When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, it sparked off an industry-wide game of follow the leader. Companies ranging from Samsung to Research In Motion all leapt into the fray with tablet plans of their very own. Many of those tablets ran some version of Google Android; other manufacturers, notably RIM and Hewlett-Packard, decided to take the road less traveled and either build or acquire a mobile operating system of their very own.
Even as these other companies rushed into the space, though, there remained one conspicuous absence: Microsoft. This was particularly ironic, considering how Bill Gates himself advocated tablets as the device of the future during a November 2001 speech at Comdex. (At the time, he also demonstrated a prototype device running Windows XP.) Despite some efforts to integrate touch controls into Windows-most notably, Windows XP Tablet PC edition, followed by a touch-enabled version of Windows 7-Microsoft over the last decade had failed to drive a broad consumer revolution in tablets.
That brings us to the Acer Iconia Tab W500, the new tablet PC from a company more known for its netbooks. Like a handful of other tablets on the market, it runs Windows-specifically, the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. It also comes pre-loaded with Office 2010, which the owner needs a purchased product key to activate. Under the hood, the device rocks an Advanced Micro Devices dual-core processor and a 32GB solid-state hard drive.
The 10.1-inch screen definitely makes this a two-handed device along the lines of the iPad or the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It feels hefty but not unduly burdensome in your grip, although the slick backing and rounded edges will make the clumsier among us paranoid about dropping it by accident. The 1.3-megapixel Webcam, lodged in the top-center of the rear-panel, is serviceable for most needs.
The good thing about the Iconia Tab-at least for some people-is that it runs Windows 7. The bad thing about the Iconia Tab-at least for some people-is that it runs Windows 7.
Marrying the full functionality of the Windows platform with the tablet form-factor, at least in theory, means heightened portability for proprietary Windows applications that haven't yet found their way onto a rival tablet platform. But heightened portability compared to...what? A regular laptop? A netbook?
Acer's decision to include a QWERTY keyboard dock merely adds to the overall confusion. Plugging the tablet into the dock is a snap, and the keyboard itself is a thin but sturdy piece of hardware inlaid with additional ports. Hey, presto, you have a laptop-one that won't close without popping out its screen by design. The keyboard and tablet will sandwich together for travel, courtesy of a hook clasp and a set of mildly magnetic points along the frame.
Windows 7 is an operating system built primarily with keyboard-and-mouse input in mind. Especially on a 10.1-inch screen, many of the icons and buttons are too small to tap easily with a finger; the touch interface at moments seems to lag; and gestures that have rapidly become the standard on other tablets-i.e., pinch-to-zoom-do virtually nothing in this context, frustrating to anyone used to iOS or Google Android. The virtual keyboard, once opened, swallows virtually every pixel of screen real estate, making it hard to judge at some moments what you're typing. The screen will flip between landscape and portrait modes, but only after a few disconcerting moments' worth of black screen.
These kinks don't come into play with passive whole-screen activities, such as reading documents or viewing multimedia. When using the tablet for actual work, though, the inclination in the face of these petty frustrations is to pull out the keyboard, plug the tablet in, and rely on physical controls to navigate and input data. In which case, why aren't you simply carrying a notebook?
In other words, the Iconia Tab isn't sure whether it wants to be a tablet or laptop. Owners may find their own usage scenario where a Windows 7 tablet is vital to their day-to-day lives, but others could be left wondering why they didn't opt for either a full-on tablet or notebook-and wondering when exactly Microsoft will release its next, supposedly tablet-optimized version of Windows.