Look and feel
The S7 is as nice to touch as it is to look at.
Smooth glass, sharp edges and cold aluminum. You can forget Acer's reputation for putting out cheap plastic stuff: the S7 is as nice to touch as it is to look at, and is easily the prettiest, most tactile laptop the company has ever made. On both the 11- and 13-inch models the keyboard deck is fashioned out of smooth aluminum, with a large trackpad and metal keys. Though it looks like the screen has a bezel, it's actually an edge-to-edge glass display, with a border that matches the white lid. To be clear, when we talk about that white lid, we're referring to the 13-inch model, specifically: that bigger version has a white Gorilla Glass cover, while the 11-incher has a metal lid. Both look nice; just don't expect one to be a shrunken version of the other. Since we tested the glass-clad model, in particular, we can speak to that more directly: the white surface picks up fingerprints but, as promised, it doesn't get scratched.
At 2.86 pounds, the 13-inch version we tested weighs even less than the Aspire S5, which was itself pretty light for an Ultrabook. That seems like a feat, given that the 13-inch S7 has a glass cover -- after all, the last time we reviewed a laptop with a glass lid we ended up making excuses for its relatively heavy build. The 13-inch model is thinner, too (0.47 vs. 0.59 inch), which is noteworthy given that the S5 was once touted as the "world's thinnest" Ultrabook. (The S5 had a motorized drop-down port door in the back, so it sort of had to be thicker than the S7.) Even if you don't have the S5 lying around for comparison's sake, we think you'll be able to appreciate how impressively thin this is. It really does feel slimmer and lighter than other 13-inch Ultrabooks. And again, the S7 is handicapped in that a glass lid and touchscreen should theoretically add more heft. So well done, Acer.
On the bottom side, the notebook is sealed in such a way that you can't easily get at the battery, SSD or RAM. (This is pretty typical for Ultrabooks.) That bottom surface is also where you'll find the speaker strip, which is somewhat unusual: laptop speakers are usually located in the keyboard area or around the sides. The back edge of the machine is completely taken up by the vent, which will make its presence known quite frequently (more on that when we dive into performance).
As for ports, the S7 offers almost everything you'd expect in a 13-inch Ultrabook: two USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD reader. (We only expect an Ethernet jack on thicker systems.) The one thing you might have wanted that you won't get is a full-size HDMI socket; there's just a micro version here. Happily, though, you do get USB-to-Ethernet and micro-HDMI-to-VGA adapters, along with a carrying case and mouse, so hopefully there won't be any hard feelings.
Keyboard and trackpad
As it happens, our tester unit has the layout Canadian customers are going to see, but that doesn't mean our thoughts on the backlit keyboard won't resonate with shoppers here in the US. As we found with Acer's two other Ultrabooks, the keys are awfully flat and shallow, and don't offer much in the way of travel. Meanwhile, the actual sizing of the buttons is a mixed bag: the Caps Lock key is about the size of the nail on your index finger, but Enter and Backspace are amply sized. In any case, whatever considerations Acer made in designing the keyboard seem to have paid off: we quickly found ourselves typing at a brisk clip, making very few typos. And when we did make a mistake, that oversized Backspace key was easy to hit.
The story of the trackpad matches what we've seen from some other new Windows 8 laptops: it does a good job of handling native Windows 8 gestures, but isn't as good at single-finger navigation. For instance, you should have no problem swiping in from the right to expose the Charms Bar; that's a trick that really doesn't require much practice. When it comes to dragging the cursor around the screen, though, the arrow often stops before you get to whatever you meant to click on. Other times, the touchpad registered a left click, when all we were doing was moving the cursor around the screen. We had a similar issue when doing pinch-to-zoom (though the zooming itself was otherwise smooth). So, if we weren't careful, we'd accidentally open apps when we didn't mean to. Good thing the computer was quick to react when we hit the Start button as a way of backing out.
Simply put, the S7's 1080p, IPS screen is one of the loveliest laptop displays we've seen in some time, the sort of panel that puts other laptops to shame. You might think that 1,366 x 768 is sufficient for a 13-inch screen -- and you'd be right -- but once you've used the S7 it's difficult to go back. Everything from desktop items to Windows 8 apps looks noticeably crisper. Color reproduction is good: blacks are black, whites are white and colors are vibrant without looking cartoonishly saturated. Lastly, that IPS panel made for some good viewing angles. We can't promise you won't suffer any screen glare (this is a glossy panel, after all) but you should be able to work with the notebook in your lap and not have to worry about fiddling with the screen angle. If you plan on having a Netflix-streaming party, the screen is also easily viewable nearly edge-on, with colors still looking potent even at severe off-angles.
As you've no doubt noticed, this isn't the sort of Windows 8 machine you can use in tablet mode, though that doesn't mean it isn't capable of contorting at all: the screen on the 13-inch model can be pushed all the way back, so that the whole thing system lies flat. We confess we're not sure when you'd use it this way, beyond the occasional board game or painting app, but it is a nice parlor trick nonetheless.
Performance and battery life
"LOUD NOISES." That's the note I wrote to myself in the performance section of this review, back when I was still gathering my impressions and felt the need to leave a placeholder. It's odd, in a way, to begin this part without a discussion of speeds and feeds, but then again, once you get rolling you might not pause to think about the fact that your $1,650 laptop has a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U processor. That fan noise, though -- that will follow you everywhere. It would be an understatement to say the machine pipes up during gaming, and other graphics-intensive tasks; it gets loud even when it's mostly idle, or when you open a single app, like Maps.
It's too bad the machine gets so distractingly loud, because underneath all the noise it's an impressively fast, capable system. Like the Aspire S5 before it, the S7 has two solid-state drives arranged in a RAID 0 setup, which allows for some screaming I/O speeds. In the disk benchmark ATTO, we saw top read speeds of 934 MB/s with writes maxing out at 686 MB/s. A quick look at the chart will tell you that's light years beyond any other high-end Windows 8 Ultrabook we've tested recently. The rest of its benchmarks -- variations on PCMark and 3DMark -- are more in line with the competition, if slightly better. Same deal for start-up times: it cold boots in about 12 seconds, which is on par with, if not faster than, other machines on the market.
Acer claims the Aspire 7's 4,680mAh battery can last up to six hours on a charge, which is already a modest rating compared to other Ultrabooks. In our video rundown test, which was designed to be taxing, we never came close to that. Even after running the test several times, the best we could muster was four hours and 18 minutes. For those of you new to Engadget reviews, that was with a video looping off the local drive, WiFi on and brightness fixed at 65 percent.
We were so taken aback by these scores that we contacted Acer to rule out the possibility that we had received a lemon. As it turns out, Acer's own internal testing team has been getting around five hours of runtime on its own test. That's longer battery life than what we saw, but then again, comparing Acer's test to Engadget's isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Interestingly, the battery life we recorded is in line with what we got on Acer's previous two Ultrabooks, the S3 and S5.
And besides, even if our machine did last five hours, that would've still been a poorer showing than we saw from other Windows 8 Ultrabooks, like the Dell XPS 12 and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. And even those machines don't last as long as some non-touch Ultrabooks we've tested this year. So, the runtime here really is pretty bad, a large step below mediocre. And that's a shame: if not for the awful battery life, this would be a killer ultraportable.
Software and warranty
Not that Acer's the only PC maker to do this, but it definitely saddled the S7 with a good dose of bloatware. On tap, you'll find 7digital (a music streaming service); eBay; Skitch and Evernote; Acer Explorer; the Encyclopedia Britannica; iCookbook; ChaCha; TuneIn; Amazon.com and Amazon Kindle; Netflix; StumbleUpon; Skype: Spotify; newsXpresso; and a trial of McAfee Internet Security Suite. Other apps include Acer's Crystal Eye webcam software, Microsoft Office and two games: Taptiles and Shark Dash. Finally, there's AcerCloud, Acer's free online storage service which allows you to back up things like photos and music tracks and access them through mobile apps.
Like most other consumer PCs, the S7 comes with a one-year warranty.
Configuration options and the competition
As we mentioned, the Aspire S7 is available in 11- and 13-inch sizes, with the industrial design being mostly the same, except for the lid. In the US, at least, the 13-inch model is available in two configurations: a Core i5 version, for $1,400, and a Core i7 one for $1,650. Stepping up also means more disk space: the Core i5 model has 128GB of storage, while the Core i7 one has 256 gigs. Either way, it comes with 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics and that 4,680mAh battery.
If you're curious about that smaller, 11-inch number, it weighs less, as you'd expect (2.29 pounds versus 2.86), though it's actually slightly thicker, with a 0.48-inch chassis. Acer is offering just one configuration in the US: a $1,200 system with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of RAID 0 storage and a 3,790mAh battery rated for up to five hours.
If you feel put off by the S7's short battery life, you can at least take comfort in the fact that it's not a novelty: almost every PC maker is selling plain old notebooks with touchscreens slapped on. For the purposes of this comparison, we'll stick to other high-end options, since folks considering paying $1,400 for a 1080p machine probably aren't going to want to settle for something with a 1,366 x 768 display. Perhaps the most obvious competition comes from ASUS, which is selling a touchscreen version of its Zenbook Prime Ultrabooks. All told, it has the same industrial design and 1080p IPS panel as the last Zenbook Prime we reviewed, though we haven't had a chance to test whether that touchscreen puts a dent in the battery life. Hopefully we'll get to put one through its paces sooner rather than later. If you don't mind some extra heft, HP is selling the 15-inch Spectre XT TouchSmart ($1,400 and up), the first HP Ultrabook to rock a 1,920 x 1,080 screen. At 4.77 pounds, it's light for a 15-incher but again, it's nowhere near as portable as the S7.
With each successive generation, Acer comes closer to building the perfect Ultrabook. Its first model, the S3, had a low-rent feel, with short battery life, trailing performance and a stiff trackpad. The S5 improved on that with a nicer design and blazing speeds, due to a RAID 0 disk setup. But thanks to a low-res screen, among other shortcomings, it ultimately felt overpriced for what it was.
Now we have the Aspire S7, the best-made Ultrabook Acer has put out, with a stunning 1080p display and that same fast performance we recorded on the S5. One problem, though: Acer never did figure out the battery life. The S7's runtime is short even compared to other touchscreen Ultrabooks, which generally have not been lasting as long as non-touch models in our tests. While it's easy for us to praise Acer for having come so far, it's tougher to recommend a mobile device with skimpy battery life, especially when it has such a lofty starting price. If you don't mind carrying a charger everywhere you go, this is otherwise a premium piece of hardware. But if battery life is important (or if you're simply looking for more of an all-around performer) you'll have to let out a deep sigh, as we did, and keep looking.