It’s been a few weeks since I bought my new computer and I felt the need to write about it simply because it’s a beautifully engineered machine. The computer I’m talking about is an Acer S7-392, it’s Acer’s current flagship computer and in my opinion one of the best computers money can buy right now. My old computer having been through the worst abuses of college life was on its way out with LCD and battery issues and wasn’t exactly top of the line hardware when I bought it, so I wanted to get something worthwhile this time. I honestly feel that in this day and age you will always get your money’s worth when it comes to electronics, so I didn’t have too much trouble justifying spending top dollar this time around. It’s pretty miraculous whenever I think about the technology I can get for a couple hundred dollars. To have billions of transistors burned onto a perfectly grown silicon crystal, to be able to access all human knowledge by capturing signals from thin air, the ability to do this on battery power for hours on end, I can go on and on about all the miracles I can get for under a thousand dollars but that’s a whole separate post. This post is just about my wonderful S7.
This machine is one of the few that carry Intel’s Ultrabook branding. The Ultrabook was essentially Intel’s answer to falling PC prices by imposing Apple-esque requirements and creating top notch computers consumers desperately want. The minimum specifications for the current generation of Ultrabooks are incredibly strict with mandatory SSD storage, touch screen interface, Intel Haswell, 7 hour battery life, and it all this needs to fit in a package less than 23mm in width. In exchange for meeting these specs, manufacturers enjoy a healthy subsidy and the marketing benefits that come with the Ultrabook label. When I was doing my due diligence there were 3 models that met this spec in the Haswell era. The Sony Vaio Pro, Samsung’s Ativ Book 9, and the Acer S7; all of which were flagship products. The three machines all had roughly the same offerings 128GB SSD, FHD IPS display, Core i5-4200U, 8GB of RAM, and being drop dead gorgeous. This made it a difficult choice for me but the Vaio Pro seemed to be having wifi issues at the moment and didn’t want to chance it, but being the cheapest of the bunch made it tempting. The Ativ Book 9′ I think was the nicest looking computer, but the QHD display’s pixel density was far too much for me to think it was useful let alone justified by the high price tag. I fell in love with the S7 because it had the best combination of looks, specs, and price. Namely, it’s the only one of the three with 8GB RAM in the baseline model without also being in the $1500 range. Not only that but the aluminum unibody with gorilla glass shell makes for a uniquely beautiful computer. Not trying to start anything, but I prefer its look over the Macbook which is starting to be far too commonplace.
At less than a half inch thick and 2.8lbs I’ve gotten many compliments already regarding this computer’s profile. I still can’t get over how well engineered each and every component inside must be, not a single cubic inch could be wasted. No part can be upgraded because it’s all proprietary and soldered directly to the board for spatial efficiency. These laptops are basically so thin that features so basic such as an ethernet port need to be cut out because it’s thicker than the whole laptop. Sony came up with an extremely clever way around this by building the ethernet port into the power brick which doubled as a WiFi hotspot for the Vaio Pro. In fact the space was so tight on the underside that there was not enough room on the inside for a fifth row of keyboard keys for the function keys. When I think about it, finding the space inside to sink the keys into the body enough for a comfortable typing experience without endangering the screen in the closed position must have been one of the more difficult design decisions. I tried really hard to find a tear down of this specific model just because I was curious, but came up empty. I did manage to find an image of the 11″ 391 model below to get an idea of what’s going on. Clearly though, the dominant feature on the inside is the enormous battery and it just amazes me that they managed to not only fit all of this but also place it all. I’ve placed and routed what I thought were pretty tough PCB’s before but nothing comes close to the amount of careful thought that must come into play here. You have to consider what components use what hardware, which components have sensitive high frequency signals, which signals are prone to generate electromagnetic interference, and all the interconnections in between. On top of that, you have to remember that everything needs to be cooled somehow despite the lack of space for airflow. Heat is the enemy when it comes to electronics by increasing resistance and dissipating more and more power. Acer managed something called the Twin Air cooling system which pulls cold air in and hot air out while concentrating all the major high power components in the rear. From my experiences so far, it works great and I’ve never felt this laptop get particularly hot to touch. I have no trouble putting this laptop on my lap.
Still, the main reason I love this computer is the almost magical 8 hour battery life it promises. I have yet to run the battery down all the way, but that says a lot considering I no longer lug around a charger whenever I take this computer anywhere throughout the day. This is in contrast to my old laptop where I kept a spare charger in the living room just so I could use it there without it dying within an hour. It’s this one feature that I think is the greatest miracle Intel has accomplished in this generation. Battery life is the single biggest pain to consumers when it comes to portable electronics. However, it’s also the most difficult things to engineer when designing an electronic device. You’re only real choice for batteries is Li-Poly, and the other design decision is how big you want to make it. Making it bigger obviously consumes space for other components, but it also adds the most weight. On a side note, battery technology is incredibly difficult to develop because you need to design a material with the following criteria: be able to store/provide electric potential at a useful voltage, robust enough that it can be charged/discharged thousands of times, be safe enough to put in your pockets without exploding, and yet needs to be energetically dense. Li-Poly despite its shortcomings is still quite a miracle in my eyes. That said the last secret weapon to improve battery life then is to be really smart about how you use the power you do have which is what Intel has accomplished with Haswell. I can’t speak too much about how they actually manage to save such an enormous amount of power, but from what I understand they use a number of clever techniques. A big part of it was moving the voltage regulation onto the die which allowed them to be in complete control of power at all times. This is important when you want to do dynamic voltage frequency scaling (DVFS) which basically reduces the voltage and in turn the power consumed by a factor of V^2 while only reducing the frequency linearly. This results in huge savings especially since the CPU is never really needs to operate at its full potential all the time. The beauty in what Intel has accomplished is the ability to do this really fast and really intelligently, being able to know when the power is needed or not. Some other techniques I’ve read about is the ability to shut off entire sections of the CPU when their not needed. Intel also managed to squeeze in a pretty top notch integrated GPU core with all those extra transistors. This results in huge power savings from not having a separate GPU to power and communicate with. Speaking of transistors, these chips are built with 22nm technology with 3D gates resulting in a lot of useful transistors on each die. I can’t even begin to think how they manage to architect an Intel microprocessor, their easily some of the most complicated devices fabricated by mankind.
Overall, this is a great machine and I feel that it was well worth the money. The point I’ve been trying to get at though is consumer electronics these days have reached such a high level of quality and performance these days that it’s quite miraculous. Technology has become so cheap, that it’s become an extremely affordable luxury to most people. I can buy a 40″ flat screen LED TV today for $300 easily with full 1080p HD and all the usual inputs. I have constant access to all human knowledge wirelessly at 20 mbps for $30 a month and whatever my phone cost me. The reason for all this is because inside every device beats the clock of tiny microprocessor that can be perfectly fabricated by shining light onto the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It’s a god damn miracle that we have what we have today, and I’m proud to be a part of it all.