Acer, the creator of the world's first ultrabook, the Aspire S3, has jumped on Intel's new generation of processors to expand its catalogue with the Aspire S5. This new 13.3" laptop boasts a solid-state drive, a Core i7 processor and the fabled MagicFlip, a panel that mechanically opens and closes to expose or hide the connectivity ports.
Like the S3 before it, the S5 is not the ultrabook with the coolest look or fanciest materials. Practically the entire machine is made of magnesium alloy, which is good, but there are still some issues with the finishing (such as the wrist support that pushes in when you rest your wrists on it...). That in itself isn't the end of the world, but hard to accept quality like that on a product in this price range.
We were also disappointed to see that certain keys on the keyboard, like the arrow keys, are so small they're almost difficult to use—and yet there's plenty of free space on the sides. Also, there's no backlighting on the keyboard.
The touchpad, however, is big enough to use comfortably. The entire surface is clickable, your fingers slide smoothly and easily over it and it supports all the most common multitouch commands.
Probably the most striking novelty of the S5 is the fact that most of the connectivity is hidden. To keep the body as thin as possible (1.5 cm), Acer decided to place several ports on a mechanical compartment on the back. When you press the MagicFlip button you hear a noise kind of like an electric razor that's running out of batteries, and then you see the back end of the laptop lift up, showing the ports. But it isn't simply a trap door covering the ports as you might expect; they're actually located on the panel that emerges.
And on this panel you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI output and a Thunderbolt port (for transferring data and streaming video). When you have a connector plugged in, the panel locks to avoid any damage to the connector—or to the panel—should you try to force it shut or otherwise mistreat it. If you're having computer troubles and you want to open the panel while the laptop is turned off, there's a tiny hole on the right-hand side that lets you force it open with the end of a paper clip, as you would to get a DVD out of a broken drive.
Right next to the hole, on the right-hand side of the computer, is a headphone/microphone combo jack. On the other side is an SD card reader and the ON button—which is such an uncommon location that it takes a second to find at first. The main thing that's missing is Ethernet. Acer thought to include a HDMI-to-VGA adapter so as not to miss out on the corporate market where this is still quite a common need, but it forgot the port needed for wired Internet. Which is too bad, because it means you have to pay an extra 10 quid to get the adapter included.
Heat levels with the components under stress
Images taken with a Fluke Ti25 Thermal Imager
The Aspire S5 heats up more than the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, even though both have the same processor. Even so, you can rest assured about the components' health. Unfortunately, the Aspire S5 isn't a particularly quiet machine. The fan turns on frequently and you can always hear it, even with background noise or music. The hidden connectivity panel in the back opens up (if it isn't already open) to help the computer dissipate heat better. The only problem is that it's on the under-side of the laptop, so when you're working with it on your lap it can get uncomfortable.
ScreenUnlike Asus and Samsung, which have been trying to entice the public with IPS and PLS displays, Acer keeps chugging along with its glossy TN panels and their narrow vertical viewing angles. Worse yet, the screen's brightness is less than 200 cd/m². That, with the glossy surface, means it's a real reflection magnet.
Delta E on the Acer Aspire S5's screen
The colours and contrast are just all over the place. The colour accuracy gives an average Delta E of 14.8 (which is entirely false) and the contrast ratio is a mere 250:1 (black at 0.78 cd/m² and white at 192 cd/m²). Following our standard rating system, this automatically lowers this product's maximum overall rating to three stars.
The headphone output is heavy duty in every sense of the term. The volume is extremely high for an ultrabook, if not for any computer. The only others that go this high are HP's Beats series, but then it's at the cost of a preposterous amount of harmonic distortion. We found no such problems with the Aspire S5. It should be good for most non-nomadic headphones, as long as you avoid extremely high-end devices.
Frequency response curve: speakers
Green = good, orange = tolerable, white = too altered
Green = good, orange = tolerable, white = too altered
The speakers are much less impressive. They saturate markedly at high volumes. Luckily, Dolby Home Theater limits the damage to improve the overall rendering. In the end, it isn't that bad, but it isn't that amazing, either.
Our Review Model:The model we were sent for review features an Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 4 GB of RAM, an Intel HD 4000 graphics chipset and a 256 GB solid-state drive. Our comments so far have applied to all versions of the Acer Aspire S5, but what follows applies only to the model we tested, as each model has different specs.
The Intel Core i7-3517U processor is the same one found in the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A and is the fastest CPU we've ever seen on an ultrabook. It allows the Aspire S5 to handle any task, and fast.
The 4 GB of RAM and, more importantly, the 256 GB solid-state drive (2x 128 GB, RAID 0) give the S5 a high level of responsiveness. It recognises USB keys almost instantly and takes only 15 seconds to launch the OS and connect to Wi-Fi. These speeds are possible thanks to the SSD's RAID 0 (half the data is written on one disk and the other half on another disk).
Video games are another bag of worms altogether. The Intel HD 4000 graphics chipset enables the S5 to decode Full HD video flawlessly, but launching games is not cool runnings. If you insist on playing in the screen's native resolution (1366 x 768) and in high detail, you won't get any further than games like FIFA 12.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
Now let's see if the Aspire S4 is a good travel companion. The size and weight (1.2 kg) are just right. It fits easily into an average-sized backpack without adding too much poundage. In any case, no more than a bottle of water would. The battery life, however, is debatable. With 4 hours of video playback, it's far from the best of its kind—the MacBook Air 13" lasts 7 hours.