Laptop Quest: Load save?

It continues after all, as it turns out. My Acer Aspire S7-392-9890 arrived six days ago, on Monday afternoon. And while there are some things about it I really like, there’s also a laundry list of issues I’ve compiled. Together, they are unfortunately a deal breaker, especially at this price point.

The good things about this machine are:

-The ridiculous weight. 2.87 pounds! That’s crazy light for a machine this capable. Certainly a feat of engineering, though not without consequence. More on that in a minute.

-The equally ridiculous thinness (0.51″). Even the Sony Vaio Pro 13 – which is even lighter than the S7 due to its carbon-fiber chassis – is thicker than this. But, again, there were some sacrifices made to achieve this.

-Speed. The boot time is quite fast; from the moment it first turns on, I’m through the lock screen and ready to open files and programs within about 15 seconds (not counting any extra time taken to enter my password, of course). Of course, there is a caveat here: I cannot personally compare the S7 to any other logically comparable machine, since I’ve never owned an ultrabook, and this laptop category is known for having super fast startup times when configured with all SSD storage, and Windows 8 does add some speed as well. In fact, the only portable computers I’ve owned are a Windows XP netbook and a late-2005 Apple PowerBook G4. Both of those are outclassed by the S7 to such a degree that comparing performance would be silly. So, any touting of extreme speed on my part isn’t meant to imply that I believe the S7 is ahead of other ultrabooks when it comes to boot or access times, simply that from my perspective, it’s damn fast. And everything I’ve read suggests that the S7 isn’t notably faster than other machines in its class; ANY current, high-end ultrabook I get will also be damn fast, really.

-The design itself. This is an absolutely gorgeous machine. The most striking part is the lid, which is a bright white (“Crystal White”, is apparently the official designation) and covered in Gorilla Glass 2, which both makes it look pleasantly shiny and feel very sleek. That the screen backlight shines through and illuminates the “acer” logo when the computer is on is a nice touch.

-The screen. This is an area where the S7 is supposed to be somewhat remarkable even amongst its peers. Many reviews of this ultrabook have commented on the super-crisp, very bright 1080p touchscreen this laptop has, and I can’t help but join that chorus. Detail and colors pop beautifully in pictures and video, and everything just looks really sharp. The touchscreen is quick and responsive in Windows 8.

-The battery life has been as-promised so far. I certainly can’t complain about 6-8 hours of usable computing time before having to plug in.

And now… the bad news.

-Internet connection issues. Late on the second day, the connection just died. It WAS fine, for quite a while, then suddenly, after a few hours, no dice. It simply would not connect to the network that it was fine connecting to before (and that two other computers + one smartphone were all connected to with no problems). The diagnostic tools in Windows 8 led nowhere. So, that was kind of distressing. And I think I might know what the problem was: later that night, I noticed that the signal from our network was weak. Three other devices were still connected and could browse the web fine, but the signal strength according to both my smartphone and netbook were down from normal. This was just a fluke (either because our router is old or because Comcast is just flaky sometimes); the weak signal lasted for several hours before the network went down entirely for a few minutes. After that it came back and was normal.

So the problem was that during the low-signal period, when all my other devices could still connect and access the internet, with perhaps a little bit of slower-than-normal loading times, the S7 was unable to connect to the network at all (while in the same room as the wireless router, by the way), which tells me that the wireless on the computer is weak. Is it the antennae, the chassis design, something else? I couldn’t say. And this could be a defect specific to my unit, but I’ve seen complaints about wi-fi issues with the S7 around the web, so I doubt it’s that confined. Nowhere near as widespread as the wi-fi problem on Sony’s current Vaio laptops seems to be, but a not-isolated issue nonetheless.

-Keyboard accuracy. This isn’t a big issue, but it’s still there. This has been talked about a lot with regards to this machine, and I have noticed this since getting mine. Fortunately, it only fairly rarely causes actual problems because of the way I type; I hit the center most of the time anyway. But I do “miss” by hitting a bit off to the side every now and then, resulting the key stroke not registering. This is much worse with the Esc key in particular, because:

-Said key is lopsided. It honestly looks kind of goofy:

Go home, Esc. You're drunk.

Go home, Esc. You’re drunk.

Now, in all likelihood, this is simply a flaw with this particular laptop, and not an S7-wide design flaw like some of these other things. So, if I intended to stick with the S7, I’d simply return this unit and swap it for another one. While this is an issue, I consider it a minor one, because defects in individual units can crop up on a computer made by any company.

-Windows 8 updates are SLOW. As in, it’s trying to download and install only a handful of them (a whopping seven updates!), and it sits on the “now downloading” screen (with that green bar sliding through over and over) for like five minutes, saying progress is at 0%, and then finally it actually begins to download them. No idea if this is an S7 thing, a Windows 8 thing, or simply an issue with my particular unit (and of course, the internet issues described above could be coming into play here as well).

-The keyboard. It’s… not bad, and by most accounts, better than the KB on the original S7 (391) thanks to greater key travel. But it’s definitely not the most comfortable I’ve ever used, with shallow travel and a weird, rough texture to the text printed on the keys. But, the biggest issue of all with the keyboard is the layout.

81-1I-rOgpL._SL1500_

There is no function key row, with F1-12 being doubled up on the number keys. This is rather striking against the huge amount of shiny unused space on the deck, though it’s not quite as bizarre as it seems when you consider that the whole computer (with the lid) is only .51″ thick, so everywhere there is a key (which must travel down), there’s less space for components. Still, it means having to hit the Fn key to access any Function keys. For some, this may not be a big deal, but I’ve found it quite bothersome, since I make very extensive use of keyboard shortcuts. To be fair, I knew about this flaw before getting my hands on the computer; I wanted to give it a shot anyway and see if I could adjust to it, but I’m not sure if I could. And even if I could, this coupled with all these other issues would probably break the deal anyway.

The other really weird thing with the keyboard is the location of the Delete key. Even if they were trying to save KB space, did they have to put it down by the arrow keys of all places? Why not shrink the oddly (and unnecessarily) long Ins key and put Delete next to that? This would also have freed up the key space next to the arrows for right-hand Ctrl. Just a poor design decision here.

Finally, the arrow keys are pretty small – which isn’t actually a big deal to me and is something I’m used to from my netbook – but they misfire a lot for some reason. With the Esc key, I expect it to not register presses sometimes given that it’s obviously not situated properly; the arrow keys, on the other hand, look and feel fine, physically, but they just fail to register far more often than the rest of the KB.

The pale green keyboard backlight LOOKS cool, but A) it actually makes the keys harder to see in some circumstances, i.e.. in “medium” light where it’s not especially bright but not all that dark. And even in a very dark room, it’s kind of wonky, because the brightness coming from the screen washes the keyboard out, and causes that blending of silver keys with a pale greenish backlight to become worse. B) yes, it does buzz. This is another thing I’ve seen discussed a lot around the net with regards to the S7; by most accounts, it’s not a per-unit flaw but a design flaw, and all S7s do it. Mine is no different. It is quite subtle, and thankfully isn’t one of those high-pitched whine type sounds that could hurt my ears. Usually I can’t hear it, but if I have no music going and it’s late at night, I definitely know it’s there. C) the backlighting is uneven on several keys (i.e., on “Caps Lock”, the light is much more dull/dark behind the lower part of the word “Lock” then behind the rest of the text on the key).

-Speaking of Caps Lock: there is no indication whatsoever as to whether or not it is on. No light on the key, no LED elsewhere in the chassis, nothing. If it’s been a few moments and you’re not sure if you have it turned on or not, start typing and see. It’s the only way to check. Very strange omission. The Caps Lock key is also tiny, and squished up next to the Tilde, resulting in a lot of mis-presses of the latter when you want the former.

-My touchpad drivers are already up to date (the version on my S7 is the same as the one on the Acer site), so updating the driver is apparently not the solution to the sort of stutter I get every now and then. I’ll be moving the cursor around, then suddenly the touchpad just will not respond for about 0.5 to 1.5 seconds or so, then it will be fine again. This has actually lessened more recently (it was quite prevalent on the first night I had the comp, but I can’t recall it happening more than maybe once or twice in the last two days), but it does still speak to a potential quality issue with the pad itself.

-The power button is located on the left side of the laptop, right in front of the port where the power supply plugs in. This is a rather weird – and, as it turns out, rather inconvenient – placement. I didn’t think much of it until I pressed the button by accident while simply pulling the computer further up on my lap. Then I accidentally pressed it again while removing a USB drive from the port next to it. Both times, the computer immediately went to sleep, since that’s what it’s set to do when the power button is pressed. The only way to get around this would be to simply set that button to “Do Nothing” when pressed. This is a relatively minor but extremely silly problem, since it’s hard to imagine a good reason to put the power button over there in the first place, instead of somewhere on the deck, like other laptops (such as, you know… ALL of them).

So yeah. As I said, a laundry list. Taken individually, each of these problems might not be enough to make me return it (excepting the question of if I can adjust to the keyboard layout well or not; if I found that I couldn’t, I’d send it back regardless). But when you put all of them together, it’s just a bit too much to swallow for this price. And as to the keyboard, I do wonder if the problems with it are – to at least some degree – a direct result of the admittedly top-notch design and aesthetics. This laptop is SO thin and light that in order to cram in everything it needs internally to be as capable as it is, something had to give, and that something was the keyboard. Whatever the reason, it’s probably the biggest sticking point for me overall – assuming that the wireless and trackpad issues were resolved. Which I bet they could be: they both feel like the kind of problem that can be solved by tweaking settings or downloading new drivers or what have you. Yet I also don’t like the idea of having to spend possibly a large amount of time playing with settings and hunting for information online to fix these issues, on top of having to deal with the literally “unsolvable” issues relating to the keyboard layout and backlight. So, despite how much I like the design and the screen, it’s probably going to end up going back. I’ve got until the end of January to return it, so I’ll stick with it for a little while longer – in large part because I’ve now begun to get used to having an ultrabook with me, and it would be hard to go back! I’ve been using CC3 on my commute to/from work (which is impossible on my netbook; it simply cannot handle CC3, nor RPG Maker), measuring stuff and making adjustments to the Valocea map. Plus, even just for reading something or writing in Word, it’s so much faster than the netbook – not just in terms of boot time but EVERYTHING. I’d rather not go back to relying on the netbook as my portable machine if I don’t have to! Hopefully, my next foray into ultrabook land will arrive in time for there to be a bit of overlap.

Speaking of that: I have ordered a replacement, and I feel much more confident about it. My second shot will be the HP Spectre 13t 3000. Reviews and forums postings that I saw all mention some of the very same flaws I myself have noticed with the S7, especially in regards to the keyboard and backlight. So, while reviews and such are no substitute for hands-on experience, in this case I’d have to say that the ones I saw were mostly “correct”, i.e. my own experience with the machine is similar. Whereas the Spectre has no glaring, oft-mentioned issues that keep coming up over and over again like the S7 did (the only major problems I’ve seen mentioned about the Spectre are the kind that seem to be individual unit defects, not design flaws). So that is a good sign. In terms of visual design, while I do love that glass-on-white look the S7 has, it’s not like the Spectre isn’t a very nice looking laptop. It’s also thin and light, but not AS thin and light, at 3.2 pounds and 0.59″ thick. The “increased bulk”, if you can even call it that, vs. the S7 will be barely even noticeable in terms of how easy it will be to carry around and use, yet it affords a more traditional keyboard layout (function keys!). By not aiming for quite as ambitions a design, HP keeps things a little more stable, one could say. I gave the cutting-edge design laptop a shot, and it IS very cool, but the practical usability concerns must win out, especially since we are talking about computers that cost between 1200-1500 dollars and that I’d want to really be happy with for years to come, given the price.

On that note, there’s another major reason I went with the Spectre: price. It’s a bit cheaper for comparable specs as it is, but I was also able to get a decent discount by making my order over the phone. I’d called to clarify exactly what their return policies are (specifically, since HP allows you to custom-build their PCs to pick your processor, SDD size, etc., I wanted to know if doing so had any impact on returns vs. buying a pre-built). I’d already been planning to give the Spectre a shot anyway, so when the guy offered me a $50 discount on the laptop itself, plus a three-year accidental damage and theft protection plan for about half the normal price, I jumped on it. The grand total after tax was almost exactly the same as the grand total on the S7, but the HP has a better wireless card and that protection plan (with the S7, I would have had to pay over 300 bucks on top of the price of the laptop itself to get a plan from SquareTrade if I wanted any kind of protection on it). In addition to all of that, the financing option is better: 18 months to pay it off with no interest, instead of the 12 months I would have to pay off the S7 (which I purchased through Amazon).

Given all of the above, I’m confident that I’ll be happier with the Spectre than with the S7. And I do plan to buy and keep something ultimately; I am definitely sold on the ultrabook concept, and Windows 8 has been a much better experience than I thought it would be (there are some dumb things about it, but almost all of them can be pushed away and pretty much ignored with a bit of configuring, leaving me with what essentially amounts to a Windows 7 variant with a slight visual overhaul and touchscreen functionality). My Spectre is due to ship out on January 22nd, and should hopefully arrive during the following week. I’ll of course post my impressions once I have my hands on it!

-Saito S

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