In and Around the Acer Aspire S5

While the trap door for the port cluster is closed (more on this in a bit), the Aspire S5 largely escapes the wedge shape that seems to define ultrabooks as a whole. Acer uses a lot of rounded corners to thin out the profile of the A5, making a dense and thin notebook seem only denser and thinner still.

It's important to keep in mind that what Acer has done here is essentially produce an ultrabook that is both lighter and thinner than a 13-inch MacBook Air. This is really about as portable as a 13.3" notebook is going to get.

It's difficult not to be excited about the lack of glossy plastic used in modern notebooks when you've spent years reviewing eyesores, but I admit even I was initially impressed by the styling of the S5. I've been one of Acer's harshest critics for some time, but to look at the Aspire S5 you'd almost be surprised to see that logo on the lid and bezel. Acer uses a finish that appears to be black brushed aluminum over virtually the entire shell of the S5.

Unfortunately that initial look of quality doesn't quite translate to feel. While the system as a whole is fairly sturdy (the screen itself doesn't flex anywhere near as much as, say, Toshiba's Portege Z series), the plastic used for the shell feels chintzy. When I try to flex the notebook, part of the plastic on the left palmrest actually makes a popping sound. Over time, the plastic also can accumulate fingerprints.

Where Acer did very right was with the keyboard, though. The one thing I used to harp on them relentlessly for is now the strongest asset of their ultrabook. For such a thin notebook there's a healthy amount of travel and depth to the keys, and while they feel a little on the small side and aren't as clicky as I'm used to, they're definitely an improvement on the competition. If you're not a fan of ultrabook keyboards, Acer's S5 probably isn't going to sway you too much, but it's definitely a welcome improvement.

Despite my general ambivalence towards clickpads, Acer produced a usable one here. The surface is distinct from the rest of the shell and very comfortable to slide your fingertip across, and taps register easily enough. It still has some issues with left or right clicking, though, just as clickpads often do (e.g. mouse movements when I'm intending to click).

Trap door closes, trap door opens!

Speaking of convenience, there's one very big feature of the Aspire S5 and it's something that Anand and I discussed and came to a bit of a split decision on: the motorized trap door. Next to the keyboard is a button that opens and closes a motorized trap door in the bottom of the S5 that hides the USB 3.0, HDMI, and Thunderbolt ports as well as adjusting the size of the ventilation in the back of the S5 to improve cooling performance. My first instinct was that something motorized like this pretty much just screams "one more thing to break down," and I would very much have rather seen the budget and engineering effort put towards solving more serious problems (like the poor display). Anand found it to be an interesting gamble and at least an innovative approach towards slimming things down while still keeping a decent amount of connectivity. Either way, it's definitely unique to Acer.

Note that when the system is running particularly toasty, the door will pop open on its own. Where I'm really inclined to give Acer the benefit of the doubt, though, is the fact that someone over there realized something that seems to have escaped most ultrabook engineers on the first go-round: a notebook as thin and as light as ultrabooks are supposed to be is practically destined to be used on someone's lap, so why put any ventilation on the bottom? The Aspire S5 has no bottom-mounted vents, just the one in the back. That's a major coup for usability.

Introducing the Acer Aspire S5 System Performance
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  • mrdude - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    No I didn't. I read them.

    The keyboard is lackluster and provides little feedback. It's shallow. It's shallow because to keep it thin you've got to cut corners, or in this case shave off the tactile nature of the keyboard. The new one is better but still lacks feedback.

    The battery life too isn't great. Unless you're under constant load you'll generally have better battery life with a newer full and thicker laptop than an ultrabook, whether Asus Zenbook (prime or not), or Sony or Lenovo or Toshiba. It doesn't matter. The ULV only matters as far as heat output goes and plays a far smaller factor in battery drainage in real life usage.

    It's also loud, just like every other ultrabook.

    The display, while awesome, sucks because you don't get good OS and application support. A 1080p IPS display sounds amazing on a 13.3" ultrabook until you actually get to play with it and realize it's the worst decision you've made in your entire life. At 13.3", a 768p resolution is actually quite good and had Acer provided an IPS display with great contrast, black levels and color gamut equal to the zenbook prime then I'd prefer the Acer. Scaling DPI in Windows is absolutely horrible.

    Finally there's the price. For $1000 you're getting headaches from the poor DPI scaling and something that's thinner than a Portege but also has half the power and costs more.
  • mrdude - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    I forgot to mention the heat issues. The new Zens suffer from the same heat problems the old ones do. They throttle like mad while under extended load.

    I'm not saying it isn't an incredible package; it is. It still suffers from poor OS resolution/dpi management, heat, battery life and practicality that a laptop .5lbs heavier can provide with proper and equivalent (minus the CPU) hardware.

    As far as I see it, it's a glorified netbook with double the performance and double the problems at 4x the price. Intel needs to either make them much cheaper or start giving people a reason to spend upwards of $1000+ because, forgive me, I'm not seeing the appeal.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    Your comment about us "overlooking throttling" may be a bit too strong. I know I check for issues, though most of the time it's more of looking at throttling when performance seems lower than it should be. How would you like us to check for throttling, other than playing games? Do you want us to run a stress test for a solid day? We test for an hour in most cases, running a CPU + GPU load that should reveal any issues.

    Anyway, there's a difference between throttling down to 1.2GHz on the CPU, and "throttling" down to the base clock speed (e.g. no Turbo Boost active), and it's not clear which case you're talking about. Personally, I'm only concerned when it's the former; if a laptop simply can't hit maximum Turbo Boost under a sustained load, that's working as intended (though we tend to note when performance drops off because of lower average clock speeds).
  • mrdude - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    Maybe overlook was a bit strong, but it's not mentioned at all. Throttling on ultrabooks is incredibly common and it's generally to the base clocks (like you noted). While this may not seem so bad to you, think about why you're paying for an i5 rather than an i3? Or what happens if you've only got an i3?

    I saw the comparison between the HD4000 in the ULV and the i7 and the real time GPU clock speeds spell out exactly what I'm referring to.

    There's obvious stuttering going on there and that's on top of an HD4000 that still has gaps to make up as far as response speed when gaming (take a look at the techreport review of Trinity to see what I mean).

    If you're not going to be pushing the chips and don't need the ULV for gaming or what-have-you, then why use an expensive ULV in the first place?

    There are a lot of issues I see with the ultrabook platform. I like that Intel is pushing manufacturers to get up off their butts and challenge themselves but considering the problems with the heat, the wonky performance, the high prices and that there are already notebooks out there that are within spitting distance of ultrabook size (and some are even lighter...), I'm not seeing the point.

    If I'm going to pay a high price for something I'd like to receive a full-fledged product and not something that has obvious drawbacks.

    It's like Asus did with the 1080p IPS display on the Zenbook. It sounds great until you actually use it and realize that there are quite a few problems with it when put into practice (the OS can't scale everything).
  • Impulses - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    It really depends on what you're doing and what programs you're working with... Anything that allows you to easily zoom in/out or shrink/enlarge text isnt gonna be an issue save for the occasional dialog box.. I welcome 1920x1080 @ 13" with open arms, only thing better would be x1200. Win7 scales better than older OS and Win8 will handle it even better.
  • mrdude - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    It's still not handled completely at the OS level meaning your scaling will vary in actual usage depending on the application you're working with. This issue isn't bad on Macs because Apple controls everything with a Stalin-like iron fist (especially the hardware), but on Windows it's going to be exponentially worse.

    Personally speaking, I'd prefer a 1440x900 or 1366x768 IPS display on a 13.3" form factor at native resolutions without worrying about scaling and zooming than I would the extra real estate that I can't use properly. It's also why I find a 768p display excusable at the sub-14" form factor. 14" 1600x900/1440x900 and 1080p at 15.6" provide enough real estate without the obvious scaling drawbacks.

    I find that people latch on to the pixel count and neglect the other important variables in picking out a good display. I'd much rather have a great 1366x768 15.6" matte IPS panel than a 1080p glossy TN panel at 13.3". Pixels aren't everything
  • IntelUser2000 - Wednesday, July 11, 2012 - link

    I feel Turbo Mode isn't explained throughly enough in many sites. This was shown in detail with Itanium "Montecito"'s power management named Foxton.

    Before it was disabled in the final product version, Foxton used a sophisticated analog power management unit to watch over the chips thermals, and power consumption.

    Foxton allowed Turbo, and the gains were heavily application dependent. Essentially, you get the maximum gain in SpecInt and Database type of applications, where the CPU isn't fully loaded and using the power hungry FPU. Opposite is true for SpecFP type of appilcations, where you'd see barely any increase in clocks over Base.

    Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge's ULV acts very similarly to Foxton. ULV chips basically lower power usage by changing the guaranteed base clocks to Turbo clocks.

    That means Turbo Mode in ULV chips is just as much about responsiveness boost(opening applications, editing photos, web browsing, and any "bursty" scenarios) as it is sustained performance boost.

    Turbo Mode does work in high end scenarios like when you push CPU and GPU in games(otherwise performance would be half of what it is now), but you won't get full benefit.

    Key is again "responsiveness".
  • IntelUser2000 - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    I can't say much about other things, but I think lot of people will disagree about the display.

    I guess future manufacturers can offer 1366x768 IPS display with good color reproduction in the future, for people like you.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    Having motorized doors is a level a stupidity beyond even apple.

    But the real question is, what is up with the PCMark 7 Computation score?? UX21A has the same cpu but scores nearly double. Why?
  • mrdude - Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - link

    RAID 0 SSDs in the Acer.

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