Hands on with Acer’s Iconia W3: Full Windows 8 on an 8-inch tablet

For years, Microsoft(s msft) tried to get a full-blown version of Windows on small screens. The concept worked marginally well on netbooks but less so on the 7-inch UMPCs, or Ultra Mobile Personal Computers, in the mid- to late-2000s. Now, with Windows 8 and its Metro or modern user interface, Microsoft is trying again with its hardware partners. Acer is among the first out of the gate with a product, the $379 Iconia W3 8-inch tablet, and I received a review unit earlier this week. I can already see vast improvements over prior attempts at Windows on the small screen.

Iconia W3 in keyboard front

I spent much of the July 4 holiday using the device, which is actually a $429 version; the extra $50 boosts the storage capacity from 32 GB to 64 GB. Acer also sent an optional $69 Bluetooth keyboard that doubles as a both a stand and type of carrying case for the small slate. Here are my  impressions in no particular order:

  • The 8-inch tablet is solidly built and shares design elements from Acer’s larger Windows 8 tablets such as the W510. You can’t flex the device due to a solid body (likely polycarbonate) but the back is all plastic meant to look like metal.
  • At 8 inches, the 1280 x 800 display provides a decent 188 pixels per inch, yet some text and images appear grainy and not so crisp. It could be the fonts or font sizes used by default, but the viewing experience is marginal to my eyes: not terrible nor impressive. The screen is not an IPS panel, so viewing angles aren’t the best either. Screen brightness is quite good except in full sunlight.
  • Because of the resolution, the W3 doesn’t support snapping apps in Windows; you can’t run two apps on the screen at the same time unless you connect the tablet to an external monitor of 1366 x 768 resolution or greater.
  • Instead of a capacitive Windows button under the screen when in landscape, Acer used a physical button that’s off to the right in this orientation. Holding the tablet in portrait mode puts the button under the screen, but I find myself using Windows 8 in landscape far more often. I suspect most others do, or will do, the same. Windows 8 screen gestures all work great.
  • The device’s two speakers also suffer from what I call “portrait-itis”: When holding the tablet in landscape, both speakers are on the right side of the unit. I’d like to see Acer add a third speaker to offset this. The speakers aren’t very loud either.
  • For a tablet of this size, I think you get a fair amount of ports and interfaces: micro USB, micro HDMI and micro SD memory card slot, in addition to the expected power port and headphone jack.
  • Battery life is rated for 7 to 8 hours and, although I’ve only had the unit a short time, I was able to use it continuously for 5 hours with juice to spare. I think the run-time claims are accurate.
  • The 1.5 GHz Intel Atom(s intc) chip is helping in the battery department: this chipset is used in Acer’s Iconia W510 tablet, which gets similar battery life. There are 2 GB of memory, which is standard for the Atom-powered Windows 8 devices on the market.
  • Likewise, performance on the W3 is similar to the larger Atom-powered tablets currently available. That makes sense since the guts of this 8-inch tablet are mostly the same as its larger siblings. It’s certainly not as fast a Windows 8 machine running an Intel Core chip, but it’s at least as fast as Windows RT machines. And unlike those devices, you can install any Windows application you like on the W3.
  • The device has two cameras — front and rear — and I can’t say that either impressed me. I’d use the front camera for video chatting but the rear sensor is sub-par.
  • I’m still not a fan of jumping between the Windows Desktop for full Windows apps and the modern user interface for touch-friendly apps. That’s more of an issue with Windows itself, not the W3 tablet, and is due to some personal preference on my part.
  • Microsoft Office is pre-installed, which is a big value for those that need it.
  • Using the Desktop mode is a bit of a challenge, at least for me, because it’s not optimized for touch and everything is a bit smaller in a screen of this size. You can modify the DPI scaling (I find 150 percent to work well) and even the size of Windows elements, such as title bars and scroll bars, but I think Acer should optimize these out of the box.
    Iconia W3 in Desktop mode
  • The touch apps I used all worked well on the small slate, offering the same experience as a full-sized Windows 8 or Windows RT computer.
  • I want to like the keyboard, but have a major issue with it. It’s easy to pair with the tablet; I like the feel and layout of the keys. And it’s nearly a full-sized keyboard. There’s a slot to prop up the tablet on the keyboard that works fine… until you start tapping at the tablet screen. That’s quite often since this is a touchscreen device. When closing apps — swiping from top to bottom on the display — the tablet would often fall out of the keyboard. And as I tapped the display with regular use, each little tap dislodged it a little more from the rubber keyboard grip, eventually causing the W3 to tip over. Perhaps it’s me or a defective unit, but this doesn’t seem well-designed.
  • I do like how the tablet clips in to the back of the keyboard, making it easier to carry while protecting the screen.

Iconia W3 snapped into keyboard
If you like or mostly use Metro style apps and don’t mind limited performance, I suggest considering the W3 tablet. The 1.1 pound device measures in at¬†8.62 x 5.31 x 0.45 inches, so it’s easy to tote around. And it runs the full version of Windows 8 with support for legacy Windows software. Is it a super-fast performer or a premium device? No, but starting at $379, I think many will find it a great value for the price, given all Windows capabilities.