It was back in January, at CES 2012, that we first saw the $1,399 13-inch Acer Aspire S5 ultrabook. Of course, if you remember the S5 from CES, you'll recall its most unique feature -- a tiny motorized door at the back of the bottom panel that opens at the touch of a button, revealing a ports-and-connections block, including HDMI and Thunderbolt (making this one of only a handful of Thunderbolt laptops). Acer calls this the MagicFlip I/O Port.
It's certainly clever, and it earns points for originality and engineering. But call me crazy, I'd prefer to have my USB ports sitting right on the side of the laptop, easy to access without having to push a button and wait.
Another potential issue is that the MagicFlip is just one more mechanical part to potentially break down (but note that it has worked perfectly fine in the CNET Labs for several days and dozens of activations). If, for whatever reason, it gets stuck or stops working, you're sitting on a laptop with very limited connectivity. Especially in a thin, light ultrabook, having fewer moving parts is better -- hence the move to SSD storage over spinning-platter hard drives.
That said, the motorized port door is not even the most noteworthy thing about the S5, nor its biggest selling point. Even compared with other 13-inch ultrabooks, this system is incredibly thin and light. It weighs only 2.6 pounds (without its power adapter), and is 15mm thick at its thickest point (tapering to 11mm at the front).
That makes the 13-inch MacBook Air look and feel a bit chunky in comparison, which is no easy task. Acer also manages to work in an Intel Core i7 CPU (but no discrete graphics, sorry), so it's certainly powerful enough for everyday use.
At $1,399, this is scraping the high end of the ultrabook market, and I'm not sure even the extreme portability justifies the price, but it's certainly tempting -- this is a laptop that's simply fun to use.
What I'd love to see is a version of the S5 that stays as thin and light, but skips the gimmicky motorized flap, perhaps adding a millimeter or two to fit in the USB and HDMI ports. The MagicFlip can't be an inexpensive part to include. Dropping it might allow Acer to bring the price down closer to $1,000, where it would be much harder to resist.
|Price as reviewed||$1,399|
|Processor||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U|
|Memory||4GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||256GB SSD (128GB x2, RAID 0)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||9.8 x 2.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.6/3.3 pounds|
In a matte-black brushed metal, the Acer Aspire S5 looks and feels sophisticated, if anonymous. Only a small chrome Acer logo on the back of the lid gives away your laptop's provenance. The system is so light, at barely 2.6 pounds, that the metal body (aluminum and magnesium) helps it feel more substantial and secure.
The look is very minimalist, as you'd expect from a laptop without visible ports. Besides the keyboard and touch pad, only the button to activate the MagicFlip door sits on the keyboard tray -- a tiny sliver-style power button is relegated to the left side panel, along with an SD card slot.
The keyboard makes good use of the available real estate, leaving little dead space around it. The keys are island-style, flat-topped and widely spaced, but a little on the shallow side. The stiff construction helps with typing, as there's absolutely zero flex, even under heavy use.
The one serious shortcoming here is that the keyboard is not backlit. For a $1,400 laptop, even one as thin as this, that's simply unacceptable. Less seriously, a few keys, such as Tab and Caps Lock, are on the small side, and the multimedia function keys are spread around haphazardly. You'll have to press Fn+Arrow Up and Fn+Arrow Down to raise and lower the volume, but Fn+F8 to mute -- that's an entirely different area of the keyboard.
The large click-pad-style touch pad isn't as responsive as you'd find on a MacBook, but the multitouch gestures worked well, including the all-important two-finger scroll.
The big design feature on the Aspire S5 is the MagicFlip. Hit the button on the upper right of the keyboard tray, and the motor (loudly) whirs to life, pushing the port flap open, and lifting the entire rear edge of the laptop up. It actually makes for a decent ergonomic kickstand if you need a slightly higher angle for comfortable typing.
Of course, very few laptops have all their ports on the back edge, because it's often simply more convenient to have them on one of the sides, but it's not a deal breaker. Smartly, the port door will not close if it detects something plugged into one of the two USB 3.0 ports, or the HDMI or Thunderbolt ports. And, if you close the lid while the MagicFlip door is open, the door will close itself after a few seconds (provided nothing is plugged in).
That said, every single person I showed the Aspire S5 to asked exactly the same question: "What do you do when the door breaks down?" While I didn't have any trouble with the MagicFlip door while testing the Aspire S5, it's still a legitimate question. Adding extra motors and moving parts is always a bit of a roll of the dice, especially in highly portable devices that stand a good chance of being knocked around regularly.
Many PC makers have bitten the bullet over the past couple of years, and stopped loading up their desktops with preinstalled bloatware and ad-ware icons. Acer must have not gotten the memo. Preloaded desktop icons for eBay and Netflix don't feel right on a $1,400 laptop; you'll also find desktop links for Nook, Skype, McAfee, and a half-dozen Acer-branded products and services.
Some of those icons point to Acer's oddly named clear.fi media management software, which is perfectly usable, but unless you plan on going all-Acer, all the time, you may not want to take the time required to learn a new set of proprietary software.
The 13-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, another area where the system's features don't live up to its high price. For $1,399, I'd expect at least a 1,600x900-pixel display. The screen itself looks very good when viewed straight on, but off-axis viewing deteriorated quickly. While the display isn't covered in edge-to-edge glass, I liked the look achieved by the thin, brushed-metal bezel around it.
The built-in stereo speakers, positioned on the far left and right sides of the bottom panel, were thin-sounding, as one would expect from such a small laptop, but fine for casual media consumption.
|Acer Aspire S5||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI, VGA (via included adaptor), DisplayPort (via Thunderbolt)||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet (via USB dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
With such a thin laptop, you've got to choose what ports and connections to include carefully. The MagicFlip port compartment has limited room, but I think Acer made mostly the right call in including twin USB 3.0 ports and HDMI. The Thunderbolt port is a bit of a high-end gimmick right now, if only because there are so few accessories that support it. But, it's nice to see someone other than Apple try out this still newish technology.