Acer Iconia W700 Review

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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. Did it succeed?

Hardware

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The W700’s exterior is a confluence of the all of the best modern tablet design philosophies. It has an aluminum unibody, a black bezel;, and a singular home button (appropriately emblazoned with a translucent-white Windows 8 logo). It’s just the right amount of everything: glossy, but not too reflective, thick (1.2cm), but smoothly rounded. The tablet’s front is as it should be, nearly all glass, a wonderful showcase for the big, bright, beautiful IPS display. Above that are inlaid sensors (a camera and an ambient light detector), cleverly concealed as part of a minimalistic theme that carries throughout the design. The W700′s posterior is – minus a subtle Acer logo, pinhole-sized camera slot, and rubber strip running the length of the top – completely featureless. Chamfered edges of 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.

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The tablet’s sides are unremarkable. The W700 sports a standard array of accouterments, which on the right is a firm volume rocker, a power button with a two-color LED indicator, a 3.5” headphone jack, and more Acer branding. All of the buttons have, consistent with the tablet’s casing, a brushed metal finish. The left-side ports consist of 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 a textual reminder that the W700 has been “professionally tuned” by Dolby, Inc. (more on that later). Thunderbolt is nowhere to be found, sadly; though pre-production models included Intel’s super-fast data transfer technology, Acer decided to drop support for it at the last minute.

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The bottom and top of the W700 house nothing extraordinary. On the top are two perforated shafts, one for active cooling (with a fan that mostly operates at an acceptable decibel level), and the other for air dispersion. Two speakers in stereo configuration an a tiny microphone are on the bottom.

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In the hand, the W700 is best described it as “solid.” Its 2lbs heft is significant but not uncomfortable. I held it with both arms for hours in bed, and didn’t grow exceptionally 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, portability is one of the W700′s strong points; I formerly owned an HP TouchPad, and I find the W700 every bit as usable away from desks and tables.

The W700 shines as a tablet. Concededly, though, it looks and functions best in landscape orientation. It suffers from the same problem that all Windows 8 two-function tablets do: an elongated 16:9 design that is not at all conducive to portrait use. An iPad it’s not – you won’t be using this thing vertically.

Specs

The W700 is, without doubt, one of the most powerful Windows 8 tablets on the market. Equipped with a third generation Intel Core i5/i3 Intel processor, integrated HD 4000 graphics, and 4GB of RAM, the tablet flies in day-to-day use. An SSD – either 64GB or 128GB – only expedites things, making light to moderate tasks a breeze on the W700. Applications and programs open immediately and never stutter, and the tablet is the first Windows machine I’ve never dreaded shutting down or restarting – it boots up in six seconds max, thanks to the magic of UEFI. That’s by far the fastest I’ve seen on any tablet or smartphone.

Wireless-wise, the W700 has the usual array of tablet and PC hardware. Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi N are present (no cellular radios, unfortunately), as well as a gyroscope, a digital compass, and an accelerometer. Everything’s powered by a 4850 mAh battery which, in my experience, lasts an exceptional 6 ½ to 7 hours. That came as a surprise to me – 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 with my Android tablets.

The W700 has an unremarkable set of optics: a 5MP rear-facing camera and a 1.3MP front shooter. The quality is roughly on par with most tablet cameras, which is to say the photos it captures are usable but not outstanding. Performance in low light is extremely poor, with lots of grain and noise evident in the darker portions pictures. While fine for quick photos and videoconferencing, the cameras are subpar for the most part.

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In terms of display, the W700 is a surprisingly good value - it’s the least expensive 1080p Windows 8 tablet on the market. But Acer didn’t compromise quality for price, here. The full-HD IPS screen is simply gorgeous, with ultra-wide viewing angles, excellent black levels, and great brightness. While not quite the resolution or pixel density as, say, Apple’s fourth generation iPad or Samsung’s Nexus 10, it’s still a joy to look at. Graphics and text appear 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.

Performance

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 mouse or touch is a true joy. Transition animations are silky smooth, and most of the included Windows 8 applications perform to spec. I only had a chance to try two games from the Windows Marketplace – Shark Dash and Angry Birds – but both of them played fluidly.

On the W700, the Windows 8 desktop app on – which could be described as Windows 7 with opque windows and minor usability improvements – was as responsive as any desktop computer or Ultrabook. One of the games from my Steam library, Civilization V, ran marvelously (it’s optimized for HD 4000 graphics and touch control), and Office documents opened without a hiccup. (Note: Office doesn’t come preinstalled on the W700.) File transfers take little time, thanks to the SSD and USB 3.0. And navigating around Aero – snapping, dragging, and resizing Windows – is pretty lag-free.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though. I experienced a number of frustrating slowdowns on the W700, the worst of which occurred within Internet Explorer 10′s desktop interface. Image-heavy websites seemed to seriously bog the browser down, bringing scrolling to a crawl. Whether it be an issue with the integrated graphics or the browser itself, it was a disappointing issue to see on an an otherwise speedy device.

The W700 also seems to have some issues with Wi-Fi that. It doesn’t seem to like particular networks, sometimes dropping the connection without warning. Newer wireless drivers from Acer’s support website have helped to improve the problem, but not completely alleviate it.

These issues notwithstanding, the W700 performed above and beyond my expectations. Its beautiful screen, outstanding touch responsiveness, and speedy silicon were a joy to behold.

Included accessories

The W700 comes with extras. Lots of extras. Acer’s includes three accessories: a charging dock, a Bluetooth keyboard, and a faux-leather case that doubles as a stand.

Dock

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The idea of a dock is central to Acer’s vision of the W700’s use case. Cradled, it’s a desktop, a workspace. On the go, it’s more of a consumption device or light creation tool. While the W700 and dock may not fully exemplify that consolidative concept, they come pretty close.

The dock’s construction is, while less solid than the W700, not necessarily flimsy – just a lot more plastic. It is 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 arrange the dock in a portrait or landscape orientation. Sprayed a shade of silver slightly darker than the W700’s aluminum, it has two octagonal cut-outs (Acer calls them “sound tunnels”) designed to amplify the tablet’s stereo output (spoiler: they don’t), and a green LED to indicate power status.

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In back, the dock’s a bit thicker to accommodate three USB 3.0 ports, as well as a DC charging port. Acer’s cleverly segmented the USB and DC wiring from the W700, so that the USB ports can be used to charge other devices without the need for the tablet. It’s a welcome feature.

The nicest thing I can say about the dock is that it’s serviceable. It services the purpose of extending the W700′s ports and keeping it charged, which is good enough.

Keyboard

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The included keyboard bears an uncanny resemblance to Apple’s wireless keyboard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing from an aesthetic standpoint. Paired via Bluetooth, it takes double A batteries, and has a ugly-but-functional wireless/battery LED and a power toggle switch on the front.

It performs well. Packed a bit tighter than its Apple cousin (granted, it’s a bit smaller and lighter), the keys are chicklet style and responsive, if the slightest bit mushy – anyone who’s used a MacBook will feel right at home.

Software

The W700 runs Microsoft’s inchoate operating system, Windows 8. That’s “8″ and not “8 RT,” which is an important differentiation; unlike Microsoft’s own Surface tablet, which is ARM-based and therefore limited to a handful of applications from the Windows Marketplace, Acer’s device has x86 compatibility, meaning it is able to run both apps from the Windows Marketplace and legacy programs. It will run Unreal Tournament to CAD and everything in between. In that way, 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 tacks a touch-friendly user interface onto the traditional desktop UI. Built on the concept of “live spaces,” the new UI - the Start Screen - is populated with big, colorful tiles of various widths. They act as shortcuts to programs, but can also display 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 has embraced with the company’s latest iteration of smartphone and Xbox software, and a logical step forward. Why? The Millennial generation of consumers – those who’ve grown up in an era of constant connectivity and instant gratification - have short attention spans. They want information quickly, and Windows 8 gives it to them. That’s my pet theory, anyway.

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Seriously, though, the new UI is fairly intuitive. You swipe to the side to see more tiles, while touching and holding on tiles will allow you to resize, re-arrange, or remove them. Pinching will allow you to zoom out or in of your tile collection, allowing you to navigate faster. Swiping from edges of the display reveals one of two menus. The “charms” bar appears from the right, a persistent menu that allows you to share app content via e-mail or social network and search for any document, app, or setting, among other things. From the left, pictorial representation of apps running in the background appears, letting you quickly switch between them. 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), and swiping from the top of the screen down closes applications.

If that sounds like a lot to remember, it is. Still, Windows 8 accomplishes things more naturally than Android or iOS. When it comes to productivity and multitasking, Windows 8 truly shines. The desktop functions as it did in Windows 7, but what’s really nifty is the new “side-by-side” program feature - it’s now possible to select any concurrently running application and place it beside the foreground program. While of limited use when you’re in front of a keyboard and mouse, it’s a fantastic option for apps like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Anyone who’s dreamed of browsing the web while periodically glancing at their Newsfeed on a tablet will be more than satisfied.

Apps

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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. Mail, on the other hand, is a little bare. It’s the most stripped-down e-mail client I’ve ever encountered, with little customizability and no integration with third-party provider features. Maps and Messaging are half-baked and lacking; Maps lacks a laundry list of features and is about as functional as a traditional paper map, and Messaging seems to just duplicate the functionality of the People hub. As an Xbox Live companion, the Games app is interesting – it displays Avatar and friend activity, achievements, game progress, and messages in a visually attractive way. As a storefront for Windows 8 games, though, it’s disappointing - most of what it shows are ports of Android or iPad games. The Video application is a little more promising from a content standpoint – the quality was good, and the library extensive. 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 is great, especially on the W700′s screen. Unofficial apps for Google Reader and YouTube are surprisingly good, too; Nextgen Reader is a perfectly capable RSS manager, and YouTube+ manages to capture the YouTube experience well enough, but also throws in additional features, like video downloading. I’m certain the Windows Store will soon grow with time, but for now the offerings aren’t bad.

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All in all, I’ve found Windows 8 to be a satisfying OS. The desktop environment is, as it was in Windows 7, great for productivity, 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 represents the future of computing.

Conclusion

I, for the longest time, forwent a laptop. I thought an Android or WebOS device would suffice for my creation and entertainment needs, but quickly learned that I was wrong. While the Android tablets are fine for web browsing and light gaming, they’re no multitasking champs. Ever since this realization, I’ve been in search of a computer that could satisfy my my play and work requirements, something convergent. That seemed far out of reach a year or two ago, but the W700 seemed closest to the mark. I was expecting a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The W700 is, quite simply, the most complete device I’ve ever owned. Leveraging the power of Core i5 and Windows 8, it manages to fully integrate the desktop and tablet experience into a device that’s surprisingly capable, surprisingly fun, and happily one. I still get a kick out of plugging USB peripherals into it and installing x86 programs onto it. The form-factor and Windows 8 make it unique in a good way.

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 bought one of my own.

9.5

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