Acer's Aspire S 13 proves that there's always room for another Ultrabook on the market. Ever since the MacBook Air first launched, PC makers such as Lenovo, Asus and Samsung have been in a race to build the thinnest, lightest and most feature complete Ultrabook around.
Although the Aspire S 13 might not be the thinnest nor lightest 13-inch notebook around, it certainly packs an impressive amount of performance into a lightweight system — and all at an attractive price.
Acer sticks to its longstanding sense of style with the Aspire S 13. The system uses Acer's signature micro-etching on the exterior of the lid, which is made up of super-thin pinstripes that are barely visible from a distance. The etched texture is both aesthetically pleasing and functional in that it helps improve grip.
However, as a trade-off we can't really tell that the cover is made out of aluminum. In fact, the smooth white coating covers everything but the hinge in a plastic-like feel, which makes the magnesium-aluminum alloy base feel a little cheap.
Fortunately, the rest of the design makes up for the tackiness. The notebook features tapered sides so that the sound comes through clearly from the downward-facing speaker grills. Although the sound comes through nice and loud, it lacks the depth to fully bring movies and music to life.
The keyboard and large touchpad are comfortable to work with, despite the computer's diminutive size – although, going with white backlighting on white keys probably wasn't the best idea.
We found the letters hard to see under certain lights unless you remember to turn off the backlighting. Even in dark conditions, it can be difficult to make out the secondary blue numeric keypad positioned on the right side of the keyboard.
The white color gives the notebook a strong sense of minimalism. There isn't even much in the way of pre-installed software. The Aspire S 13 has the basics, such as Microsoft Office 365 and the apps that come with Windows 10, but nothing beyond that to clutter things up.
Its ports are fairly standard, with two USB 3.0 ports (one on either side), HDMI, a headset jack and a USB 3.1 Type-C port for faster data transfers and charging supported devices. There's also an SD card reader, which doesn't add much thickness to the notebook, but it does have a silly little plastic cap just waiting to be lost someday.
The Acer Aspire S 13's most attractive feature is its 13.3-inch matte touchscreen, which reflects practically nothing. So you can use it in almost any lighting short of direct sunlight while producing very deep blacks.
Unfortunately, the picture ends up looking very dark unless the brightness is turned up all the way. The display's LED backlighting is enhanced with BluelightShield technology, which reduces eye-straining blue light emissions while reading. We didn't notice its effects while using the notebook, but we suppose that's the point.
The Aspire S 13 features a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) display, putting it on the same level as most of its competitors, but the screen can start to get crowded after a short while — especially when editing a Word document or touching up a picture with Photoshop CC. Still, it's better than the MacBook Air, which is stuck at 1,440 x 900 resolution.
Whether or not the touchscreen is a useful feature is strictly a matter of taste. If nothing else, it's the one feature that helps the Aspire S 13 stand out from the competition. This Ultrabook does not convert into a tablet the way Lenovo's Yoga series can, so the utility of a touchscreen is generally limited to scrolling through web pages, zooming in on images or text, and a few other minor tasks.
Although it's a nice feature to have, especially given the low cost of the notebook, we probably wouldn't missed it if it were gone. However, it beats dealing with the notebook's small arrow keys, and the matte screen prevents it from being a fingerprint magnet. Other versions of the Aspire S 13 can be purchased without a touchscreen.
Small and speedy
Between the SSD and Intel Core i7-6500U processor, the Aspire S 13 is incredibly speedy. Applications and web pages loaded very quickly, and we hardly had to wait for anything to load including buffering streaming video from services such as Netflix, Google Play Music and Twitch.
However, heat is vented in the back through the hinge, and it gets noticeably warm when running more intensive applications like Photoshop CC with the notebook on our laps, but never too uncomfortably hot. The high-pitched whine of the fan was far more annoying than the heat itself.
Weighing in at around 3 pounds, the Aspire S 13 is about the same weight as a MacBook Air, but there are plenty of lighter notebooks out there. For example, the Samsung Notebook 9 is a feather light pounds 1.85 (0.83kg), while Asus ZenBook 3 just barely outweighs that at 2 pounds. Still, we have no trouble carrying the Aspire S 13 around in a messenger bag, and its weight is practically unnoticeable in a backpack.
The Aspire S 13's battery is supposed to last up to 13 hours, which might be close to the case if you stick to basic tasks and cloud-based applications, but it falls far short with about four or five hours when watching movies running mid-to-heavy applications locally.
Specifications and performance
As stated earlier, the Acer Aspire S 13 is neither the thinnest nor the lightest Ultrabook on the block. It measures 12.87 x 8.98 x 0.57 inches and weighs about three pounds (1.36kg). The Asus Zenbook 3 beats it out with its 0.46-inch thickness, and it weighs a pound less.
Comparatively, Samsung Notebook 9 measures 13.64 x 9.33 x 0.57 inches, which closely matches the Acer, despite weighing less than two pounds. Meanwhile, a 13-inch MacBook Air is 12.79 x 8.93 x 0.66 and weighs 2.96 pounds (1.35kg).
Although Acer doesn't win the size and weight categories, it makes up for it with performance and features. It is currently one of the few 13-inch notebooks that offers a Core i7 processor, a 512GB SSD, and a touchscreen at a low price point.
Here is the Acer Aspire S 13 configuration sent to TechRadar:
CPU: 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7-6500U (dual-core, 4MB Cache, up to 3.1 GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 520
RAM: 8GB LPDDR3 SDRAM
Screen: 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 anti-glare LED-backlit IPS touchscreen display
Storage: 512GB SSD
Ports: 2 x USB 3.0; 1 X USB 3.1 (Type C); HDMI; SD card reader; headphone/microphone jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac with 2x2 Mu-MIMO technology (Dual-Band 2.4GHz and 5GHz); Bluetooth 4.0
Camera: 720p webcam
Weight: 3 pounds (1.36kg)
Size: 12.87 x 8.98 x 0.57 inches (W x D x H)
The model we tested is top-of-the-line, but it sports a modest $999 (about £756, AU$1,899) price tag. That's quite a value, considering how it includes a 512GB SSD, a full HD (FHD) touchscreen display, a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7-6500U processor, and 8GB of memory.
Although that's a little more expensive than the razor-thin Samsung Notebook 9, which goes for $949 (about £649, AU$1,247), the Acer offers better performance and hardware. In any case, it's considerably less expensive than a comparable 13-inch Macbook Air, which goes for $1,199 (£999, AU$1,699) and features a slower processor with half the SSD storage of the Aspire S 13.
Neither competitor comes with a touchscreen — a convenient (albeit, not altogether necessary) feature that sets the Aspire S 13 apart from the rest. The inclusion of a USB 3.1 Type-C also puts the Aspire S 13 ahead of the pack when it comes to features.
Furthermore, while comparable systems such the Samsung Notebook 9 and the considerably higher-priced MacBook Air top out with a 256GB solid-state drive, Acer doubles the storage without breaking the $1,000 price mark.
The Acer Aspire S 13 also comes in ringing for an $749 (£649. AU$1,399) starting price with an Intel Core i5-6200U processor, non-touch 1080p display and 256GB of memory. That's still a very affordable deal, though, the Asus ZenBook UX305 is still cheaper with nearly the same specs at $599 (£599, AU$1,199)
Acer one-ups the competition by offering a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU while most others stick with Core i5 or even Core m3 processors. Although the Asus Zenbook 3 can also be configured with a Core i7 processor, the upgrade will likely make the system cost significantly more than the Aspire S 13.
Although it would be a major overstatement to call the Aspire S 13's performance astounding, its benchmarks scores are noticeably better than the both the Samsung Notebook 9 and MacBook Air with their Core i5 processors.
Comparatively, the Notebook 9 achieved 3DMark scores of 5,534 in Cloud Gate and 816 in Fire Strike. While Acer scores a few hundred points higher than Samsung on two of the 3DMark demos, the Fire Strike test showed an identical score. While the MacBook Air averaged 24.91 FPS on the Cinebench graphics test, Acer showed a 66% improvement in comparison.
However, the most important area is battery life, and the Aspire S 13 beats out the Notebook 9 despite having a faster CPU, but only by a relatively slim margin. Our looping movie test puts the Acer's battery life at about 5 hours, while the Samsung notebook stopped after 4 hours and 20 minutes. On the other hand, PCMark 8 battery estimate shows a slimmer difference, with the Acer's battery lasting for just over three hours, and the Samsung's just under it with a 16-minute difference.
If you're looking for the best battery life, the Asus ZenBook UX305 is still the longest lasting machine we've ever tested. The 13-inch Ultrabook ran the PCMark 8 battery test for an uncontested 6 hours and 30 minutes, largely thanks to its power-sipping Intel Core m3 processor.
The Acer Aspire S 13 may not win prizes for being the thinnest nor the lightest Ultrabook around, nor does it come close to the 13 hours of battery life it promises when it's used extensively. But the impressive list of features, coupled with its relatively high performance, make it a very attractive buy. The sweet price for a system that includes 512GB of SSD storage and touchscreen doesn't hurt either.
Acer packs a ton of features into a small package, so you can have a highly portable notebook without having to sacrifice performance. The matte screen is excellent, even if it is a little too dark for our liking.
Additionally, applications, web pages and streaming services all loaded with exceptional speed. Best of all, you get features such as a 512GB SSD and a matte touchscreen at a very competitive price.
Although the white etched exterior is attractive, we're not a fan of how it makes everything except the hinge feel like it's plastic. More importantly, we were disappointed by how the Aspire S 13 doesn't live up to promised battery life when running applications locally.
The annoying high-pitched whine of the fan, which blows heat out from the back hinge, practically sounds like a scream for mercy when the computer is exerting itself.
In an increasingly crowded Ultrabook market, the little Aspire S 13 manages to stand out among the competition. It's tough to find an affordable notebook with as many features. While the Acer has its flaws, its performance more than makes up for it, and the price for all those features is too good to overlook.