Acer Iconia W4 £299
28th Feb 2014 | 15:40
Windows 8.1 tablet is highly evolved
While the W3 proved that it was possible to squeeze Windows into a miniature microslab's frame, its deficiencies made it difficult to care. Sporting a grainy, low-quality display powered by an underwhelming Intel Clover Trail CPU, it didn't so much scream 'first-gen' as shout it from the rooftops.
Its successor makes improvements in several key areas in a bid to take on newer, flashier entrants in the eight-inch category - including the Toshiba Encore and the Dell Venue 8 Pro - as well as Lenovo's business-focused ThinkPad 8.
Once again, the device comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 thrown into the mix, meaning you can get access to Word, PowerPoint and Excel (but not Outlook) using a supplied code.
The Acer Iconia W4 is powered by a fourth-generation Intel Atom Bay Trail processor clocked at 1.8GHz that's backed up by 2GB of RAM, which is a small amount compared to what you would find in most laptops, or even high-end smartphones.
That's set to change. Intel's upcoming 64-bit Atom processors are due to arrive in smaller tablets soon, something that was recently confirmed by Microsoft. As such, future tablets will come with 4GB of RAM, providing a much-needed speed boost. If Acer makes an Iconia W5, it could be one of the first.
The Acer Iconia W4 is available now with 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, along with an RRP of $299 (around AUS$334) and $349.99 (AUS$390) respectively.
In the UK, the 32GB model can be picked up for around £250 from Amazon (£299 for the 64GB model). Staples is also offering the 32GB version for £250 and is running a promotion until April that can net you up to £250 for trading in your old netbook, notebook or tablet.
If you're unsure which capacity model to go for, be warned that the 32GB version's SSD comes with just 15GB of usable free space out of the box. As such, you might want to consider picking up a microSD card to expand your storage by up to 32GB.
Be warned though: Windows 8.1 can be finicky about what apps you can install and run on a microSD card, so if you know that you'll be installing large apps - such as Steam games - opting for the larger capacity model wouldn't be such a bad idea.
So has the Taiwain-based company morphed its Iconia W3 into a dream Windows 8.1 tablet? Or has it remained eight inches of pure nightmare? Continue reading our review of the Acer Iconia W4 to find out.
Design and display
The Acer Iconia W4's display is a vast improvement over its predecessor's, serving up strong contrast levels, decent brightness and even colour reproduction with deep blacks. An IPS variant, it lives up to Acer's 170-degree viewing angle claims and is suitable for watching Netflix or sharing other content with a friend.
In fact, it's one of the best screens on an eight-inch tablet to date, with 'punchier' colours compared to the Dell Venue 8 Pro and the Toshiba Encore. It uses what Acer calls 'Zero Air Gap' technology, which apparently removes the air between the tough panel and the LCD module to reduce reflections and improve readability under bright sunlight.
That isn't too far off the mark. With the exception of bright ceiling lights indoors, the display copes with reflections well. Outdoor readability is good, but doesn't quite match the high standards set by the Nokia Lumia 2520.
Acer has stuck with the tried-and-tested 1280x800-pixel resolution common across eight-inch Windows tablets. It's a suitable choice for the device's size, providing adequate real estate for interacting with desktop applications and Windows 8.1 apps without running into scaling issues.
That's not to say that a higher resolution display wouldn't be appreciated. With a PPI (pixels-per-inch) of 186, the Iconia W4 falls far behind the likes of Apple's iPad Mini with Retina (326ppi) and even a number of seven-inch Android tablets, including the 1080p-toting Nexus 7 (2013) and the Tesco Hudl (242ppi), which costs half the price.
The Acer Iconia W4 is similar to the Iconia W3 in terms of design, save for a few modifications that lend it a more premium feel. The most noticeable difference is that the Iconia W3's almost childish-looking white bezel is now a brushed metallic shade, lending it a moodier, 'serious business' feel.
Acer has opted to keep the tactile Windows button, which I find preferable to the touch-sensitive, haptic feedback variants found on other tablets. It's easier to press without looking and makes it easier to take screenshots, if that's what you're into.
To pit it against similarly-sized adversaries, it's 85g lighter than the Iconia W3 and is more portable than the Dell Venue 8 Pro (395g) and Toshiba Encore (445g). As such, you won't mind throwing it into a bag to take on your travels, and its lightweight nature makes it just as easy handle in portrait mode as landscape.
At 11mm, it's a little thicker than Apple's iPad Mini with Retina, but it never feels cumbersome to hold thanks to rounded corners and even weight distribution.
Windows 8.1 and apps
The Acer Iconia W4 ships with Windows 8.1, which lets you install both desktop Windows programs and apps from the Microsoft Windows 8.1 Store.
This first update to Windows 8 brings some genuinely useful improvements, including multi-monitor support, more flexible snapping of apps side-by-side, a search option that looks further afield to find files and tighter integration with Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage service. You can find out more about Windows 8.1 in our in-depth review here.
The Acer Iconia W4 also comes with a fair amount of bloatware - third party apps that you might want to consider uninstalling to free up space on the device.
There's a few that might hold your attention for a short while, however - including Music Maker Jam, a music creation app that lets you compose songs by triggering samples in different orders - and ChaCha, a "human-guided search engine" that can answer questions about the tablet and Windows 8.1 for newcomers to Microsoft's latest OS.
Other third-party apps include Booking.com, Zinio reader, Didlr, Evernote Touch, Freshpaint, StumbleUpon, Accuweather and Netflix.
Amazon's Kindle app is another that you might want to keep. It takes advantage of the Iconia W4's improved screen, as well as its decent brightness, contrast and lightweight nature. Whether catching up with a book while on the beach or lolling around the living room, it makes for a decent reading experience.
Acer apps installed off the bat include Acer Media, Acer Photo, Acer Explorer, Acer Docs, Acer Photos, Acer Games and Acer Scrapboard. You'll be asked to update them the first time you connect to the internet, a download that totalled 123.26MB, which is hardly excessive.
Ports and connectivity
The Acer Iconia W4 keeps the same basic port selection as the Iconia W3, offering a solitary micro-USB connection for peripherals (you'll need a converter to hand), microSD slot, micro-HDMI port and headphone jack.
It means you'll have to pair a couple of Bluetooth peripherals to use with the device if you're not keen on using its touchscreen or on-screen keyboard.
Until Acer and other manufacturers go the whole hog and start to bake full-sized USB ports into eight-inch Windows tablets, you could go down the slightly unconventional route of using an external keyboard with built-in USB ports.
I hooked up Apple's full-sized QWERTY iMac keyboard using a micro-USB converter, which gave me two extra USB ports for connecting a USB mouse and headphones - even if the pairing looked more than a little bit odd.
Another option is to use Acer's Crunch Keyboard, the Iconia W4's official accessory. Made from leather, it measures 5.33mm and folds out to be used as a stand. It connects to the device using Bluetooth 3.0 and is rechargeable via micro-USB. There's also a Crunch Cover that folds into multiple angles, in addition to a Power Bank that can add up to four hours of battery life.
Unfortunately we couldn't get our hands on those accessories, but we managed to successfully pair the Iconia W3's Bluetooth keyboard, which fits the Iconia W4's dimensions and worked perfectly.
Along the device's top ridge is a micro-HDMI port for hooking the Iconia W4 up to larger displays using an appropriate cable or convertor. We had no problems connecting the device up to a 1080p monitor to view websites and play back full-HD video on YouTube, which streamed with no noticeable stutter.
Camera and media
Such are the dimensions of phablets that holding up an eight-inch tablet to take an image doesn't leave you looking quite as daft as it did a few years ago.
It's good job, then, that the Acer Iconia W4 features a fairly competent five-megapixel front camera capable of taking crisp, well-saturated images in daylight. Images become a little harder to make out in lower light conditions due to the absence of a flash.
If you're a budding smartphone photographer, you won't be wanting to ditch your iPhone 5S or Nokia 1520 any time soon, but the Iconia W4's rear snapper is certainly a step above the lacklustre equivalent cameras found on Microsoft's Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets. It can also shoot 1080p video at 30 frames per second.
The front-facing camera is something of a different matter, lowering the megapixel count to two, which is adequate for Skype sessions or Google Hangouts but little else.
Battery life and performance
Cinebench (OpenGL): 6.21
Cinebench (CPU): 1.16
PC Mark Home Battery Life: 8 hours 30 minutes
3DMark (Ice): 13905
3DMark (Cloud Gate): 1188
3DMark (Fire Strike): Would not run
The Acer Iconia W3 had good battery life, so we were confident that the Iconia W4's would last around the 10-hour mark. It didn't disappoint.
We managed to squeeze out more than nine hours from its 4,960mAH battery by putting it through a benchmark test that continually loops video playback and opens and closes apps until power is depleted.
Processing power is a mixed bag. Even with a fairly low 2GB of RAM, the tablet zips along nicely thanks to it housing a speedy SSD. Windows 8.1 apps run without a hitch, but it's a different story once demanding desktop programs come into the fold.
You won't run into too much trouble with one or two desktop applications open - you can run several Office apps simultaneously, for example - without experiencing any impact on performance.
Open four or five desktop apps, however, in addition to a few from the Microsoft Store, and you'll start to experience frozen windows, lag and, if you're low on storage space, lengthy lock-ups.
Simply put, the Iconia W4 won't meet the needs of power users needing to do anything more demanding than casual web browsing, word processing, social media or using Microsoft Store apps. However, as a day-to-day companion device for completing PC tasks on the go, it's perfectly up to the task.
Gaming on the desktop
The Acer Iconia W4 barely breaks a sweat when running apps from Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Store, but what if you're after a bit of desktop gaming on the go? You won't be privy to anything like the performance offered by Intel Core i-series processors, but its Atom-based variant puts up an admirable fight if you curb expectations.
After installing FRAPS to monitor frame rates, we were able to get an average frames per second (FPS) reading over a 60-second gameplay period. To see how fast games could potentially run, we ran two tests - one with the resolution set to the Iconia W4's native 1280x800 resolution, and one with it set to the lowest resolution supported by the game.
We chose Skyrim, Left4Dead and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 to test a range of graphics engines, and all tests were run with all quality and detail settings tuned to the lowest available.
First up, Skyrim was almost completely unplayable at the W4's native resolution, resulting in a slideshow that made its in-game chickens look as deadly as Frost Trolls.
The two games driven by Valve's ageing Source engine, on the other hand, served up an adequate gameplay experience that was even quite enjoyable. Left4Dead occasionally lagged with multiple zombies on the screen, occasionally dipping to as low as 22FPS, but hovered merrily around the 40FPS mark for most of the time.
Similarly, Counter Strike: Source fared well apart from when multiple flash-bangs and grenades filled the screen with particle effects.
Lowering the resolution to 800 x 600 resulted in a much smoother gameplay experience across all three games, but it meant having to put up with a 4:3 aspect ratio and lower image quality.
Skyrim still struggled, hovering around the 25FPS mark. Though on the borderline of playability, attempting any tactical nous in the head of battle was still incredibly difficult. It's not the way that the game was intended to be played, but if Acer's next tablet can provide a healthy 10FPS to 15FPS boost, that could completely change.
Left4Dead and CS:Source, on the other hand, fared very well, and will satisfy even the most ardent performance purists looking for some portable Source engine gaming on the go. However, it's worth sacrificing the FPS in those two games to run at the W4's native resolution.
To really put the Iconia W4 through its paces, we attempted to run the heavily CPU-dependent Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (out of morbid curiosity, more than anything). As you'll be able to tell by the graph below, two words sum up the game's performance on the tablet: don't bother.
Arguably, one of the most exciting aspects of eight-inch tablets for gamers is the promise of playing Steam's growing library of indie titles on the go. Be warned, however, that coming with the 'indie' tag doesn't mean that games will automatically run as smooth as butter.
Popular platformer Limbo, for example, despite coming in at a mere 98MB, only managed a measly 14FPS running at the device's native resolution, meaning you won't be able to traverse its tricky time-based jumping sections (all of the game, then) without tearing your hair out.
Hands on gallery
The Acer Iconia W4 undoubtedly improves upon last year's eight-inch debutant, even surpassing competitors that have been outed in that time.
However, despite being one of the best tablets in its category, it already feels ready for an upgrade, as if it's simply there to fill a void before the next wave of devices hits the shelves.
Which it is, of course. With tablets packing 64-bit Intel processors and 4GB of RAM on the way, you'll have to consider how badly you want an eight-inch Windows 8.1 tablet at this moment in time.
On the flip side, if you do pick one up now, you'll be getting 8-inches of capable Windows goodness for a decent price. Future iterations aren't likely to come in at such an affordable price point.
There's a lot to like about the Iconia W4 - from its impressive screen to its plentiful battery life. It may lack the processing power of an Ultrabook, but it'll keep going for just as long - and it's much lighter and more portable.
With its brushed aluminium finish, it looks pretty cool too. It doesn't really feel like a business or consumer device, which is probably what Acer was aiming for, with many corporate types bringing their own devices to work these days.
Pair a Bluetooth keyboard (or one with USB) and you're good to sit down and get your teeth stuck into some serious productivity work thanks to the inclusion of Office. Entertainment features are just as plentiful, whether you're into watching movies, dabbling with Microsoft Store apps or playing some less-demanding Windows games.
Most of our misgivings with the Acer Iconia W4 are the same as those we had with the Iconia W3 - namely underwhelming processing power, a lack of ports and (particularly in the 32GB model) a serious lack of onboard storage space.
There's also room for improvement when it comes to the display. Sure, it's packing adequate realestate, but in a world where high-PPI 'Retina'-type displays are working their way onto more devices than ever before, jagged text and UI elements aren't going to cut it for much longer.
If you pick up the Acer Iconia W4 tomorrow, you're unlikely to be disappointed. It can perform a far wider range of tasks than your average iPad or Android tablet thanks to the inclusion of Windows 8.1 and the ability to install legacy Windows programs.
However, you would be better off with one of the aforementioned platforms if you're looking for a more 'classic' app-driven tablet experience. If that's the case, a sharper screen and beefier processor can be found in Apple's iPad Mini with Retina.
Neither is it suitable as a full-on laptop or PC replacement if you're looking to run demanding programs requiring greater processing and graphical requirements.
But as a nippy, lightweight device for undertaking basic productivity tasks or entertainment, you would be hard pressed to find a more versatile device at this moment in time for the price.