Acer’s a brand that, years ago, few would have associated with quality – it was a company mostly known for mass-producing cheap notebooks and netbooks, sluggish things that crashed often and, until the dawn of tablets, were ubiquitous. As the demand for tawdry, underpowered laptops faded, Acer found itself in a curious position. With the debut of Windows 8 and the rise of mobile device popularity, it needed a differentiating, innovative product to separate itself from two packs: traditional PC manufacturers like Dell, and tablet manufacturers like Apple. Acer took a little from both camps and called it the Iconia W700.
Now, the Iconia W700 isn’t the only Windows 8 computer line Acer’s chosen to compete with. HP, Samsung, and Asus, to name a few, all have products that attempt to embrace Microsoft’s Windows 8 vision – to successfully capture the essence of a tablet and a computer in one. Acer is, however, is one of few companies with a sensible product form-factor (tablet) at a reasonable price ($899) with a speedy processor (Intel’s Ivy Bridge Core i5 platform). Acer’s hoping for home-run. I, who paid full price for a W700, am, too. Did we both win?
The W700’s design is, in some ways, a confluence of the all of the best modern tablet design philosophies. It has an aluminum unibody; a thick, black bezel; and a singular home button (emblazoned, appropriately, with translucent-white Windows 8 logo). It’s just the right amount of everything: glossy, but not too reflective (though it does attract, like most tablets, lots of fingerprints and sweat), thick (1.2cm), but smoothly, sleekly rounded. The tablet’s front is as it should be: nearly all glass. The tablet sports a big, bright, beautiful IPS display, above which cleverly concealed inlaid sensors (camera and an ambient light detector) sit. Delightfully, the W700’s minimalism is consistent throughout. Its posterior is – minus a subtle Acer logo, pinhole-sized camera slot, and rubber strip running the length of the top – completely featureless. A few design quirks give it character: a sliver of metal ensconces the top and sides of the screen and widens at the bottom, almost in the vein of older iMac desktops. It looks of the highest quality – sleek and professional.
The tablet’s sides are, if tasteful, unremarkable. The W700 possess the expected accoutrements: on the right, a solid, firm volume rocker with, somewhat oddly, two dot-shaped protrusions on top and one on bottom; a power button with a two-color LED; a 3.5” headphone jack; and Acer’s Iconia branding. All of the buttons have, consistent with the tablet’s exterior casing, a brushed metal finish. (The headphone jack is a pleasantly accenting white, and the Ionia unit a gunmetal grey.) On the leftmost ports: a circular DC power connector, a single USB 3.0 slot, a micro-HDMI port (Acer thoughtfully includes a micro-HDMI to VGA adapter), and text that reads, “Dolby Home Theater, Professionally Tuned” (more on that later). No Thunderbolt here, unfortunately; though pre-production models included Intel’s super-fast data transfer technology, Acer decided to drop support for it at the last minute. (That’s probably for the better, as current Windows driver limitations make Thunderbolt a tricky proposition.)
The bottom and top of the W700 house nothing extraordinary. Above, ventilation: two perforated shafts, one for active cooling (with a fan that, for the most part, operates at an acceptable decibel level), and the other for air dispersion. An understated, ovular orientation switch rounds things out. On the bottom, stereo speakers – red in color – and a tiny microphone. Minimalism exemplified.
In hand, the W700 is best described it as “solid”; certainly, its 2lbs heft is significant, though not uncomfortable. I’ve held it with both arms for hours in bed, and have rarely grown exceptionally sore or tired. It’s no Nexus 7 – one-handed operation is out of the question – but you won’t need an elbow brace to use it for extended periods of time. In fact, its portability is one of its strong points; I, as the proud former owner of an HP TouchPad, find it every bit as usable away from desks and tables. The W700 shines as a tablet. Concededly, though, it looks and functions best in landscape mode. It suffers from the same problem all Windows two-function tablets currently do: an elongated, stretched, 16:9 design that’s not at all conducive to portrait use. An iPad it’s not – you won’t be using this thing vertically. That’s less of a hindrance than you think. I am just as productive with the W700, if not more so, than with any of my former, 4:3 aspect ratio tablets.
The W700 is, without doubt, one of the most powerful Windows 8 tablets on the market. Equipped with an ultra-low voltage, dual-core, third generation Core i5 (or i3) Intel processor (with integrated HD 4000 graphics) and 4gb of RAM, Acer’s flagship portable simply flies in day-to-day use. Containing also an SDD of variable size (I have the 64gb model), light to moderate tasks take seconds on the W700: applications and programs open immediately, never stutter, and update quickly. It’s the first Windows machine I’ve never dreaded shutting down or restarting, because boot-up takes, at maximum, six seconds. That’s unbelievable, and by far the fastest I’ve seen on any tablet or smartphone.
Wireless-wise, the W700 has the usual array of tablet and PC radios. Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi N are present. (No wireless 3G, 4G, or HSPA+ chipsets here, unfortunately.) In terms of sensors, Acer’s packed typical tablet hardware inside: a gyroscope, digital compass, and accelerometer. A 64gb SSD serves as storage, though a hundred additional dollars will double that to 128gb. Everything’s powered by an acceptable 4850 mAh battery which, in my experience, lasts an exceptional 6 ½ to 7 hours (it has a purported maximum life of 9 hours). Surprisingly, I find myself not having to reach for a charger as often as I thought I would, though I’m certainly doing so more frequently than when I had a Nexus 7.
The W700 has an unremarkable set of optics: a front-facing 1.3 megapixel front, and a 5 megapixel rear camera. The quality is roughly on a par with most tablet shooters, which is to say it’s usable but not outstanding. Performance in low light is extremely poor, and in good shooting conditions, no better than fair. While fine for the included Skype application and other videoconferencing programs, the cameras are, frankly, subpar. Don’t leave your DSLR at home.
In terms of display, the W700 is certainly an incredible value: it’s the least expensive 1080p tablet display on the market. It’s definitely not inferior to pricier tablets, though – it can hold its own. The full-HD, IPS screen is simply gorgeous, with ultra-wide viewing angles, excellent black levels, and great brightness. While not quite the resolution (1920 by 1080 pixels) or pixel density (189.91) as, say, Apple’s fourth generation iPad or Samsung’s Nexus 10, it’s still a joy to look at. Graphics and text look sharp, and HD video looks outstanding (Netflix especially). Touch response is fantastic, too; at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s the most sensitive tablet touchscreen I’ve used, reacting instantaneously to pinching, swiping, and five-finger gestures.
Intel’s Core i5 has, in the W700’s case, worked wonders. I’ve yet to experience a slowdown or inconsistency in framerate. Navigating around the Windows 8 “modern UI” interface, by Bluetooth mouse (I had an old Microsoft Notebook Mouse 5000 lying around) or touch, is a true joy. Transition animations are silky smooth, and most – if not all – of the included Windows 8 applications function satisfyingly. I’ve only had a chance to try one or two Windows Market games on the W700, but both of them – Shark Dash and Angry Birds – played fluidly.
The Windows 8 desktop app – which could be adequately described as a more graphically opaque Windows 7 with minor usability improvements – is, powered by the i5 processor, as responsive as any desktop or ultrabook. Steam and Civilization V run marvelously (Civilization V is optimized for Intel 4000 HD graphics), and Microsoft Office 2013 – which, across all programs, is now optimized for touch – almost justifies the purchase price alone. (Disclaimer: Office doesn’t come pre-installed.) File transfers take, thanks to the SSD, little time. And navigating around Aero – snapping, dragging, and resizing Windows – is pretty lag-free.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, thought. I have experienced a number of frustrating slowdowns on the W700, the worst of which occur most consistently on the desktop version of Internet Explorer 10. Image-heavy websites seem to seriously bog the browser down, bringing scrolling to a crawl, and making the entire program unresponsive. Whether it be an issue with the Intel integrated graphics or browser, it’s disappointing to see such problems on an expensive, high-end, 2012-era machine.
The W700 also seems to have some issues with Wi-Fi that, while less of a concern now than when I first received the device, still occur. It doesn’t seem to like particular networks, dropping access points without warning, or reporting “limited” connectivity to a particular hotspot. Newer wireless drivers from Acer’s support website have helped attenuate the problem, but I find I still run into disconnect problems when attempting to connect to certain routers.
These Issues aside, the W700 has performed above and beyond my expectations. Its beautiful screen, outstanding touch responsiveness, and speedy silicon seal the deal.
The W700 comes with extras. Lots of extras. Acer’s included three free W700 accessories: a charging dock, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a faux-leather case that doubles as a stand.
The idea of a dock is central to Acer’s vision of the W700’s use case. Cradled, it’s a desktop, a productivity center, a workspace. On-the-go, it’s more of a consumption device, or light creation tool. While the W700 and dock may not fully embody that consolidative concept, it comes pretty close.
The dock’s construction is, while less solid than the W700, not necessarily flimsy or tawdry – just a lot more plastic. It’s, interestingly, composed of two parts: the docking mechanism itself, and a removable stand. The stand fits into a slot in the rear of the dock, and can be used to re-arrange the dock in a variety of configurations, landscape and portrait. (The portrait mode is more than a little awkward for productivity use, but sensible for apps that benefit from taller screens, like Twitter.) Sprayed a shade of silver slightly darker than the W700’s aluminum in front, it has two octagonal cut-outs – “sound tunnels” – designed to amplify the tablet’s stereo output (they don’t, really), and a green LED to indicate power.
In back, the dock’s a bit thicker and white, but not notably different structurally. Here, three additional USB 3.0 ports sit, as well as a DC charging port. Acer’s cleverly segmented the USB and DC wiring from the W700; the USB ports can be used to, on their own, charge other devices. It’s a welcome feature.
Of the dock, I haven’t much to say; it’s serviceable, more utilitarian than aesthetically impressive, or feature-rich, or portable. It’s there to charge and to support, nothing more.
Acer’s included W700 keyboard bears more than an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s input device: white keys surrounded by silver material, raised slightly in back. Paired via Bluetooth, it takes double A batteries (two of which Acer supplies), and has an ugly-but-functional wireless/battery LED indicators and switch.
As a keyboard, it performs as well as one would expect. Packed a bit tighter than its Apple cousin (granted, it’s a bit smaller and lighter), the keys are chicklet-style and responsive enough; anyone who’s used a MacBook will feel right at home. (I asked a user of MacBooks.) And those who haven’t needn’t worry. I’ve never had a MacBook, but I had no problem adjusting.
The W700 runs Microsoft’s inchoate operating system, Windows 8. That’s an important differentiation: unlike Microsoft’s own Surface tablet, which is ARM-based and, therefore, limited to select applications from the Windows Store, Acer’s device has x86 compatibility, meaning it’s able to run both apps from the Windows Store and legacy programs. Simply put, it’s possible to install games like Civilization V, 3D manipulation tools like CAD, and alternative web browsers on the W700. It’s like any laptop or desktop made in the past decade.
Unlike any laptop or desktop before Microsoft’s latest OS, though, Windows 8 includes an alternative, more touch-friendly user interface. Built on “live spaces,” it’s a desktop re-imagined. The start screen is populated with big, colorful blocks – tiles – of various widths. Each, when clicked or touched, will launch apps or programs, but some also display up-to-date information from within applications: the Mail tile will display recent messages, while the Calendar tile will display upcoming appointments, and so on. It’s a design philosophy Microsoft’s embraced with recent smartphone and XBOX console software, and is, I believe, a logical step forward for the company’s Windows platform. The Millennial generation of consumers – those who’ve grown up in an era of social media and instant updates – have short attention spans. They want information quickly. Windows 8 gives it to them.
Navigation in the new UI is, for the most part, intuitive. Swipe to the side to see more tiles. Touch and hold to resize, re-arrange, or remove tiles. Pinch to zoom in or out of tiles. Swiping from screen edges reveals one of two menus: from the right, the “charms” bar, or a persistent menu that allows you to, among other things, share app content via e-mail or social networking and search for any document, app, or setting (similar to the universal search function in Windows 7); from the left, a pictorial list of apps running in the background (a quick swipe switches between apps). Swiping from the top of the screen down closes applications. And quickly swiping up from the bottom of the screen reveals app-specific settings and options (though the “charms” menu is also context-aware, to an extent). That sounds like a lot to remember, but, in some ways, Windows 8 gestures are more elegant and natural than equivalent iOS or Android motions.
Perhaps even more impressive than Windows 8 navigation is Windows 8 app manipulation. When it comes to true productivity and multitasking, Windows 8 shines. The desktop functions as it did in Windows 7, which is welcome, but what’s really nifty is the new “side-by-side” feature: it’s now possible to select any concurrently running application and place it beside the foreground program. While of limited use when in front of a keyboard and mouse, it’s a fantastic tablet tool for apps like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Anyone who’s dreamed of browsing the web while watching their Newsfeed on a tablet will be more than satisfied.
Windows 8 applications are mostly hit-or-miss right now. Microsoft’s standard suite of apps – the People hub, Mail, Maps, Messaging, Games, Video, and Music – are fair. The People hub is a surprisingly great social aggregator. Serving as a center for Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, and LinkedIn contacts, it does an excellent job of providing posts from friends in a concentric, logical interface. It’ll even allow likes, comments, tweets, and retweets from within the app, which I found extremely convenient. (I now use the People app as my exclusive social media organizer.) Mail, on the other hand, is a little bare. It’s the most stripped-down e-mail client I’ve encountered, with little customizability and no integration with third-party provider (like Gmail) features. It works, but that’s it. Maps and Messaging are half-baked and lacking; Maps is about as functional as a traditional paper map, and Messaging seems, in light of the People hub’s capabilities, useless. The Games app is, as an XBOX Live companion, interesting – it’ll display Avatar and friend activity, achievements, game progress, and messages in a visually attractive way. As a storefront, however, it’s disappointing, at least from a W700 standpoint, as most all games are tablet Android or iPad ports. I found few titles in the Games store able to truly showcase the power of the Core i5 and accompanying integrated graphics. (I installed Steam instead.) The Video application is a little more promising from a content standpoint – I continue to find many popular television shows and movies here. The Music app, too, isn’t wanting for albums or songs. And the Music app leverages its wide collection well: it has a Pandora Radio –like streaming service – Smart DJ – built-in.
As far as third-party applications go, my experience has been, according to other Windows 8 reviews I’ve read, better than most. While the Windows Store is a little barren right now, there are diamonds in the rough. Netflix, as previously mentioned, really shines, especially on the W700. Unofficial apps for Google Reader and YouTube are surprisingly good, too; Nextgen Reader is a perfectly capable RSS manager (in some use cases, I feel it’s superior to even Google’s own app for Android), and YouTube+ manages to emulate YouTube well enough, but also throws in additional features, like video downloading. I’m certain the Windows Store will soon begin to grow rapidly, but for now, I believe its offerings are good.
All in all, I’ve been nothing but satisfied by Windows 8, especially on the W700. The desktop environment is, as it was in Windows 7, great for productivity (and legacy gaming), and the new UI is fantastic for content consumption. Windows 8 is the most flexible operating system I’ve had the pleasure of using, and despite its current shortcomings, I fully believe it’s the future of computing.
I, for the longest time, forwent a laptop. I thought an Android or WebOS device would suffice for my creation and entertainment needs. I quickly learned that I was wrong. While the HP TouchPad is fine for web browsing, it’s a horrible word processor, and while the Nexus 7 is great for mobile game-playing, it’s no multitasking pro. So I sold both. I wanted a computer that would satisfy my portable and stationary needs; my play and work requirements. I wanted convergence that seemed far out of reach a year or two ago. I hesitantly purchased the W700 a few weeks after launch day, prepared to return it if it didn’t function as expected. Color me shocked: it fulfilled my needs. I still have it.
The W700 is, quite simply, the most complete device I’ve ever owned. Leveraging the power and tractability of the Core i5 processor and Windows 8, it manages to fully converge desktop and tablet into a device that’s surprisingly capable, surprisingly fun, and one. I still get a kick out of plugging USB peripherals into it, or installing x86 programs onto it. The form-factor and Windows 8 make it special.
Arthur C. Clark was right when he said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And he was also right when he said, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little past them into the impossible.” The Acer Iconia W700 may not be extraordinarily advanced from a technical standpoint, but it still feels like magic, and also a little impossible. And that’s why I have mine.