PC makers are striking out with traditional laptops, so Acer decided to try something different with the Aspire R7.
I’ve been calling it “The Star Trek Laptop,” mainly because of its promotional tie-in to Into Darkness, and partly because, when posed just the right way, it looks like the USS Enterprise. (I’m guessing it’s not a coincidence.)
The Acer Aspire R7 is a departure from normal laptop design, with an extended hinge that lets the screen float over the base, and an odd placement of the trackpad behind the keyboard. Acer could be onto something here, but the idea needs refinement.
With its extended hinge, the R7 allows you to pull the screen forward, blocking the trackpad but making the touchscreen easier to reach. It also lets you flip the display over so someone across the table can take a look, or fold it down into a tablet–though the hinge prevents the screen from laying completely flush with the base.
My favorite mode of all: by bringing the hinge part-way forward, and tilting the screen slightly upward, the R7 gains an almost desktop-like quality. The display hovers a few inches above the base of the laptop, leaving enough room to access the trackpad. The screen also becomes easier to see and touch this way, and it helps shift the weight balance of the laptop toward the center. It makes a lot of sense, especially when the laptop is on your lap.
The R7’s flexibility requires one major trade-off: The keyboard simply has to be up front, otherwise it’d be difficult or impossible to use, which means the trackpad gets kicked to the back. As such, there’s no place to rest your palm while using the trackpad without accidentally engaging the keyboard.
It doesn’t help that the trackpad is placed at dead-center of the laptop. I wouldn’t mind if Acer slid the trackpad all the way over to the right side, where a strip of plastic beyond the keyboard provides a resting place for the user’s palm. A more futuristic design–one that would appease lefties–might include a touch-sensitive bar that runs the length of the base (see Intel’s Nikiski concept laptop for an example), though I’m not sure if that technology is ready for primetime.
For what it’s worth, the trackpad isn’t great to begin with. The clickable portion starts tapering off about halfway up the pad, and the R7 occasionally confused single clicking with clicking-and-dragging. Tapping the trackpad instead of clicking proved a bit finicky as well. Worst of all, I couldn’t find any option in the trackpad’s drivers to reverse the direction of two-finger scrolling. If you despise inverse scrolling, you’re out of luck with the R7. I found myself using the touch screen on the R7 more than I normally would on a laptop, just because it was less vexing than dealing with the trackpad. The R7’s backlit keyboard, at least, was adequate, if only a smidge on the soft side.
Unique design aside, the Acer Aspire R7 is a typical PC, with a 1080p display, Intel Core i5 processor, 6 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive paired with a 24 GB solid state drive for operating system functions. It’s not the snappiest machine–I noticed occasional delays when firing up apps and waking the machine from standby–but it should be fine for work and light entertainment. Just don’t try playing high-end games on it; I barely got Just Cause 2 into a playable state at 1024-by-768 resolution and minimum graphics settings. The 2D indie gem Thomas Was Alone was silky smooth in 1080p, at least.
I had a couple other minor nitpicks with the R7; namely its overly intrusive anti-virus bloatware, and the fact that the Windows software keyboard always pops up when you tap on a text field, even if the laptop’s keyboard is in use.
But the Aspire R7’s biggest weakness is battery life. Even with “Power Saver” mode enabled, I never managed much more than four hours on a charge. Throw the R7 into the pile of laptops that need to be saved by Intel’s upcoming Haswell chips, and their promise of greatly improved battery life.
Acer deserves credit for trying to rethink the laptop, and coming up with a design that offers some practical benefits. But keep in mind that for roughly the same price, you could instead get a thinner and lighter Ultrabook, a better laptop-tablet hybrid or a beefier PC with a discrete graphics card for gaming. With the R7, you’re paying a premium for the interesting design, not for performance or portability.
My advice to Acer is to iterate on this design, rather than treat it as a one-off concept. The placement of the trackpad needs rethinking, and given the Aspire R7’s desktop-like aspirations, it might make more sense with a 17-inch display. Combined with better performance and battery life, it could be a winner as a full-blown desktop replacement. While the Acer Aspire R7 has promotional ties to Star Trek, I’m hoping it appears in a sequel long before the crew of the Enterprise does.