The Acer Aspire S5 is a special kind of ultraportable notebook. That’s not for its shape or style though – building a clone of the Apple MacBook Air is rapidly becoming passé for Microsoft’s hardware partners. 

See: more ultraportable reviews.

Asus, Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony are all blindly trotting out these identibooks, spurred on by financial carrots dangled by Intel to companies that buy its processors to make thin’n’light Applesque Ultrabooks™. 

What makes the Acer Aspire S5 ultrabook very special is its Thunderbolt connectivity. Yes, the S5 is the first Windows laptop to feature the high-speed I/O developed by Intel and Apple. 

In fact, the Acer Aspire S5-391-53314G25akk, to give it its full name, is the first commercially available Windows PC in the UK of any type to sport this versatile connector.

Thunderbolt is specified to operate with two data lanes, each up to 10Gbps; meanwhile, super-speed USB 3.0 has a signalling rate of 5Gbps. Thunderbolt is the fastest interface available to desktop computers, and until its recent re-engineering for use over copper wiring, it was a futuristic optical interface called Light Peak. 

Acer hides that digital light on the Aspire S5 under a motorised bushel around the back of the laptop. 

In normal closed mode, the Aspire S5 is just 18mm thick. Press a button in the top-right corner of the keyboard deck, and the whole laptop rises up by 6mm – a hinged section on the base slides open to expose a row of modern ports: HDMI, two USB 3.0, and Thunderbolt. Acer calls this MagicFlip.

The slide-down port bay is another way to differentiate the Aspire S5 from every other ultrabook, and a real party-piece to show your friends. Shame then that the crunching and whirring noises this mechanical flap makes as it operates makes it sound like it’s about to grind to a halt, every time you use it. 

Elevating the rear by just those few millimetre also has the benefit of making typing a touch easier too.

When the laptop sleeps, it will also retract itself after a few seconds, unless there’s anything plugged in the back.

Acer Aspire S5: Specs and features

Acer has clearly earmarked the Aspire S5 as its premium ultraportable. Where many such laptops are cheapened with plastic construction, the S5 is all metal, an aluminium chassis finished in satin black. Only the screen bezel is a plastic fitting, and thankfully, it has a matt finish.

Sadly the screen itself is a low-grade gloss display. The panel is 13.3in on the diagonal, but lower resolution than the Air at 1366 x 768 pixels.

It’s bright enough at maximum but contrast is below average. Image quality also quickly deteriorates when viewed from the side. And viewing is very poor or impossible when you’re observing from above or below the screen.

The trackpad tries to follow the Apple blueprint, a large buttonless type measuring 97 x 76mm, against the MBA’s 105 x 76mm. It has a pleasant semi-smooth finish, but it’s crudely let into the top plate, with visible air gaps through the chassis.

Keyboard is the familiar Scrabble style, flat-topped black keys with white legends. These keys have very little travel, although we found we could touch type quite rapidly enough with few errors. Our sample had a bizarre pan-European keyboard with just about every diacritical mark enscribed across all its keys. 

Otherwise, button placement is quite standard, with the now-familiar inverted-T for the cursor arrows, supplemented with dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys just above the horizontal arrows.

Like the Air, there are no visible speaker grilles, and sound instead leaks out through the keyboard.

The slim and sculpted bodiwork means there’s little space for portage on the sides, hence the extending panel at the rear. But the left side does include an SD card slot, and an awkward-to-find Power button; it’s all too easy to reach for the MagicFlip button, sitting in the usual Power button position, until you remember the hidden key on the side.

The right side has a headset jack, a pinhole for hard reset via paperclip, and a pair of holes that may be for a non-Kensington locking solution.

Acer Aspire S5: Performance

Acer’s choice of processor is a good one: the 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-3317U, first used in this year’s 11in MacBook Air, is a powerful dual-core chip with Hyperthreading, boosting to 2.6GHz for quick Turbo bursts. Its specified thermal design power (TDP) is 17W, and it certainly helps propel many an ultrabook without overly noisy fan cooling.

In our real-world testing with WorldBench 6, the Acer Aspire S5 scored a very creditable 136 points. That’s a terrific score for the processor/memory combination, almost certainly helped along by the storage configuration: two 128GB mSATA SSDs in RAID 0 mode.

The use of Intel’s integrated graphics processor is not the disappointment it once was – we saw a just-playable 28fps from FEAR at Maximum detail.

We stretched the Acer Aspire S5 further with Crysis, starting with kinder settings. Set to 1024 x 768, Low detail and DirectX 9, it averaged 54fps. Setting resolution closer to native and upping the detail, it played at 21fps at 1280 x720, Medium and DirectX 10.

As a guide to raw processor and memory performance, we ran Geekbench 2, which returned an average of 7293 points. That's a pretty speed result for a modestly sized laptop.

For comparison, last year’s 2.3GHz Mac mini with Intel graphics scored 6481, while the 2.5GHz Core i5 model hit 7038 points.

In the all-important test of battery runtime, MobileMark 2007 indicated a lifetime of just over 6 hours (243 mins), a good result which is quite typical now for the class of laptop.

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