Acer Iconia Tab W500 review: an adaptable Windows 7 tablet

The included keyboard dock gives this tablet the flexibility to imitate a laptop, but it also introduces considerable bulk.

Hybrid designs are not new in the world of tablets, but they aren't exactly common either. The Acer Iconia Tab W500 tablet is a slate-style machine--all of its guts are behind the screen, and it can stand on its own as a tablet--but it also comes with a keyboard dock for occasions when you want a laptop-style experience. Unfortunately, rather than offering the best of both worlds, the W500 presents you with a lot of compromises.

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Hardware

For this tablet, Acer chose an AMD processor rather than the standard Intel Atom, and this decision yields some performance benefits. Paired with 2GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon HD 6250 graphics chip with 256MB of dedicated video memory, the 1GHz AMD C-50 does an excellent job of running Windows; the tablet was responsive, and it outperformed the Intel Atom Oaktrail-based Fujitsu Stylistic Q550. This processor-and-graphics combo also provided strong multimedia playback. It capably handled all of my 720p video files, and even my PowerPoint with an embedded video.

The 32GB solid-state drive, on the other hand, feels parsimonious, especially in view of how much space Windows 7 Home Premium occupies. An SD Card slot provides additional expansion room, which is likely to be useful especially for storing files.

A huge bezel frames the 10.1-inch display, which runs at 1280-by-800-pixel resolution. The Iconia Tab W500's large bezel, above-average thickness (0.63 inch), and substantial weight (2.14 pounds) make this one of the chunkiest tablets we've looked at recently. In my experience, 2 pounds is the limit beyond which a tablet feels just plain heavy. This Acer unit isn't a machine that I'd want to hold in one hand for any length of time, or even in two hands for an extended session. Its best use would be either plugged into the keyboard dock (to prop it up), or parked on your on knees when you're in couch-surfing mode.

Aside from its heftiness, I found the tablet reasonably comfortable to hold. The curved edges feel comfortable, and the brushed metal back provides a nice texture to prevent the tablet from being too slippery.

The capacitive touchscreen supports four-point multitouch and is both accurate and responsive. Though a built-in accelerometer automatically rotates the screen, the Iconia Tab W500 had an unusually long lag time for rotation redraw; ultimately, this drawback convinced me to lock the orientation and work in landscape mode all the time.

The nonremovable battery is rated at 3250mAh, and it managed a run time of 5 hours, 28 minutes in the PCWorld Labs' battery life tests, not quite as long as most Intel Atom-based tablets endured.

Another trade-off of the Acer's slightly more powerful processor is increased heat. Whereas Atom Oaktrail chips are designed to run fanlessly, the AMD C-50 uses active cooling, with an air intake on the right side of the tablet that exhausts through the top. The tablet was almost always emitting warm air, but it never actually got hot; and in my use, I never found that the fan noise got distractingly loud--unlike, for example, the Samsung Series 7 Slate. The exhaust port's position is such that if you want to hold the tablet in portrait mode--thereby putting the air exhaust on the right side--the exhaust is high enough that your hand won't cover it.

In landscape mode, the air exhaust is the element on the top of the tablet. On the right side, you'll find the AC power port. The left side houses a full-size HDMI port, an SD Card slot, the air intake, a volume rocker switch, the power button, an LED that indicates charging, and the headphone port. Along the bottom are the guide holes for the keyboard dock, two USB ports, and a rotation lock switch. Having two USB ports is useful if you want to use more than one device; but Acer's decision to place both USB ports on the bottom of the tablet can be limiting, depending on how you use the device.

Keyboard Dock

The included keyboard dock makes the Iconia Tab W500 unique among Windows tablets. In general, plugging a tablet into a keyboard can result in a top-heavy quasi-laptop that tips over easily. Older slates such as HP's TC1100 and Motion's LE series solved this problem by having the tablet attach to the middle of the keyboard, leaving enough structure behind the screen to prevent tipping.

The Acer W500 keyboard dock deals with the same issue through a combination of mounting the tablet a little forward and angling the back of the keyboard up. The chunky backside of the keyboard dock makes the whole package thick, but it also provides a good angle for typing, and it helps prevent the tablet from tipping backward on a desk. Even so, the design doesn't make for an entirely stable combo when placed on a user's lap.

When the tablet is docked in the keyboard, the machine looks a lot like a notebook; but closing it isn't a simple matter of folding the screen forward. The tablet attaches to the dock via a USB port and two guide poles, and you have to lift it off the port and completely separate it from the keyboard. Then the USB port and guide poles fold into the keyboard dock. The dock attaches to the front of the tablet by means of a magnet in the back and a latch in the front; ultimately this design protects the screen and helps to balance the tablet, though it's not the most elegant arrangement I've seen.

Another design oddity of the keyboard dock is that, aside from occupying a USB port on the bottom of the tablet, it also blocks the other USB port on the bottom. Fortunately the dock has a USB port on each side--in addition to an ethernet port on the left--so even when two are blocked by the dock, you have two available.

When you start typing, you'll see the benefit of the extra-large bezel around the display. The additional width on the tablet permits the keyboard to be extra-wide, and Acer takes full advantage of that width by spreading the keys all the way to the edges. Though slightly smaller than full-size keys, they make for an uncramped layout. The keys are slightly wobbly, however, and the mechanism under them is stiff, with the result that about 1 in 20 of my key presses failed to register.

Since the tablet sits forward on the dock, the keyboard goes all the way to the front edge of the dock, leaving no room for a trackpad. A little trackstick in the middle of the keyboard provides a way to push the cursor around; alternatively, you can poke at the touchscreen with your hand. The mouse buttons are small and sit on the front edge of the keyboard. The left click is well positioned for pressing with your thumb, but the latch for closing the keyboard to the screen sits between the left and right clicks, which pushes the right button too far to the side for convenient pressing.

Since the dock holds the screen on a foldout USB port, the angle of attachment is fixed. Luckily, it's a good one. The screen isn't an IPS panel, but you can view the screen through a range of about 80 degrees in any direction before losing brightness or experiencing color shifting. The display's brightness is good enough to withstand even obnoxiously bright office lighting.

Performance

In performance, the Iconia Tab W500 definitely feels like a step up from the mostly Intel Atom-based tablets. Programs launch faster than on Atom-based models, and switching among apps is faster. Web pages load more quickly and scroll more smoothly.

Video playback is better,too. With this tablet, I could just let the video run and enjoy watching it rather than enduring 30 seconds of glitchy performance just to see how well it played. All of the videos we tested, from 720p rips to Netflix to YouTube, played smoothly. And though you won't get a lot of bass from a tablet, the Iconia Tab W500 had the clearest and loudest speakers of any model we've tested recently. I could comfortably listen from across the room without having to ratchet up the volume to its maximum setting.

Software

Windows 7 was not designed for touch, and navigating it by finger can be frustrating. Unlike Samsung, Acer didn't go for a full interface overlay; instead it includes several touch-friendly apps in a suite of software called Acer Ring—much like what you'd find on Acer's Iconia dual-display laptop, its all-in-one PCs, and its Iconia Tab series of Android tablets. Here, you pull up the ring by tapping five fingers on the screen. The apps then pop up around a central ring of shortcuts and utilities, and you can select your destination from there.

The central ring includes a link to Acer games, a calculator, a camera app, the Windows snipping tool, a disk-cleaning utility (useful on the tiny 32GB SSD), and a syncing tool.

Relatively full-featured apps in the ring include Touch Browser, Social Jogger, My Journal, and Clear.fi media player. Touch Browser is exactly what you'd expect--a touch-friendly browser that runs at full screen with large controls. Social Jogger is a three-paneled app with update streams from Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. My Journal collects clippings of Web pages taken from the Touch Browser, and lets you scribble on them with a finger or a capacitive stylus.

The Clear.fi app, as on Acer's Android tablets, facilitates playing photos, music, and videos from shared or local libraries across a DLNA network. It also supports streaming video from YouTube or Facebook. Regrettably, none of the several YouTube videos I tried would play; instead, I got an error message saying that Clear.fi could not play the selected video.

It's nice to see a company recognize that Windows 7 could use some help in touch-friendliness department; but these apps didn't seem to add much to the experience.

Bottom Line

The Acer Iconia Tab W500 is great for someone who wants the familiarity of Windows, or who wants to do Windows-based work occasionally. It excels at audio and video playback, but you'll need an SD Card to store that media on because it has limited built-in storage. This tablet is faster than an average netbook, and you can remove the screen and use it as a responsive touch tablet. The main drawbacks are the bulk that comes with the hardware requirements of Windows, and the battery life that is more in line with a regular laptop than with what we've come to expect from ARM-based tablets.

This story, "Acer Iconia Tab W500 review: an adaptable Windows 7 tablet" was originally published by PCWorld.

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