We've been a bit critical of Windows 8 on notebooks here at ITProPortal, even if it does make a lot more sense on a crossover tablet device like the Acer Iconia W700. The Acer Aspire S7-391 sits somewhere in between. It looks like a heavily stylised Ultrabook, and in most respects that is what it is. But there's also another trick in store. The S7 incorporates a touchscreen, so the Windows 8 Start menu makes quite a bit more sense.
However, the screen doesn't rotate round in a clever fashion, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 or the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist. So the S7 won't transform into a full tablet. This negates the value of the touchscreen somewhat, although it does mean the notebook will be that bit more robust, despite its infeasible thinness. You can lie the screen flat, so multiple users can touch the screen, but this is a slightly odd idea even if potentially useful for some. The S7 is a surprisingly sturdy notebook, considering that it is a mere 11.9mm thick. The chassis may be white, but the lid is actually made of Gorilla Glass 2, with a tough plastic used for the base and keyboard surround.
As Ultrabooks go, the S7 is reasonably well endowed. It's based on the entry-level ultra-low voltage Intel Core i5 3317U. This dual-core processor runs at 1.7GHz nominally, but as with all Core i5 CPUs incorporates Hyper-Threading to split each core into two virtual ones, for improved multi-threaded performance, and Turbo Boost 2.0 can increase the clock speed of a single core to 2.6GHz when required. So, despite this processor's miserly 17W envelope in normal usage, it has extra performance on tap when required. Acer has partnered the processor with the now standard 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM; anything less would be unacceptable, although a bit more would be beneficial.
The extra RAM would be handy because the S7 relies on the graphics chipset integrated into the Intel processor, which borrows some of the system memory. But, as this is a CPU from the latest Intel Ivy Bridge generation, at least the graphics is HD 4000, which is significantly better than its HD 3000 predecessor and approaching the abilities of decent entry-level discrete graphics. Storage provision is pretty standard, with a 128GB Intel solid state, which should be enough for a notebook in this class.
This brings us to that touchscreen, which is definitely a highlight. Unlike most 13.3in Ultrabook screens, which sport a resolution of 1,366 x 768, Acer has blown the competition out of the water and provided 1,920 x 1,080. So any Full HD movies you watch will be seen in all their glorious detail, although this does mean on-screen text can be ridiculously small in regular Windows mode, unless you adjust font sizes. Colours are rich and even too. The only drawback is the shiny surface, which means reflections mar otherwise decent viewing angles, even in the vertical direction. The speakers don't quite do the screen justice. Although they are capable of a decent level of volume, audio is tinny if not actually distorted at high volumes.
The keyboard looks like it should be slightly uncomfortable to use, with very shallow keys and a limited travel. However, it's quite capable for touch typing. The keys are a decent size, apart from the Caps Lock, which is exceedingly tiny. Although we found ourselves using the touchscreen more than we might have initially expected, the touchpad is also pretty decent, and sensibly placed slightly to the left, directly beneath the space bar. Why manufacturers insist on putting trackpads in the centre beggars belief, when the simple design change employed by the S7 can prevent accidental touching even more than a sophisticated Smart Sense algorithm.
With its slim profile, the S7 is always going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to expansion ports, and the provision here is unsurprisingly meagre, although not as miserly as an 11in MacBook Air. Apart from the power connection and button, the left is home to only the combined headphones and microphone minijack and HDMI, with the latter reduced to the mobile phone-oriented micro format due to the lack of space. The right houses a pair of USB 3.0 ports and SDXC-compatible card slot. So there is enough here for hooking up external storage and a mouse simultaneously, but no more, and not even this if you use the supplied USB LAN adapter to add a wired Ethernet port.
In our testing, the S7 provided no performance surprises. The Maxon Cinebench R11.5 rendering score of 2.4 is good, and on par with we would expect from this processor. The Cinebench OpenGL result of 15.17 is similarly as expected from this processor and graphics combination, as is the 3DMark11 result of 625. The S7 only lasted 110 minutes in our gruelling 100 per cent CPU and graphics battery test, where some Ultrabooks can endure twice that, although it's only slightly behind the average score. This means the S7 will give you somewhere around six hours of everyday usage away from the power socket, rather than the seven (or more) some Ultrabooks can achieve, such as HP's Folio 13. This is still a very useful amount of time on the road, just not market-leading.
The Acer Aspire S7 is a curious beast, and sure to divide opinion. In theory, the idea of a touchscreen notebook that can't transform into a full tablet seems like a missed opportunity. But after using the S7 for a while, it makes much more sense. The ability to lie the screen flat is a bit of a red herring, as this requires an open desk space, and notebooks aren't called desktops for a reason. But having the option to poke the screen with your finger actually makes the trackpad feel a little backward.
The S7's appearance will divide opinion, too. Its thinness is unquestionably gobsmacking, but the white Gorilla Glass 2 exterior might be a bit too "bling" for some tastes. At around £1,100, it's even more expensive than Samsung's brilliant Series 9 900X3B, even if you do get a bit more for your money inside, and close to Toshiba's business-focused Portege Z930-10Q.
If you do like the looks, and can afford the high price, this is a highly individualistic Ultrabook that will help you stand out for the crowd - unless everyone else gets one too, of course.
Manufacturer and model
Acer Aspire S7-391
1.7GHz Intel Core i5 3317U
4GB DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4000
128GB Intel solid-state disk
13.3in LED CineCrystal ComfyView touch screen TFT with 1,920 x 1,080 pixels
Gigabit Ethernet (via USB adapter), 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
2 x USB 3.0, HDMI, LAN (via USB adapter), headphone / microphone combo, SD card reader
Width x Depth x Height
323 x 224 x 11.9mm
1 year carry-in