Between large-screen phones (sometimes described with the ridiculous term "phablet"), 7-inch Android tablets, and the excellent iPad Mini, it would seem that Windows 8 has been forced to carve out its territory in relatively larger screen sizes. Most of the Windows 8 tablets and hybrids we've seen to date have had 11.6-inch to 13-inch screens, with just a couple of minor outliers on either side.
One thing we haven't seen yet is a truly palm-size Windows 8 touch-screen device -- until the Acer Iconia W3, an 8-inch Windows 8 tablet that pairs with a $79 keyboard dock to form a micro version of a desktop all-in-one PC (we tested the $429.99 version, the W3-810-1650, which has a 64GB solid-state drive-- a 32GB SSD version is $379.99).
Prior to Windows 8, it had been several years since I'd seen a Windows touch-screen PC this small. There was a brief moment when(ultramobile PCs) were in vogue, but both the sub-Netbook hardware and pre-Win-8 software were far from ready for prime time.
Because of this, I was dubious about the idea of an 8-inch Windows 8 tablet -- something like the 10-inchfrom Lenovo seemed to be about as small as one would want to get. But, I must admit that in the hand, the Acer W3 works well as a portable full-featured PC. Like the original iPad (remember how skeptical everyone was about that?), this is a product that comes off better in person than on paper.
It's lightweight and slim, and the tile-based Windows 8 scales well to the smaller screen. This turns out to be a great size for one-viewer video playback (via Netflix, for example), or the Windows 8 News app. A microSD card slot and HDMI and USB ports keep the tablet from feeling too disconnected, and the battery life isn't bad at all.
The news is not all good, however. The low-res screen (an unusual 1,280x800 pixels) is simply awful, with a gauzy coating and terrible off-axis viewing. I tried two different W3 units and ran into some buggy performance on both, including occasional screen unresponsiveness, sometimes requiring a reboot to fix. And, of course, with an Atom processor and 2GB of RAM, there are a handful of things this tablet will do well, and a whole lot it won't.
I'm tempted to give the Acer W3 the benefit of the doubt, as it's less expensive than other Windows 8 Atom tablets and hybrids we've tested, and comparing 64GB models, it's $100 less than an iPad Mini (although the iPad Mini has a lower starting price). But the poor screen and general difficulty of navigating Windows 8 on such a small screen outside of a handful of apps and tasks make this hard to recommend unless you're one of those people who think the Netbook era ended too soon.
|Acer Iconia W3||Asus VivoTab Smart||Dell Latitude 10|
|Display size/resolution||8.1-inch, 1,280x800 touch screen||10.1-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760||1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760||1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760|
|PC memory||2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz||2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz||2,948MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 1,003MB shared||Intel GMA 725MB total||Intel GMA 747MB total|
|Storage||64GB solid-state drive||64GB solid-state drive||64GB solid-state drive|
|Networking||802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (32-bit)||Windows 8 (32-bit)||Windows 8 (32-bit)|
Design and features
The Acer Iconia W3 looks like a close cousin of the iPad Mini or Google Nexus 7, at least more so than the full-size Windows 8 hybrids we've seen. It's a heftier slab than a Mini or Nexus 7, and feels sturdy in the hand, despite the overall plastic construction (note to PC makers: making your plastic silver-colored will not fool anyone into thinking it's metal).
The rounded corners and (nearly) edge-to-edge glass over the display give the W3 a pleasing consumer gadget appeal, and unlike some other Windows 8 tablets I've tested, I didn't find myself constantly accidentally hitting the power or volume buttons while handling it.
The interesting part of the W3's design is how it interacts with its keyboard dock. While sold separately, the dock is practically required for any serious typing. This dock is actually larger than the tablet itself. That's because while the tablet has an 11-inch screen, the keyboard is modeled on what you would find in one of Acer's slim 13-inch laptops.
In one sense it's incongruous, this small screen resting on top of a larger keyboard. The connection is a Bluetooth one, powered by AAA batteries, so the two parts don't snap together as on other hybrids. Instead, the screen sits, horizontally, in a rubberized slot along the top of the keyboard dock. The connection is secure enough, at least when the entire package is sitting on a solid surface such as a table, but the screen angle isn't adjustable when docked.
Despite my misgivings about the mismatched keyboard and screen, I found typing on the Acer W3 dock keyboard to be easier than on the keyboards included with some small Windows tablets, including the recent 11-inch, with its hard-to-use keyboard case. The full-size keys are a plus, but the entire keyboard has too much flex, especially near the center, and thus feels cheap.
The dock also lacks any kind of touch pad or even a track point, so your only option for cursor control is the touch screen on the tablet itself or an external mouse (which would need to be Bluetooth, as the keyboard dock has no additional connections). Other systems, from Microsoft's Surface Pro to included some form of cursor control, either a touch pad or touch point, so it's jarring to find a new Windows 8 PC that lacks it. Considering how small the screen is, using the touch screen for basic cursor control isn't a viable option, and I can't emphasize enough just how much this missing feature kills the practical applications of this system.
Because this isn't a screen-and-keyboard combo that snaps together and folds up like a clamshell laptop, you might think the W3 and its keyboard are hard to transport. It's not a perfect solution, but I appreciate the cleverness of the system Acer has come up with. There's a cutout in the shape of the W3 tablet on the underside of the keyboard. Pop the tablet in, screen-side down, and it snaps into place via a small plastic catch. That leaves you with the keyboard keys pointing out from one side and the back of the tablet pointing out from the other. It's portable, and keeps the screen safe, although you're still dealing with an exposed keyboard.
Up until now, the biggest issue with the Iconia W3 was its lack of a touch pad. Even more jarring than that is the hard-to-see screen. While the low 1,280x800-pixel screen resolution isn't that out of the question for an 8-inch screen, especially for around $400, the screen quality itself is a major disappointment.
The screen, as mentioned above, has a gauzy, hazy quality, as if being viewed through a filter. Text is readable enough head-on, using the Kindle or News apps, or looking at The New York Times' Web site, but video and photos wash out a bit. That's all at an optimal viewing angle, and an all-angle IPS screen this is not. Moving your head just a bit off-axis produces an immediate degradation of image quality, to a degree that is particularly harmful for handheld viewing, where the distance and angle between your eyes and the screen may change quickly and often.
Do I expect a Retina-like IPS display on a $400 tablet? Of course not. But I do think even budget buyers are entitled to a screen that pleases more than it frustrates.