Acer Iconia Tab W500 £529
24th Mar 2011 | 11:00
Can a Windows 7 tablet with keyboard replace the netbook?
Acer Iconia Tab W500: Overview
Tablet or notebook? It's a question not only for the new Acer Iconia Tab W500, but for anyone looking to buy a new portable PC at the moment.
Tablets are clearly all the rage; you only need to look at the excitement surrounding the launch of the Apple iPad 2. Many perceive these tablets as holding the key to moving mobile computing forward.
The problem is, tablets aren't particularly productive devices. They're about watching movies or listening to music. They're about surfing the web on your sofa, or reading a book in a hammock. Tablets are about entertainment. They're rarely about actually creating the content that they are consuming.
Anyone looking to do work or create content on the move is generally limited to using a standard computer.
There is a place for showing reports using a tablet, or for extreme working conditions where a keyboard isn't practical, but in the most part, we're limited to netbooks and notebooks.
This is something Acer is looking to challenge with the release of the Iconia Tab W500. Here is a machine that bridges the gap between the aesthetics of a tablet and functionality of a netbook.
This 10.1-inch tablet not only ships with a keyboard dock (which costs £80 extra - £529 with keyboard, £449 without it) to afford it more sensible working credentials, but it also comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, which means you can use all the applications that you use on a normal desktop on the Iconia Tab W500 without any more fuss.
There's no need here to learn how to fight your away around an unwieldy app store full of unknown names. This machine will handle the applications, utilities and tools that you know and love - the likes of Microsoft Word and Excel, Paint.net as well as media players such as VLC, and security programs like McAfee AntiVirus Plus.
There are no worries about whether it supports Flash or Java either, as they just work. It has no problems running with system specific plug-ins either, as the likes of Unity simply install and run flawlessly too.
And while Apple may be crowing about the capabilities of the new PowerVR graphics engine in the iPad 2, there are still slim pickings when it comes to actual games that fully exploit the machine.
The PC however is awash with great games, including some of the finest titles ever created on any platform - Half Life 2, Diablo and Civilization to name but a few. And all these games will run on the Iconia Tab W500.
This makes the decision to side with Microsoft for the operating system compelling, although this isn't the only option out there. Apple's iOS isn't about to appear on a third party machine, but the imminent release of Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) for tablets must surely have tempted Acer as well. While it lacks the straight compatibility that Microsoft Windows OS offers, it does potentially make for a more suited OS for day-to-day tasks.
Acer Iconia Tab W500: Features and performance
The keyboard cum docking station of the Iconia Tab W500 is an interesting idea.
The chiclet-style keyboard is comfortable to use and roomy. The inclusion of standard notebook function shortcuts is welcome, and if you're going to be doing any extended typing, it's a far more comfortable experience that using the onscreen keyboard - which under Windows 7 never quite seems to be the right size to be easy to use.
You'll find a pair of USB ports either side of the keyboard, along with an Ethernet port on the left-hand side of the machine.
We're less convinced about 'nipple' mouse though, and you'll be more tempted to tap the screen to get what you want. This does highlight a problem with the docked Iconia Tab W500 though, and that is it's back heavy in place, and rocks easily with the slightest touch.
There is a temptation with this design to fold the screen forward on top of the keyboard, but the holding mechanism doesn't support this, and will actually break the connectors if pushed.
The actual connection mechanism is fairly basic - the keyboard plugs into the Iconia Tab W500's single USB port and is held in place by a pair of prongs either side of this port. It's a simple design, but lacks the finesse of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer.
You can clip the keyboard in place on top of the screen for transportation, although this does add to the bulk considerably, so is unlikely to be something you'd want to do often.
The keyboard dock and Windows 7 installation aren't the only shout out feature features for the Iconia Tab W500 though, as this is also the first outing for a new processor from AMD.
The blandly titled AMD T-50 may not sound like much, but it's actually a new member of the AMD Fusion processor family. This is a dual-core processor running at 1GHz. The CPU is a little underpowered compared to most normal notebooks, managing a score of 0.33pts in Cinebench 11 and 1.97fps using the X264 HD benchmark.
ACER RING:Acer includes its own software overlay, called Acer Ring, to access your media. It kept crashing for us though
Raw processor power has been sacrificed in order to keep the power usage down, and AMD claims a thermal design power (or TDP) of just 9W for the T-50.
That said, we only managed four and a quarter hours of battery life (258 minutes to be exact), out of the Iconia Tab W500 when playing back HD movies. You'll get up to twice that with less demanding tasks, but we would have expected more from the machine.
This is only part of the story for this Fusion chip though, as aside from the traditional processor core, AMD has also squeezed a Radeon HD 6250 graphics core into the processor as well.
This is a DirectX 11 GPU, which means that in theory at least, it can handle all of the latest games. In practice it lacks the raw power to do so, but it does produce reasonable enough performance to handle slightly older games at lower settings.
3DMark06 managed a score of 1,589, while the older 3DMark03 produced a result of 3,991. We even tried running a recent game on the Iconia Tab W500, Rift, which was playable at the minimum settings, which isn't to be sniffed at.
The Acer Iconia Tab W500 has a huge bezel, but does boast a beautiful 10.1-inch screen with a native resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels.
This is fine for watching back HD video, something that the Fusion T-50 processor ably coped with. Images are bright, colours vivid and the viewing angles are excellent (something that the Advent Vega can't claim). The sound quality is merely passable meanwhile, although there is a headphone jack if you want to listen to music or watch a film.
The rest of the specification is reasonable - there's 2GB of RAM as standard, along with 32GB of storage space for Windows and your files - not exactly a lot. WiFi support is integrated into the main unit, and wired Ethernet coming from the docking station.
We did find that the Wi-Fi connection was more prone to disconnects than other devices we've used though, and it kept dropping the connection as we moved around. It was much more stable in the dock.
When we first used the machine, there was a notable lagginess to every operation - even pressing the Windows Start button instigated a 3 second wait before the menu appeared. After a few updates, this behaviour disappeared and the machine was a lot more responsive in every area bar one.
Redrawing the display to accommodate a change in the orientation of the Iconia Tab W500 takes at least five seconds to redraw, which is infuriating. This will have you reaching for the orientation lock on the base of the unit, which does negate the usefulness of its tablet form factor somewhat.
A far more fundamental problem for Acer though, is that Windows 7 simply isn't designed for tablets. Yes it supports four touch points, but icons are too small, double-clicking isn't so easy, and the default Windows menu system is simply unworkable.
Acer has had a good stab at the hardware, but much of this is completely undermined by its choice of OS. Yes it offers great compatibility with your existing applications and data, but at an unsuitable cost to the end user experience.
With Windows 7 installed, the keyboard dock is the only real way to use the Iconia Tab W500, which negates its tablet leanings. After using the machine with Windows 7, it simply makes us lust after a Honeycomb version.
Acer Iconia Tab W500: Verdict
The Acer Iconia Tab W500 is a frustrating tablet. From a hardware perspective it ticks a lot of the right boxes, and apart from the surprisingly large bezel, it's an attractive enough machine - although not in the same league as the Apple iPad 2 by any means.
The decision to go with a keyboard dock isn't the most logic thing to do with a tablet, but it does work to a certain degree - and means you'll get a bit more life out of this tablet than you would many others.
The familiarity of Windows 7. There's no need for an app store, specific builds or worries about whether it supports Flash. Everything you know and use on a daily basis simply works - including your games catalog.
The screen is bright, clear and vivid and offers great viewing angles. The native resolution of 1,280 x 800 makes watching HD video a delight as well.
The AMD Fusion processor is powerful enough for simple tasks, and the inclusion of a DX11 graphics core is impressive
Windows 7 is horrendously frustrating on tablets. The icons are too small, menus are unworkable, the soft keyboard is cramped and there's so much that is simply bloated and unnecessary that even the simplest of tasks is difficult. Windows 7 is great on desktops and laptops, but it shouldn't go anywhere near a tablet.
The screen refresh on turning the screen around is woeful. You'll lock the tablet in landscape mode and never want to change it. This hardly plays to the strengths of the tablet design.
The keyboard dock is a little light and flimsy, so that when the tablet is in place, the whole unit is back heavy and is prone to tipping.
The problem for Acer is its choice of operating system - Windows 7 wasn't designed for use on a tablet, and it really shows.
You only need look at a tablet running Android or an iPad running iOS to see how it should be done - and it's nothing like this. We understand the sentiment, but if you need this level of compatibility, you should really be using a notebook, or a desktop and uploading your files onto a cheaper, more usable tablet than this.