Laptops are at a point right now where they should all be more or less excellent. Ultrabooks are into their third year of relevance, and the screens and processors that are widely available are good enough that you can piecemeal together a perfectly acceptable laptop from chaff, more or less. So making a great one is about decisions. The Acer Aspire S7 made a bunch of good ones, against just a few dumb ones. And the result puts it in the vanguard of what's shaping up to be a belated PC renaissance.
Laptops, as a group, have undergone a massive refinement over the past few years. Three generations of ultrabooks, and the gap between the MacBook and Windows machines has all but closed. The S7 is an almost perfect totem for that growth, with once-maligned Acer going from the dumpy-but-pleasant S3 to the trying-a-little-too-hard S5 to last year's not-quite-there-yet S7, Mark 1. Acer's second try here is a few points closer to perfect, even if it's not quite there yet.
The Aspire S7 is nearly identical to last year's 13-inch model. It's remarkably thin, with a white Gorilla Glass lid and a glass panel 1080p touch display. Its body comprises a magnesium bottom and a treated aluminium face. The metals give the body a sturdy, no-flex feel (though we still prefer the aluminium lid on the 11-inch model), but the treatments do sort of leave you wondering if they're plastic.
A few things about the S7 are something close to perfect. The keyboard, for one, is lovely. The original S7 had keys that were sort of mushy, and didn't have quite enough travel distance — that's fixed this year. Importantly, there's zero flex to the keyboard's chassis. This is a crucial detail a lot of laptops screw up while trying to get thinner or lighter, and they end up feeling like junk. Not so here.
Acer's also stuck with the condensed keyboard layout that has a few keys in unexpected places. Function keys are gone, meaning you hold the function button for stuff like volume up or adjusting your brightness. It's an efficient and extremely usable layout, even if the function symbols on the keys ugly them up some.
The screen is wonderful. It's got better colour performance and contrast than just about anything that's not the Chromebook Pixel. That said, it still suffers from Windows's poor scaling (yes, even in 8.1). That's not Acer's fault, but it's a reality you'll have to live with. At 1080p on a 13-inch screen though, you won't notice it as badly as you do on, say, the Toshiba Kirabook and its super hi-res screen. There is some light leakage around the S7's edges — the bottom especially on our unit — but after watching a bunch of movies it wasn't visible unless you're looking at a pure black screen. In actual use, it's gorgeous. Just something to keep an eye on over long-term use.
There is some flex to the lid and screen, and it's still a shame that Acer insists on sticking with the Gorilla Glass lid instead of the flatly gorgeous aluminium design on the 11-inch. The flex, combined with the very minor beginnings of the light leakage around the edges of the LED, is a little troubling. It's also worsened just a bit by a hinge that isn't quite perfect. It's strong — Acer understands here that laptops should be slightly harder to move around when they're mostly opened than when they're in the process of opening — but isn't quite firm enough when you're poking at it, and wobbles a little.
Trackpad performance is top notch. The Synaptics trackpad on ours doesn't have quite the same heavy-car-door feel of the Pixel, but it's damn close. It's definitely on the top tier of trackpads, and its performance for basic gestures (two-finger scrolling being the main one) is as good as you'll see on a Windows rig.
Battery life, as with everything else running on Intel's new Haswell chips, is impressive. I got through entire 9+ hour workdays on a single charge a few times, typically running at just under 50 per cent brightness, but pumping it up when adjusting images. More commonly, I'd run dry toward the end of the day if I'd been playing a lot of videos or had a zillion tabs open, but it scored 5 hours 19 minutes on our fairly punishing battery test (20 tabs, half of which self-refresh, 10-hour Nyancat video streaming, 50 per cent brightness, run until first shutoff around 5 per cent, not final 0 per cent), which is a massive improvement over last year's ultrabooks, and just a bit short of the high marks for this year.
The full allotment of ports (mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, two USB 3.0 and an SD card slot) is also a surprisingly nice feeling. The S7 doesn't have an Ethernet port (the body is literally too thin for that), but it can handle pretty much anything else you'd throw at it.
The battery life is standard across every Haswell generation ultrabook. The screen is wonderful, and especially good on colours compared to some other panels. It's only really matched by the new Sony Vaio. The keyboard is terrific as well, and the trackpad performance is top notch. The things that are best about it are the things that are most functional.
The design isn't quite beautiful, but the computer always feels well made. And, once you tweak what you want within Windows, the underlying performance of the keyboard, trackpad, and display are all on point. Those are the three most crucial points of interaction for any laptop, and the S7 nails them.
There's only one truly stupid thing about the S7, and that's its power button. It's on the back-left side, and it is astonishingly easy to press. In fact, it's in the exact location your index finger probably goes when you lift an open laptop. It's very annoying.
Otherwise, the keyboard layout takes a little getting used to, though it's ultimately fine. The hinge is decent, but for a touchscreen laptop, it's not quite firm enough where it needs to be firm, and a little loose where it should be loose. It's still above average, but it makes adjusting the screen or poking at it feel more unsure than it should. The speakers are also still in a really dumb place for laptop (bottom-front) and don't deliver sound as well as they could. A few times, I found myself cupping my hands under them to reflect sound when I sat the computer on my lap. And the power cord is kind of a bummer, with a smaller than average nub that slips out from time to time — it's fine for now, but you get the sense that within a few years it might not be.
- The S7 played BioShock Infinite on Medium settings at 720p at 40+ FPS, with no real issues.
- Giz Standard Battery Test: 5 hours 19 minutes
- For some idiot reason, the SD card placeholder isn't a push-to-eject — you've got to jam your fingernail in there. I bite mine, so it was a pain.
- The S7 comes with a fairly well made and deeply, unforgivably ugly case. Replace this as soon as you possibly can; if you're spending this much on a laptop, get it a proper case.
- Fans are very quiet, even while running a game.
- Heat dissipation was never an issue either, with most of it congregating in the large, cleared out area above the keyboard.
- During battery testing, Chrome crashed once or twice, but was fine for day-to-day, less idiotic uses.
Should You Buy This
Yes. Hell yes. This has been my favourite Windows laptop to date. The 14-inch Razer Blade was pretty wonderful as well, but its screen was too much of a letdown. We still need to take a look at the refreshed versions of other top ultrabooks — especially the Samsung Ativbook 9 (formerly Series 9) and Lenovo Yoga — but this is a damn fine laptop.
Specs Processor: Intel Core i5 Haswell 1.6GHz (up to Core i7) Memory: 8GB RAM (standard) Storage: 128GB SSD (up to 256GB) Display: 13.3-inch 1080p IPS Dimensions: 323mm (W) x 223mm (D) x 12.9mm (H) Weight: 1.3kg Ports: USB 3.0 x2, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, SD Card Price as tested: $1899 RRP in Australia, ($2399 for 256GB SSD/i7)