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Acer Iconia W3 review: Tablet puts Win 8 in the palm of your hand

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MSRP: $379.99

The Good Parts of the Windows 8 experience work surprisingly well in the Acer Iconia W3, which is a smaller 8-inch tablet. The carry-along keyboard is clever, and battery life is excellent for a non-Haswell system.

The Bad Outside of tile-based Windows 8 apps, navigation is a pain. Screen quality is exceptionally poor, and the keyboard dock lacks a touch pad or even a track point.

The Bottom Line The smaller 8-inch Windows 8 tablet is a form worth exploring, and the Acer Iconia W3 can be fun to use, but it's also buggy and held back by shortcuts and lackluster features.

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7.4 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 8

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 small devices called UMPCs (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-inch ThinkPad Tablet 2 from 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.

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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
Price $429 $414 $649
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
Optical drive None None None
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.

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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 Acer Aspire P3, 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 Sony's Vaio Duo 13 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.

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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.

Acer Iconia W3
Video Micro-HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack
Data 1 Micro-USB 2.0, microSD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
The W3 is neither the least connected tablet we've seen, nor the most. It actually has a decent selection of ports, including HDMI and USB, but they're of the micro variety, so you'll need special cables or adapters to use them. Plus, as with most Atom-powered systems, the USB port is 2.0, not the faster 3.0 found on Core i-series devices.

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Buying a tablet (or laptop/hybrid) with an Intel Atom processor is an exercise in trade-offs. You're paying less for the system, and you're getting decent battery life, thanks to the low-power CPU. But you're also getting performance that will remind you of the old Netbook days, when $300-$400 mini laptops drew in many curious buyers, only to leave them staring at frozen screens while their laptops chugged through basic tasks. The latest Intel Atom chips are better, but still represent a calculation that you'll be sticking with basic tasks, such as Web surfing, video playback, and social media.

In our benchmark tests, the Iconia W3 performed on par with other recent Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets and hybrids, such as Dell's Latitude 10 and Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet 2. If you compare a tablet with an Intel Core i5 CPU, such as Microsoft's Surface Pro, you'll see a huge difference in application performance, but to its credit, Microsoft has designed Windows 8, at least the tile-based interface part of it, to work smoothly even with an Atom CPU.

The Acer Iconia W3 ran for 8 hours and 19 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, which shows off just how power-efficient an Atom tablet can be. The Core i5 Surface Pro ran for a little over half that, but keep in mind that all these examples use Intel's last-generation chips. With the latest fourth-generation Core i5 and i7 CPUs, which are only available in a small handful of laptops so far, we're seeing amazing battery life scores, and that may blunt the appeal of the Atom in the near future.

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Conclusion
Despite its quirky tablet-to-keyboard size disparity, I liked the Iconia W3 more than I expected to. As a standalone tablet, it's compact and portable enough for casual on-the-go reading and video viewing, and with the large keyboard, typing is better than on many small hybrids.

But the lack of any kind of touch pad or track point may be a deal breaker for some (it was for me), and the grim screen quality sucks a lot of the potential fun out of this tiny, reasonably priced system. This is one of those cases where a handful of flaws drag down what would otherwise be a great budget pick.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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System configurations

Acer Iconia W3
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 1,003MB (shared) Intel GMA, 64GB SSD

Asus VivoTab Smart
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 725MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SSD

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 737MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB MMC SSD

Dell Latitude 10
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB MMC SSD

Acer Iconia W510P-1406
Windows 8 Pro (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SEM64G SSD

Microsoft Surface Pro
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Sharedl) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Micron SSD

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