Acer Aspire S7

As one of the first products specifically designed for Windows 8 we’ve spent a significant amount of time with, the new Acer Aspire S7 ultrabook is an excellent advertisement for Microsoft’s new OS.

Rather than simply install Windows 8 on a currently available (or ever so slightly revamped) laptop, the Aspire S7 is a new-from-the-ground-up ultrabook. It’s also one of the thinnest, slickest-looking ultrabooks I’ve seen, highlighted by a white minimalist chassis and a lid covered with Gorilla Glass (much like the HP Envy Spectre). Inside is an Intel Core i7 CPU and something you’ll see a lot more of with Windows 8 — a touch screen.

Rather than ditch the keyboard and touch pad as with a tablet, the Aspire S7 keeps those traditional input methods, but also adds touch on the 13.3-inch 1,920×1,080-pixel display.

Touch-screen laptops have never fared particularly well before — they’ve been awkward, unresponsive, and not well supported by Windows. But in Windows 8, with its not-Metro interface and support for new and varied gestures, the touch screen becomes a useful secondary tool. It’s not something you’ll use every time, but after a few days, you’ll find yourself reaching for it more and more, usually for a quick swipe or to scroll up and down long Web pages.

While the hardware and design of the Aspire S7 is definitely premium, it may be a bit of a tough sell at $1,649 (an Intel Core i5 version will be available for $1,399). That said, your sizable investment gets you a 1080p display, a 256GB SSD, and that excellent touch screen.

Design and features
The Acer Aspire S7 is one of the sharpest-looking laptops of 2012. It’s incredibly thin and light, although the glass-covered lid makes it a bit top-heavy. The HP Envy Spectre had a similar glass-heavy design, putting glass on the back of the lid and the wrist rest. Here the wrist rest is thankfully glass-free.

The rest of the body is aluminum. Acer calls it a unibody chassis, much as Apple does, which means the base of it is carved from a single block of material.

Everyone who has walked by and seen the S7 has been very impressed — that’s a very useful metric in an office filled with jaded reporters who see every tech device under the sun. Then again, for $1,600, this had better be an impressive piece of hardware.

The keyboard has flat-topped, island-style keys, but it’s hampered by extremely shallow key depth. I found myself making a lot of typing mistakes, just because I had a hard time figuring out on the fly if each keystroke had registered. It’s a long-standing issue with many of the thinnest ultrabooks (and a few not-so-thin ones), and while it didn’t make the keyboard unusable, this was not my favorite typing experience in recent memory.

The touch pad is a decent size for such a small laptop, but it’s not among the most responsive I’ve tried (this is however, not a final build of the S7, so better drivers could help). It’s an Elan touch pad, rather than one from Synaptics, a company we’ve spoken to extensively about its ambitious Windows 8 touch-pad hardware and software plans.

Instead, the optimal way to interact with the Aspire S7 is through a combination of the keyboard, touch pad, and its touch screen. It’s a concept you can expect to see much more of at least for the first generation of Windows 8 laptops (if it’s a flop, we probably won’t see too many more).

On the Aspire S7, the touch screen is very responsive, and a much more natural way to interact with the Windows 8 not-Metro interface, which resembles iOS/Android-style tiles.

To be fair, it may be that the touch screen seems like the optimal way to interact with Windows 8 because touch-pad and keyboard controls are so incredibly counterintuitive. Swapping between programs, viewing all the programs you have open, and even switching between Web browser tabs are all a tremendous hassle in Windows 8, unless you have a touch screen, in which case a simple flick performs most basic system navigation tasks. The touch pad can mimic some of those moves, but it’s not nearly as easy to do.

Other Windows 8 annoyances abound — good luck trying to eyeball your remaining battery life or WiFi signal strength without going back to the original Windows desktop view. But, these counter-intuitive moves will bedevil all Windows 8 PCs, and are not specifically tied to this Acer laptop.

The screen itself has a full 1,920×1,080 resolution, which is a great premium feature to have on a 13-inch laptop, and at least part of the reason this system is so expensive. Many PC makers have told me that adding touch to an ultrabook screen will add some thickness, but in this case, the lid still seems very thin, and unlike existing laptops that will be adding touch screens this fall, there is no prior model to compare it to.

I found myself, without much deliberate planning, reaching out and using the touch screen for some tasks, while using the touch pad and keyboard for others. Having a touch screen on a laptop isn’t a necessity, but having consumers trained for years now with smart phones and tablets, it’s a much more natural interaction than it would have been in previous generations of hardware.

Helping solve one particular touch screen laptop issue I’ve encountered before, the Aspire S7 screen hinge acts as one would expect from the closes position to about 120-degrees or so. After that, the hinge stiffens considerably. The end result — tapping and swiping on the screen while the laptop is open does not result in as much shaking or movement as one might expect.

The screen also opens up to a full 180 degrees, allowing the system to lie completely flat, not that that’s the kind of thing one would normally do.

Connectivity and performance
With such a small laptop, it’s inevitable that some features get skipped or otherwise compromised. In this case, it’s the video output, which consists of a single Micro-HDMI port. You’ll need an adapter to use it, whether you’re sending the signal to an HDMI device or converting it for a VGA input. Besides that, you get two USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot, which makes the S7 passable, but not particularly impressive, for connectivity.

I tested the more expensive of two Aspire S7 13-inch configurations (there’s also an 11-inch model). This $1,649 configuration has an Intel Core i7-3517U processor, plus 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. For $1,399, you can trade down to a Core i5 CPU and a 128GB SSD — in either case, this is an expensive laptop compared with other models with comparable specs.

This preproduction unit does not have the exact final hardware or software for the S7, so its not appropriate to run benchmark tests, but in anecdotal use, it performed very well, and always felt fast and responsive, even when using the touch screen. It’s certainly more power than you’re likely to need, and even the Core i5 version should be fine for Web surfing, social media, office productivity, and HD video playback.

Some have complained that Windows 8 is not ideally suited for game-playing. They could be right, but I was able to install and load up Steam with no problem, and played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. With only Intel’s integrated HD 4000 graphics, this isn’t going to be your main gaming rig, but it will be interesting to see if anyone can make good use of the touch screen for casual games.

With such a slim body, and powering a touch screen as well as a Core i7 CPU, it may be too much to expect stellar battery life. Official battery scores will have to wait until we get a final version of this system, but in anecdotal testing, the 13-inch Aspire S7 ran for about 4.5 hours of HD video playback, which falls behind higher-end ultrabooks and the MacBook Air.

So many of the Windows 8 laptops I’ve seen (many of which are still unannounced) have been boring, me-too systems, either shamelessly cloning each other or simply slapping Windows 8 onto existing products. The Acer Aspire S7 is priced out of the range of most laptop shoppers, but it looks great, runs well, and most importantly, serves as an excellent test case for both Windows 8 and touch-screen laptops.
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