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Acer Iconia W510 Review

Before I began to play with the Acer Iconia W510 in earnest, I thought it wise to try and establish what type of person would be most inclined to purchase such a device. Given its aggressive pricing and relatively meager system specifications, I felt compelled to point a finger at soon-to-be empty-nesters, otherwise known as the parents of a college-bound teenager. With this in mind it became trivial to envision myself in their shoes and understand their needs. These days, a computer is more or less a pre-requisite to university success, rendering it a high-priority purchase consideration for those with even the most minimal of budgets. The ability to do work anywhere, at any time, without any constraints is an advantage not to be overlooked.

However it is now 2013, and the realm of portable computing no longer shares much semblance with its predecessors. Smartphones are now to be found in pockets everywhere. Tablets are on the fast track to becoming commonplace. Where the word computer used to refer to just a big beige box with cables spewing out of it, the term now ambiguously describes an entire range of devices of vastly different designs. In trying to choose the perfect computer for one's son/daughter, it is easy to feel swamped in the plethora of options out there and the recommendations coming in from from every which way. Where is one to begin? Does a device that promises to serve double duty as both an on-the-go tablet and an at-home word processor merit any consideration for purchase? Can such a compromising device even be any good? Time to dig in and find out.

The Iconia W510 is a device that belongs to a product category known as a hybrid computer. Members of this family follow the same general recipe: two major components, a standalone tablet and a keyboard, combine to mimic a more traditional laptop form factor. Because the keyboard dock houses no critical system components, it can be left at home when not required and the tablet can be used in standalone form. This is a system design that gained a lot of popular mindshare when Asus introduced its Android-based Transformer tablet and it is definitely not a form factor that has been overplayed yet. The advantages of being able to remove the keyboard and, with it, extra bulk from one's bag are definitely obvious to most customers.

For the budget-conscious customer, there is an additional unique advantage born out of this modular construction. Because the Iconia is sold in multiple different kits which include just the tablet, the keyboard, or both, one doesn't necessarily have to splurge on the full package upfront. Instead, one can decide to start with just the tablet and later on consider purchasing the keyboard dock. Given that USB keyboards and mice are plentiful and cheap, the dismissal of the keyboard dock does not necessarily imply that one will not find a way to be productive.

So what, exactly, is the Acer Iconia W510? Well, for a start, it’s a 0.3-inch thick plastic slab that runs 10.2-inches long and 6.6-inches wide. In qualitative terms, the tablet is as thick as an Amazon Kindle 2 while significantly larger in the other dimensions. Weight-wise, Acer lists the tablet at 1.28-pounds, which means that it tips the scales at roughly double the that of the aforementioned Kindle. This should come at no surprise, given the large glass display found on the Iconia.

A quick run around the sides reveals micro-sized port variants of SD, USB and HDMI accompanied by a volume rocker and microphone cavity on the right-hand side of the device. Up on top one will find the power button, a lock switch and a 3.5mm audio jack. Whoever decided to place the audio jack in this position must have never used the tablet for themselves, as it would have been apparent to them that a headphone cord draping across the display is not exactly the most ideal situation for use. The speaker grills were thankfully much more thoughtfully located towards the bottom on both the left and right sides, however.

In comparison to the current market, this is rather standard fare for a tablet. Worth mention are the two included adapters for USB OTG (for connecting full-size USB devices) and a micro-HDMI to VGA adapter. While this latter adapter is likely to be forgotten and left at home, it is always nice to have the option of connecting to a myriad of peripherals, new and old. Acer also included a rather hefty (read: premium feeling) capacitive stylus with the computer for users who desire such a thing. Unfortunately, mine rolled off the counter and hit the floor immediately after being removed from its packaging, breaking the specialized tip. Thankfully, that piece is replaceable, if a bit pricey.

Of course, the W510's real pièce de résistance would have to be its trick keyboard dock, the real reason one selects a hybrid computer over a bog-standard tablet. Once docked, the Iconia gains two new methods of input (a netbook-sized keyboard and trackpad), a full-size USB 2.0 port, and some extended runtime courtesy of an embedded battery. While Asus equips some of its Transformer docks with SD card readers, Acer's SD-less attempt more or less represents par for the market. However, the dock does have one rather unique trick up its sleeve: a hinge cable of rotating a full 295 degrees. This transforms the whole ensemble into something of a presentation-friendly setup. It is a configuration which might also prove to be useful on airplane flights.

Additionally worth mention is the surprisingly nice carrying case that Acer includes with the machine. It is made of exceptionally high quality materials and is a most welcome inclusion. An intelligent design means that it hugs any of the system's modular components snugly while offering an impressive amount of protection from any other objects that have been tossed into one's bag.

Ignoring sheer specs and focusing on the machine only from the perspective of my empty-nesters, I used the W510 for a few weeks in order to really get a feel for it. I took it on an airplane, with me to coffee shops, and relied on it for entertainment in waiting rooms. There were occasions when I'd run out the door with just the tablet stashed in my backpack, and others when the keyboard dock came along for the ride as well. Whenever possible, I tried to put the computer to work under the same conditions that a student might subject it to. For a start, dozens of emails and programming assignments were written. Pandora was left streaming in the background from the moment I woke up until nightfall. Facebook and Twitter were both frequented more often than I care to admit. Microsoft Word was rarely allowed to close. Just about the only thing I didn't do was carelessly spill coffee (or something far less academic) upon the keyboard.

The takeaway from these impromptu "tests" surprised me. I never would have expected such a budget-focused machine to be able to actually handle RAW image files, albeit a bit slowly. HD video files, both streamed from YouTube and locally-stored 1080p files, played without a hitch. Given this level of performance, it should also come as no surprise that Microsoft Office never missed a beat. And with that, this tablet passes the productivity test. While the Intel Atom CPUs of old might have left much to be desired, its implementation here with Windows 8 is an absolute joy. Especially with cold boots completing in about 13 seconds. (Here's a video of it.)

However, I uncovered a two-edged sword in the form of the keyboard dock. While it does indeed allow for work to be done on the go, it is far from perfect. Many aspects of this first-party dock feel like the result of a committee bent on cutting corners. The keyboard's keys have a very short throw, feel cheap, and simply don't inspire a lot of confidence. They also occasionally fail to register multiple presses at a time, or instead decide to phantom-type characters entirely on their own. Combined with a trackpad that cannot be adjusted and lacks any multitouch abilities, and the entire keyboard dock becomes a really questionable investment.

What of battery life? While I have no scientific tests or benchmarks, I can tell you that I never once brought the AC adapter with me while I was toting the W510. Not once did I feel an ounce of battery anxiety, instead enjoying truly wireless computing. Keyboard dock or not, the Iconia is definitely a machine with impressive stamina.

Having taken into consideration the requirements of my empty-nesters, it is time to issue a verdict. Does the Acer Iconia W510 represent a sound purchase? In a word, yes. Ignoring the current issues plaguing Windows 8, chief amongst which is an app store ecosystem that is still in its adolescence, this is a device more than capable of killing two birds with one stone. As a simple tablet, the Iconia offers iPad-esque battery life and finger-friendly computing, and as a computer, it is capable of doing everything else.

That said, I can't recommend purchasing the keyboard dock. Not yet, anyway. As history serves testament to, these type of accessories often go on fire-sale when their manufacturer deems them no longer worth keeping in stock. Once the price of the dock dips to a more reasonable amount, then it might be worth nabbing. But in the meantime, a cheap USB mouse and keyboard are what I'd recommend opting for. Then just build yourself an awesome cardboard cradle like the one pictured above and get straight to work.

Acer's little Clover Trail-powered tablet manages to define a unique compromise between two worlds. Relatively small and lightweight, it is a tablet that feels like it can be brought along for the ride and used, instead of just left at home and babied. Paired with a keyboard dock, or some spare peripherals, and it becomes a fully-featured computing environment. Because of its solid footing in both worlds, the W510 is definitely worthy of consideration by anyone looking for both a handy tablet and a great computer.