"Easier said than done" is the best phrase I can think of to describe Intel's ultrabook initiative. On paper, the plan seemed easy enough, although manufacturing partners and knowledgeable consumers alike would testify that it's been anything but. Aspirations to compete with Apple's ultrathin MacBook Air have been met with a number of compromises as hardware makers struggle to find the perfect blend of features while keeping the overall price somewhere around Intel's $1,000 target.
The last couple of ultrabooks we've reviewed weren't without fault but then again, both sold for less than $900. This led me to ponder what sort of product would be possible if Intel's proposed $1,000 target price wasn't a limitation. Could a few hundred bucks tacked on the top end make a difference between a vanilla ultrabook and something truly special?
That's something Acer is willing to gamble on with its latest flagship ultrabook. The i7-equipped S5 packs some innovations not seen elsewhere in addition to an accessory bundle designed to make on-the-go computing less painful. Our evaluation unit ships for ~$1,250, which is a bit more than Intel ideally wants you to spend. But in the same respect, what's a few hundred dollars more to someone who's already prepared to drop a grand on a new notebook? A line from Planes, Trains and Automobiles comes to mind here, "Anyone who'd pay $50 for a cab would certainly pay 75."
Acer Aspire S5-391-9880 - $1,249
- 13.3" 1366x768 LED-backlit TN display
- Intel Core i7-3317U (1.7 - 2.6GHz)
- Intel HD Graphics 4000
- 4GB of DDR3 RAM
- 2 x 128GB SSD in RAID 0
- SD/MMC card reader (left)
- Audio jack (right)
- 2 USB 3.0, HDMI, Thunderbolt (back)
- 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0+HS
- 1.3-megapixel (1280x1024) webcam
- Chiclet keyboard (no backlight)
- 3-cell 2310mAh battery (6.5 hours)
- 12.80 x 9.85 x 0.59 inches, 2.6 pounds
The S5 comes with a beefy Core i7-3517U clocked at 1.9GHz (Turbo Boost up to 3.0GHz), 4GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage -- no hybrid caching system here. The latter hardware upgrade is of particular interest to me as I've been petitioning for manufacturers to ship portables with speedy flash-based storage for some time.
In most instances, an SSD is the best component upgrade for any modern system, but Acer took things one step further as the S5 is equipped with two 128GB SSDs in a RAID0 configuration. It goes without saying that the storage subsystem should be blazing fast.
At first glance, the S5 looks to be a superb ultrabook, but upon closer inspection, we began to see some shortcomings that we hoped would be avoided at this price point. The keyboard deck, palm rest and external lid all appear to be constructed of brushed aluminum, but unlike some classier ultrabooks that use a unibody aluminum shell, there's a lot of plastic in play here. One could argue that a plastic shell cuts down on weight, but aluminum is a very lightweight building material in its own right.
There's only a little bit of flex in the keyboard and although the layout is familiar and acceptable, backlighting is noticeably absent on the S5 -- again, a bit disappointing given the cost of the system. Acer did a fine job with the trackpad in terms of placement, size and responsiveness though it's worth noting that it's slightly recessed which could take a little time to get accustomed to.
To keep the S5 as slim and sleek as possible, Acer has implemented a unique solution called MagicFlip, which has a motorized I/O panel that rises from the underside of the computer, lifting the back of the laptop a bit when used. Unsuspecting observers will only find a headphone jack on the right side of the system, the power jack at the rear and a power button and SD card reader on the left edge. Pressing the MagicFlip button on the right side of the keyboard reveals a full-sized HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports and a Thunderbolt port.
The innovative feature affords the AS an extremely trim profile -- 0.59 inches to be exact -- but it's ultimately little more than a gimmick.
Some of the exhaust vents are built into the retractable access panel, which means the S5 will automatically expand whenever the system warms up and requires additional cooling. Furthermore, having to open the door each time you need to plug in an external drive or connect the system to an external monitor can be cumbersome. Fortunately, the mechanism is smart enough to recognize if you accidentally close the door when something is plugged in or whenever you shut down the computer.
The S5 ships with a mediocre-at-best 13.3-inch 1366 x 768 TN panel framed with an uninspiring, bulky bezel. At this price point I really expected an IPS display, or at the very least, a bump in resolution over cheaper ultrabooks. Instead, the S5 ships with a glossy screen that has decent color reproduction but terrible viewing angles. Color shifting was especially evident during video playback where any position off center resulted in a degraded image quality. Furthermore, the lid as a whole wasn't very rigid and exhibited a lot of wobble when flicked with a finger.