Do good things come in small packages?
When Acer introduced the Aspire S5 ultrabook at CES in January, it did so to considerable fanfare. The company said it was the thinnest ultrabook yet, and that it didn't cut corners to get there: the S5 has a Thunderbolt port (good luck finding one on another ultrabook), a huge 256GB SSD, and a bizarre ports panel called MagicFlip. Thin, light, fast, and Thunderbolt sounded like a gang not to be trifled with.
More details rolled out over the last few months, leading up to the S5’s release. The final model ships with a Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor, a look that’s much refined and improved over last year’s S3, and a price to match it all: at $1,399 it’s one of the most expensive ultrabooks on the market. Competing with devices like the $799 Lenovo IdeaPad U310, Acer has some work to do to prove that the S5 is worth the extra outlay. How does it fare? Let’s find out.
No frills, no fuss, but it's beautiful
I've always been a fan of black computers, which seem somehow more sophisticated than Apple's chosen silver look and certainly more so than the colorful palettes on the Lenovo U310 and others. The S5 oozes business class: the dark gray, brushed aluminum body is cohesive and minimalist, broken up only by the glossy silver Acer logo on the lid. The body's even devoid of obvious stickers: Intel and Windows logos are relegated to etchings on the bottom of the device. There's some small signage on the laptop's face — a Dolby logo and the words "Professionally Tuned" above the keyboard, and the Aspire S5 insignia below — but even those blend into the device largely unnoticed.
It is indeed the thinnest ultrabook we’ve tested and one of the lightest, we've tested, at 15.2mm thick and 2.65 pounds — it’s noticeably lighter than even the MacBook Air. Small seams exist, but it looks for all the world like a unibody device save for a small cutout in the bottom. It's a beautiful, sleek machine, and it's clear that Acer took care in its design. It may not be the most immediately eye-catching device out there, but I’m definitely a fan.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Acer Aspire S5||12.8 x 8.9||0.6||2.65|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||13.1 x 8.8||0.7||3.8|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||12.8 x 8.8||0.11 - 0.71||2.86|
|MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch)||12.8 x 8.94||0.11 - 0.68||2.96|
|MacBook Pro with Retina display||14.13 x 9.73||0.71||4.46|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre||12.88 x 8.7||0.79||3.79|
|Dell XPS 13||12.4 x 8.1||0.24 - 0.71||2.99|
The S5 does still have its oddities, however, one of which you'll probably hear before you see. At first glance there are exactly two ports on the S5 — an SD card slot (itself fairly well hidden into the tapered edge, though an inserted card sticks out about halfway) and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The rest of the I / O lineup lives in a hidden panel at the back called the MagicFlip, which rises out of its shell when needed (or when the fan is needed, since it's on the same panel). You press a physical button located to the right of the keyboard, and a motorized door at the back of the machine lifts the entire rear end of the laptop about a quarter of an inch off the ground. The MagicFlip seems entirely unnecessary, but it’s made worse by its one terrifying quirk: the grinding sound the panel makes when it's moving is probably best described as "something breaking horribly." I never, ever got used to it, no matter how long I used the S5 — it's an awful, jarring noise, and it makes you never want to lower the panel, but of course it does so automatically whenever you turn the computer off (unless there's something plugged in, obviously), and then raises it again whenever the S5 gets hot and needs some fan power.
You can't un-hear this sound
Strange though the MagicFlip is, it at least contains a relatively complete selection of ports: you get full-size HDMI, two USB 3.0 jacks, and a Thunderbolt port. The only notable absence is an Ethernet port, but fortunately USB-to-ethernet adapters are easy to come by. The ports reside next to the large vent on the MagicFlip panel, and underneath a rear-facing speaker. The power button sits on the left side of the S5. It feels considerably more like a phone's power button — a single, mushy key that feels like it belongs on a membrane keyboard — and it's both very easy to press by accident and just somewhat oddly styled for a laptop.
A quick note about the Thunderbolt port: the S5 is the first ultrabook to include one, and one of a small handful of Windows laptops, period. At the moment, Thunderbolt’s not a particularly important feature for a laptop — there aren’t a lot of accessories or drives that use the standard. But all indications point to that changing quickly, with Thunderbolt as the portal for everything from storage to displays to even external graphics cards for underpowered computers like the S5. Buying a Thunderbolt computer is a smart future-proofing move, and definitely something worth considering if you plan on keeping your ultrabook for a while.
Average isn't good enough for this price
When I review tablets, I find myself often saying things like "it has a 1280 x 800 IPS panel, which is the exact same one as virtually every other tablet ever." Well, the S5 has a 13.3-inch, 1366 x 768 TFT panel, nearly identical to virtually every other ultrabook ever. It's a fine display, but it's frustrating that Acer includes a screen equal to the $799 Lenovo U310’s, and far worse than the also-$1,399 Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A. But again, it's a perfectly adequate display, bright enough and with decent (if slightly washed out) colors. Horizontal viewing angles are great, but look at the S5 from above or below and colors are nearly inverted. I only care about this for lying in bed with the computer next to me playing Netflix videos, and with some finagling I could always find an angle that worked — fortunately, the MagicFlip doesn’t mess up the angle too much either.
Audio quality is functional, but far from impressive. Two of the the S5's speakers are located on the computer's bottom edge and the third is on the MagicFlip, pointing out the back. The setup worried me, but they're plenty loud and actually do a nice job of using a table or your lap to diffuse sound. Audio doesn't distort even at maximum volume, but that's because compression is going berserk here: the top and bottom of nearly any song are clipped to the point where bass-heavy songs appear to be missing entire tracks and instruments. There's some Dolby software that lets you choose a few different EQ profiles, but its changes are relatively minor. The S5's speakers are good enough for watching old How I Met Your Mother reruns, but when you want to listen to music reach for external speakers or a pair of headphones.
I have a love-hate relationship with the S5's keyboard. Love: the chiclet-style keys are well-spaced and have both a nice clack and nice travel, even if they're flat and do feel a tad flimsy. Hate: the PgUp and PgDn keys are crammed next to the arrow keys, all of which are tiny — I never pressed the right one without looking. Love: there are lots of function keys, and it's easy to do things like change the volume or screen brightness. Hate: they're all secondary functions, so you have to hit the blue Fn button first — I wish they were the primary keys, and you had to hit an extra key to press F12. (Does anyone even use the F1-F12 keys anymore?) Love: the key well is set slightly lower than the palm rest, so your fingers rest perfectly on top of the keys without undue stretching. Hate: there's no backlight, so I was frequently folding the screen down so I could see the keys.
For pure typing purposes, I really like the S5's keyboard, and I quickly got to the point where I was writing as quickly as I can on my MacBook Air. But for navigation, settings tweaks, and (heaven forbid) games that involve the arrow keys, it's a bit of a mess.
Great for typing, so-so for everything else
Why is building a Windows trackpad so hard?
The trackpad, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess all the time. It starts with the materials: the matte texture is almost sticky, so your finger (and thus the cursor) stutters across the pad instead of gliding smoothly. Strangely enough, I found that licking my finger before using the trackpad actually helped a lot — it's like the S5 just needs some WD-40. Scrolling with two fingers is incredibly stuttery, as is pinch-to-zoom. On the bright side, palm rejection is excellent, so you won’t accidentally brush the trackpad and move the cursor while you’re typing.
I conducted an unofficial experiment recently, going into Starbucks and counting the number of people using laptops. Of those people, I tried to count the number using Windows machines with external mice, and those using Macs with external mice. The overwhelming majority of Windows laptop users employed external mice, and I only saw one or two Mac users using a separate pointer. It couldn't be clearer: people go out of their way to avoid Windows trackpads even on a tiny coffee table, and most can at least tolerate Apple's. The MacBook trackpad is one of the biggest reasons the Air was our favorite Windows-running ultrabook, and if the S5 is any indication the state of affairs hasn't changed.
As my esteemed colleague Sean Hollister was with the Zenbook Prime, I was surprised at the amount of software bloat on the Aspire S5. In addition to the ol' faithful standard — a McAfee Antivirus app that constantly nags you to update and scan and give it money — there's a surprisingly large load of third-party apps. Evernote and Skype come preinstalled, along with Barnes & Noble's Nook app and the AUPEO! online radio service. There's a bunch of Acer-inspired crapware too, from a backup manager to a webcam app and a bunch of apps for Acer's cloud and DLNA services — none are terrible, but none are strictly necessary. There's also a crippled version of Office 2010 installed, which is nice for doing things like reading and editing Word documents but not a lot more.
Fortunately, most of the apps are harmless (many can be removed, too), and they don't seem to have any adverse affect on the S5's performance. We tested the base, $1399 Aspire S5, which is powered by a 1.90GHz Intel Core-i7-3517U processor, 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, and a 256GB SSD (actually a RAID 0 of two 128GB SSDs, which is even better for performance and for Thunderbolt use). It benchmarked about how we'd expect given those specs, and in practical use was pretty zippy as well. Recent games are pretty much unplayable on the integrated graphics, though at lower-res settings I could sometimes eke out a functional experience. But the S5 had no trouble with a couple dozen browser tabs, lots of movie watching, and plenty of music and app usage. The S5 boots in about 15 seconds, and wakes from sleep in three.
|Acer Aspire S5||12,379||P3,407|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||6,916||P2,402|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||8,269||P3,159|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)||10,404||P1,693|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre||9,121||P1,526|
|Dell XPS 13||10,242||P1,697|
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||10,134||P1,748|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||8815||P1413|
Sequential read and write performance were both stellar — using the AS-SSD benchmark, the drives are theoretically capable of about 650-700MB / sec. You're probably not going to get that over USB 3.0 or even a Thunderbolt connection, but practically speaking it still blazes: I transferred a single 2.03GB file from a USB 3.0 drive in 16.9 seconds, and 87 files totaling 1.67GB in 16 seconds even. Using an Elgato external SSD over the Thunderbolt port, things were even faster: the huge file took 12 seconds even and the folder took 11. That’s pretty speedy, and it’s helped by the two-drive RAID setup — the computer can write to them simultaneously, so transfers happen even faster.
Overall it's a solid performer, and unless I was trying to play Max Payne 3 I had few performance issues while using the S5, and none that I haven’t experienced on other machines.
There's no two ways about this: the Aspire S5 can get hot. Like burn-your-leg-hair-off hot. The heat is concentrated near the back of the computer, just underneath the strange pop-up I/O panel. The rest of the chassis stays relatively cool, so if you're using the S5 on a desk it shouldn't be a problem, but use this laptop in its namesake position at your own risk. (For what it’s worth, the MagicFlip tricks works fine on your lap, and open or closed the panel doesn’t change much about how you use the machine on.) The tradeoff is that the device runs relatively quietly — the fan kicks in almost instantly, but it never gets especially loud. It's quieter but considerably hotter than my 2011 MacBook Air, and I’d certainly trade the volume for a cooler lap.
Battery life was unimpressive: we got 4 hours and 24 minutes on The Verge Battery Test, and about that long in regular use. Our test consists of cycling through 100 popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent, and my everyday use consists of a lot of writing, tweeting, emailing, Rdio listening, and hunting for the latest episode of The Newsroom online. 4.5 hours is disappointing for an ultrabook (though still solid for a laptop in general), but not terribly surprising given the S5’s relatively paltry 2310 mAh battery. This may not be the machine for road warriors, especially when we’ve gotten upwards of seven hours from devices like the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 and nearly six hours on the Zenbook Prime UX31A.
At least it'll keep you warm on a winter's day
|Acer Aspire S5||4:24|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||7:10|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)||6:01|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||5:46|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||4:32|
Almost the whole package, but $1,399 is too expensive for "almost"
There's no denying that the Acer Aspire S5 is a gorgeous piece of machinery. It's also a reasonably powerful one, as ultrabooks go, and for the average user it has just about everything you'd need other than a good trackpad. The SSD RAID is very fast, and offers more storage than most ultrabooks. The Thunderbolt port, too, is a terrific addition and is something everyone should consider on their next computer — the standard’s only going to become more pervasive, and it might behoove you to future-proof your machine now. But that may not matter to many users, and the S5 doesn’t have many other advantages that make it worth hundreds of dollars more than its competition. With unimpressive battery life, the strange MagicFlip, a weak trackpad, and some definite heat issues, it has some real disadvantages as well. The S5's a good laptop, to be sure, but for $1,399 I expect better than "good."
Part of the appeal of ultrabooks is that there's only so much variation. The current round of ultrabooks nearly universally have long battery life, fast processors, and a thin chassis. That makes Acer's proposition even harder: you're getting one of the best-looking models we've seen yet, but when the performance isn’t meaningfully better it might be hard to justify the cost.