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Acer S5-391-9880 review: Acer S5-391-9880

Even thinner and lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Air, the Acer Aspire S5 hides its ports, including Thunderbolt, behind a clever motorized door.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
9 min read

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.


Acer S5-391-9880

The Good

The <b>Acer Aspire S5</b> is an incredibly thin and light ultrabook that hides its ports, including Thunderbolt, behind a clever motorized door.

The Bad

That port door, named the MagicFlip, is a potential problem if it ever breaks down. The keyboard isn't backlit, and battery life could be better.

The Bottom Line

Even thinner and lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Air, the Acer Aspire S5 is a great example of an ambitious ultrabook, held back by a few flaws and its high price.

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 Airlook 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)
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 9.8 x 2.6 inches
Height 0.43-0.59 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.6/3.3 pounds
Category 13-inch

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.

The trade-off, of course, is that some common connections, such as an Ethernet jack or VGA video output, get relegated to external dongles. I'm generally fine with that, even for the Ethernet jack, but you should consider your exact needs (for example, I recently ran into someone who needed a thin laptop with a VGA output, because she was always connecting to older projectors).

Simply looking at a laptop's size is no longer a reliable indicator of what sort of processor you're going to find in there. This model, despite being the slimmest ultrabook currently available, packs in a new third-generation Intel Core i7 CPU. It's the ultra-low voltage version of the Core i7, but it's still more than powerful enough for all but the most demanding users. Thanks to the fast CPU and solid-state hard drive, applications launched quickly, and the system even booted up and resumed from sleep very quickly.

Discrete graphics have turned up in a small handful of ultrabooks, but not here. That means you'll have to rely on the basic Intel HD4000 graphics, which is fine for casual games and playing HD video, but not much more.

Juice box
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880 Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.17
Sleep (10 percent) 0.46
Idle (25 percent) 4.73
Load (5 percent) 26.56
Raw kWh 23.29
Annual energy cost $2.64

Ultrabooks are supposed to emphasize best-in-breed battery life, thanks to efficient CPUs and SSD drives. Unfortunately, this is one area where the S5 falls down a bit. With an Intel Core i7 CPU, a motorized port door to power, and very little room in its slim chassis for a battery, it's perhaps not all that surprising that the system only ran for 4 hours and 37 minutes on our video-playback battery-drain test. Sony's Vaio T ultrabook ran for an hour longer and a 13-inch MacBook Air about 3 hours longer as a comparison.

Acer includes a standard one-year parts and labor warranty with the Aspire S5. The company has a support Web site and I was able to navigate to a specific support page for the Aspire S5, which included driver downloads and support documents, as well as access to e-mail, chat, and phone support. Annoyingly, Acer won't show you the toll-free support phone number until you enter your laptop's serial number, but the number is 866-695-2237.

The Acer Aspire S5 leans heavily on its motorized port door, but it really doesn't need gimmicks to sell itself. This is the current leader in the arms race for the thinnest officially labeled ultrabook, and has the rare quality of being just plain fun to use. That said, I'd kill for a backlit keyboard.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880

Annual energy consumption cost
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 256GB LITEONIT SSD (2x RAID 0)

Lenovo IdeaPad U310
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Samsung 5400rpm

Dell XPS 14
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 630M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm

Sony Vaio T13112FXS
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm

Asus Zenbook UX32V
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 620M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm


Acer S5-391-9880

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 7Support 7