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Acer Iconia W500 Windows tablet (hands-on)

Acer's Iconia W500 consists of a touch-screen slate and a separate keyboard dock that combine to form something close to a traditional laptop.

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Tablets are big news, but that usually means Apple's iPad, Android tablets, or even the BlackBerry Playbook. Windows, by far the largest operating system on consumer PCs, has been largely left out in the cold.

It's ironic, as Windows tablets have been around for years, in the form of slates and convertible laptops with touch-screen lids that rotate and fold down over the keyboard. To date, none of these has been terribly successful, largely because they failed on both the software and hardware fronts. The Windows OS is simply not designed for fingertip (or even stylus) input, and the CPUs used to power most Windows tablets have been so underpowered as to make these devices mostly useless.

Stepping into the ring following the launch Apple's second-generation iPad is the Acer Iconia W500. Similar to Lenovo's (still MIA U1) Hybrid and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, the 10.1-inch W500 consists of a touch-screen slate and a separate keyboard dock. When combined, the two halves form something close to a traditional laptop. The W500 is $549 with Windows 7 Home Premium, or $619 with Windows 7 Professional. Both versions have 2GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD. Acer also has a dockless Android version, called the A500.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the case of the Acer W500, our initial impressions are of a series of good ideas, undone by half-baked physical design. After struggling with docking, undocking, and folding down the W500, it's clear that if any designers at Apple presented this product to Steve Jobs, they'd quickly find themselves reassigned as the night janitor at an Apple store in Siberia.

As a standalone slate, the W500 is actually better than average, based on our years of Windows tablet frustrations. Powered by AMD's 1GHz dual-core C-50 processor, the touch screen was responsive, and dragging a finger down the screen actually resulted in something close to satisfactory scrolling--a task many Windows tablets seem to especially have trouble with.

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Taking a lesson from the 14-inch dual-screen Iconia laptop (which is really a very fun machine to play with), Acer includes a few custom tablet-oriented apps. As on the larger Iconia, tapping down with five fingertips on the screen brings up a jogwheel-like menu, which grants access to finger-friendly apps such as a social media browser and augmented Web browser. The TouchBrowser, as it's called, is easier to use than a standard Web browser, but like all the touch apps, it took forever to launch--a big letdown if you're used to iPad apps that launch almost instantaneously.

The separate keyboard dock has shallow but acceptable island-style keys, and a trackpoint for onscreen navigation. We'd much prefer a touch pad, even a tiny one, especially as the left and right mouse buttons for the trackpoint are so narrow and mounted right on the front lip of the keyboard dock. As the W500 keyboard lacks Bluetooth, a large omission, the keyboard only works when connected to the tablet though its proprietary plug. [Editor's note: To clarify, it's the keyboard dock that lacks Bluetooth, not the slate itself.]

And therein lies the biggest problem with the Acer W500. When the screen and keyboard are connected, it looks much like any other 10-inch laptop. So much so, that it feels like you should be able to simply fold it shut, like any other clamshell design. But, you can't.

A close-up view of the instructions for detaching the screen and closing the clamshell. Sarah Tew/CNET

To close the system, you must pull the screen straight up, detaching it from the keyboard, and then close a flap on the keyboard dock that covers the docking connection. From there, the screen is placed on top of the keyboard, face down, where a small magnet in one corner holds it in place (sort of). Finally, a physical latch on the front lip of the dock has to get pushed into place. After all that, you have something that looks pretty much like a closed laptop, although if it's not handled exactly right, the two halves will come apart.

To take the closed system and convert it back to a faux laptop, the steps must be reversed, which is, if that's even possible, a more awkward exercise. It also means the system is literally impossible to either open or close one-handed.

Taken apart from its dock, the slate part of the W500 works about as well, if not better, than other Windows tablets we've tested over the years. Even with the low-power processor, we were able to stream Netflix video and scroll through Web pages with a minimum of stuttering. Using the built-in Windows onscreen keyboard, however, remains a challenge.

This post represents our initial hands-on impressions after unboxing and using the system for several hours. We're currently running the Acer Iconia W500 through our standard benchmark tests, so check back for more on performance, battery life, and a full review.

Sarah Tew/CNET