Acer W700 hands-on: Our first serious quality time with a Windows 8 tablet

Windows 8 has been slammed, but not all of the criticisms are fair, nor do they necessarily apply to the tablet side of Microsoft's OS.

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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-optimized 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.

The desktop: Read the fine print!

Critics have slammed Microsoft for its implementation of desktop mode, citing three major complaints:

The first criticism is valid. It's ludicrous that Microsoft doesn't include a toggle that lets you boot straight into the desktop.

The second complaint speaks to an even greater annoyance: During my time with the W700, I was frequently chagrined by the extra effort required to launch desktop applications. Sure, a third-party add-on from Stardock introduces a Windows 7-style Start button, and you can set up keyboard shortcuts to launch apps. But that kind of end-run shouldn't be necessary.

As for the third gripe, using mouse control to access the Start screen from the desktop wasn't a problem for me. I simply glided my mouse to the lower-left corner of the screen to invoke the main Windows 8 interface. Easy. Simple. It works.

The bigger problem with using the W700 as a traditional PC productivity machine lies in the rendering of the Windows desktop. A resolution of 1920 by 1080 on an 11.6-inch screen makes for tiny fonts, icons, and scroll bars. And because all of these interface elements were so small, I had trouble seeing text in the URL field of Internet Explorer, for example. Likewise, using touch gestures to collapse and exit out of windows--or, for that matter, just navigating around the basic Windows experience that I've been using since Windows 3.1--was a challenge.

Make no mistake: The screen resolution is great when the W700 is in tablet mode, with Windows 8 optimized for that size. But using the tablet in its cradled desktop mode was nowhere near as easy or as comfortable as working with, say, a 14-inch, 1366 by 768 Ultrabook.

Would I use the W700 as my main productivity machine when traveling? Probably not. It's productivity prowess blows away the iPad or Android tablet competition, if only because this machine gives you a full version of Windows. But I suspect that other upcoming Windows 8 devices will offer more elegant compromises between the tablet and desktop sides of Microsoft's new split-personality OS. We'll see. We'll have to test many other Windows 8 devices before we'll know the W700's rightful place in the Windows 8 tablet firmament.

I definitely appreciated Acer's bundled-in keyboard. It didn't reek of high-end build quality, but it was more comfortable to use than a traditional laptop keyboard, since I didn't have to negotiate my hand over a trackpad area, and I could adjust the keyboard's distance from the screen to my heart's content. I only wish that Acer had included a mouse as well. During desktop use, I found myself relying on a mixture of touch and mouse control--touch to scroll through documents and to move windows around, and the trusty mouse from my desktop machine for cursor placement and text selection.

At least one OS platform should be afraid

Though Windows 8 hasn't even launched yet, it's off to a rocky start. Power users are slamming Microsoft for all the new "features" that subjugate the desktop, and as we reported on Monday, the Windows Store inventory is looking alarmingly thin.

Nonetheless, the W700 offers solid proof that a Windows 8 tablet can be a compelling mobile device with touch controls that are fun and easy to use. And luckily for Microsoft, the very capable apps that it builds into the Windows 8 style interface--Internet Explorer, Mail, Photos, People, and more--will likely account for the vast majority of most casual users' tablet time.

Apple doesn't need to be concerned about the Windows 8 launch. The iPad has great momentum, and it's backed by easily the largest and highest-quality apps ecosystem. And Apple doesn't really play the productivity game anyway, regardless of how much it may push the utility of iPhoto, iMovie, and Garageband.

But if I were Google, I'd be very concerned that all of my OEM tablet partners (including Acer) are on the verge of releasing touch-friendly Windows 8 hardware. As the Acer W700 demonstrates, Windows 8 offers a winning tablet experience, and its productivity features show remarkable potential. A tweak here, an iteration there, and the Acer/Microsoft partnership might turn into a perfect Windows 8 marriage.

Stay tuned for our final review of the Acer W700, which we'll hopefully post sometime in late October or early November.

This story, "Acer W700 hands-on: Our first serious quality time with a Windows 8 tablet" was originally published by PCWorld.

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