy now covering the lid, bottom and palm rest.

No doubt, it feels sturdier than the S3, but the build quality is still unremarkable compared to other Ultrabooks, especially other high-end ones. You might argue, for instance, that the S5's plastic keyboard deck and bezel are part of the reason it weighs a light 1.35kg (2.98 pounds), but the Series 9 is made of unibody aluminum and still weighs about four-tenths of a pound less. Ditto for the new MacBook Air, which weighs 2.96 pounds, or the metal-clad ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A, which comes in at 2.86 pounds. We could go on, but you get the point: the S5 feels durable, but lacks the design flair you'd expect from a premium machine.

Obviously, the conceit of the S5 is that most of its ports are tucked behind MagicFlip, that motorized drop-down door on the laptop's rear edge. Ignoring for a moment how annoying it is to have all the key sockets located back there, it's a pretty good selection of ports: in addition to two USB openings, it has Thunderbolt and full-sized HDMI sockets, both rarities for Ultrabooks (heck, Thunderbolt ports on PCs are rare, period). Not all the openings are hidden, though: on the notebook's right edge, you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, while the power button and memory card reader sit on the left. Thought you'd find the power button on the keyboard deck? That space is home to the button controlling the drop-down door (much more on that later, of course).

Keyboard and trackpad

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

Since Acer released its first Ultrabook last fall, the company has unveiled two more models, each of them marking a step up in overall quality. But one thing's remained constant: that flat, cramped keyboard. The keys here are quite lacking in travel, though they're easy enough to master. All told, they're no shallower than the ones on the Series 9, which we neither loved nor hated. The problem is, unlike Samsung's layout, which is fairly well-spaced, the S5's arrangement gets mighty crowded, especially toward the periphery where many essential buttons lie. The Tab key is tiny, for instance, as are Caps Lock and the four arrows, which you could easily miss if you tried to hit them without looking. Also, this keyboard isn't backlit, though you'd probably expect it to be on a machine this expensive.

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

As much as we wish Acer would re-think its Ultrabook keyboards, the company at least got the trackpad right. The large pad responds smoothly to one-finger navigation, as well as multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolls and pinch-to-zoom. Occasionally, the cursor would stop short on the screen before we got to whatever it was we meant to click on, but we mostly carried on without many incidents. We'd also add that the built-in touch button is easy to click and makes a quiet, low-pitched sound when pressed.

Display and sound

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

Given how pricey this machine is, you'd expect Acer would have gone all out (or at least met us halfway) when it came to display quality. A high-resolution screen would seem to be in order. IPS quality, too, or perhaps one of those Shuriken panels with the narrow bezels. Instead, what we have here is a run-of-the-mill, garden-variety TN screen with 1,366 x 768 resolution. Everything about this display is common, from the standard resolution, to the reflective finish, to the width of the bezels. It would've been fine on an $800 system, but given that you can find lovely, higher-res screens on the MacBook Air, HP Envy Spectre 14, Samsung Series 9 and the entire ASUS Zenbook Prime family, we don't understand why Acer cut corners here. (Actually, we do: this could be a trade-off to going with a more complex design and a RAID 0 SSD configuration, but we're not sure either of these was worth settling for a mediocre screen.)

The sound coming out of the Dolby-enhanced speakers is a bit tinnier than we're used to, which is quite the feat. Aside from a metallic sound, we were able to make out a faint, buzzing distortion even at medium volumes.

One other interesting thing to note before we sign off on display and sound quality: the S5 is one of the few Ultrabooks we've tested recently that does not include Intel's Wireless Display technology. If you had no intention of streaming 1080p video to a big screen, carry on, but it does seem like an odd omission from what's supposed to be a high-end machine.

Performance

PCMark Vantage 3DMark06
Acer Aspire S5 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 12,895 5,071
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012, 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,624 5,155
MacBook Air (2012, 1.8GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,469 5,827
ASUS Zenbook UX31E (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A (Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 10,333 4,550
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012, 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,580 4,171
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,345 4,549
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 (2.6GHz Core i5-3320M, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,234 4,891
Sony VAIO T13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,189 3,847
Note: higher scores are better

At $1,400, the S5 comes with some top-shelf specs to match its lofty price tag, including a 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U CPU, 4GB of RAM and -- here's the kicker -- dual 128GB, LiteON-branded SATA III SSDs arranged in a RAID 0 configuration. Cutting straight to the chase, this is the speediest disk performance we've logged on any laptop, of any size. We actually ended up running ATTO more times than usual because we initially couldn't believe the scores: at their best, the two SSDs reached peak read speeds of 875 MB/s and writes as fast as 700 MB/s. In real-word use, those numbers are matched by a 12-second boot-up. And yes, our scores landed in this ballpark every time we ran these tests. No flukes here, kids.

For those of you who are curious, Acer confirmed to us that you cannot switch to a RAID 1 configuration: in the BIOS, you'll see options for RAID, along with IDE and AHCI.

When we switched to our other standard benchmarks, the S5 still notched some stellar numbers, though this time they fell a little more in line with other top-performing Ultrabooks. For example, its score of 12,895 in PCMark Vantage falls less than 600 points short of the 2012 MacBook Air's high mark -- hardly a dramatic difference. Likewise, its score of 5,071 in 3DMark06 is among the highest we've seen from an Ivy Bridge machine. Not that that's saying much: even with the default settings (read: 1,024 x 768 resolution) Call of Duty 4 chugged along with frame rates in the twenties -- just good enough to be playable.

MagicFlip

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

In practice, pressing a button to expose key ports is more tedious than innovative.

In practice, pressing a button to expose key ports is more tedious than innovative. Imagine, for instance, that you want to connect a portable hard drive. You can't just plug it in; no, you need to press the button, wait a second or two for the door to open and then reach around to the back of the laptop to find the USB socket. If you can't do it by feel, you'll have to turn the laptop around so you can see the ports -- an awfully big hassle just to plug in a peripheral.

One thing we weren't aware of when we first got hands-on with the S5 is that the motorized door will open on its own to expose the vents when the machine gets too hot. And yes, we mean "when," not "if." We first experienced this within minutes of unboxing our system -- installing a program and running Chrome was enough to trigger the overheating mechanism. It happened again about 30 seconds into a game of CoD 4. The good news is that the machine stayed tepid enough that we could use it comfortably for extended periods of time, but in exchange for cool operation you'll have to put up with a good deal of fan noise.

To be fair, once the ports are fully exposed, it shouldn't have much bearing on your ergonomic experience and obviously, we'd all rather our machines not overheat. Still, as brief as this interruption is, it can be distracting to feel your computer rise beneath your fingers while you're trying to work. And there is, of course, an easy solution for that: just build the ports into the sides of the laptop and not worry about laying claim to the "thinnest Ultrabook" title.

When the S5 was first announced, one of the most common responses from our readers and editors alike was, "What happens if the motor gives out?" Acer rates the door for 15,000 cycles, tested with 50 pounds of pressure -- a claim we naturally didn't have the time or automated equipment to test. We will say that the motor makes a grating sound that doesn't inspire much confidence in the resilience of the various underlying parts. On the bright side, we appreciate that the door automatically closes when you shut down the computer or close the lid, even if you forgot to press the button to do it manually.

Battery life

Battery Life
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
HP Folio 13 6:08
HP Envy Sleekbook 6z 5:51
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31E (2011) 5:41
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:57
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S3 4:11

The S5's three-cell battery is rated for up to 6.5 hours of battery life, which is shorter than what many other 13-inch Ultrabooks promise. Indeed, its runtime is as uninspiring as the performance is fast. In our standard video playback test, it barely made it four and a half hours -- a poor showing compared to the 13-inch Series 9, which lasted seven hours, and the new MacBook Air, which managed six and a half. Even middling ultraportables can outlast the S5 by at least an hour. In fact, this is, quite literally, the shortest runtime we've recorded on a 13-inch Ultrabook since we tested Acer's own S3 laptop last fall.

Software and warranty

Acer Aspire S5 review is this innovative Ultrabook worth $1,400

Though it might not be the worst offender, the S5 does come with a good deal of bloatware. Pre-installed programs include CyberLink's MediaEspresso media converter, an eBay shortcut, Evernote 4.5.2, Fooz Kids (a children's gaming platform), Norton Online Backup, Skype 5.5, Nook for PC and a trial of McAfee's Internet Security suite. And, like other Acer machines, the S5 comes with the company's clear.fi media streaming software.

Additionally, it's worth mentioning that the S5 is the first Acer laptop to support AcerCloud, the company's recently launched service that backs up your photos, music, videos and documents online. It's free, and storage is unlimited -- well, limited only by how much you can store on your local machine. You can, of course, access all this stuff remotely, provided your computer isn't completely powered off. In particular, with the help of a mobile app you can see your files on an Android phone, even if the two devices are not connected to the same WiFi network. Rather, AcerCloud attempts to create a peer-to-peer connection whenever possible and, failing that, uses a security token in the laptop to play middleman between your notebook and phone. For now, this service is only available in North America and China, but it's expected to roll out to other markets worldwide sometime in the fourth quarter.

Acer Aspire S5 review is this innovative Ultrabook worth $1,400

Getting AcerCloud set up involves creating an account, a mercifully brief process that only requires you to give your name and email address, and to create a password. (Interestingly, as we progressed through the setup, McAfee popped up, asking if we wanted to grant AcerCloud access.) After creating our account, verifying our email address and using check boxes to confirm what we wanted to back up, we were up and running.

As for the warranty, the S5 is covered by a one-year plan, which is pretty standard for a consumer laptop, regardless of the price.

Configuration options

Though Acer usually offers its laptops in various pre-configured versions, the S5 is only available for $1,400 with the specs we tested here (a Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Home Premium and 256GB of solid-state storage). As is the case for almost every other Ultrabook we review, the drives, RAM and battery were not designed to be user-replaceable. Again, that's true of most every laptop in this class, but we'd rather remind you, lest anyone wind up disappointed.

The competition

The S5 suffers from some serious usability flaws, and nothing really justifies that $1,400 price.

You want high-end Ultrabooks? Let's talk high-end Ultrabooks. Even for a high-end machine, the S5 is pricey; we can think of several excellent alternatives that drip quality but still cost slightly less. For starters, there's the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 beginning at $1,300, which weighs just 2.55 pounds and has a higher-quality aluminum build. The Series 9 also leads the S5 (and every other 13-inch Ultrabook) in battery life. Its keyboard is equally flat, but better-spaced. And while its performance isn't rated quite as highly, it's also capable of 12-second boot-ups. If you're willing to consider a bigger screen, you might also want to check out the HP Envy 14 Spectre or even the 15-inch version of the Series 9, which measures just 0.58 inches thick.

Though we haven't yet tested a 13-inch equivalent, ASUS' Zenbook Prime lineup also looks mighty promising. We'll refrain from breaking down every specific configuration listed on Amazon, but suffice to say we're particularly excited about the UX32VD ($1,350 at Amazon), which combines a 1080p IPS display with an NVIDIA GT 620M GPU.

For the OS-agnostic, we'll include the new MacBook Air in the high-end category: its battery life is on par with the champion Series 9, its keyboard and trackpad are comfortable and the performance is some of the fastest we've seen, even from among Ivy Bridge machines. Regarding screen quality, a pain point for Acer's S5, the Air has the same 1,440 x 900 display as past generations. That's not the absolute best you'll find -- not with the Series 9 and Zenbook Primes on the market -- but it's still a step up from the S5.

Wrap-up

Acer Aspire S5 review is an innovative Ultrabook design worth $1,400

The Aspire S5 has some key ingredients that might have made it a great Ultrabook: a thin shape, an impressive port selection and blazing I/O performance. Unfortunately, though, Acer seems to have invested its energy in all the wrong places. Instead of a higher-resolution display or finer build quality, it focused on stuffing all the ports behind a door in the back -- a design choice that feels gimmicky at best, and tiresome at worst. In exchange for a skinny silhouette, it settles for a three-cell battery that barely lasts four and a half hours on a charge. Even the RAID 0 SSD configuration might well have contributed to the high price, and that's a shame since the S5 probably could have delivered strong performance even with a more standard setup. (875 MB/s read speeds? Maybe not, but that 12-second boot time? Quite possibly.)

As is, the S5 suffers from some serious usability flaws, and nothing really justifies that $1,400 price except, possibly, that screaming SSD setup. We look forward to possible redemption with the upcoming S7 series, but in the meantime we're certain you can find a better ultraportable for less money.

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Acer Aspire S5 review: is this innovative Ultrabook worth $1,400?