Out of the entire first wave of Windows 8 hybrids that launched late last year, Acer’s Iconia W510 was the one that interested me most.
With a 10.1-inch screen, it’s smaller than all the other hybrids, and more manageable when used as a tablet. When plugged into its dock, the W510 becomes a small laptop (a netbook, if you will), with a keyboard, trackpad, a full-sized USB port and extended battery life. The W510 is also a bit cheaper than some other Windows 8 hybrids, at $750 for the 64 GB version and dock, or $500 for a 32 GB tablet alone.
It’s all the more heartbreaking, then, that Acer’s Iconia W510 isn’t very good. As a tablet, it feels underpowered, unable to play even some basic games like Jetpack Joyride at consistently smooth framerates. As a laptop, it’s even worse, not only because of a weak processor and meager amount of memory, but because of a glaring flaw in the dock’s trackpad, which I’ll talk about later.
The W510 looks cool, at least. The tablet, while not as slim as an iPad or some Android tablets, feels so much more inviting to hold than Windows 8 tablets with 11.6-inch displays. The mechanism by which the tablet connects to the W510 keyboard dock has a clever design: The tablet slides right into the dock’s wide brace, and automatically latches on. To remove the tablet from the dock, you just slide a little latch on the front of the brace, and pull the tablet up. Although the tablet does wobble in its brace if you jiggle it, the laptop hinge is stiff enough to keep the screen upright at any angle.
But that’s where the solid design ends. Both the tablet and the dock are made of cheap plastic, and the tablet itself is particularly flimsy. Hold it in both hands and flex gently, and you can watch the whole thing bend out of shape. When the tablet and dock are connected, the entire construction becomes screen-heavy, so if you place the W510 on your lap, it easily tips forward. (It fares much better on a table.)
Also, like all Windows 8 tablets, Acer’s has a home button on one of its bezels, but it’s a capacitive button, so you can accidentally press it just by gliding a finger over it. Yet, at times when I actually wanted to hit it, it didn’t always work on the first try.
In theory, devices like the W510 are what Microsoft‘s dual-sided operating system was made for. When you want to use the W510 as a tablet, you mainly stick to the “modern-style” interface, with its touch-friendly apps and games. When it’s time for work, you pop over to the desktop, where all your existing Windows software is supported.
The problem is that neither side works very well at this point in time. Windows 8′s app selection doesn’t measure up to the catalogs on iOS and Android, though it does have some of the basics like Netflix, Angry Birds and the New York Times. You might be able to scrape by with what’s available, and the W510 is smooth enough for reading, video and basic web browsing; just be aware that other platforms have a lot of cool tablet apps you’d be missing out on, like Flipboard and Pocket. There aren’t even official apps for Facebook or Twitter yet.
The whole point of getting a Windows 8 hybrid like the W510, though, is that it can double as a laptop. But again, the value of having two machines in one is dragged down by the W510′s cheap design and lack of computing power.
Worst of all is the W510 dock’s trackpad, which unlike pretty much every other laptop trackpad on the market today, doesn’t give you any way to scroll through web pages or documents. There’s no two-finger scrolling, nor is there a scroll bar on either edge of the trackpad. To scroll through a document, you must use the keyboard’s arrow keys, use the cursor to drag the on-screen scroll bar or reach up to the touch screen and swipe on it. The trackpad itself isn’t great, either — it’s a small matte pad that gets a bit jumpy at times — but the inability to scroll never stops being a major nuisance. An Acer representative tells me the company has no plans to add multi-touch gestures, so there’s no hope for the W510 dock getting any better.
The keyboard won’t take home any awards either. As a netbook-sized device, the keys are cramped, and there’s lots of flex around the center of the keyboard. On a couple of occasions, one of the keys got stuck, causing a string of repeated letters until I massaged the key back to normal behavior.
More frustrations piled on as I forced myself to get some work done with the W510. Performance suffered as soon as I loaded dense web pages or opened lots of browser tabs. Switching between pages caused a moment of stuttering, and scrolling through pages with touch became unbearably choppy.
This is the unfortunate reality for first-generation Windows 8 hybrids. The Intel Atom chip inside the W510 provides great battery life — I’ve been using it for two straight work days now — and doesn’t need a fan to stay cool, but it’s too weak to stand in for a typical laptop processor, especially with only 2 GB of RAM on board. PC makers can instead go with something more powerful, such as Intel’s Core processors, but then the result is lower battery life, bulkier devices and higher prices. That’s fine for laptop-centric devices like Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga, but the tradeoff would be tougher for hybrids with detachable screens.
It’s not an unsolvable dilemma, and my hope is that better processors and more refined hardware designs will make the next generation of Windows 8 hybrids a lot more practical. The Acer Iconia W510, however, is just a rough draft of what Windows 8 hardware could be. For that, $750 is an awful lot to ask.