The differences between a PC and a tablet used to be pretty clear. Lately, though, the lines have been blurred by Windows 8 laptops and all-in-ones that employ all sorts of tricks to sideline as tablets. One of the most ambitious to date is the Acer Aspire R7, which I’ve been testing out for the last few weeks.
The Aspire R7 is a mainstream laptop with a 15-inch (1920x1080) touchscreen that folds nearly flat. This puts it somewhere between true Windows convertibles--of which there are many to choose from--and a new breed of “transportable” all-in-ones such as the Dell XPS 18, HP Envy Rove 20, Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon (which I recently tried out) and Sony Vaio Tap 20.
The Aspire R7’s most distinctive feature is its “Ezel Hinge” which lets you pull the display forward so that the bottom edge of the display is positioned on top of the base rather than at the rear. Ordinarily this arrangement would cover up the keyboard, so to get around this Acer swapped the location of the keyboard and touchpad.
This approach has its pros and cons. By moving the display closer, Acer made it easier and more comfortable to use touch to navigate Windows 8 apps.While there are lots of laptops with touchscreens, this is one of the first that that really feels like it was designed around Windows 8. That’s also the problem. Unfortunately there are many key applications--including nearly all of Microsoft Office--that do not have Windows 8 versions optimized for touch. When using these “classic” Windows 7 apps, you need to slide your hands under the display to reach the touchpad without letting your hands or wrists hit the keyboard. It’s so awkward that I suspect most R7 users will simply buy a wireless mouse instead.
If you pull the screen even closer, you can tilt it backwards and fold it nearly flat covering the entire keyboard and touchpad. The rear edge remains raised slightly, but this didn’t bother me much. The fact is that unlike most convertibles the Aspire R7 is too big and heavy to use as a true tablet anyway, and the slight angle leaves the display in a good position for reading, touch typing, or writing or drawing with a stylus.
Finally you can flip the display over 180 degrees either to show it to someone sitting opposite you or to watch videos or read without the keyboard deck in the way. In general the Aspire R7 is a great system for entertainment with its edge-to-edge 1920x1080 display and four above-average speakers with Dolby Home Theater v4. When you flip the display over, the video automatically rotates and the audio channels reverse.
Despite its unusual exterior, inside the Aspire R7 is a conventional mainstream laptop. The one I tested has a third-generation Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, 6GB of memory and a 180GB solid-state drive. The retail model, however, has a standard 500GB hard drive paired with 24GB of SSD cache to boost performance, and costs $1,000. In comparison, the Lenovo IdeaPad Z500 Touch (15.6-inch 1366x768 touchscreen, Core i5 processor, 6GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and DVD drive) is $850 and the HP Envy TouchSmart (15.6-inch Full HD touchscreen and a similar configuration) costs about $830.
The performance was exactly what you’d expect for a system with mid-range specs. It isn’t quite as fast as premium Ultrabooks with Core-i7 processors, and the Intel HD 4000 graphics aren’t up to high-end 3D gaming, but the Aspire R7 is fine for common productivity and entertainment applications.
The Aspire R7 is bigger and heavier than most convertibles (which generally have smaller displays), but reasonable for a 15-inch laptop at slightly more than an inch thick and 5.3 pounds.Like many newer 14- and 15-inch laptops, the Aspire R7 does not have a built-in optical drive.The battery life is rated at about 4 hours and that seems about right. I wouldn’t choose the Aspire R7--or any 15-inch laptop--for everyday commuting or frequent travel, but it is fine if you want a system to move around the house and bring along on occasional weekend trips.
In a world where everything could be done in “modern” Windows 8 apps using touch, the Aspire R7 would be a clear winner. Unfortunately that’s not the case and, given the prevalence of classic Windows apps, the notebook’s unorthodox keyboard and touchpad will probably scare off some shoppers. The touchpad does take some getting used to, but there’s an easy solution: a wireless mouse or touchpad. And the innovative design has some real benefits when using Windows 8, so the Aspire R7 is worth a good look if you want a 15-inch laptop. The design may also appeal to those who would ordinarily buy a new desktop, but are looking for something that will take up less space and can be moved around easily.
Eric Wong contributed research assistance for this post.