We've been playing with Windows 8 for a while now — but not yet on a machine designed from the start to run on the new OS. Next week, when Acer's Aspire S7 ultrabook launches, all that will change. Is this 11-inch wisp of a laptop a worthy debut for Windows 8?
What Is It?
A $US1,200 bona fide Windows 8 ultrabook with an Ivy Bridge chipset. (We don't know how much it is in Australia yet because Acer has decided to embargo pricing information until October 26.)
Who Is It For?
Anyone who regularly takes a laptop on the go, and needs strong performance from the battery and CPU, but isn't necessarily looking for a portable supercomputer.
It's sliver thin. It's feather light. It's attractive — not quite beautiful, but attractive — without the design tropes of the MacBook Air. Made of aluminium, glass, and a white plastic underbody, the Aspire S7 feels sturdy despite its lack of mass. The 11.6-inch screen is a lovely 1920x1080 IPS display equipped with a multitouch panel. The keyboard and trackpad surface has a uniform silver look, and save for some relatively tame branding elements, is about as clean as a PC input surface gets. When it's dark, the keys emit a muted green glow. It makes the machine look like something nerds would be using in a future 100 years from now.
That's not to say everything is perfect. The trackpad is a bit undersized (especially for vertical scrolling). Though the keys have a decent amount of tactile feedback, they're just a bit too flat for my liking (obviously this was a decision made with size concerns in mind). And, speaking of the underside, a lot of the design work around the ports and buttons is amateur compared to the rest of the machine. But none of these gripes are necessarily deal breakers.
Acer sent an early engineering unit, so it had a few quirks — drivers that weren't quite final, and a 1.9 GHz Core i7 processor not available to consumers (sorry, you guys get a Core i5). But all in all, the Aspire S7 is a beast of an ultrabook. Rarely, over the course of a full day's use, did the computer show any sign of lag, even with multiple apps open (in Metro and the desktop), and a gaggle of tabs in Chrome. It barely even got hot. And when put through our battery test grinder, it lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, which is pretty damn good for an 11-inch laptop this size.
That said, the trackpad experience was middling, and some of the Windows 8 gestures did not work as well as expected. Part of this was due to the small size, but part of it was due to the firmware and tracking sensors. Also, the fan had a tendency to ratchet up when a bundled app like McAfee's virus suite would do a background scan. Acer says these issues are driver-related, and shouldn't be a problem in production models. So we'll see about that.
The Best Part
The display. Holy shit is it beautiful. The IPS display doesn't necessarily have the brightness of the MacBook Air, or the viewing angles of the Asus U31X. But when you pack 1080p resolution into an 11.6-inch display, you're left with nothing but bliss. Razor sharp bliss. Windows (desktop or Metro) has never looked better. And watching HD content on Vimeo is sublime.
The Aspire can only be configured with 4 gigabytes of RAM, max. That's plenty fine for now, but what about two years from now? What if you plan to hold on to this thing for 3-5 years? Acer's argument is that it was a sacrifice made in the name of space. But most buyers would have gladly sacrificed a little thickness or surface area to double the RAM.
This Is Weird...
Towards the end of testing, the trackpad died. Or, at the very least, it stopped responding. Windows says everything is fine with the hardware. Yet, everything is not fine. Acer says that it's probably because this is an engineering sample with drivers that are not final. We'll have to take their word on it for now.
- The display is a joy to look at, although its viewing angles and brightness aren't best in class by any means. The touchscreen, although not an idea I love, is implemented well, and is as functional as any smartphone or tablet display. On a rare occasion, I even found it useful — sometimes it's easier to touch the screen than to use the trackpad, OK?
- A lot of PC makers design ugly hinges. The hinge design on the 11-inch Aspire S7 is arguably the best I've seen on an ultrabook.
- Having to hold down the function key to adjust screen brightness and volume is one of those UX ghosts of the PC laptop's past that refuses to go away. I hate it. I hate it so much.
- Startup time: 7.8 seconds. Shutdown Time: 11.2 seconds.
- The location of the Aspire S7 speakers is off. They're fine for a device this size, but they're placed on the underside of the laptop. Sound, frequently blocked by lap and desk surfaces, ends up muffled. Bah.
Should You Buy It?
If you're the type who buys a new computer every couple of years, and you're ready to upgrade to Windows 8, then yes, definitely.
Cons: The 4-gigabyte RAM limitation is a major downer. For now, it's fine, but it makes it hard to recommend the Aspire S7 someone who wants a new computer to last four or five years. You won't run Adobe CS6 at full speed on this machine. The trackpad could be a little bigger, and the keyboard a little springier, and the speakers a bit better placed. But it can get most people through their usual tasks — email, music, chat, video — with supreme ease.
Most importantly, this is an exciting new Windows machine. If I bought one, I might actually tell someone about it. The form factor, the display, the faint green glow of the keys, a platform meant for Windows 8 — all of this adds up to an experience going beyond just satisfactory. It's damn good.
• Processor: 1.9GHz Dual Core Intel Core i7 (Turboboost to 2.4GHz) As tested; retail models have a Core i5 processor.
• Memory: 4GB
• Storage: 256 GB SSD
• Graphics: Intel HD 4000
• Dimensions: 0.48 x 11.17 x 7.7 inches
• Weight: 2.29 pounds
• Display: 11.6-inch, 1920x1080 IPS LCD
• Ports: 2 USB 3.0, Mini HDMI, Micro SD
• Standard Battery Test: 1 Hours 40 minutes
• Price: $US1200 (base) $US1650 (as tested), available Oct 26, 2012
Photos by Nick Stango. Video by Michael Hession.