We tested a preproduction version of Acer's W700 Windows 8 tablet, which Acer officially announced last week, promising a ship date of October 26 in the US and Canada. UK availability has not yet been announced, but it shouldn't be much after the US launch, and some UK retailers are already taking orders.
I've been using the Acer W700 Windows 8 tablet for over a week now, and the experience has been a revelation. Indeed, if you've been judging Windows 8 based on how well the RTM version works on a traditional desktop PC, you haven't been privy to the full OS experience.
Until I began using the W700, my Window 8 experience consisted of playing with the OS on a non-touch laptop, and spending a scant few minutes with it on random tablets and hybrids at press events. But now that I've devoted some serious quality time to the W700, I can report that the operating system breaks compelling new ground.
In fact, Windows 8 might even disrupt the mobile space if consumers deign to give Microsoft a fighting chance.
Interested? Intrigued? Maybe even a little frustrated or angry because Microsoft might actually be doing something right? First let me tell you about Acer's new hardware, then I'll get into the nitty-gritty of how Windows 8 performs as a tablet OS.
Not the hybrid you're looking for
Despite all the hubbub over Windows 8 hybrids, my first extended Windows 8 experience comes from using a pure tablet device - albeit one with bundled accessories designed for laptop-like productivity.
The W700 boasts an 11.6-inch, 1920-by-1080-pixel display whose viewing quality ranks somewhere between that of the iPad 2 and that of the new iPad, due in part to the Acer tablet's pixel density of 190 pixels per inch (versus 132 ppi for the iPad 2 and 264 ppi for the new iPad). And with a 16:9 aspect ratio, the W700's rich, vivid IPS display offers a generous expanse of screen real estate that's perfect for 1080p video playback, and makes you think, "Hmm, it sure would be nice if my iPad's screen extended this far horizontally."
Our test model's specs put it at the high end of the W700's configuration range, with such Ultrabook-caliber components as a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor capable of turbo bursts of up to 2.6GHz; 4GB of memory; and a 128GB solid-state drive. This hardware profile runs a pricey $999 in the US, with a UK premium to come no doubt, but that bitter brew might be easier to swallow if you consider the W700's mission to deliver a tablet and a work PC in a single package.
Though the W700 doesn't directly attach to a keyboard the way a newfangled hybrid would, it comes with a sturdy cradle that positions the tablet at a 70-degree angle, much like the screen of an open clamshell laptop. The bundle also includes a matching Bluetooth keyboard that never dropped a keystroke or exhibited any lag during multiple periods of extended typing.
Pair the cradled tablet with its keyboard buddy, and you have a serviceable Windows workstation. It's by no means a perfect productivity system - more about that later - and, sure, many W700 owners will inevitably experience that "Doh!" moment when they discover they never packed the keyboard in their carry-on. Nonetheless, as a total package, the W700 offers much more productivity potential than any Android or Apple tablet.
I found the W700's styling a bit too blingy. The tablet itself looked classy enough: It's mostly touchscreen and aluminium unibody, so how flamboyant could it be? Still, I'm not a fan of the sparkly silver accents and stark, white plastic on the cradle and the keyboard. To its credit, the tablet exhibited no flex when I attempted to bend it in half (sorry, Acer, I had to try!), and the device's overall build quality gave me confidence in its long-term durability.
At 0.47 inches thick, the W700 easily satisfies Intel's Ultrabook spec, but it's a bit thicker than the new iPad. The W700 feels noticeably heavier than the new iPad, but the extra heft didn't seem excessive, perhaps because the weight scales evenly with the extra screen real estate.
As far as data ports and other points of interest on the hardware slab, the W700 offers a bit more than most Android tablets, and much more than the iPad, including one full-size USB 3.0 port, a Micro HDMI port, and a headphone/speaker combo jack. The tablet's 5-megapixel rear camera shoots 1080p video, while its front-facing camera (megapixel count not disclosed) shoots 720p. Unspectacular stereo speakers are located at the bottom of the device, and a physical Windows Start screen button sits smack dab in the middle of the lower bezel.
Maybe that button is there for people who'll never get used to Windows 8's new touch controls. I'm not one of these people.
New take on touch tabletry
One of Android's best qualities is that it offers more customisation options and power-user features than iOS. But Windows 8 offers even greater depth of user control. The time I spent with the W700 in its pure "Windows 8 style" tablet mode showed me that the big brains in Redmond are introducing some real innovations to the greater touch-control lexicon.
The split-screen view is one of my favourite new tricks. The OS supports full multitasking, and with a specific finger swipe maneuver, you can open two different Windows 8 apps on screen. For example, your Mail app can occupy the left pane (which is fixed at roughly one-quarter of the display) while Internet Explorer can sit in the right pane (which dominates the screen). If you like, you can flip their positions, moving the skinnier pane to the right side.
Another neat trick: To switch between open apps, simply drag your finger from the left side of the screen. Its the Windows 8 version of Alt-Tab, and once again demonstrates just how powerful - and fun - the system is relative to the competition. To see a thumbnail filmstrip of all of your open apps, quickly drag your finger right and then left, from the left edge of the screen. To access the Windows 8 "charms" bar - a centralised home for search, sharing, and settings functions, among others - swipe in from the right bezel.
All these touch manoeuvres became second nature once I learned them, but they're not intuitive from the giddy-up, and they're difficult to describe in words. This could emerge as a public relations pain point for Microsoft. If the company is smart, it will build a force-run demo video into Windows 8 - something that pops up the first time someone turns on the new hardware.
The demo video would inevitably be met with crushing criticism - oh, imagine the glorious memes! - but Microsoft needs some practical way of teaching users these unintuitive (but ultimately simple) controls.
Challenging learning curves aside, I found the W700's touch controls quick, fluid, and responsive. Screen redraws never lagged or stuttered, and the hardware seemed well-equipped to handle the requirements of the OS. We didn't run any benchmarks on our preproduction unit, but if a Core i5 and 4GB of memory can't boss a tablet OS around like a schoolyard bully, Microsoft has serious optimization problems.
The Windows 8 Start screen is an engaging alternative to Android and iOS. Much like Android widgets, Windows 8 "live tiles" place dynamic, real-time updates for various apps on top of your main user interface. For example, the Weather tile shows current local conditions, and the News tile shows a recent headline along with a photo. But Android widgets lack any real design constraints, and the result is a home screen that sometimes resembles a visual circus. In contrast, live tiles conform to simple design rules that foster a more sober and sophisticated look.
Of course, the new Start screen is far from perfect. For one thing, without resorting to third-party utilities, a user who wants to boot straight into the system's desktop mode can't bypass the Start screen. And as Paul Allen recently pointed out, the Start screen has no hierarchical nesting system - so if you have a huge collection of apps, you may find yourself scrolling ad nauseam to find a particular live tile.
Still, throughout my week of hands-on work with the W700, I found the Start screen to be a pleasant, effective new take on a tablet-optimised user interface, and Windows 8 to be a winning tablet OS. Microsoft's built-in Mail, Calendar, and Internet Explorer apps are stripped-down versions of their desktop counterparts, but they more than sufficed to meet my relatively modest tablet productivity expectations.
All of which brings us to the question of how the W700 and Windows 8 performed in desktop mode. It was far better than some critics have made it out to be, but a device like this definitely presents some compromises.
Next page: The Acer W700 and desktop mode >>