Two Windows 8 laptops with 1080p screens, premium builds, and very different gimmicks
The Dell XPS 12 and Acer Aspire S7 aren’t your average laptops. They’re premium, and unique.
One is a razor-thin, Gorilla Glass-infused attempt to transform Acer’s reputation, the other Dell’s carbon fiber-laced realization of an idea that was ahead of its time. Both start at $1,199 for a Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, 128GB of solid state storage, and a brilliant 1080p touchscreen display, but each has its own special way of running Windows 8. The Acer Aspire S7’s screen bends backwards 180 degrees to lay completely flat on a table, sharing a 13.3-inch or 11.6-inch display, while Dell’s XPS 12 has a 12.5-inch monitor that literally spins 180 degrees inside its aluminum bezel, turning the machine into a tablet.
Each computer has its pros and cons, so we’re putting them head to head in this review. Which of these two machines is the best Windows 8 laptop? Which is the best tablet? Should you spend upwards of $1,200 to bring either of them home?
Windows 8 aside, these laptops are begging to be touched
As my esteemed colleague Vlad Savov pointed out two months ago, Acer's Aspire S7 is a sterling example of how you build a stunning ultra-thin machine. Composed of finely textured aluminum, glossy white Gorilla Glass 2 and powder-coated magnesium alloy, it manages to be under a half-inch thick, and yet feels exceptionally rigid and durable in spite of that. I felt comfortable grabbing the laptop and lifting it into the air by any point, even the center of the screen.
It's not only the construction, though, it's the attention to detail. The thin chiclet keyboard matches the perfectly flat aluminum deck so well that it seems to spring from the same silvery metal, and the Acer logo on the back of the machine is a transparent foil that sparkles no matter the lighting conditions. Outdoors, light reflects off the shiny surface. Indoors, light from the screen shines right through.
Stylish and practical
Dell's XPS 12 is just as likely to turn heads, though. Even in laptop mode, the black and silver ice cream sandwich makes for an exceptionally attractive machine, both from a distance with its shiny beveled aluminum edges, and again when passersby get close enough to see the classy carbon fiber texture on the base and lid.
Where you'll truly stop them in their tracks, though, is when you give that lid a spin. Grab the machined aluminum rim and push in with one of your thumbs, and the lid and screen change places like a revolving trapdoor. You can then turn the whole computer around to face you, using the keyboard as a stand... or close the lid to have a full-fledged Windows 8 tablet. Whichever way you choose, four spring-loaded pins and some magnets snap that screen in place with a satisfying synchronized click.
The machine doesn't feel quite as well put together as the Aspire S7, as the lid on my review unit doesn't quite close flush — and the carbon fiber base tended to creak when squeezed a bit — but the screen construction is quite impressive. Dell managed to route power, video signal and wireless antennas through nothing more than the two pins used in the spinning hinge, and the company says it's opened and closed an XPS 12 screen at least 20,000 times without a problem. That's good, because I probably spun mine at least a few hundred times during the course of this review. It's kind of hypnotic.
When you're doing some work and suddenly decide you want to watch a YouTube video in glorious 1080p, the XPS 12 really shines: just spin the screen up, flip the lid down, pull it closer to your face, and you'll find the volume controls right under your fingers on the left side. Want to read a website like The Verge in portrait mode? Turn it 90 degrees, and a built-in inertial sensor automatically rotates the screen. There's a physical orientation lock switch on the left as well, and the power switch — which you slide, rather than press, doing a reasonable job of making sure you don't accidentally turn it on and off in a bag.
Compare this: Dell XPS 12 vs. Acer Aspire S7
Unfortunately, in the process of making these laptops double as tablets, neither Dell nor Acer quite nailed the ergonomics.
With the XPS 12, the problems are weight and size. Despite a pair of rubber bumpers on the back which give it some grip, I found the XPS 12 too chunky and weighty to hold in one hand for long, and even with two I felt inclined to prop my elbows up on a surface. Also, in what seems like a missed opportunity, Dell doesn't let you use the keyboard unless the screen is docked in the laptop position. On a cramped airplane, it'd be nice to be able to position the screen directly above your hands while you type things on the physical keys, but you'll have to use the touchscreen keyboard instead. You'll also need two hands to open the lid because of the laptop's stiff hinge, though that hinge tension comes in handy when you're propping up the screen at certain angles.
Even though the 13.3-inch Aspire S7 is physically larger than the XPS 12, it's actually light and thin enough that you can hold it up with a single hand, and that tacky Gorilla Glass makes an excellent surface to grip. I found that I enjoyed reading websites in portrait a lot more with the S7 than the XPS. The rigidity and 180-degree hinge of the Acer also means you can just grab the screen and lift it up to your face, with your thumbs on either side to activate Windows 8 multitasking gestures.
Acer doesn't seem to have have expected all these scenarios, though: there's no automatic orientation here, so you'll have to hit Fn + O to rotate the screen 90 degrees clockwise every time you want to change things up. More annoying is Acer's power button, which isn't protected like Dell's. It's completely exposed on the left edge of the laptop, and doesn't take much of a press. I accidentally bumped it over a dozen times — putting my computer to sleep — in the course of writing this review. You won't have to worry about either laptop turning on in your bag, though. Both Acer and Dell keep the power button from activating when the laptop's screen is completely closed.
Acer's hinge isn't quite as nice as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga's 360-degree assembly, which lets you flip the keyboard all the way around, but it does have a neat trick of its own. It's a dual-stage hinge, which starts out weak, but suddenly gets nice and strong when opened beyond a 100-degree angle or so. The result is that you can not only lift the lid with one hand in a pinch, but also have the tension you need to keep it from moving once the screen reaches your desired viewing angle.
When it comes to ports, Acer definitely has the edge over Dell. Not only do both models of the Aspire S7 have the SD card reader that the XPS 12 lacks, but the 13.3-inch S7 comes bundled with Micro HDMI to VGA and USB to Ethernet adapters, not to mention a cheap Bluetooth mouse and a microfiber-lined sleeve. The Dell has none of these things.
That's not to say that dongles are necessarily a good idea, and neither laptop has a particularly good array of connectivity overall. Both the XPS 12 and 13.3-inch S7 have twin USB 3.0 sockets on the right side, right next to one another — making peripherals likely to interfere — and both put the headphone jack painfully close to the power switch. Acer's SD slot is exceptionally shallow, to the point where you wonder if the card will fall out. Dell includes a Mini DisplayPort for video connectivity, which is a decent choice considering the availability of cheap adapters for HDMI, DVI and VGA, but Dell doesn't include any adapters in the box. The Mini DP socket also doesn't double as a Thunderbolt port like the ones on Apple laptops.
In many reviews of Dell and Acer laptops, this would be the part where we lambast the screen. Neither company has a history of putting quality LCD panels into laptops. And yet, both the Aspire S7 and XPS 12 have exceptionally good displays. Both sport 1920 x 1080 IPS panels that display nice, crisp images, with bright whites and reasonably deep blacks. That's not to mention excellent viewing angles, which come in particularly handy if you plan to type on a virtual keyboard with either screen lying flat on a table. If I could only have one of them, though, I'd definitely pick the Dell. At 400 nits of brightness, the XPS 12's panel can get a good bit brighter than the one on the Aspire S7, and it seems to display a wider range of colors, too. Also, my S7's backlight flickered occasionally, and twice got temporarily stuck on a setting where it washed out the screen's colors. I hope that was just a fluke of my review unit.
On screens as small as these, though, 1080p isn't universally a plus. For one thing, though the touch responsiveness of both Acer and Dell was good, the touchscreen buttons are physically smaller, so you have to be incredibly accurate with your fingers and thumbs. I found the touchscreen useful even in laptop mode, but not quite as useful as it is at lower resolution. For another, I found myself straining to see the text at native resolution when typing away at either laptop's keyboard.
There are a number of ways you can potentially fix these things, such as turning on "Make everything on your screen bigger" in the Ease of Access settings menu, and / or changing the DPI of text and icons in Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Display, but they nullify some of the advantages of having a 1080p display at all. Setting the DPI to 150 percent, for example, made desktop objects look rather fuzzy afterwards. Besides, when you do hold the screen up to your face like a tablet, you can immediately appreciate the same high resolution that was giving you eyestrain before. As things stand, it's a bit of a catch-22. The only places the resolution is universally awesome are in apps like Internet Explorer where you can just reach up to the screen to pinch and zoom. It makes me wish Microsoft built pinch-to-zoom into the entire operating system.
When it comes to audio quality, there's no contest at all. Acer's speakers are among the worst I've ever heard... and Dell's are surprisingly good. The Aspire S7 uses some Dolby Home Theatre software tuning to make its sound wider, but it can't compensate for the muddy, scratchy, distorted audio coming out the bottom of the rigid metal palmrests at all. Even when you're merely listening to a person talking on a YouTube video or the like, it sounds godawful. Meanwhile, the XPS 12, with Waves MaxxAudio tuning, sounds fantastic for a laptop. The audio can still get a touch harsh at higher volumes and frequencies, and there's little bass... but it comes through loud and clear, with some genuine warmth, and plenty of stereo separation. I actually enjoyed listening to music on the XPS 12, and that's more than I can say for most laptop speakers.
I can see clearly now
Touchpad drivers need some work
If a slightly thicker laptop is the price we pay for the XPS 12's keyboard, so be it. It's good, with nice deep keypresses for an ultrabook, and a responsive typing experience across the board. The layout is pretty much what we've come to expect from Dell, with oh-so-slightly concave, textured, rounded plastic chiclet keys, with a smaller function row up top. My only complaint is that the keys are a little stiff, but they feel like they might break in after a while.
That doesn't mean the Aspire S7 doesn't have a good keyboard, too. It's just an extremely different one. On the S7, the keys are much shallower, with almost perfectly flat keycaps, and yet that's not quite as much of a problem as you'd expect. Unlike the keys on the Samsung Series 9, which were shallow, stiff, and slow to respond, the S7's keys require extremely little force to push down and are extremely reliable. The net result is that I can actually type really quickly on the Aspire S7 since my fingers don't have to move as far, and yet my fingers don't feel quite as stiff afterwards because they aren't fighting against the mechanism of the keyboard.
Another thing you might notice is that the S7 has no function row. To get at your F1-F12 keys, you tap Fn and the corresponding number key instead, and functions like brightness, volume, and hardware toggles are mapped to arrow keys and letter keys now. In practice, it works just fine. If you ask me, the function row has felt vestigial for years, and I actually prefer having to press the Fn key before activating a hardware shortcut. That way, I don't accidentally mute things or turn off my Wi-Fi. I just wish Acer had used the extra room freed up by the missing function row to spread the rest of the keys out a bit, because they still feel a little bit cramped to me.
Both keyboards have different lighting, by the way. The Dell uses bright somewhat harsh LEDs, while the Acer has a soft electroluminescent (EL) glow instead. I prefer the EL look overall, but Acer's implementation is a bit off. The letters aren't lit up evenly.
So far, I'd say Dell has won a number of these battles, but the XPS 12's touchpad is a distinct loss. The Elan touchpad in the Aspire S7 beats the pants off of the Cypress touchpad in the XPS 12. Pointer accuracy, gesture recognition, overall responsiveness... you name it, the Aspire S7 handles it better, even though it's not perfect itself. While I liked the soft-touch feel of the XPS 12's touchpad, it doesn't compare to the way my fingers glide across the finely textured MacBook-like glass surface on the Aspire S7.
Acer's touchpad didn't always seem to put the cursor exactly where I wanted it, but it doesn't stop and start in fits like the Cypress one in the Dell. Every time I used the XPS 12, sooner or later, the touchpad would completely stop responding for a second or two for no explicable reason, and it often confused single finger taps with two-finger scrolling, and two-finger scrolling with pinch-to-zoom. Mind you, we panned the touchpad in the XPS 13 and Dell made things better a very short while later, so I wouldn't write off the XPS 12 just yet. For now, though, it could be a dealbreaker.
For $1,199, both the XPS 12 and Aspire S7 start with a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and both can be configured with a faster 1.9GHz Core i7 CPU and 256GB of solid stage storage depending on your needs. Notably, only the Dell supports 8GB of memory, and that could be an issue sooner than you'd think. While the Acer only uses 0.9GB when it first starts up, my typical workload of dozens of web browser tabs, push email, Pandora Radio and a few Windows 8 Store apps quickly pushed the total to 3.3GB.
The good part is that both laptops handled that workload just fine. Ultrabooks don't make the best number crunchers and they're generally not going to play intensive games, but for almost anything else you'd want to do with a laptop they'll do quite nicely. Their strength is responsiveness; With Windows 8 and the speed of solid state storage, the Acer boots in just 9 seconds, and about 8.8 seconds for the Dell. They're fast to wake, too, at just 1.1 seconds for the Aspire S7 and about 1.6 seconds for the XPS 12. The only red flag I saw during my time with both machines was one instance where the Dell XPS 12 refused to boot, telling me that it couldn't recognize the solid state drive inside. The third time I restarted the computer, it worked just fine.
Manufacturers haven't stopped putting bloatware on Windows 8 computers, but as my colleague David Pierce notes, it's better than ever before. Dell keeps it to a minimum here, primarily just some Intel and Dell tools. With Acer, it's easier than ever to remove, and when it's relegated to the Start Screen it doesn't clutter up your desktop the same way Windows 7 bloat used to.
Check out our full Windows 8 review for more on the new operating system.
Hope you have room for an AC adapter
|Dell XPS 12||4:33|
|Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch)||3:55|
|HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4||5:11|
|Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13||5:08|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012)||5:34|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||7:10|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||5:46|
|HP Envy Spectre XT||5:21|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, X3C)||5:19|
|Dell XPS 13||4:55|
Now for the Achilles' heel of both these laptops: a lack of longevity. With our standard Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with screen brightness set to 65 percent, the Dell XPS 12 managed just 4 hours, 33 minutes, and the 13.3-inch Acer Aspire S7 lasted 3 hours, 55 minutes before draining the battery dry. In real-world use, with my typical browser-heavy workload and varying settings, I got only about four hours out of the XPS 12, and just about three hours and 15 minutes with the S7. That's not what we expect from an ultrabook, much less ones that starts at $1,200 (or $1,399 for the 13-inch S7).
I'm happy to say that heat isn't a factor with these laptops at all. Even when running games that push these laptops past their limits, no part of the surface got hot enough to give me so much as a sweaty palm. Noise is another story, though. While both systems mostly stay quiet, the XPS 12's fan makes a plainly audible whirring sound when it starts to heat up, while the S7 sounds more like a miniature Harrier jump jet preparing for vertical takeoff. Both can be annoying, but the Acer is more so.
Our XPS 12 review unit also has a noise issue that has nothing to do with a fan: the laptop's motherboard makes a high-pitched whining sound that's exceedingly annoying. Again, I'm hoping it's a fluke. It reminds me of a problem I had with a Dell XPS M1330 a number of years back, which didn't affect every laptop. Dell says it's not currently aware of the issue.
More likely to appear on the boss' desk than in your backpack
Acer’s Aspire S7 is a drop-dead gorgeous notebook, and an exceedingly well-crafted one too. It’s perhaps the first laptop thin enough, light enough, and strong enough to give Apple’s MacBook Air a run for its money. It doesn’t suffer from the painful keyboard or heat issues of the Samsung Series 9, or the difficult touchpad and bloat of the Asus Zenbook Prime. The screen isn’t quite as nice as one in the Dell XPS 12, the speakers are awful, and the 13-inch model is a little pricy at $1,399, but the Acer Aspire S7 would be practically the perfect minimalist notebook... if it weren’t for the battery life.
With an hour less runtime than the Dell XPS 12, two hours less than many cheaper ultrabooks and easily three hours less than the best batteries you can buy, the Acer Aspire S7 is a difficult sell. If you’ve got additional cash, Acer does plan to sell an external battery pack that securely screws right into the system and should double the runtime, but it adds a huge bulge. There's also the limitation of 4GB of RAM, and no way to upgrade it without industrial-grade soldering skills.
Regardless of how well the Aspire S7 sells, though, I hope the industry is paying attention to its design. Acer’s thin-but-usable keyboard, dual-tension hinge, and Gorilla Glass construction work surprisingly well, and I definitely want to see them appear in future laptops.
Perfect for couch surfing, but probably not on an airplane
The Dell XPS 12 is a lovely laptop, and it does quite nicely as a portable multimedia machine. With a quality keyboard, you can type away, then flip it into stand or tablet modes and take advantage of the excellent (for a laptop) speakers and truly fantastic high-res 1080p display.
As a proper Windows tablet, however, the XPS falls short. The high screen resolution makes using Windows desktop applications difficult, the battery life pales in comparison to other slates, and it’s just too heavy and cumbersome to tote around for long. The middling battery life, sub-par touchpad experience and a dearth of ports might make it a difficult choice for laptop buyers as well. If you trust Dell to fix that touchpad and you don't mind carrying a charger, though, you might find it an excellent machine.