In a year already filled with unusual computer designs, from laptops with slide-out keyboards to all-in-one desktops that double as coffee table displays, Acer deserves credit for coming out with something that stands out as very different.
Acer's flagship Aspire R7 is a combination of laptop and all-in-one desktop, with a 15.6-inch screen mounted on a floating hinge that Acer calls an Ezel. The pitch for the Ezel is that you can move and reposition the screen as needed, but the uniquely hinged screen won't move too much under your fingers while you're swiping and tapping.
While Acer is presenting this as new, it reminds me very much of the 20-inch HP HDX laptop, a short-lived system with a floating hinge from 2007. Unlike the HDX, the screen on the R7 is a touch screen, and more importantly, it flips around to become a large-scale tablet. It can also flip all the way over to face out from the back of the system -- something we call a kiosk mode, and similar to what you can do with a Lenovo Yoga, Dell XPS 12, or Asus Taichi (although they each accomplish this in different ways).
The standard clamshell laptop mode feels like the most obvious use, especially when you use the hinge to bring the display closer to your face, but get ready for a bit of a learning curve with the touch pad. Instead of sitting below the keyboard in the system's interior tray, it's located in a large, blank expanse above the keyboard. That allows you to hinge the screen closer to your eyes, but at the same time, it's very nontraditional.
There may be long-term benefits to this setup, but I have yet to find them, or even acclimate well to the R7's touch pad. Despite a handful of attempts every year, I have yet to see a laptop that plays with touch pad placement in a successful way. I suspect many people will find it counterintuitive.
But that's not the most perplexing thing about the R7. Despite the pitch for this system as a part-time tablet, when you fold the screen down into the tablet mode, it doesn't actually lie completely flat. Because of the curved hinge, it stays propped up a bit on the top edge. When using it, that little angle actually makes for a more comfortable on-lap typing and navigation experience, but kills the clean lines and makes it hard to carry as a tablet.
The touch-pad placement and not-flat tablet mode both strike me as missteps in an otherwise potentially very useful 15-inch hybrid. That's too bad, because at $999, this is a decent price for a bold experimental laptop with solid midrange components.
|Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook||Dell XPS 18||Sony Vaio FIt SVF14A15CXB||HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15 Sleekbook|
|Display size/resolution||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||18-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||14-inch, 1,600x900 touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U||1.8GHz AMD A8-455M APU|
|PC Memory||6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||512MB AMD Radeon HD 7600G|
|Storage||500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||750GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||750GB, 5,400rpm hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 Pro (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
I was curious about why Acer tied the initial launch of the Aspire R7 in with the new "Star Trek" movie, mostly by way of a crossover teaser video. Now that I've had a chance to see the R7 up close, and twist it around into a few different positions, I can see the connection more clearly. Even on Acer's Web site, there's one position you can rotate the screen and hinge into so that it has a vaguely Enterprise-like shape. It's good for a promo page photo, but not particularly practical for consumers.
Taken apart from its flexible screen modes, the R7 looks and feels like an upscale, 15-inch, ultrabook-style laptop. The aluminum body is thin and feels sturdy enough for regular on-the-go use, and at 5.3 pounds, it's on the heavy side for a thin midsize laptop, and would be a bit of a back-breaker for daily commutes.
It felt natural to set the system up with the screen extended forward, in what Acer calls the Ezel mode. I wish more laptops had hinges like this -- similar to what one would find on an all-in-one desktop. I appreciate the ability to tweak the viewing angle easily, and this is probably my favorite feature of the Acer R7.
There are, however, a couple of elephants in the room. The first is the odd placement of the touch pad. It's been swapped with the keyboard, so that the keyboard is closer to the front edge, with the touch pad sitting above it. Acer claims this makes typing more comfortable and fluid, by moving the keyboard closer to the body. Technically that's correct, and I actually liked having easy access to the keyboard without having to reach over a touch pad.
But, just as it's easier to interact with the keyboard, it's now harder to interact with the large, clickpad-style touch pad. Depending on how you angle the screen on its Ezel hinge, the pad may be fully or partially blocked, and regular navigation via touch pad requires you to hold your arm up in a way that's just not comfortable for long-term use.
I'll give Acer credit -- it's a bold experiment, and one that has certain benefits. But, even in this new era of touch-screen laptops, you still need the fine control a touch pad provides, and this setup makes that harder to do. If the earliest touch-pad laptops had adopted this pad-over-keyboard format from the start, we might all be used to it now, but even after several days of use, I can't say the benefits outweigh the awkwardness.
The second elephant is the system's tablet mode. By flipping the screen over and pushing down on the hinge, you end up with a thick slate-like device, allowing the R7 to check off the "tablet" box on this year's list of trendy topics. But the way the hinge and screen are positioned, you can't quite fold the screen completely flat. There's about a five-degree rise on what would be the rear edge of the tablet, where the screen hits the curved hinge.
The small rise may make for a better onscreen typing angle, but the final product looks and feels more like an engineering miscalculation than something deliberate. To that end, in most of the promotional images of the R7, this tablet mode is shot at a front angle that seems intended to conceal that the tablet mode doesn't actually fold all the way down. Worse, this almost-flat mode makes the R7 especially awkward to carry around by hand. The lesson here: if it looks like a mistake, it probably wasn't a great design decision.
The display itself is excellent, with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution under edge-to-edge glass. Off-axis viewing angles are excellent, and the touch response is lag-free. Popping into the Windows 8 tile menu, the view may be a bit crowded -- our system came preloaded with more software (and/or bloatware) than any other Windows 8 system to date, including tiles for Zinio, eBay, ChaCha, and many others, as well as proprietary Acer software for cloud storage and image sorting.
|Acer Aspire R7||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI, DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Quad speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery
For such an unusual system, the Acer R7 has a decent set of ports and connections, including both HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs, as well as one USB port that can be used to power devices even when the system is off.
For now, the single $999 configuration offers a reasonable set of components for that price, including an Intel Core i5 CPU, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, with a 24GB SSD cache, all with a full-HD 1,920x1,080-pixel display.
In benchmark testing, that Core i5-3337U processor performed largely as expected, matching up almost exactly with other laptops and all-in-one desktops with similar components. For everyday use, a low-voltage Core i5 handles multitasking, Web surfing, HD video playback, and touch-screen interaction seamlessly, and you're unlikely to run into any bottlenecks.
The limited Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics mean this isn't a machine suited for gaming at all but the most casual level. The current BioShock Infinite ran at only 8.82 frames per second at 1,920x1,080 at medium settings.
Battery life was decent for a midsize laptop, at 4 hours and 8 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's almost exactly the same battery life as Sony's midsize Fit 14 laptop and Dell's 18-inch XPS 18 tabletop PC. Frankly, the 5-pound-plus R7 is too heavy to lug around on a regular basis, so 4 hours seems more than fair.
The Acer Aspire R7 is an unusual laptop/tablet hybrid, and we definitely need companies such as Acer continuing to experiment with different designs and features in an ongoing effort to make computers easier to use and better integrated with our on-the-go lives.
With that in mind, we also have to be honest when these experiments don't completely work out, and I think it's safe to say that both the touch pad above the keyboard and the tablet screen that doesn't quite fold all the way down are design features that won't make it into many future laptops.
But, as a mainstream 15-inch touch-screen laptop with a screen that offers great flexibility for displaying content forward, backward, and nearly any angle in between, the $999 price of the R7 seems spot on, and Acer deserves credit for making out-there designs that are also affordable.
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Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 3337U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; HD 1 24GB SSD HD 2 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive,
Sony Vaio Fit SVF14A15CXB
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 3427; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm hard drive
Dell XPS 18
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.8GHZ Intel Core i5-3337U; 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; Intel HD Graphics 4000 embedded graphics chip; HD1 32GB SSD HD2 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive
HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15 Sleekbook
Windows 8 (64-bit) w/sp 1; 1.8GHz AMD A8-455M APU; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 512MB (Shared) AMD Radeon HD 7600G; 750GB Seagate 5,400rpm hard drive
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