Acer Aspire S7 review (2013): the second time's a charm for Acer's flagship Ultrabook

It wasn't easy writing a conclusion (much less a headline) for our original Acer Aspire S7-391 review. The company's third Ultrabook was near-perfect, with a stunning full HD display, exceptionally fast performance, an extra-light chassis and one of the most sophisticated designs we'd seen on any Acer machine, ever. Even so, the battery could barely last past the four-hour mark -- a poor showing, even compared to other machines on the market. Plus, the fan noise was some of the loudest we'd heard, so you couldn't enjoy that blazing SSD without a good deal of distraction. We ultimately recommended it, but with a sigh. This wasn't the Ultrabook we thought it would be.

Fortunately for us, we no longer have to hem and haw over whether to recommend an exquisite laptop with worst-in-class battery life: Acer recently released an update to the S7, aptly called the S7-392. Available with a 13-inch screen (the 11-inch version has been discontinued), it arrives with Haswell processors, a larger battery and the promise of seven-hour runtime. Additionally, Acer retooled its cooling setup so that the fans supposedly operate much more quietly. Otherwise, it's the same laptop: same keyboard, same thin and light design, same 1080p screen. So can we crown it a winner now?

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Acer Aspire S7-392 review

87
Acer

Aspire S7-392

Pros

  • Nice build materials
  • Great viewing angles
  • Fast performance, longer battery life
  • Improved touchpad
  • Now runs quietly

Cons

  • Enormous power brick
  • No 2,560 x 1,440 option in the US
  • Power button is difficult to press
  • Expensive for what it is
Summary

The second time's a charm for Acer: the company's refreshed S7 Ultrabook addresses all the things we disliked about the original. Just be prepared to pay a premium over competing laptops with similar specs.

Look and feel

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To those of you who've been waiting for an S7 refresh, this new model barely needs an introduction: it features virtually the same design as the unit we tested last year. And that's a good thing: the original was damn gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, but also thin, light, well-made. And tactile. At the risk of copying and pasting what we wrote the first time around, the S7 actually feels like a $1,450 machine. As we set up our second review unit, we were once again struck by how cold the aluminum palm rest feels, how smooth the Gorilla Glass lid is. As it happens, the glass also does a surprisingly great job masking fingerprints, and it's immune to scratches too (ditto for the hard-coated bottom side). The result is a laptop that continues to look fresh, even weeks after you've unboxed it. Then again, it comes in white, which tends to be a forgiving color. Anyone remember the HP Envy 14 Spectre? Yeah, that black glass lid didn't stand a chance.

Even though there have since been many, many touchscreen Ultrabooks, this one still feels exceptionally compact. Part of that's because... it is. At 2.87 pounds (up slightly from 2.86 last year), it's still one of the lightest 13-inch touchscreen laptops you're going to find. Even the Toshiba Kirabook, supposedly one of the lightest, weighs about a tenth of a pound more. Hell, the MacBook Air also weighs more, and that doesn't even have a touchscreen weighing it down.

But part of it's also the way the S7 is put together. The hinge in the back is small, and unobtrusive, and sits flush with the lid. And while the sides are cut in a clean, blunt sort of way, they never feel too sharp. The corners, in particular, have been ever-so-slightly rounded so that they never dig into your palms when you're carrying it with two hands. Making an easy-to-hold laptop is about more than just using the lightest materials.

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Though the S7 has mostly the same selection of ports as last time (two USB 3.0, an SD slot and a headphone jack), except the HDMI socket is now full-sized. Also, Acer's moved them around, shuffling some sockets from the right to the left, and vice versa. For starters, rather than have both USB connections on the right, there's now one on either edge, which seems like the more convenient setup to us. The SD slot has moved to the left edge, while the HDMI and headphone ports now sit on the right side. Not much to say here except that the power button is unusually difficult to push, to the point where it's not always obvious that the machine has registered your finger-press. Hopefully Acer will loosen that key up just a bit when it comes time to design the follow-up product.

Over on the bottom side, though, it's business as usual. As before, there's a long vent stretching across the top, with a grille so fine it might be mistaken for a speaker. You won't be confused, though, because the dual speakers are also situated on the bottom side -- one on the left and one on the right, each with some discreet "Dolby Home Theater" branding written nearby.

What has changed -- and what you can't tell merely by looking at the machine -- is that Acer has refined its TwinAir cooling system so that the fans should make less noise than they did last time around. This unit also has Intel's Wireless Display technology, a requirement for new Ultrabooks. Finally, let's finish unpacking the box. For some reason, the power brick is a really inconvenient shape; the brick sits at a right angle with the plug, so you'll need to either use a wall outlet or clear several outlets' worth of space on your power strip. On the plus side, you also get a faux-suede carrying case (pictured in some of our glamor shots) along with a cloth for keeping the screen clean. Thanks, Acer!

Keyboard and trackpad

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It's more of the same, folks. Acer hardly made any changes to the S7's backlit keyboard, which features flat, chiclet-style buttons, done up in a metal finish to match the palm rest. The keys offer slightly more travel this time (1.3mm instead of 1mm), but they still feel pretty flat. Even so, they're backed by a sturdy underlying panel, and most of the buttons are actually big enough to hit without looking (the Caps Lock and Tab keys being notable exceptions). All told, it's still easy to type on, despite its flatness and a few shrunken keys.

Lest you think this review is going to be a carbon copy of the last one, the trackpad here is leaps and bounds better than the one on the old model. It handles pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolls reliably, along with all the usual Windows 8 gestures (swiping down for in-app settings, et cetera). Best of all, though, it now does a much more precise job tracking single-finger navigation. In fact, the experience is so smooth that it wasn't until I re-read my review from last fall that I remembered just how bad the touchpad was initially.

Display and sound

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The S7's 1,920 x 1,080 IPS display is less of a novelty than it was nine months ago -- not least because this new model will be available with 2,560 x 1,440 resolution outside the United States. That said, it's as lovely as ever, with arresting colors, fine details and a remarkable immunity to screen glare (this despite the fact that there's no matte coating). And even if you're based in the US and have no choice but to go with a 1080p screen, the viewing angles alone make it the best full HD screen we've seen on an Ultrabook. Truly, these colors just won't quit: whether you watch from off to the side or with the screen dipped forward, the saturation and contrast look about the same as they do when you're watching straight-on. Unless being able to brag about pixel density somehow makes you feel better about yourself, we suspect this 1080p panel will do just fine.

Unfortunately, the audio quality doesn't nearly match the visuals. We never did get comfy with the speaker setup: even set to 50 percent, the volume is too weak, but crank it up and the sound gets uncomfortably distorted. We finally settled on 75 / 100, but even then the volume wasn't quite loud enough to rise above the sound of an air conditioner blasting across the room. Still, that small concession in volume meant we could listen to a live recording of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and actually make out all the instruments (and not just Clapton's electric guitar).

Performance and battery life

PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Acer Aspire S7-392 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 5,108 5,158

E1,724 / P952 / X298

975 MB/s (reads); 1.1GB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 13 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,502 4,413

E1,177 / P636 / X203

1.04 GB/s (reads); 479 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Duo 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,440 6,047

E1,853 / P975 / X297

546 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 11 (1.8GHz Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400) 4,634 N/A

E1,067 / P600 / X183

558 MB/s (reads); 255 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo ThinkPad Helix (1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,549 3,734

E959 / P520 / X180

553 MB/s (reads); 501 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire P3 (1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y, Intel HD 4000) 3,867 3,999

E925 / P503

552 MB/s (reads); 524 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7-391 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 5,011 4,918 E1,035 / P620 / X208 934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

Ever since it came out with the Aspire S5, its second-ever Ultrabook, Acer's been loading its flagship machines with solid-state drives arranged in a RAID 0 configuration. That doesn't leave any redundancy in terms of data security, but it makes for some unbelievably fast I/O speeds, which is a pretty good selling point, indeed. In particular, we saw a huge rise in write speeds over the last-gen models, with writes regularly topping out over 1 GB/s. Read speeds were almost as fast, at 975 MB/s, though we saw similar performance even in last year's S7.

That fast SSD setup was enough to help lift all the other benchmark scores too -- even beyond what we've seen in other Haswell systems. In everyday use, too, the S7 feels exceptionally fast; it's quick to launch apps, switch between them and handle all manner of transitions. As promised, the fan noise has been improved so much that you'd have to put your ear up against the keyboard to hear even the slightest purring (last time, the noise was so annoying it made it into the "cons" section of the review card). Then again, the trade-off to having a meek set of fans is that they don't seem to do quite as good a job at keeping the system cool: the underbelly here can get quite hot, even if all you did was leave the system idle for a while.

Battery life

Acer Aspire S7-392 7:33
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) 12:51
Sony VAIO Duo 13 9:40
Sony VAIO Pro 13 8:24
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Sony VAIO Pro 11 6:41
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 (2012) 5:30
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
Toshiba Kirabook 5:12
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 5:07 (tablet only) / 7:24 (with dock)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung ATIV Book 7 5:02
ASUS Transformer Book 5:01 (tablet only)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Sony VAIO Duo 11 4:47
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
MSI Slidebook S20 4:34
Acer Aspire P3 4:33
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7-391 4:18
Acer Aspire S3 (2011) 4:11
ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

The bad news: the S7's battery life -- seven hours and 33 minutes of video playback -- isn't as long as what you'll get from some other Ultrabooks, like the refreshed MacBook Air and Sony VAIO Duo 13. The good news: we've reached a point where seven-plus hours is merely the bare minimum for what you can expect on an ultraportable like this. That's pretty great, don'tcha think? Look at it this way: even with a relatively small 6,280mAh battery, the S7 still lasts for much of the day, even under a taxing workload. Not to mention, it beats the pants off almost all of last year's Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks (especially the original S7). See? Once you put a Haswell processor inside every laptop, everybody wins.*

*Barring, you know, a flat keyboard, flaky touchpad, poor viewing angles, tinny sound and anything else that could possibly go wrong.

Software and warranty

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As it happens, the model we tested is the same one you'd buy at the Microsoft Store, which is to say it comes completely free of any crapware or pre-installed utilities or what have you. In case buying it through Microsoft isn't an option -- perhaps you see the S7 on sale somewhere else -- you will get a handful of extra software programs, though we promise the bloat isn't that bad. On those non-Microsoft-Store models, pre-installed apps include: Amazon Kindle, Netflix, newsXpresso, Social Jogger, Nero BackItUp Essentials 12 and CyberLink MediaEspresso. Also on board: trials of Microsoft Office and Norton Internet Security, along with Norton Online Backup. Meanwhile, there are also a few Acer-branded apps, including Acer Power Management, Acer Recovery Management, Acer Theft Shield and Acer Crystal Eye (that's the webcam app). Got it? Good. We're all done now.

If you buy the S7-392 through the Microsoft Store, it comes with a one-year warranty. Buy it off Acer.com, though, and you get two years of coverage. Would you be willing to accept a little bloatware if it meant you got an extra year of protection?

Configuration options

The entry-level $1,450 model (the 392-6411 at the Microsoft Store and the 392-6832 on Acer.com) is the unit we tested, which has a 1.6GHz dual-core Core i5-4200U CPU, Intel HD 4400 graphics, 8GB of RAM, 1080p IPS screen, four-cell battery and 128GB of solid-state storage arranged in a fast RAID 0 setup. The higher-end model, priced at $1,700, steps up to a 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U processor and 256 gigs of flash storage, though the rest of the specs (RAM, graphics, battery, screen resolution) remain the same. If you're shopping around for that one, it goes by the name 392-9460 on Microsoft.com, and 392-9890 on Acer's site.

And... that's it. Last time around, there was also an 11-inch version to consider, but Acer decided not to reissue that one; apparently 13-inch Ultrabooks sell better. In any case, then, if you want a smaller screen, you'll have to look elsewhere (we really don't recommend snapping up a discounted S7-121 -- not with the battery life being as short as it is).

The competition

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The Acer Aspire S7-392 is what the original should have been.

Ah, Haswell: the great equalizer. Thanks to Intel's new Core-series chips, we've yet to meet a new Ultrabook we haven't liked. As much as we love the new S7, we also heartily recommend the updated 13-inch MacBook Air ($1,099) and the Sony VAIO Pro 13 ($1,250), both of which offer excellent battery life (longer battery life, even). In the case of the Pro, specifically, you also get a 1080p IPS display to match what Acer is offering. Additionally, though we haven't tested the Dell XPS 12 ($1,200) since it got updated with Haswell, we suspect it belongs in the same category; we already loved its design, keyboard and full HD screen, and the battery life was actually decent back when it had Ivy Bridge.

And if you're able to bide your time, you might want to wait until the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus comes out (pre-orders don't even begin until August 18th). As the successor to last year's Series 9 (one of our all-time favorite ultraportables), it looks mostly the same, except now it steps up to a 3,200 x 1,800 touchscreen. And Haswell, of course. Always with the Haswell.

In ASUS' camp, there's the Zenbook Infinity with a Gorilla Glass 3 lid and palm rest. Unfortunately, though, ASUS has been quite the tease -- the company didn't let media get hands-on with it at its launch event in June, nor do we know any additional details, save for the fact that it'll ship in Q4. In the meantime, ASUS has plenty of other Zenbook Ultrabooks on the market, though most have not been updated with Haswell, which is definitely something you'll want to keep in mind as you're shopping.

Lastly, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Lenovo, even though we're coming up short on things to recommend. You see, until now, the IdeaPad Yoga 13 was one of our go-to choices in the Ultrabook category. The problem is, it has the same specs it had when it came out last fall. In fact, though Lenovo has some Haswell machines in its stable, all of its flagship machines are rocking last year's chips. We love the design as much as ever, but we suggest you hold out for a refresh, if you hold out at all. A bump in screen resolution from 1,600 x 900 wouldn't hurt either.

Wrap-up

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The Acer Aspire S7-392 is what the original should have been: it offers long battery life, runs quietly and brings a much-improved trackpad. Of course, it also has an exceptionally light build, quality materials, a fast SSD and a crisp display with wide viewing angles -- the S7 already excelled in those areas. Whereas before we recommended this with caveats, we now endorse it whole-heartedly.

Mostly, anyway. You'll get even better battery life on some competing models, and people adhering to something of a budget might still prefer the 13-inch MacBook Air, the Sony VAIO Pro 13 or the Dell XPS 12. But the S7 is faster, and has the best screen of them all. It's a win for Acer, at long last, even if you do have to pay a little more for it.

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Acer Aspire S7 review (2013): the second time's a charm for Acer's flagship Ultrabook