Acer Iconia W510: Windows 8 “budget” Tablet Convertible, great battery life but flawed and underpowered

A friend of mine had one the Acer W510 Windows Tablet Convertible he had won  as well as as the prize for an event conducted and sponsored by Microsoft for students to promote writing apps for Windows 8.  He brought the device as he was about to dispose it and move to an Apple Mac (yeah a Mac, supposedly it ran windows on a VM far more efficient and reliably than native Windows on any other hardware, scary) for me to get a quick feel of the device and Windows 8 on a tablet device.

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Readers be aware that this is a device running normal Windows 8 on a tablet, and not the tablet friendly RT device. To me devices such as the Acer W510 make far better sense, than a pure Windows RT device with the arrival of the newer range of lower power (ULV) Atom and Intel Core series based devices.  Why would you want to limited yourself to RT specific apps, when you can have both RT and Windows apps in one device!

For those who are not aware, Windows 8 comes in many flavors, not just versions.  The normal windows 8 as we know is a upgrade of Windows 7 can can any windows application.  However recently Microsoft launched a version called Windows 8 RT, which is a pure tablet device that uses a new set of libraries for developers to write pure tab applications.  These can be run on normal Windows 8 as well as Windows 8 RT devices. However Windows 8 RT devices cannot run normal Windows applications, so you are limited, severely limited if you buy a RT device.

The Acer W510 runs a normal version of Windows 8, with the only limitation being that it is a 32-bit version of Windows 8, as 64-bit is not supported by the hardware used, and it is also limited to 2GB memory, both harking back to netbook origins.

What is a Tablet Convertible

A tablet convertible as they call it is a device that can work as tablet device, and also provide almost laptop like functionality to the user.  The devices in the past used to come in mainly as rotating screens (either you twist it to face you, or as in the case of DELL with their swinging screens on a frame).  However with Intel working hard on reducing the power consumption and heat generation of their processors to make the mobile friendly, the time has come where the laptop internals have all moved to the screen, making truly tablet like formats possible, which is where the Acer W510 fits in.

The hardware

The Acer W510 is what is labeled as a budget tablet convertible, but its not by any means a cheap device, since it cost more than many far more powerful ultra portable laptops.  The term convertible here means that you can use the device purely as a tablet, or when connected to the optional dock, as a laptop.

However the advantage a convertible device provides is that it can be used a tablet and if required to a lesser degree as a laptop.  Its this key advantage that also makes the prices high, but the Acer W510 is one of the cheapest (and least powerful) devices in this market, as most other feature far more powerful Intel Core i3/5/7 processor based solutions including Acer’s own W700.  I am sure by the end of this year we will see a lot more such devices, and the ultabooks may switch to this format since the ultra books in the current format have not faired well against the Mac Air and MacBook Pro devices.

So what powers the Acer W510.  Let me discuss each separately

Processor

Processing is handled by an Intel “Clover Trail” Atom Z2670 1.8Ghz dual-core processor. This is better regarded for its very low 1.7W TDP power consumption than processing power. The desktop version of this model is the N2600 Atom.  The Z2670 Atom is a lot more powerful than the Atom processor range that used to power the rather primitive netbooks until recently, and yet it consumes nearly half the power compared to the previous gen Atom dual-core.  However compared to a Core i3 or even a dual-core Celeron based on the Sandy Bridge or Ivy line, this processor can be considered very very limiting for high end stuff, but for normal usage (web browsing, document editing, etc) this should be more than sufficient.

Graphics

Graphics is handled by a PowerVR SGX545 unit.  This does mean that it has more graphics capability than the Intel GMA series featured in old Atom netbooks, but sadly its no match for event the latest HD 4000 graphics from Intel which itself is in simple terms is crappy in the 3D performance aspect.  In an era where we talk of multi-core/stream based graphics processors, the PowerVR graphics core is a single-core unit, and is sadly far less capable than the PowerVR units that are featured in the Apple IPad devices, and Android tablets.  Intel should have coupled the Atom processor with a far more capable PowerVR unit so that the 3D capabilities of this SoC could have been improved.

Another concern over the Cloverleaf Atom and SGX545 combination is that, this was brought as a temporary measure for Intel to provide some decent low power graphics to its Atom range, and the proper Intel HD 4000 based Atom units are due soon.  The PowerVR chip has gained very little support due to this fact, and with the arrival of an Intel HD based solution the driver support from Intel is sure to vane.

A recent test by the famous Anandtech on graphics capability across platforms shows that the PowerVR SGX545 is one of the weakest in the range, out done by practically all current mobility graphics cores.  The Acer W510 was the preferred test platform but due to the fact the drivers kept crashing they had to shift to an ASUS with similar hardware, and the results were disappointing to say the least.

Memory

Memory is limited to 2GB (DDR2 type!) due to the SoC that this is built, and 2GB in recent times is definitely not enough for Windows based machines, so don’t plan to run anything serious on these devices.

Storage

Storage is handled by a SSD unit, but comes in a 32GB or 64GB format.  Both to most will be rather limiting as the OS and the Acer recovery itself will take more than 20GB of that space.  However the unit features a microSD slot that can take upto a 64GB micro SDXC card, that should boost storage. 

But unlike its big brother the W700 with the Intel Core series processors, the Atom based units feature MMC based designs, which means you get miserable read and write performances even though the W510 features an internal SSD compared to the Intel Core based convertibles that have a mSATA implementation.  This might explain why the startup from a full shutdown took over 30 secs, when all are speaking of under 5 second boot up times with SSD.  This limitation will apply to all Intel Atom based tablet convertibles currently in the market.

Display

The display is a 10.1inch IPS backlit TFT unit with 1366×768 pixels, which may not be fancy but does a very very decent job.  The resolution is very popular among most ultra books and laptops in the Windows market, and while it may  not be as great as a full HD unit, i feel the lower resolution suits Windows 8 tablets since the higher resolution will make touch a nightmare.  The display is classified as a 5-point capacitive touch screen and does not have digitizer as featured in the Surface Pro devices and Samsung Ativ devices, so while it does the job it does not have great touch capabilities.

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Acer seems to be rather lacking in marketing flair as they miss out bragging that this device actually does come with a layer of Gorilla Glass 2 protection, a fairly important fact since many Android tablets miss this out.

The unit was configured with the font size scaling set to Medium (125%), however even with this enlarged font size, its not easy to use the tablet since the OS is bog standard windows except for the RT apps and the new Windows shell.  Launching explorer and getting a file to be selected is only easy in icon view, if not good luck trying to select the correct file. 

Here is where a digitizer and pen can be useful, and Microsoft Surface and the ATIV have got this sorted out.  Sadly no such luck for the Acer W510.

In addition the rotation of the device is painfully slow, a trait that the Windows Phone 8 also shares, though in the case of Windows 8 its rotates like a snail, i am amazed why Microsoft seems so incapable of achieving this when all other vendors have done this with amazing ease. Rotation is nowhere even close to how quickly an Android tablet or phone manages, let along the silky smooth rotation of an IPad.  Microsoft has a lot of work to do in this front for Windows 8 in any format to match the competition.

Battery

The device sports a fairly large 27Wh battery which supposedly can power the Tablet for over 8 hrs of usage, and over 3 weeks of standby.  Again i could not test this, but all reviews confirm that the tab actually can last over 7hrs which is a pretty decent performance.  What is more impressive is that when coupled with the battery in the dock the tab can extend to over 12-18hrs (and some cases based on usage over 20hrs) of usage, impressive.  However considering the Atom processor is very much similar to an Arm based A9 quad-core in power, and also less capable in the 3D arena than such a device, this may not be much to brag.

However for what most would use this which is genera windows work, reading epub and PDF, browsing, the battery life performance maybe something that is very positive about this device.

The more powerful Intel Core i5 and i7 based convertibles struggle offer even 4-5 hours of performance in tablet format, and these throttle the processor when operating in tablet mode which also means you don’t get the chance to use it at full power. If you do want these more powerful devices can give you the horsepower but watch these devices drain juice so much that even 2hrs of usage maybe asking too much.  Some such as the Surface Pro come with massive batteries (48Wh) and while this will give you good performance, i am sure the battery will not last too long, and your lifetime of your device may not be that great for pure tab use.

Another area the Clover Trail platform brings out is what Acer calls “Always On technology”.  This means when you press the power button the machine goes into standby just like a normal Android or Apple tablet, and consumes very little power and offers standby of over 2-3 weeks. In addition pressing the power again gets the device back to life in under 3 secs. This capability is yet to reach the Intel Core series, which have very poor standby time.

So on the whole in the battery department the W510 does very very well is the short side of the story.

Connectivity

The tablet has been well designed with many options including a micro USB, micro HDMI, microSD onboard. Acer also provides the adapter so that you can use a USB device with the micro USB port if you require.

However one issue that you can point to the W510, similar to the Galaxy tab devices and the IPad devices is that it uses a proprietary cable for sync and charging, and avoids what is now a common option of using the micro USB port.

The dock sadly only provides a single USB 2.0 port, other than that it does not bring much more to the connectivity capabilities.

Camera

The W510 comes with a 8MP back camera with a LED flash

Weight

This is one area the Acer designers attempts at skimming has worked, as the tab with all the Intel hardware is just 576g in weight, which makes it lighter than most tablets.  Add the dock it still is very light at 1.26kg.

What is missing compared to tablets from Apple and Android

The W510 is more a laptop in tablet format, than a true tablet is the first thing you have to realize, if not you are going to be mighty displeased.

The Windows tablets lack some capabilities that we may expect in modern tabby devices, mainly

  1. No built-in 3G, but you can use a 3G dongle with no problems and work with this device. However the W511 model has built in 3G.
  2. No GPS, now this is a weird miss, since any tablet like device i feel needs a GPS unit for map features as well as location specific apps

How does it work for general Windows applications

I tried the device out as a tablet that can help me do stuff i need to do from a Windows device on the move. 

  1. Microsoft Office: What more can i say it runs normal MS office and you have no limitations on the editing or viewing.  The Atom processor is more than capable of providing satisfactory performances
  2. Browsing: Comes with IE 10, but you can install any browser available for the Windows platform including Chrome.  Browsing is smooth unlike the Atom processors in the netbooks, though it can slow down if you open too many tabs.  This is maybe due to the a combined reason that it only has 2GB memory and the Atom processor is not power horse.  However while i could not test the benchmarks personally, referring to several reviews indicated that the browser performance was actually far superior to the Android devices and Windows RT based devices, and even bests the performance of the King of tabs, the IPad 4 in some tests!
  3. PDF viewing: I used the Windows PDF reader as opposed to Acrobat.  The PDF rendering was pretty good, and i would say it performed better than quad-core Android tablets i have tried including the Tegra 3 on the Nexus 7 and the Exynos quad-core on the Note 10.1.  The PDF rendering was also superior to the IPad 2 i had a while back.  However the stability of the PDF reader bundles with Windows 8 seems a bit poor as it crashed out once when using.  

I currently run Windows 8 on my work laptop which is a 3rd Gen Core i5 with 8GB RAM, but with a standard 5400rpm hard disk.  Compared to this machine in the above applications the Atom based W510 performed decent enough, however things that i could not try, but which i found on the web were,

  1. Very poor performance when unzipping and zipping files (directly attributed to the poor Atom processor)
  2. Very poor performance in video and music conversion (Again due to the poor Atom processor, and also due to the fact that the PowerVR graphics is only used with the Atom, hence the third party app support for acceleration is non-existence for this graphics core)
  3. Poor multi-tasking performance (this is more due to the 2GB limitation of the SoC platform, there is no way you can upgrade memory for these units)
  4. Gaming capabilities is practically non-existent, check out Anandtech where the frame rates were checked of the PowerVR on the CloverTrail to other platforms including Android and Apple devices. It comes last in most cases.

How does it work with Windows RT applications

Unlike Windows RT devices, the Windows 8 devices can run both native Windows apps as well as RT apps.  Further currently most RT devices running Windows are using the Tegra 3 based SoC though some such as the unit from Dell use the Qualcom Krait based solution with the Adreno 225 graphics.  However it seems the Atom combined with  the PowerVR unit can do better than, indicating that even the “rock bottom” processors in the Intel line up are more powerful than the cutting edge mobile units from Qualcomm, and Nvidia however sadly the Intel units cannot match the miserly power consumption of the Arm based devices other than with the Atom based units.

I only tried one RT app which was a game, and it played quite smoothly however as more powerful games roll out for the RT market, the Atom and the PowerVR chip are unlikely to be able to sustain this, so don’t by this if you are thinking this is going to be storming gaming platform, and not that the Windows RT store has any large number of good games!

Multimedia experience

The tablet comes with stereo speakers that are astonishingly loud, much louder than any Android tablet i have used, now that is great.  However the speakers are beautifully placed such that its the place you keep your hands when you hold the tab in landscape mode, which means you end up blocking the speakers and muffling the sound.  Good job speaker designer, bad job tab layout designer for Acer.

I played some music and found that the speakers were pretty decent with the sound quality, which was impressive.

I then tried some videos including 720P and 1080P.  I had read in many reviews the Atom processor and the PowerVR graphics chip were not very good at 1080P, however with the Windows 8 video player the unit played 1080P videos pretty darn fine.  However it seems MKV format was not supported by the native player.

The owner of the tab had installed KM player, but this player definitely does not support hardware acceleration for the PowerVR chip, and was struggling to play even 720p videos smoothly. I could not try the VLC media player, possibly this may do a better job.

The Dock

Acer did well to make a dock that also had an additional battery that would make this tablet one of the longest running devices in the market with over 18hrs of usage time combined.  Once the tablet is attached to the dock, an auto lock is enabled to avoid the tab from falling, and it looks and feels like a proper laptop once its attached.

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However it seems if the dock is not powered, the dock will not charge the tablet battery, but the tab will use the battery in the dock.  If the dock is connected to a power source, then the dock will charge the tablet battery while it powers the tablet.

A cool design that the Acer engineers have done for the W510 is that when you rotate the laptop keyboard backwards so that you can use the laptop like a picture frame or use the keyboard as a stand, the keyboard is auto disabled so that the keys facing the surface will not cause any interferences.

W510-photo frame mode

The dock provides only one full USB port, to be more precise an USB 2.0 port 😦  Acer could have done better by including an additional port so that you can use a mouse, etc and preferably a USB 3.0 port for fast data transfers.

Acer designers seem to have set their priorities to make the combined dock and tablet very light weight, but in doing that they have done a criminal mistake in that the dock is lighter than the tablet since all the PC hardware now resides in the tablet. 

This uneven balance means that unlike a proper laptop the W510 when connected to the dock tends to tip back very easily and is nearly impossible to use if you are seated and want to have it on your lap.  For all such use, you are better off using it in tablet mode.

The next IMPORTANT bit that the designers have screwed up is the keyboard, the feel is very cheap and plasticky and the keyboard has very poor feel, and is rather slow.  The ability to type fast as in the case of a normal laptop keyboard is practically impossible, so don’t for one moment think that this dock is going to make this a full fledged laptop.

The touchpad in the dock does not have any of the multi touch capabilities that new laptops have, and it merely provides basic capabilities. However compared to the rest of the ill fated design, this performs acceptably.

The dock does not have any fancy features such as a providing the ability to attach a hard disk so in the dock, which is a cool feature you see with the ASUS transformer Windows convertible.

A lesson that convertible designers have to get is that while low weight is important, by making the dock super light you mess up the balance, and then any advantage of the convertible format is gone. For buyers you are recommended to try out the device with the dock to see if it works for you, and if you are buying purely based on online, see the reviews as well as the weight of the tablet and the dock separately, if the tab weights more its most likely that tab will not balance well with the dock and provide you pure laptop capability.

RECOVERY and RESET

Here is something that you have to know.  The tablet convertible in all essence is a laptop with the hardware on the screen than under a keyboard.  Which means if you want to recover you have to do it like a laptop. 

The Acer W510 64GB version comes with a separate recovery partition, which allows you to recover it just like a laptop. However the 32GB version is to small to have a recovery partition which needs almost 11GB, so the recovery is provided as 3 DVDs.  if you by any chance delete the recovery or have to recover the 32GB version things are not simple.

Based on my findings on the Acer forums its quite “complicated” and includes the following.  This is because its a laptop in tablet format, the Windows RT devices feature recoveries similar to what we see with Android and Apple devices since the platform is smaller and pure tablet type.

  1. Connecting a proper USB keyboard to the device with the provided micro USB to USB adapter.  You cannot use the provided dock keyboard since it uses a proprietary port which Windows cannot understand.
  2. You have to then boot in recovery mode
  3. Once you have booted to recovery mode you have to attach an USB DVD drive and insert the recovery disks to get back to the original state

Useful links if you are recovering or want to install Windows 8 Pro which is not bundled with the W510 usually include,

Conclusion

To start off, the important thing to realize is that these full fledged Windows 8 convertible tablets, are not really a competitor to the IPad/Android tablets, as that is supposed to be handled by the Windows RT OS devices. These devices are in reality an alternative to an ultrabook or laptop, with the added advantage that you can use it as a tablet if you desire.  However the OS is the one we are all to familiar and hence don’t expect any real touch friendly assistance.

What you get is that you can run all RT based applications assuming the graphics can be be handled (the Tegra 3 and Adreno 225 units are far more capable on the 3D area than the PowerVR unit on the Atom SoC), plus that you can run normal Windows applications in one single device. 

You also get the ability to run normal Microsoft Office (though unlike the RT version, you don’t get a free license!) along with other download tools that are not well supported on the tablet OS platforms such as iOS and Android.

So to me these devices bring what Windows users have been craving for many years, and were not able to get hold of such devices and had to opt for twist type screens on the laptops.

But the story is not a great one for the Cloverleaf Atom + PowerVR graphics unit that is featured in the Acer W510 and other similar rival devices.  The key reason is not the processing power of the Atom processor, but rather the limited capabilities of the PowerVR graphics core, and more so that fact that its an interim solution until Intel got out its HD graphics based solutions which should give the ideal platform.  This can already been seen on the similar but massively greater performing Intel Corei5/i7 ULV based convertibles.

If you really need one of these devices save up and get the i5/i7 based convertibles is my advice, or wait for the Intel HD graphics based Atom SoC that should provide far better performance, and assured driver support.

The Acer W510 offers much, and has many design decisions that are truly great, and its battery life is something that shows Intel based chips and Windows can compete against the others in battery life and general performance, but its the next gen Atom with the extra juice which is going to be the real steal, and that may come in the form of the W520 🙂 Get that when it comes….

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