Acer Aspire S5 £1249.99
23rd Jul 2012 | 14:25
The world's thinnest Ultrabook packs power and style
Ultrabooks are more than a simple size-zero battle of aggressive laptop dieting, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers from battling it out for the 'World's thinnest' accolade. The Asus Zenbook UX31E, Acer Aspire S3, Dell XPS 13 and Samsung Series 9 have all come close, but now the Acer Aspire S5 takes the low-fat cake.
The Acer Aspire S5 is the second Acer Ultrabook to hit the market since the birth of the Ultrabook, and with the huge price drop for its little brother the Aspire S3, there's a clear strategy in place. You can pick up an Acer Aspire S3, with a small SSD and a 500GB HDD for just over £600 in the UK or just under $700 in the US, making it one of the cheapest Ultrabooks.
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The Acer Aspire S5, however, sits at the other end of the scale, with the eye-watering price tag of £1,249.99/$1,399.99. That's within small change of the best Apple MacBook Air on the Apple Store - but don't get us wrong, this is no clone.
The differences are immediately apparent, with a metal finish coloured in a satisfying black, which is cool to the touch and light-years apart from the MacBook Air.
Its slick onyx black magnesium-aluminium chassis acts as a deceptive cage for the slender beast within – it's only when you pick up Acer's new baby that you realise just how lean and light it really is – 1.2kg (2.65lbs), in case you were wondering.
The price is high, but there's a real difference between this and many of its competitors. There's little pay off between the build and power, and for once, you get the feeling that the Acer Aspire S5 earns its price tag.
As well as being extremely light, it's also frighteningly thin. It measures just 15mm (0.59 inches) and there's no tapering off to a thin point like there is on the MacBook Air, which gives the illusion of thinness despite being nearly 2cm (0.79 inches) thick at the hinge side. If the Acer Aspire S5 were a teenager, it would be immediately sectioned as a risk to itself.
With all that considered, it's time to get under the hood and put this super-slim Ultrabook through its paces.
3D Mark 06: 4,744
Battery Eater: 222
The Acer Aspire S5 is the thinnest Ultrabook right now, and with looks this svelte, it's hard to imagine that record falling any time soon. Yet despite the supremely thin chassis, it still packs a good performance and a decent battery life, matching the MacBook Air in nearly every respect.
Under the hood is a brand new, third-generation Intel Core i7 processor, clocked at 1.9GHz. This is much more powerful than the equivalently priced 13-inch MacBook Air, which only runs an Intel Core i5 processor, clocked at 1.8GHz.
Unsurprisingly, the Acer Aspire S5 produced a fantastic score in our processing benchmarks - one of the highest we've seen on an Ultrabook. It will match many full-factor notebooks for power, and when you consider its size - or lack of - that deserves real respect.
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You can multitask demanding applications, and there's no problem with photo and video editing on the move with this much grunt from the processor.
The operating system felt really responsive, and we rarely suffered pauses for thought.
Graphics fell short with distinctly average performance, even within its cohort of Ultrabooks. There's only an integrated Intel HD 4000 chip onboard, which produced lower than expected improvements over the previous Sandy Bridge family.
You won't be short of power for rich web pages, and you can still make light work of photo editing, and even HD home movies. We played a range of 1080p content without a stutter, meaning only creative types and gamers will feel the limit of the system.
However, with Windows 8 on the horizon, which uses graphics cores to power flashy animations in the operating system, we'd like to have seen a better result to ensure your purchase will last long into the future.
The Acer Aspire S5 is equipped with a 128GB SSD drive, which enables super-fast boot times, and you can expect the system to be responsive in less than 10 seconds.
However, many competitors – including Apple – are shipping larger 256GB SSD drives on similarly priced laptops now, including the top-end MacBook Air.
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This is possibly the first time we've ever been able to applaud Apple for giving great value for consumers, and we'd like to have seen more storage on the Acer Aspire S5, given the £1,249.99/$1,399.99 price tag.
Many super-slim machines opt for a matte screen, assuming you will want to work outdoors where reflections can be a nightmare. The Acer Aspire S5's panel has a resolution of only 1366 x 768, which is inferior to that of the MacBook Air, and it showed. If you want the best ultra-portable display, Apple is the way to go.
That's not to say the display on the Acer Aspire S5 was a mark against its name. The panel is extremely bright, much better than the Asus Zenbook UX31. Images and movies looked sharp, and the Aspire S5 enjoys decent viewing angles. We watched HD movies with no complaints, which is good for a laptop this slim.
In fact, it's so slim that it doesn't seem to be sporting any connectivity ports. Or so its makers would have you believe.
It does actually boast a couple of USB 3.0 ports, HDMI and a 20Gbps Thunderbolt option as well. But to get to these you'll have to uncover the Acer Aspire S5's hidden undercarriage. Or its MagicFlip I/O port panel, as it's officially labelled.
To access the port, you press a button to the right of the keyboard, but our original sample had a problem with the motor, and it wouldn't eject. Acer supplied an immediate problem-free replacement and we had no further problems, but it does feel like a weak point on the chassis, and if this were to happen outside of your warranty, it would be extremely costly.
It's not a reason to avoid the Aspire S5, but if you're looking for robustness, you will want to look elsewhere.
The juiciest of the hidden ports is the inclusion of a Thunderbolt port. First seen on Apple's MacBook refresh from February 2011, this isn't the first time that we've seen Thunderbolt included on a Windows PC, but it's certainly the first time that we've seen the super-fast interface making an appearance at the Ultrabook party.
With such a thin body, the keyboard is afforded minimal travel, which means typing isn't as comfortable as other laptops.
In a shoot-out between the Acer Aspire S5 and the MacBook Air, the Apple wins it for typing comfort, hands down. If you rarely type 1,000 word essays you'll be fine, but anyone looking for a comfortable all-rounder should try before they buy.
The mouse trackpad is an all-in-one, multi-touch affair, which can often be difficult to use. Many of these multi-touch pads can be temperamental to register clicks and presses, and can often result in bizarre behaviour, but the Acer's trackpad was responsive without being over-sensitive, and was easy to use.
Of course, there are some downsides, and the Acer Aspire S5 isn't the most robust laptop we've seen. During transit we noticed a key at a strange angle, which had become dislodged. Pressing it back into the chassis dealt with the problem, but we wouldn't trust it to endure the rigours of life on the move.
The world's thinnest Ultrabook doesn't scrimp on power or usability, and this is a real play to the high end for Acer, a manufacturer that has often focused on mass-production for the low-cost end of the market. It's easy to fall in love with the Acer Aspire S5, and it enjoys a real injection of personality that will turn heads and attract admiring glances.
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However, the move to the quality end of the market has produced some issues, and when you charge £1,249.99/$1,399.99 for your laptop, you open yourself up to criticism when shortcomings appear. Stingy storage is a problem, and we'd like to see a 256GB SSD at this price. If you're planning to use this as your main machine, having the increased capacity is a must.
The second problem is build quality. Issues with our review sample put a question mark over the durability of the Acer Aspire S5. Our sample was replaced with a fully functioning model with no extra problems, but the fact remains that the slim body and the motorized hatch make this less durable that its competitors.
Would we trade an extra 100g and 3mm of chassis thickness to plug our USB sticks into the side? The answer to that is yes.
The marriage of portability and power shows how far the laptop market has come since the first MacBook Air, and for the first time, you can have a main laptop that's small, slim and light. We love the power on display here, and wouldn't settle for any less than Ivy Bridge Intel Core i7 performance.
The screen is another highlight, and while the Aspire S5 packs a lower resolution than many of its competitors, it's bright and pleasing - and one of the best you'll find on an ultra-portable laptop.
While the motorised MagicFlip I/O port is one of the neatest features of the Acer Aspire S5, in the long term it's more of a hindrance. It's a cool way of making a world-beating ultra-thin laptop, but in daily use, it can get tiresome.
Storage is another bugbear, and when you pay top bucks for a laptop, we'd expect to find more than a 128GB SSD. Size does play a part here, but if Apple can bring itself to offer 256GB on a similarly priced model, we'd have thought Acer's huge production juggernaught could have managed the same feat.
The Acer Aspire S5 is one of the top ultra-portable laptops, packing genuine power. If you're looking for a primary laptop that can handle the rigours of everyday life, but be as light and svelte as humanly possible, you've found your ideal laptop.
Be warned, however. The niggles and inconvenience of the MagicFlip hatch, the slightly dubious durability and average specifications - aside from the magnificent processor - mean that the buyer who wants it all might be advised to suffer a few more grams.