Living in Seattle has its benefits. It’s an amazing city as we’re on the ocean and only an hour from world class skiing in the mountains. We can now even smoke all the marijuana we want except it has to magically appear from the sky to be fully legal. Even better I could walk five blocks from my condo to see the Visual Studio 2012 product launch at the Bell Street Pier last September. At the event Soma surprised us all in attendance that the Visual Studio team was giving us “Windows 8 tablets from an OEM.” Yet another fine example of the Seattle magic we experience in the upper left corner of the continental US all the time.
The promised Acer Iconia W510 tablet with the Intel Atom CPU arrived yesterday and of course I’ve had to play with it non-stop and wanted to give my initial impressions. I’d skipped getting a Microsoft Surface because three minutes of trying to use the horrific Windows 8 mail application convinced me that without a usable email app, no ARM-based machine was appearing in my lap. Email and web browsing are the key applications on any device and as Jeff Atwood pointed out Microsoft’s nailed the browsing with IE 10 but said of the Windows 8 mail app: “everyone associated with it should be fired.” The idea of a tablet with full Outlook is something I’ve wanted to try for a while.
There is a lot to like about the W510 and if you want a tablet that does Outlook, Acer has done a great job. The hardware is solid and up to iPad quality. It feels the same weight as an iPad 2 but checking on my kitchen scale its one ounce less and the same thickness but about half an inch wider and shorter like the Surface. It’s balanced and the only Intel tax cost is that if you get the CPU working hard you can feel some heat on the back. I’ve been using the computer all day for email, browsing, and writing this entire blog post and it’s as cool as a cucumber. I’ll mention later why I got the heat but if you have the W510 it’s only a one time operation.
Reading over the tech specs on the machine I was worried that with only 2GB RAM I’d spend all my time waiting on Windows to swap processes in and out. Being an old Windows developer my stock response with any Windows computer is to throw as much memory as I can afford in the machine. My main laptop has 16 GB RAM because of that Pavlovian response but this is definitely not your Father’s Windows. As I type, I’ve got 14 apps, 31 background processes, and 22 Windows processes running. We can easily say that the Intel Atom is finally giving ARM a run for the money on resource frugality. The one app I keep looking at more than any other is Task Manager because the performance view is so fascinating to watch with awe. As I’ll discuss later I did some work to ensure the machine was only running what it needed to be running but seeing Windows run great on 2GB RAM is surreal.
Fitting everything into memory is great, but the real test is how responsive applications and system items are, such as the on screen keyboard. The great news is that the W510 is very responsive and I have yet to see any slowdowns. As I described it to my wife, this device is “wonderfully usable.” This entire blog entry was done on the device using Word. I do not have the cool keyboard dock for the W510 so this is a true iPad-like device for me. While I’m not the greatest typist in the world there is zero delay on anything I’ve typed on the screen nor has any swipe or pinch stuttered at all. My expectations may have started out low because of the small memory footprint, but they have all been blown away by the instantaneousness of every action.
The one feature that ARM System-On-a-Chip (SOC) tablets like the iPad and Surface RT taught us is that all day battery life should be expected. Without having enough time yet to do full battery usage testing, I can say that the W510 has been off the charger since 10 PM last night and I installed Office 2013, all Windows updates, a few of my key desktop productivity apps, as well as using it for everything today and the battery level is still 45% at 2 PM. All work day should be easily possible with the device itself. Add the keyboard dock, which claims 18 hours total, and you could overwhelm your coworkers with email each day without ever plugging in.
While I’m liking the W510 very much, all is certainly not perfect and Acer needs to fix a few things before I’d get one for non-technical users like my Mother. When I first started the computer, the amount of Acer crapware on the machine was so overwhelming I came within seconds of putting it back in the box and giving the computer to charity. My first impression was absolutely horrible. Things were popping up on the desktop I didn’t want and there were more Acer foisted turds on the Start screen than apps that come with the operating system.
To make matters worse, the Acer crapware was affecting the machine performance. The first two hours I spent with the machine was carefully uninstalling everything I could. That’s absolutely stupid and the people who put the crapware on it should be ashamed to have almost ruined some great hardware. I desperately wanted to wipe out the machine and put on a fresh and clean copy of Windows but Acer hasn’t posted the drivers for the machine yet.
Earlier I said that there was one time where I managed to get the CPU hot enough to feel. You probably guessed that it was when I was uninstalling all the Acer crapware. If you get a W510 uninstall everything from Acer except the following items to get great performance and let the hardware shine. Note that I could probably uninstall a few more of these items, but I am not sure what they all do.
Lawyer note: uninstalling Acer crapware worked for me and on my machine. You can break something uninstalling so it’s your fault and you can’t sue me. Make the recovery USB before you do anything to the machine.
Another, though much smaller, disappointment is the slow screen rotation. Shifting from landscape to portrait or back takes two to three seconds. The screen shrinks a bit and flashes to the new orientation and is a bit odd when everyone is used to the smooth flip on an iPad. I suspect this is an Intel driver issue as nearly every machine I’ve touched that uses Intel graphics has this issue, like my old Asus EP-121 which had a six second rotation screen rotation (seriously!).
There’s a physical manifestation that’s caused me to hold the machine upside down when I use it with the home button on top: the stupid Windows, Intel, and BLuetooth stickers on the back of the machine. The case is a nice metal that has the perfect touch of roughness so you feel confident holding it up and typing with your thumbs. However, those dumb stickers are right where my fingers grip and are slippery so until I get around to peeling them off it is upside down usage for me. Add in the fact the stickers make the back look cheesy and cheap is sad because the case is very well done. The photo below shows the strategically dumb sticker locations, but doesn’t do the Acer logo justice at how nice it’s done.
As wireless is the only networking on the W510 you want it to be as solid as possible. Unfortunately, where all my other devices are getting great signals, the W510 only gets three bars in the same location. There were some parts of my condo where I was down to one bar and occasionally Windows would report that it lost connection. I don’t know if this is a physical device problem or a driver problem but you may want to keep the wireless in mind when making that purchasing decision.
The last thing that’s a minor complaint but a little odd is that pressing the home button the computer vibrates for a quarter of a second like your phone does in vibrate mode. Since the home button isn’t a detent button I guess it’s to help let you know you pressed it. I personally would prefer an actual button because you can activate the start screen and the vibration just by brushing the button area with your thumb while typing. Yet another reason to use the compute upside down.
Overall, the W510 is a wonderful piece of hardware and for a first generation Windows 8 device, Acer’s got something that will compete quite well with all the other Intel Atom-based devices shipping soon. Sadly, I’m sure every other device will come with metric craptons of crapware too. I hope the engineers at Acer can apply a strong enough dope slaps to the marketing and business people that users don’t want your weak document cloud, poor video service, or strange music thing. We definitely don’t want the Office 2010 (yes, you read that right; 20-freaking-10) trial edition. Because Acer is the first out of the gate with a solid device that’s almost good enough to recommend to non-technical users, they have a chance to fix these problems. At around half the price of the upcoming Surface Pro, Acer can sell a lot of devices to people who want an iPad but need Outlook like so many of us do. I hate seeing an excellent piece of hardware screwed up like this. I do like this device and I’ll recommend it to technical people who can safely get rid of things, but not to everyone just yet.
While I should stop this blog post here, I’m enjoying writing about my first impressions so let’s talk about Office and Outlook 2013. This is the first time I’ve really used Office on a touch device for more than two seconds, and I’m loving it. The team did a great job making all the applications touch aware and it shows. In a lot of cases Office in the desktop is a better touch experience than many Metro/Modern UI/Windows Store apps, even some from Microsoft. Some people say that tablets are only for consuming content, but with the well done Office 2013, I’m creating more content on a Windows tablet in a day than my wife has on her Apple iPad in a year.
As developers and UI designers we all need to be studying the Office apps very hard to see the right way to do touch. Whatever you do don’t do what Google did with Chrome and just port it directly over to Windows 8. I couldn’t believe how poor the Chrome touch experience was. Trying to close individual tabs with touch was so bad I uninstalled it.
One small thing I’d like to see fixed in Outlook is that it remember the relative divider position between the mail items and the current mail you’re viewing. That divider has a tendency to slide too far to the left if you accidentally un-maximize so you only see three characters of who sent the mail. That’s easily fixable and what service packs are for. I’d also like all the Office applications to automatically default to full screen on small touch devices with the Auto-Hide Ribbon view. There’s not a lot of screen space so making that view the default would keep me from having to choose it every time I start an Office app.
With all my usage of Windows 8 up to this point being as a desktop operating system without touch, I’m late to the party on all the new excitement. To me the Start screen is just where you type to open desktop applications. Touching the Start screen is a novel and natural experience. However, I was a bit shocked at how less than ideal touch is on the desktop even with Windows 8 applications, including parts of Explorer. Maybe the Windows team needs to spend some time with the Office team to see how it’s done. If I sharpen one finger down to a point desktop touch might work better.
Billions of poor and defenseless electrons has been killed discussing the Windows dichotomy between the Start screen and the desktop. I don’t want to add to that sad toll, but one new feature in Windows I’d like to see is that on touch devices that full screen applications on the desktop show up in the left swipe switching and independently in the app snap area. I believe it’s going to be a long time before we have any store apps that approach a tenth of the functionality of AutoCad, Word, Excel, or most importantly, Outlook. As much as Microsoft’s dream is that everything be a store app, that isn’t realistic and a little love shown those key desktop apps would go a long way to helping Windows in the long run.
Thank you very much to Soma and the Visual Studio team for the device and bringing the VS 2012 launch event to me in downtown Seattle. Except for the great crapware fight of last night, you can see that my overall experience has been quite positive. Windows 8 runs great on a device with less memory than many minidumps I’ve had to debug. The lovely Outlook touch experience on the W510 will make everyone who’s bought a Microsoft Surface RT insanely jealous when I whip it out. The big question is that Acer is within sight of having a real winner in the W510 but do they have the corporate guts to make it happen?