CES with Windows 8: A mixed verdict

When I borrowed an Acer Aspire S7 ultrabook for use at the recent CES technology trade show, I thought that I'd end up either lauding the lightweight notebook to the skies or complaining bitterly about how I should have brought my trusty old netbook instead. What I didn't expect was that I'd come back with a resounding, "Well, it's fine, but..."

Acer Aspire S7

First, let me say that the Aspire S7 is, on the whole, a really impressive machine to work with, especially when you're traveling. It is an elegantly slim and lightweight system with a noticeably bright, clear display and an extremely comfortable keyboard. The model that I was using (S7-391-9886 ) comes with an Intel Core i7-3517U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD for storage and a 13.3-in. HD multi-touch display. If I wanted to buy it, I'd have to shell out about $1,650 list.

For use on the go at a trade show, I must say that the Aspire S7 was nearly ideal. When I sat down for a meeting and wanted to take notes, I could pull out of my backpack, open the lid, and it would started up almost immediately, allowing me to start working at once. (As opposed to past years when I'd have to chat about the weather while I waited for whatever notebook I was using to pull itself out of sleep mode.) And the Aspire S7 was fine to carry around with me -- at a little under 3 lb. (although it was closer to 4 lb. with the power cable included), it weighed no more than my netbook but offered a huge difference in functionality.

Interestingly, I found myself using the touch screen much more than I thought I would. Although I am a very keyboard-centric user, I discovered that I was soon using the touch screen in place of the mouse and/or the touchpad to move from one tab to another in my browser, move the cursor to a different paragraph on a document, or perform a number of other point-and-click tasks. In fact, using the touch display itself took no more (or less) time than it took to use a touchpad, and the only reason I preferred using a mouse on occasion was when I needed more accuracy than my finger could provide.

Less surprisingly, it was soon obvious that I was going to spend nearly all of my time in Windows 8's Desktop environment rather than its more tablet-friendly Start window. Even when I wanted to watch a video, I found it just as easy (perhaps because I've been using Windows for so long) to simply click on the file name in the file manager rather than through the xBox video app.

I've read several reviews of the Aspire S7 complaining about the battery life. This may be true; because I did most of my typing in the pressroom on this trip (and so was able, about 50% of the time, get access to a power strip), I never really tested the long-term abilities of the battery. I did use it for at least four of my five-hour plane trip home, both to do some writing and to watch about three hours of video, and at the end of the trip there was still a reasonable amount of battery power left.

One problem I did experience, and which echoed a difficulty I had when I tested Microsoft's Surface with Windows RT tablet, was a frequent loss of Wi-Fi connectivity. I had thought that the frequent appearance of the dreaded "Limited" word on my connectivity indicator was a problem with the Surface, but almost as soon as I arrived in Las Vegas, it popped up during my first session with the Aspire S7 in my hotel room and then later in other venues. I was ready to abandon Windows 8 forever, until after a little research I finally found a solution: To uncheck the Power Management option for the system's wireless network adaptor. (Windows 8 users who are having a similar issue might want to see if it works for them; specific instructions can be found in this video.)

My conclusions? If you're a Windows user, and you do a lot of traveling, the Acer Aspire S7 isn't a bad tool to have with you, especially if you plan to do presentations or show videos on what is a really top-notch display. And I can promise you that the sleek ultrabook will pull at least a few admiring glances from your colleagues along the way.

That being said, I'm already looking at various alternatives for next year. I'm thinking seriously about buying myself an inexpensive Chromebook, and of course, there's always the possibility of a tablet/keyboard combination (although at least one of Computerworld's editors has already tried that, with mixed results). Or will there be a new development in mobile computing that will be even more useful for the working traveler? I'm looking forward to finding out.

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