Acer’s first ultrabook, the Aspire S3, was one of the poorest ultrabooks launched last year, but had a low price on its side.
Back in January, Acer launched its successor for the S3, the Acer Aspire S5, with a thin and light body, fast hardware and ports hidden behind a special door on the back.
I’ve got to play with the S5 in the last weeks and I’m going to share some of my impressions in the post below, a review for the Aspire S5 ultrabook.
Acer claim that the S5 is their premium ultrabook. While Acer and premium don’t go together in the same sentence that often, the Aspire S5 is one of the most stylish 13.3 inch ultrabooks on the market and will compete with the likes of the Samsung Series 9 Ultra or the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A.
However, it takes a lot more than a pretty body to make a proper laptop, that’s why there are quite a few things Acer could have done better with their S5.
Acer Aspire S5 video review
Design and exterior
But let’s have a look at this machine. From starters, you’ll see that the Acer S5 is very thin. In fact, it’s one of the thinnest and lightest laptops in this class, measuring .6 inches in thickness and weighing only 2.6 pounds, which is about half a pound lighter than the Zenbooks or the Macbook Air.
The entire body is made from aluminum and magnesium, and while the whole thing is beautiful overall, it does feel a bit cheap when compared to other modern metallic laptops.
The build quality is good, although I can’t really say I’m a big fan of the screen’s two hinges or of that aluminum sheet on the lid cover, that tends to bend a lot even when slightly pressed. On the other hand, I liked the rounded edges, as they make the laptop more comfortable to grab and carry around.
There aren’t many things on the sides of this laptop, just a Power Button and a card-reader on the left and a battery status LED and the microphone/headphone jack on the left. And that’s because most of the ports are hidden behind a trap-door that slides open on the laptop’s back.
So, regularly you only have the charger port over here and some cooling grills, but once you press the right button (which is sitting on the top-right side of the keyboard), the sliding mechanism will reveal the extra ports, accompanied by a mechanical whirr.
Now, this definitely looks cool, but I don’t find it very practical. First, you don’t get a lot of ports back there: only a Full Size HDMI, two USB 3.0s and a Thunderbolt port (yes, that means there’s no Ethernet on this laptop). Then, they are all placed on the back, thus using them can be a bit annoying, although as an upside, you do get less cables around the laptop this way.
Last but not least, the entire trap-door is a bit of a gimmick and makes you wonder what if it gets broken in time? You’ll have a laptop with a lump on the bottom, or worse case scenario, one without any accessible ports.
Back to the other stuff, lifting the lid cover you’ll see the same dark metal used for the interior as well, which kind of makes the whole thing seem dull. But the build quality is good, the palm-rest is decently sized and the status LEDs beneath the screen are extremely discrete.
Overall, the Aspire S5 is a big improvement over the first Acer ultrabook, the S3. However, put side by side with its competitors, the other premium ultrabooks on the market, it just seems a bit boring. But that might be just me.
Keyboard and touchpad
Anyway, once you open the lid you’ll also notice the keyboard and the trackpad.
The first is overall alright. The keys are properly spaced but they do feel a bit smaller than what we usually get on 13.3 inch ultrabooks, so that’s probably why I did find them a bit cramped. Besides that, they feel mushy and don’t really offer proper feedback, that’s why if you’re an avid typist, you’re not going to like this keyboard that much. The average user however will just get used to its minor issues.
There are two more things to add though, and none of them are going to help Acer’s case here. First, there’s no illumination on this keyboard, which is a bummer for a laptop in this price range. And second, there are some strange layout decisions, the ones I also found and hated on the Aspire S3: the Enter key is bound together to the key on top of it and the arrow keys are so tiny you’ll hardly be able to press the right one unless you try really really hard.
As for the trackpad, this is actually much better. It’s decently sized, although not very spacious, supports tons of multi-touch gestures and deals well with palm-rejection as well. More importantly, it’s accurate and overall reliable. On thing though: on my test unit, the entire clickpad was quite stiff, thus I had to press it harder than I’d want to in order to register clicks, which can be quite annoying. But since I’m playing with a sample here, this might not be the case for all units.
A premium laptop in my book must have a very good screen and that’s far from the truth with the Aspire S5. In fact, the screen is this laptop’s greatest issue, as is just feels as something ripped from a much cheaper mainstream laptop.
We are talking about a 13.3 inch screen, with a glossy coating and 1366 x 768 px resolution. Add a TN panel to the mix, not the good kind I’m afraid, and you’ll get the overall idea: poor viewing angles, sub-par brightness and contrast, washed colors.
Disappointing and Acer should have known better, especially since all the important competitors offer far better screens on their notebooks.
Hardware and performances
But while things are far from peachy when talking about the screen, Acer did a far better job with their Aspire S5 when it comes to hardware and performances.
The S5 is available in a bunch of different configurations, my test unit is the entry level version, with an Intel Core i5-3517U processor, 4 GBs of RAM and 128 GB SSD storage. Other configs list a core i7 processor and RAID 0 SSDs for storage.
Even without the RAID, the SSD inside the test unit was very fast, clearly faster than what most other ultrabooks can offer these days. Besides that, the laptop felt snappy, whether running daily tasks, like a text editor, a browser or a chatting program, or dealing with multimedia content. It can also handle some light games as well, although the integrated Intel graphics aren’t actually schooled for that.
I also ran a bunch of synthetic tests on this Acer and you can find the results below:
- 3DMark 11: E1060, P540;
- 3DMark Vantage: E10481, P2637;
- PCMark 07: 4140;
- PCmark Vantage: 11665;
- CineBench 11.5: OpenGL 11.98 fps, CPU 2.40 pts;
Noise, heat, speakers and others
So the Aspire S5 is quite snappy during everyday use. It also runs fairly cool, even when pushed a bit harder. On the other hand, the cooling system is quite loud even when performing light tasks and will get annoying when running Full HD videos or other resources hungry apps.
The two speakers sculpted on the bottom of the laptop are fairly good, as they do provide punchy sound for their size and decent audio quality, although distortions occur from time to time at high volume. However, when running movies, they usually won’t be able to cover the fan’s noise, which is a big problem in my book.
Besides that, the HD webcam on top is pretty good, even in dim-light and the Wireless solution works fine, but the S5 is one of the very few new ultrabooks not featuring WiDi, which is a bummer.
The 3 cell 36 Wh battery inside the Acer Aspire S5 is rated at 6+ hours of life, but in our tests it only ran for nearly 4 hours, in Balanced Mode, with the screen dimmed at about 60% and Wi-Fi ON, while performing various everyday tasks.
And while you can squeeze a bit longer when using the laptop lighter, overall the S5 does provide poorer battery life than all of its direct competitors.
Pricing and availability
And the Acer Aspire S5 isn’t cheap either. I don’t have an exact price-tag for the unit I’m testing here, as it hasn’t been officially released in stores, but I’d reckon it will sell for about $1100.
We do know for sure that the Core i7/256 GB SSD model goes for $1399, which is only $100 cheaper than a similarly priced Asus Zenbook and $200 cheaper than a MacBook Air.
All in all, the Acer Aspire S5 is a decent ultrabook, but you can get better for the money right now.
With the S5, Acer chased the “slimmest ultrabook” tag, but while it snagged that one for the time being, it forgot to work as hard on some of the important aspects of a modern laptop: the screen, the keyboard, the battery life or the overall functionality (yes, I am talking about that Magic lop gimmick).
So while the Aspire S5 is a huge leap from its predecessor, the S3, I can hardly see anyone buying it just for the thin and light metallic body. It takes a lot more to make a proper laptop and Acer’s competitors understood that, with devices like the Asus Zenbook Prime, Samsung Series 9 Ultra or the Apple MacBook Air.
With a proper price-cut, taking the Aspire S5 below the one grand mark, things might be slightly different, but for the time being, I’d hold off on buying the S5.