Ten years ago yesterday, Intel introduced the Centrino platform initiative, which was a combination of low voltage CPUs and wireless hardware to steer notebook designs towards longer battery life and universal WiFi hotspot compatibility. It meant everybody from corporate types to students could virtually bring their machine to work from anywhere, not chained by wires to an office desk. Here we examine the current status quo and look at one of the modern day spiritual successor in the form of the 11.6" Acer Aspire S7-191 Ultrabook.
Truth be told, *most* Ultrabooks in the market today are insipid, over-priced pieces of junk. For an elite category that aspired to emulate the well executed "thin and light" Apple MacBook Air on Windows, we instead see many instances of manufacturers cutting corners and not making their products as good as they should be.
For example, the majority of them still come with washed out 1366×768 TN panels (inexcusable especially on 14-15" SKUs, when smartphones have 1080p FHD now), and have barely enough juice to meet the minimum "5 hour battery life" requirement by Intel's Ultrabook definition in order to reach the promised land of of mobile all-day computing. The upcoming Haswell SoCs and LPDDR3 should help allievate the latter, but not if the battery sizes also shrink to achieve the figures of anorexic supermodels or god forbid, cut cost. We also need transparency and industry wide standardization on battery life tests too.
Not to mention that external connectivity is limited to USB 3.0 (usually only a single port), with Thunderbolt optical interfaces nowhere to be found. Other baffling integration choices include the schizophrenic PS/2 touchpad for multi-gestures, muddy sounding audio codecs and single band 2.4GHz wireless radios, components that should be relegated to the entry netbook class.
However, my greatest beef with the current crop of machines is the lack of onboard system memory. Bar a handful of models out there that can have their internals swapped out, the rest of them only ships with a pitiful 4GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, sometimes in single channel even, which is criminal from a performance standpoint. This seriously hampers productivity as disk swapping activity starts to occur after firing up a few Chrome tabs and content creation applications like Word/Photoshop in a typical multi-tasking scenario (good luck if you're using a hybrid 5400RPM mechanical drive). After all, Ultrabooks are supposed to be better than the ARM based tablets which are already pretty capable in the light web browsing/media consumption/entry level creation type of usage scenario.
Apparently, the beancounters did not want to incur an extra $20 BOM to do the right thing for consumers. Instead, they prefer to pre-load more bloat like Norton/Mcaffee anti-virus trialware (constant subscription notifications accounts for a lot for your missing cpu/disk cycles) and other cloudy endeavours in a bid to squeeze out more dollars from the creative professional who didn't get a Mac.
Cyril from The Tech Report has an excellent piece on the awkward and cumbersome state of Windows 8 convertible ultrabook-tablets, funky form factors that either remind you of the ill-fated teleportation experiment from The Fly or spiderwalk staircase scene from The Exorcist.
I'm sure the status quo will change if more of the (technical) press and end users voice their concerns to the Ultrabook manufacturers, who really should listen to them to avoid making the same design mistakes in the upcoming Haswell and Bay Trail iterations that should be unveiled next month during IDF Beijing or Computex. Or else the Intel powered Apples will leave them in the dust again…
Now the 11.6" Acer Aspire S7 is one of the few offerings in the current Ivy Bridge generation that is actually competitive to the fruity counterpart in the same price range. Equipped with a high PPI FHD touchscreen and some other performance tricks, it has the potential to be a cult hit if not for a few blemishes. Find out more in the subsequent pages of this review.