It's hard to believe, but we're getting close to the one-year mark in the Windows 8 era. Microsoft's still-controversial operating system was released in October 2012, and that was long-enough ago that we're now seeing the second generation of some of the initial-launch-period Windows 8 laptops and hybrids.
One of my favorite early Windows 8 laptops was the Acer Aspire S7, and it quickly became a favorite for much of the rest of our PC-savvy staff as well. The original S7 scored points by being a new-from-the-ground-up ultrabook, rather than an existing Windows 7 product updated with new software. The new version, the S7-392-6411, essentially identical on the outside, remains one of the thinnest, slickest-looking ultrabooks available, highlighted by a white minimalist chassis and a lid covered with Gorilla Glass.
Since then, we've seen many thin, touch-screen laptops with high-end processors and 1080p screen resolutions, including the Sony Vaio Pro 13 and the Samsung Ativ Book 9, plus impressive hybrids such as the Lenovo Yoga 13. Despite the increase in competition, this remains a great, eye-catching design, thanks to the bold white-and-silver design (a nice break from the dark palette of most laptops) and the Gorilla Glass lid, which promises strength and a lighter overall weight.
The new Aspire S7 moves to Intel's latest fourth-generation Core i-series processors. The 2012 version we tested had a previous-gen Core i7 chip for $1,649, while the 2013 model has a Haswell-generation Core i5 for $1,399.99, which includes a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) and 8GB of RAM. That's a premium price, especially for a Core i5 laptop, considering a 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,099, but it's competitive with similar Sony and Samsung ultrabooks.
This is a hard laptop not to like, and even though the basic design is about 10 months old, it still feels very cutting-edge, at least visually. The $1,399.99 price is still a bit of a reach, especially considering that I don't love the keyboard and touch pad, but it's also very portable and reasonably powerful, and will look great at a coffee shop.
|Acer Aspire S7-392-6411||MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Pro 13||Samsung Ativ Book 9|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.5GHz Intel Core i7-4550U||2GHz Intel Core i7-3537U|
|PC memory||8,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||8,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||128MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Storage||128GB SSD||128GB SSD||512GB SSD hard drive||256GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Aside from moving a few ports around and the absence of the words "Professionally tuned" stamped above the keyboard, this is essentially the same Aspire S7 design we liked so much last year. It's very thin and light, although the glass-covered lid feels a bit top-heavy. You may recall that the original HP Envy Spectre (from early 2012) had a similar design, putting glass both on the back of the lid and the wrist rest. Here it's just the lid, which is good, as it never really worked on the wrist rest.
Of course, this isn't an all-glass laptop (which sounds like a crazy idea, but I bet someone will eventually pitch one). The rest of the body is aluminum over a plastic base, and the entire thing has a MacBook-like feel. White (behind the glass surface on the back of the lid) and silver is an unusual, but not unheard-of, color combination these days. Most laptops, apart from MacBooks, tend to be matte or glassy black, with maybe a little gray or some red accents thrown in. Just by being different the Aspire S7 achieves an upscale look that stands out.
The keyboard has flat-topped, island-style keys that sit in a gently sloping, indented keyboard tray. The keys feel deeper than the original S7's, based on my memory of that system, making for a less error-prone experience -- but it may just be that my tolerance for shallow ultrabook keyboards has grown with repeat exposure. One thing I miss is having a separate row of Function keys; instead those functions are mapped as alternates to the numeral keys. It's an odd omission, as there's plenty of room at the top of the keyboard for an additional row.
The large touch pad has a great surface with just enough friction, but multitouch gestures are a bit finicky. Interestingly, this version has a Synaptics touch pad, rather than the Elan model on the original S7 from 2012. Side by side, I'd say this new S7's touch pad is more responsive, but it still pales in comparison with what you get from a MacBook.
One highlight of the system is the 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution, 13.3-inch display. Despite some touch-screen laptops making their lids slightly thicker, the lid here still seems very thin, and is perfectly flat, not convex at all. The screen has decent off-axis viewing and while it's glossy, it's not overly reflective.
The screen hinge is designed with touch-screen use in mind. It acts like any other laptop hinge from the closed position to about 120 degrees or so. After that, the hinge stiffens considerably, so tapping and swiping on the screen results in less shaking or movement under your fingers. It's a small feature, but a clever one for Windows 8 laptops.
|Features||Acer Aspire S7|
|Video||HDMI and Mini DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
On a small laptop, you're going to give up a certain number of ports and connections, but at least the new S7 has two video outputs, HDMI and Mini DisplayPort. You also get a couple of USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot, but no Ethernet jack, which would be tough to fit into the slim body.
Unlike the more expensive Acer Aspire S7 we tested in late 2012, this newer model has an Intel Core i5 CPU instead of a more powerful Core i7 one. In day-to-day use, the effect is minimal, especially as the Core i5 here is from the latest generation of Intel CPUs, aka Haswell. In anecdotal use, just like the roughly comparable Sony Vaio Pro 13 or Samsung Ativ Book 9, the S7 always felt fast and responsive, including excellent touch-screen response. It's certainly more power than you're likely to need for Web surfing, social media, office productivity, and HD video playback.
Battery life is where the advantage of Intel's Haswell chips is really felt. The Acer Aspire S7 ran for 7 hours and 14 minute sin our video playback battery drain test, about 50 minutes longer than the pre-Haswell S7 we tested in 2012. That's not at great compared with the 12-plus hours you'll get from a 13-inch MacBook Air, but it's a solid number for a 13-inch ultrabook.
Even though the basic design comes from the very first wave of Windows 8 laptops in late 2012, the Acer Aspire S7 still looks and feels cutting-edge. You'll get similar performance and slim bodies from other PC makers, sometimes for a bit less money, but aesthetics and feel count for something, and this is certainly a laptop that stands out from the crowd. At $1,400 it's a bit of a reach; for $1,199, it'd be a killer deal.
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Acer Aspire S7-392-6411
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB SSD
MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (13-inch, 2013)
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7-3527U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 256GB SSD
Sony Vaio Pro 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i7-4550U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,659MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 512GB Samsung SSD
Dell XPS 12
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,745MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB Lite-On IT SSD