Acer's new 13.3in. Aspire S5 ultrabook pushes the super-light, super-slim notebook format close to its current zenith in design terms. The system's innards are pretty impressive too, with new Intel Ivy Bridge processors across the range. But does it deliver enough to justify the high price, which ranges from £999 to £1,249.99 (inc. VAT; £832.50-£1,041.66 ex. VAT)?
We defy anyone to glance at the Aspire S5 and not be drawn in by its sleek, slim appearance. At 1.5cm thick, 32.4cm wide and 22.7cm deep it's not far off tablet sized. Only slightly thicker than the 0.94cm iPad and a good match for the 13-inch MacBook Air's 32.5cm by 22.7cm by 1.7cm, it's clear which market segments Acer is targeting.
The all-black chassis is somewhat undermined by Acer's large silver branding on the lid — the company could perhaps have toned it down here for maximum effect. We like the way the chassis tapers to a point at the front, though, and how the lid section forms a slightly overhanging lip that makes it easy to open the notebook up.
The base and lid are weighted so that you have to anchor the base onto a table when opening the device, but that's not uncommon. The Aspire S5 weighs 1.2kg, making it light enough for most people to carry easily. By way of comparison, Apple's MacBook Air weighs 1.35kg.
The build is quite solid: there's some flex in the lid, and we wouldn't want to stand heavy objects or piles of books on top of the Aspire S5 when it's closed on a desk, but we've seen worse.
There's a very interesting design feature called MagicFlip, controlled by a slightly raised button to the upper right of the keyboard. Press this and a section at the back of the notebook emerges, accompanied by a mechanical grinding sound from its motor. The keyboard is then raised at a slight angle, and one HDMI, two USB 3.0 and one Thunderbolt port are accessible in the newly-revealed section:
When you close the lid the MagicFlip shuts itself automatically with another whirr. The mechanism is rather loud, and you won't get any thanks for activating it in a library or other quiet environment.
It's great to see Thunderbolt make an appearance here, and there's no doubt that the MagicFlip idea delivers a 'wow' factor. But we're not convinced it's a good idea. What if the mechanics or the button break? The MagicFlip will then be stuck either open or — worse — closed.
We also aren't too happy with the main ports being on the back of the chassis. They're not very accessible here — you either have to walk round the desk, turn the Aspire S5 around or lift the notebook to use them. Side-mounted ports are far more ergonomic.
The remaining ports and connectors are an SD/MMC-compatible card reader on the left edge and a headset/microphone combo jack on the right. The power switch is on the left, and the power socket is at the back.
The isolation-style keyboard is comfortable to use at full touch-typing speeds. It's well made and very responsive under the fingers, although heavy-handed typists may notice some flex. The cursor keys are small, and include embedded volume and screen brightness controls.
The touchpad is relatively large, which has its good and bad points. One the one hand it's easy to sweep the cursor around the screen, and there's plenty of room for two-finger gesture controls. However, it's also easy to accidentally tap or sweep the touchpad when typing. Although it can be disabled with an Fn key combination, we'd prefer a dedicated key near the touchpad for this task. The touchpad has a buttonless design that we don't generally like, but it works well enough in this case.
The S5's 13.3in. 'CineCrystal' screen has a reflective finish that makes it good for video viewing, but less suitable for working in bright lighting. Viewing angles aren't great, especially on the vertical plane. The LED-backlit TFT's resolution is the standard 1,366 by 768 pixels.
There are three models of the Acer Aspire S5 currently available in the UK. The entry-level model costs £999 (inc. VAT; £832.50 ex. VAT), the mid-range unit reviewed here costs £1,149.99 (inc. VAT; £958.32 ex. VAT) while the flagship system comes in at £1249.99 (inc. VAT; £1,041.66 ex. VAT). All of these systems run Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, the key differences relating to processor and storage.
Our mid-range review sample had a dual-core 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317UM processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The entry-level model has the same processor/RAM combination, but a smaller 128GB SSD. The top-end model has a 256GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, but a faster 1.9GHz Intel i7-3517U CPU.
All three S5 models have integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPUs, dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/g/n) and Bluetooth 4.0. There's no wired Ethernet port though, which may put off some business users. A 1.3-megapixel HD webcam that can shoot stills at resolutions up to 1,280 by 720 pixels is mounted in the usual location above the screen.
The Aspire S5 comes with a fair amount of bundled software — a bit too much in our view. You get Microsoft Office 2010 Starter and the inevitable security software trial in the shape of McAfee Internet Security. Skype and Evernote are included, along with a free trial of Norton Online Backup, plus links to eBay and Netflix. And that's not listing everything.
Performance & battery life
The Aspire S5's Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.8 (out of 7.9) hides a 'perfect' store of 7.9 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) — a sign that the 256GB SSD and Core i5 CPU work extremely well together.
The lowest (WEI-defining) score of 5.8 is for Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero), the remaining numbers being 5.9 for RAM (Memory operations per second), 6.4 for Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) and 6.9 for Processor (calculations per second).
Overall, the Aspire S5 is an impressive performer that should cope with a range of workloads, although the integrated GPU may struggle with demanding graphical applications.
Acer suggests that the S5's 4-cell 2,310mAh lithium-polymer battery will last for up to 6.5 hours from a full charge. You'll probably have to rein back your usage pattern and adopt some pretty draconian power management settings to get that sort of longevity though: in our tests, the notebook managed video playback from a USB stick for around 4.75 hours, which is hardly stunning for a system designed specifically for portability.
We also noticed that the fan got rather noisy. The vents are on the back of the chassis: the main vent strip sits above the MagicFlip, which when opened reveals two additional vent strips.
The Core i5-based Aspire S5 model reviewed here performs well, booting quickly and loading applications without undue delay. It's an exceptionally slim, light and stylish ultrabook, and the MagicFlip system is clever. However, it's also expensive and we're not sure you get enough value for money. To blow us away, it needs a higher-resolution screen (or at least better viewing angles on the existing display), an Ethernet port and longer battery life.