Microsoft and hardware partner Acer are hoping to usher in a brave new world of touch-control Windows computing. An interesting part of that strategy is the touch-screen laptop, and the Acer Aspire S7-391 is the first such machine we’ve seen in production form.
At heart, the Aspire S7 is an ultraportable notebook driven by a low-voltage Intel Core series processor, with solid-state flash chips for data storage. So, essentially another replica of the Apple MacBook Air, gifted with Microsoft Windows 8 and thereby dubbed an Ultrabook by Intel.
Like the Macbook Air, two sizes are available, using either a 11in or 13in display. And that’s where comparisons to an uninspired glut of MacBook Air wannabees stops. While just about every ultrabook we’ve tested has been saddled with a low-grade LCD with poor resolution, terrible contrast and terminally limited viewing angles, Acer has here invested in a decent IPS panel, with a full-HD count of 1920 x 1080 pixels.
This screen is rich in colour and has excellent viewing angles. Its high resolution does mean that screen elements are too small to read comfortably at the default 100% zoom factor, although changing this to 125% and logging back in again restores the classic Windows interface to more legible detail levels.
And Acer is really towing the party line by ensuring that this is a multi-touch aware capacitive touchscreen.
If touchscreen desktop Windows is a divisive issue among users, the same is barely less true on a touchscreen laptop. One of the problems with touchscreen laptops is the bendy lid, and Acer has neatly solved this with a variable-friction hinge. From a closed position on the desk, you can open it one-handed.
Despite the laptop’s low weight – just under 1.3kg – the hinge is loose enough to initially allow you to lift the lid with one finger; and as the screen approaches the vertical the hinge gradually becomes stiffer such that by the time it’s raked back a few degrees from the perpendicular, it will actually resist light touchscreen prodding to avoid bending back further. Which is just as well, as you can if you wish push the panel all the way back so that the screen will lie flat on the desk.
It’s quite remarkable how thin Acer has managed to keep this laptop. It really is only 12.5mm thick, from one edge to the other, with no hidden bulges to hide batteries.
Construction quality is at the higher end of what’s possible today in mobile computing. The lower deck comprising keyboard, trackpad, processor, battery and ports is a two-layer aluminium shell just 7.7mm thick. The underbelly of these two parts is painted white, the upper facing you in use left in a natural satin aluminium finish.
The lid half of the laptop seems almost thick in comparison, although that’s only in relative terms – it’s still only 4.5mm thick. This top-side of the hinge is a symphony in polished shine: the LCD is glossy as you may expect for a touchscreen that must be prepared to meet daily greasy fingers. And the back of the lid is shiny-shiny white, looking to be finished in aluminosilicate glass.
To help hit that wafer-thin spec, the keyboard has been squeezed in height so that the individual keys barely peep above the deck. And the amount of travel per key is tiny, in the order of 1mm. We found this design unnatural at first, as it almost feels like the keys haven’t moved, with no audible feedback either. It can allow fast typing once you’ve adapted though.
We were less convinced by the trackpad. It follow’s Apple’s buttonless approach, where you press front left or right corners to send a mechanical click. Unfortunately our sample had some play in the plate, so the first part of the pad’s movement was just rattle, before engaging the click. In use, we found this one of the most frustrating aspects of using the laptop.
After the screen, there are few surprises in the build of this laptop. It has two USB 3.0 ports, both on the right, alongside an SD card slot. Inside is a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U with 4GB of memory, and a 128GB SSD. With no space for an ethernet port, Acer instead includes a USB 2.0 ethernet dongle. Video connections are similarly constrained, so Mini HDMI has been included rather than its normal full-size version.
Build quality is generally high, the best we’ve seen from Acer anyway, excepting the fault with the trackpad. The Aspire S7‘s thin and lightness does embue it with a certain delicacy though. We’re not sure how well the S7 would ward off rough handling or use by children, for example.
Using the Aspire S7 requires familiarity with Windows 8’s interface, and the touchscreen does mean there are more options for moving around the desktop and Metro interfaces. With the laptop’s less-than-precise trackpad we did find ourselves reaching out to touch the screen more often just to complete tasks we’d normally do on a trackpad. And some operations do lend themselves to a tablet-style interface, in particular zooming in and out of Bing maps.
In terms of system speed, the standard roster of modern ultraportable components gives good application performance.
In the PCMark 7 suite, the Acer Aspire S7 scored 4581 points, around the same as the 13in MacBook Air with the same processor, which scored 4473 points.
Gaming performance was a little below other ultraportables running the same Intel HD Graphics 4000 processor, with 23fps in FEAR at Maximum detail. In Stalker: Call of Pripyat, it returned figures of 27fps running at 1280 x 720 at Medium detail, and with that just-playable result we did not attempt to run at the screen native 1920 x 1080 resolution.
All in all, the S7-391 is a nice laptop to use and show off. It would be nice to have an 8GB option and better battery life, but neither is essential for the vast majority of users. The design and overall usability are top notch. And it's an eye-catching system, sure to draw attention whenever you pull it out.