Acer Iconia W510: hands-on

You had better get used to the look and feel of the Acer Iconia W510. Not because this particular laptop/tablet hybrid is going to be everywhere this holiday season, but because nearly every PC maker will have a very similar product — a Windows 8 laptop with a detachable screen, powered by the latest generation of Intel’s Atom processors.

Yes, that’s the direct descendant of the Atom processors behind the Netbook, a nearly extinct laptop sub-compact category that was hugely popular for a year or so before low-cost ultraportables and the iPad overshadowed it. The new Atoms (in this case the Z2670 chip) are faster than their predecessors, while maintaining long battery life and power efficiency, but that may not be enough to satisfy laptop shoppers used to finding Intel Core i3, i5 and even i7 chips in even the thinnest of ultrabooks.

The other psychological hurdle here is price. Intel Atom laptops from a few years ago cost as little as $299, and current Core i5 ultrabooks can be found for $800 or less. When available on November 9, the complete Atom-powered Iconia W510 will cost $749 ($499/$599 gets you the tablet/screen only without the keyboard dock, depending on SSD size). There are a lot of impressive laptops you can buy for $750 that are more powerful, have better features, and are easier to use than this one. To be fair, there are many Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets and hybrids coming later this year that will cost around the same — but I haven’t seen one that makes a particularly compelling value case yet.

Still, the idea of a touchscreen slate running a full Windows operating system that can instantly transform into a working laptop is an appealing one. In practice, the slate part of the W510 is well-built and responsive, and the hinge that connects the two halves is easy to use and secure. The screen itself is Gorilla Glass, a must-have for tactile glass surfaces these days.

But, the keyboard half (which contains an additional battery) is too light, making the entire thing top-heavy and prone to tipping over. The keyboard keys themselves are small and shallow, and frequently did not register key strokes. Adding to my usability concerns, $750 only gets you a 64GB SSD hard drive (with much less of that space free after OS and software overhead), and the lowest-cost $499 screen-only version has a measly 32GB SSD — fine for an iPad, but tough for a full Windows 8 experience.

If it sounds like I’m being tough on the Iconia W510, it’s tough love. Laptop/tablet hybrids can work, but there’s going to be a lot of Windows 8 (and Windows RT) competition in the months following the release of Windows 8. Products such as this need to be priced appropriately (especially ones with Atom or ARM processors), and offer great design and usability in order to be a compelling alternative to other computing products in the same price range. As much as the Acer Aspire S7 touch screen ultrabook was an excellent advertisement for Windows 8, the Iconia W510 may be seen as an advertisement for the iPad, or any of the $700-800 ultrabooks that offer slim, portable computing at a reasonable price.

Design and features 
There are small differences in color, button placement, and overall visual ID, but Windows 8 hybrid laptop/tablets I’ve seen from Samsung, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and others generally look the same. None are particularly streamlined, as all require beefed-up hinge assemblies to keep the screen securely tethered.

The screen part of the W510 looks very professional, like a slightly smaller, squatter iPad, virtually indistinguishable from from other windows or Android 10-inch tablets with edge-to-edge glass and a gently curved back panel. It’s solidly built, but not overly heavy, and feels like a solid productivity tool. It’s 1.3 pounds as a tablet, and 2.6 pounds with the keyboard added.

Based on the touch screen systems we’ve tried to date, Windows 8 still hasn’t quite nailed the screen rotation in tablet mode. Rotating your screen still results in a delay before the orientation rights itself. If you don’t want to bother, there’s a rotation lock button on the top edge of the screen.

The keyboard dock it plugs into, is somewhat less upscale looking than the tablet. It’s bulky, but contains an additional battery, so connecting the two parts should give you a very extended battery life. The keyboard features white island-style keys against a light silver keyboard tray, with a small clickpad below.

The keys, as noted previously, are on the small side, and reminded me of typing on a tiny Netbook keyboard years ago. Even worse, keystrokes regularly failed to register, leading to a frustrating overall experience. This is a non-final build of the W510, so that may improve in the final version, but I certainly doubt the keys are getting any larger.

The clickpad-style touch pad (which means it has the left and right mouse buttons built into the pad itself, instead of separate buttons) is functional, but feels cramped. As noted with the Acer Aspire S7, the Windows 8 not-Metro interface doesn’t work especially well with a touch pad, so you’ll find yourself using a combination of pad and screen for navigation.

When combined, the screen and keyboard form something that looks and feels a lot like a traditional clamshell laptop. The hinge holds very securely, and (again like the Aspire S7) the hinge movement becomes much stiffer past 120-degrees or so, to allow for less movement while tapping and swiping the screen. The entire hinge assembly can also fold open to nearly 180 degrees.

The 13-inch 1,366×768 display is clear and bright, and suffers no visual degradation from having touch incorporated into it. Despite my Atom-centric concerns, touch response is immediate and quick, and off-axis viewing (important for a tablet) was excellent from any angle.

Connectivity and performance
If you look at the W510 as a tablet, it’s ports and connections are decent. If you look at it as a laptop, it’s potentially frustrating. The display has micro-USB, micro-HDMI, and a micro-SD card slot — none of which are particularly useful, unless you carry a pocketful of adaptors around with you. The keyboard base adds a full-sized USB port, which I immediately used for an external mouse.

While our Iconia W510 is not benchmark-ready final hardware, there are still some basic observations to be made about the Intel Atom Z2760 CPU inside. I thought we had perhaps seen the last of the Atom line after the Netbook market collapsed. No such luck. The next-gen Atom (also know by the code name Clover Trail) is an improvment on previous models, but you still won’t get even the performance of a low-end Intel Core i3 out of it.

For web surfing, email, and other basic tasks, that may not a huge concern, but my issue is $750 price — at that level Core i3 and i5 laptops, even very slim ones, are available. With the Atom you also don’t get the benefit of Intel’s latest HD 4000 integrated graphics, so even low-end games will be unplayable. Is the Atom a deal-breaker? No, but systems with this chip belong in a lower price category.

The Atom does offer one important advantage — it’s very power efficient (although Intel’s Core i-series chip are also very efficient these days, making the distinction less drastic). In anecdotal use, it certainly seemed like this system could run for 10 hours when playing HD video. When final hardware is ready, we’ll run formal battery tests on the system with and without the extended battery included in the keyboard.

The detachable-screen hybrid Windows 8 laptop feels like a check box nearly every PC maker needs to hit with the launch of Microsoft’s new OS. None of the variations on this theme are as elegant as the best clamshell or convertible laptops, and some of the prices we’ve seen will be hard for consumers to swallow. That said, the Iconia W510 works well as a standalone tablet, and has enviable battery life, but it is hampered by a high price, clunky keyboard, and too many micro-style ports.

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