(Pocket-lint) - The Acer S13 is a response to the complaint that nice laptops are just too bloomin' expensive. Not everyone can afford to splash out £1,000 on a computer, and Apple's cheapest Air laptops haven't been meaningfully updated in years.
The Acer S13 starts at £549, making it the kind of machine that students and those a little more cash limited might buy. It's a bargain, with some elements that stand up pretty well to machines almost twice its asking price.
There are a few compromises too, but they sit in the shade of this thing's sheer value-for-money factor.
Acer Aspire S 13 review: Design
Let's start with one of those compromises, though.
When you're on a budget you can choose to either make something look nice inside or on the outside. It applies to your house, your car and now your laptop. Acer has chosen to make the S13's insides look and feel great, leaving the bit passers-by will see looking more ordinary.
Its lid is ridged soft-touch plastic, the underside plain soft-touch plastic. The silvery hinge gives the Acer S13 a touch of ultrabook-style, but even this is plastic. You can also get the laptop in a white and gold finish, but having seen them both in person (original hands-on images also in our gallery), we think 95 per cent of you will prefer the black version.
Lift the lid and it's like a different laptop. The keyboard surround is a moody black brushed aluminium, while the trackpad is ringed with a bright bevelled line of metal - it's a classy look. You could easily believe the Acer S13 is a £1,000 laptop from a user point of view, but on the outside it's a bit more like a £500 one (which is fitting, given the price).
There are no similar compromises from a more practical perspective, though. The Acer S13 is slim and light; the perfect laptop if you want something portable that's also big enough to work on all day. It weighs 1.3kg and is 15mm thick. That's thinner and lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The various Asus ZenBook rivals look a bit nicer from the outside, but the Acer S13 has everything you need in a portable model. It's also well-made, especially given parts of the build are affected by the fairly modest budget.
There's almost no keyboard flexing, no bowing of the frame if you pick it up by one end. Don't undervalue this solidity: a rigid keyboard is more important than a fancy-looking lid.
Acer has also nailed the S13's connectivity, packing in a mix of old and new. You won't have to buy a bunch of new adapters for your current gear, but you also get one of the new USB-C 3.1 ports - that we frankly don't have all that much use for yet, but this will probably be indispensable in a year or two.
Older style connectors include two full-size USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI and a full-fat SD card slot rather than the phone-centric microSD kind.
This is a true mainstream crowd-pleaser array. You can plug the Acer S13 into a monitor or TV with a normal HDMI cable, and photography fans don't have to carry around an annoying card reader just to edit their pics.
It's the polar opposite of a 12-inch MacBook, in other words.
Acer Aspire S 13 review: Screen
One part that's clearly better than some machines at the price is the screen. It's a 13.3-inch 1080p IPS screen with a matte finish, which kills reflections but can make the display look less punchy.
We still see laptops not all that much cheaper using those poor TN-tech screens, so getting a pretty sharp IPS one in this Acer is a huge bonus.
Its contrast is good enough to watch films in a darkened room without the screen looking like a big grey box too. It makes a decent TV-replacer if you're a student or are the unfortunate one who took the box room in a flat share.
Colour is vivid as well, but the tone is quite cold and slightly green-skewed. Acer could have calibrated the S13's display a bit better, but it's cracking hardware regardless. The Asus ZenBook UX310U is sharper still, but has worse contrast so isn't necessarily the outright winner if the two are pitched head-to-head.
The S13's screen isn't a touch surface, but in return you get a laptop that shrugs at being used outdoors like it's no big deal. Its hinge also bends back quite far, which is handy if, say, you need to use the it while it's perched on your knees or, in real, the floor.
Acer Aspire S 13 review: Keyboard and trackpad
We are honestly surprised by just how good the keyboard is too. Like almost all slim laptops, its keys are shallow, but their action is of very high quality, with a real sense the feel has been carefully designed and optimised.
It's a joy to type on, and it even has a keyboard backlight - a feature that's still not guaranteed in mid-price style laptops like this. There are two levels of backlight intensity, a good extra if you like a subtler keyboard light.
We can't be so nice about the trackpad, though. It's a bit annoying.
The quality of the surface and the feel of the click mechanism are both very good, but its button layout is a bit of an ergonomic fail. It makes you accidentally press the right button frequently. There's no magic to this either.
The Acer S13 trackpad is split down the middle - the right button "zone" takes up half the width of the pad and about an inch or two of its height. However, because the trackpad is shifted to the left of the frame (in a MacBook it's dead centre) your finger naturally strays towards the right side of the pad.
Time is the only solution. After a while you'll get used to the position, and naturally modify how you hold your hands. It is a pity the positioning isn't that bit smarter, though.
Acer Aspire S 13 review: Performance and storage
The other little compromise is one that affects just about all cheaper ultrabooks: the entry-level Acer S13 only has 128GB storage, because it's an all-SSD drive.
There's no near-endless store for media, games and so on, and you'll probably have to prune your files every now and then. The higher-end version of the S13 have 256GB, though. It costs an extra £100 and also has a better Core i5 CPU.
Having an SSD does transform a Windows machine though. We'd rather have a 128GB SSD than a 500GB hard drive. For day-to-day light use, the Acer S13's performance is largely indistinguishable from a top-end Core i7 machine, even though the variant we're using has an entry-level Core i3 CPU (the dual-core Intel i3-6100U CPU, clocked at 2.3GHz, paired with 8GB RAM).
For many of you, the difference between this and the pricier Core i5 won't be all that great, particularly as gaming performance is roughly similar to that of other Core-series CPUs. Don't expect recent games to run well, but those five-years-old or more should be playable if you fiddle with the graphics settings a bit. Skyrim runs fairly well on "low" graphics, for example. It doesn't run well with the visuals turned up, though. If you're going to be doing more demanding work, definitely consider paying the extra for the Core i5 version. However, for light work the Core i3 CPU is perfect.
One of the Acer S13's few weak points is that under pressure, it lets out quite obvious higher-pitch fan noise. This is the downside of using a fairly small-diameter, high-revolution fan rather than a larger one that can afford to spin a bit slower. It may get on your nerves if you're sensitive about such things.
The fan does its job, though. The S13 doesn't get unusually hot, or even particularly warm if you keep its duties light. It's completely silent a lot of the time too, the fan only kicking in as needed.
Acer Aspire S 13 review: Battery life
The S13 also lasts ages if you don't ask it to do anything too demanding. It can play 10 hours of video between charges, and should last through a full day's work. Its stamina is excellent.
We found that thanks to the good-quality matte display, you can use it at minimum brightness in a cafe without struggling, which is perhaps how you'd get it to last for Acer's claimed 11 hours.
The Acer S13 also has loud speakers. They sit at each end of the laptop's underside, and pump out enough volume to make gaming or a bit of podcast-listening enjoyable enough.
You can customise the tone a bit too, using a preinstalled Dolby EQ app. To start with the S13's treble was a little sharp, but switching to the Dynamic preset that alters the tone to suit whatever you're listening to improved matters. They're still laptop speakers, lacking any real bass depth, but are among the better ones out there. Their one issue is that they're very easy to partially block if you use the Acer S13 on your knees.
The Acer S13 has no major flaws other than a trackpad that may well get on your nerves for the first week or so. It's otherwise a terrific laptops that has everything you need in a portable computer - and all for an affordable price.
A good screen, a decent processor, great battery life and a super-slim, light frame are all major benefits - some of which are class-leading for the price. Add the decent connectivity, comfy keyboard and decent speakers, and you have a real mid-range winner.
Not all of you are going to immediately fall in love with the textured plastic lid, but we'll leave whether that's enough to put you off a seriously versatile little laptop. Hate the look? Be sure to check out the Asus ZenBook UX305 as an alternative.