Small Business Notebook Review: Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook

Monday Jul 15th 2013 by Jamie Bsales
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Love tablets for the thin profile and light weight, but need the processing power and creature comforts of a full-sized PC? The Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook might be the ticket for your small business.

A funny thing happened in the mad rush to adopt hip new tablets: People realized they still needed a PC. Mobile apps are certainly fun and handy, and an impossibly thin and light device with a touch screen is convenient to have around. But business buyers still need a laptop to run critical applications, not to mention a real keyboard to get work done. But what if you could combine the thin-and-light attributes of a tablet with the form and function of a laptop?

That's the idea behind the Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook. Available in models with either an 11.6-inch or 13.3-inch HD touch screen, the Aspire S7 is less than half an inch thick—as thin as some tablets—and incredibly light. The 11.6-inch model weighs a mere 2.3 pounds, while stepping up to the larger screen increases your burden to just 2.8 pounds. Raw numbers don't do the Aspire S7 justice, though; to truly appreciate how svelte it is you have to hold it. We got our hands on the 13.3-inch model, and at first touch it's hard to believe this is a full-sized laptop.

Cutting-edge Ultrabook Design

Acer says it hit the aggressive size and weight design goals through a combination of advanced materials and new manufacturing techniques. The body of the Aspire S7 is created from a single piece of aluminum, and depending on the model, the lid is either aluminum or high-strength Gorilla Glass (the same material used for popular smartphones). The sleek white-and-silver Aspire S7-391 we tested sports a modern, minimalist aesthetic that looks as good as anything from Apple.

small business laptop: Acer Aspire S7 Ultrabook

Figure 1: The Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook

But light weight and sharp looks aren't the only things the design has going for it; the Aspire S7 also has a few tricks up its sleeve. Most notably, the hinge on the S7-391 allows the lid to open a full 180 degrees. That means you can have the laptop opened flat on a table to better share the touch screen with others. It's ideal, for example, for a real estate agent sitting with clients across a desk— everyone can view the screen as she flicks through property photos. The hinge also features a "dual-torque" design that provides enough resistance in the open position to eliminate bouncing or wobbling as you touch the screen in its upright position.

The S7-391's full-size, light-touch keyboard makes typing almost effortless. We also appreciate the subtle backlight for the keyboard that makes discerning the characters etched into the key tops easy even in a dark room. And unlike many UltraBooks, which make do with tiny touch pads to match their diminutive size, the S7-391 sports an oversize one-piece touch pad for controlling the mouse pointer. And if you prefer to move the cursor the old fashioned way, Acer includes a compact wireless travel mouse in a coordinating white color scheme.

Of course, Acer made some design tradeoffs to get the laptop down to its size and weight. For example, the Aspire S7's razor-thin sides of leave limited room for connectivity ports. You will find two high-speed USB 3.0 ports and a memory card slot on the right edge and a headphone jack on the left, but the mini-HDMI port (for attaching an external TV) requires an adapter to connect to full-size HDMI connectors. Also, there is scant room for other ports, so Acer included both a USB-to-LAN adapter for wired Ethernet connectivity and a mini-HDMI-to-VGA adapter for attaching VGA peripherals such as projectors.

And, as is common among UltraBooks, the machine's battery comes sealed inside the case. You can't remove it and swap in a spare battery if you are away from AC power all day. Fortunately, the main battery delivers up to 12 hours of runtime per charge (depending on model and usage), and Acer offers secondary external battery packs to extend that even further.

Aspire S7 Ultrabook Hardware Features

The Aspire S7 gets great battery life thanks, in part, to the 128GB or 256GB solid state drive (SSD) used in lieu of a traditional hard drive. Instead of spinning platters and mechanical drive heads, the SSD is simply Flash memory. That not only cuts down on power usage, it also means the drive is virtually crash-proof, keeping your precious business data safe. 

Of course, the marquee hardware feature—beyond the laptop's design itself—is the high-definition touchscreen. The S7-391's 13.3-inch panel has a resolution of 1920-by-1080 pixels: full HD video. That makes for exceedingly detailed images and crisp text.

Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook

Figure 2: Rear view of the Acer Aspire S7 UltraBook.

Combined with the LCD's brightness, the on-screen image is stunning—perfect for streaming HD video for work or play purposes, or you can connect an external Blu-ray player to make it a personal movie machine. Alas, the laptop's size precludes a built-in DVD or Blu-ray drive.

The one downside to the HD screen: Text in Windows applications, websites and dialog boxes can be tiny, especially for those of us over 40. You'll probably wind up using the zoom features in your browser or applications quite often.

Back in the plus column, we like the screen's excellent touch capabilities. The panel supports 10-finger touch, as opposed to early touchscreens which could only recognize input from one or two fingers at a time. Granted, we can't think of an action that would make use of all 10 touch inputs at once, but it's nice to know the screen can handle it if an app does come along that makes use of it.

All told, we found navigating via touch—flipping through photos, scrolling up and down on websites, zooming in and out of applications—to be smooth, natural and accurate.

A surprisingly good sound system adds to the S7-391's multimedia appeal. Most ultra-thin UltraBooks have underpowered speakers that deliver tinny sound akin to a transistor radio—or for a more modern analogy, akin to a tablet or smartphone with a pitiful built-in speaker. Not the Aspire S7.

Credit the two built-in Acer 3DSonic stereo speakers and Dolby Home Theater v4 Audio Enhancement technology. The sound quality is very clean and rich, ideal for videoconference calls and sharing business videos with clients, not to mention enjoying music videos when work is done.

Our only complaint on the multimedia front: the 1.3-megapixel webcam. Most tablets these days deliver high-def cameras for videochats and the like, so the relatively low resolution of the S7's camera may be noticeable to those on the other end of the web conference.

Acer didn't skimp, however, when it came to performance. The Aspire S7 models come with a latest-generation Intel Core i5 processor or even a fast Core i7 chip in the highest end models. (All models come with 4GB of RAM.) That means all your business productivity apps will have plenty of horsepower at their disposal—even demanding apps such as video- and photo-editing programs. Try that with a tablet.

Pricing

Prices for the Aspire S7 family aren't cheap, but they are in line with other premium ultraportable laptops. The 11.6-inch models start at $1,199; the mid-level 13.3-inch S7-391 costs $1,399; and the top-end S7-391 models are priced at $1,649.

Given the high-end performance specs and stunning-yet-practical design, those prices are not unreasonable. If you need an exceedingly thin, incredibly light laptop as a daily traveling companion, the Acer Aspire S7 makes perfect sense.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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