TABLETS. ULTRABOOKS. ACER.
Updated 10/02/13 – New rating
Everybody is waiting for the Surface Pro to come out here in Australia and push the iPad into its grave and laugh at the pathetic pretender Android tablets. To be sure, there is one major advantage in the Surface Pro – it’s got an x86 CPU. One issue – it’s going to be expensive. It’s priced more as an ultrabook than a tablet, and if you’re cool with that then it’s worth investigating. The Surface Pro will come with a Core i5 CPU. A lot of other Win8 tablets so far have come with Atom CPUs, which are true x86 CPUs but with limited performance. All of this is different to the Surface RT, which uses an ARM CPU which doesn’t run x86 applications. So this is the kind of device that could run Photoshop if you really wanted it to. Would you want to?
If you want to know what an i5 Win8 tablet like the Surface Pro can do, we already have a point of comparison. Enter Acer’s W700 tablet, which is more or less the Surface Pro minus the flashy looks and the digitiser screen. Otherwise it has the same resolution, came CPU, same RAM, but a cheaper price tag. The top end 128GB storage version (about 100GB of which is usable) runs at about $1060 AUD, which is probably about what the entry level Surface Pro will sell for whenever it turns up (or maybe it’ll sell for more) which only nets you 64GB of storage (half of which is usable).
Two notable differences – the W700 has no SD card slot at all, and doesn’t have a digitiser. That means you can’t use it like a graphics tablet with a precise pen. If you had dreams of running Photoshop to paint like a pro, put away the W700. It isn’t the tablet you’re looking for. Not having an SD card slot does net you negative points in my book, but unlike the Surface Pro at least the usable storage is spacious enough that you don’t positively, absolutely, unconditionally need that SD card slot just to do anything. Apart from those two differences, they’re more or less the same (particularly in terms of actual performance parts, like the CPU). So, what do we have here?
What is it?
It’s an i5 tablet running Windows 8, as we’ve already discussed. It sports an 11.6” screen with a resolution of 1920×1080, with a 1.7ghz processor with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB HDD (in this configuration). In terms of ports you’ve got one USB 3.0 port, a micro HDMI port, and a headphone jack. Apart from the tablet itself, you get a fake leather case (which folds into a stand), a docking cradle, reinstall media (no recovery partition, which is why you get more space), a micro HDMI to VGA adapter, and in some packages you also get a Bluetooth keyboard. For some reason, I didn’t get a Bluetooth keyboard. I guess my package didn’t include it. But never mind.
The tablet itself isn’t fanless – it has two grilles along the top edge which are used to vent out heat, and we’ll get to the fans a little later on. It’s almost 10mm thick (slightly thicker than a USB port) and it’s a tad heavy to hold. You can hold it but I’ve found it a bit uncomfortable to hold for extended periods. It doesn’t help that this 16:9 screen doesn’t really lend itself to being a handheld device, unlike an iPad or one of the six trillion Android tablets these days. The dock is… well, it’s not necessarily bad but it looks ugly. It expands the single USB port into three, and has a passthrough for AC charging. No HDMI passthrough – the port on the tablet remains free to use. The dock comes in two pieces – the stand can fit into the dock itself in three different ways to set it up in two landscape modes and one portrait mode. It also comes with helpful pictorial instructions: “Do not snap this in two, you dumb shit.” Nice inclusion, but a little tacky.
It’s an i5 tablet! It’s like having an ultrabook that you can carry around with you. Performance was very good and makes the Surface RT look like a sad joke. Everything is quicker and snappier. There’s enough grunt here for most of your daily tasks, but I wouldn’t lean too heavily on it to run Photoshop or AutoCAD or something like that (and no, the Surface Pro isn’t likely to be much better in terms of performance). You can of course try it but I don’t think you’d find it particularly great. The 128GB SSD has about 100GB useable – there’s no recovery partition, Acer instead bundle a recovery DVD (which I prefer). Office 2013 loaded incredibly quickly and worked exceptionally well. It performs very well at media playback and pretty much anything else you’d care to use it with. Simply outstanding.
I was even able to play a few games – Legend of Grimrock ran at 1920×1080 at low detail (but high textures), and Civilization V ran at 1920×1080 on the lowest settings and was playable. It’s not a dedicated gaming machine, but it can do a few things. The screen resolution and the display itself are great and look sharp. It’s nice and bright and fantastic to look at. Battery life is also superb for an i5 tablet – about 7 hours in general usage. Poor compared to an iPad, but outstanding for a proper x86 system. On the whole it’s an incredibly snappy tablet with enough grunt to perform a whole host of tasks, and you actually get to use most of the SSD. Can’t say the same for most other tablets (or the Surface Pro).
There’s no digitiser. That is actually a big issue because trying to use your fingers at 1920×1080 is practically impossible, and I have slender medic’s hands. It’s frustrating and you need to be ultra-precise. Since Windows 8’s desktop scaling still isn’t exceptionally good (it’s better, but still looks ugly with some apps) it can be quite difficult to manipulate things on the desktop. I’d say scaling to 150% is essential, but at that scale you lose so much screen real-estate that it might as well not be a 1080p screen. Since there’s no digitiser you’re stuck with trying to repurpose those iPad-style styluses, and they’re nowhere near as accurate as a pen and digitiser combo. It’s a real problem.
The fans are also an issue. They kick in at the slightest provocation, and they’re not that quiet. In a noisy environment you won’t hear them, but in a quiet room you definitely will. So much as turning the tablet on can be enough to activate them. The tablet doesn’t seem to get overly hot (it does warm up though) so they are doing their job, but they’re way too loud. I don’t expect an i5 system to be totally silent, especially crammed into such a small case, but I don’t expect them to sound as loud as they do. It’s not only disconcerting to hear a tablet making such a noise, it’s distracting and annoying.
Overall: Good (Revised)
The W700 is one of what will likely be many i5 tablets that will be vomited forth from the various retailers in the coming year. The Surface Pro may be leading the charge but there will be cheaper options, and possibly better options at that. In terms of hardware, the W700 is great. It has that i5 power which lets it perform very well at a multitude of tasks, and it’s good enough that you could probably ditch your laptop. Acer’s decision not to use a recovery partition is a wise one, and I’d hope more people would embrace that route. It’s great being able to restore a tablet so easily, but at the cost of so much space? No way. From a performance perspective, and considering what you get for the price, the W700 is hard to beat.
But there are two significant issues. Firstly, any small screen like this needs a digitiser for it to be useable at 1920×1080. It’s just not practical to use fingers, the UI elements are hilariously small and impossible to use reliably. Not having a digitiser and pen seems like a major oversight, and makes life unnecessarily difficult. But you can sort of get by with a capacitive stylus designed for an iPad if you pick out a really good one. The fans are the biggest problem though – they’re too loud, kick in too easily, and are far too distracting. Yes, an i5 tablet isn’t going to be silent. Heat just doesn’t disappear. But other tablets can manage to do it with quieter results and fans that don’t kick in when I’m just viewing a webpage.
I think the problem with it (and maybe with most of the i5 tablets) is that they’re falling between ultrabooks and tablets. The W700 doesn’t work so well as a tablet, where “tablet” refers to what we’ve seen with iPads and Android tablets. It’s too big, too heavy, and too awkward, and the fans are annoying. But it is way more capable than any of those devices. It also doesn’t do well as an ultrabook – it’s still awkward to use and needs a dock and keyboard which even then need a table or similar surface. But it’s much more portable and comparable in performance. I doubt you’d find it comfortable to hold the W700 in your hand for an extended period, but propped up on your knees it’s fine. But falling in “Not quite good as a tablet, not quite good as a laptop” territory isn’t a good place to be. Atom tablets swing more towards the tablet zone, while the Surface Pro or the Asus Transformer line swing more towards ultrabook with their included keyboards. The W700 doesn’t seem to fit either side well.
So do I recommend it? It’s hard to say. Acer did give me a lot of stuff but a lot of it isn’t particularly great. The tablet from a performance perspective is awesome, and again at the asking price it’s pretty decent. But it doesn’t work well as a tablet. It doesn’t work well as an ultrabook. That makes it a challenging device to recommend, because chances are there are better options out there which work better. The W700 is a bit too heavy, lacks a digitiser (essential at this resolution) and lacks any suitable peripherals to convert it into an ultrabook.
EDIT: Originally I gave this a “Pass” rating, namely due to the issues with heat and the size of it. The fans do bother me but I’m becoming accustomed to the size. It does make it a lot more usable in some ways – there’s more screen real-estate and the sheer power behind the tablet (with its excellent battery life) honestly do make a big difference, especially after comparing it with an Atom tablet. This is basically an ultrabook that you can toss into your bag and use anywhere, and probably makes the ultrabook form factor pointless. The dock isn’t so good, the fake-leather case adds a lot more weight to it (surprisingly, the case really does make it too difficult to hold), and it sorely needs a digitiser (though after playing with a ThinkPad Tablet 2, it hasn’t made much of a difference, a mouse is still better). Given the price and how great the base hardware is, giving it a Pass mark isn’t sufficient. It really is a good tablet, let done by having no digitiser. Being a bit too heavy and too large compared to most other tablets shouldn’t be enough to drag the rating down.