Acer Iconia W3 Review: The First Small Windows Tablet is Totally Useless

By Chris Mills on at

Small tablets -- 7 and 8 inchers -- have taken the Android and iPad markets by storm in the last year, but until now, there haven't been any machines sporting Microsoft's touchy-feely OS. Acer's the first on the scene, with the 8-inch Iconia W3; it's just a shame that it's a steaming pile of crap.

 

What Is It?

The first 8-inch full-fat Windows tablet.

acer iconia w3 windows tablet review

 

Who's It For?

People who want all the fun (?!) of Office, Internet Explorer and Excel on the go, without having to tote round a Surface Pro or the like. Also folk with no functioning eyeballs, as we shall see below.

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Design

The W3 follows in the best tradition of Acer design: plasticify, and add weight. It's a matte plastic frame with a silver SuperCheapTM plastic backing. In the hand, it feels much heavier than you'd expect – compared to an iPad Mini or the Nexus 7, it's a proper behemoth. Hell it even out-bricks the decidedly brick-like BlackBerry PlayBook.

While technically, yes, the Iconia W3 is the lightest Windows 8 tablet, there are no other 8-inch Windows 8 tablets, so congrats Acer, on winning a race against yourself.

And don't think that the heavy build beefs up the quality of the thing. There's an almost-worrying amount of flex if you twist it gently in your hands – I wouldn't do any more than that, for fear of the damn thing snapping in half.

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The back is also marred by two gigantic, unsightly Intel and Windows stickers. Why Microsoft and Intel feel the need to do the technological equivalent of pissing all over their devices is still beyond me.

In terms of ports, the Iconia W3's not doing too badly. There's micro-HDMI and micro-USB down the left-hand side, a microSD slot in the top side, and a headphone port and connector for the proprietary (ugh) power charger on the right.

Physical buttons are equally spread out – the lock button's on the left-hand side, with a volume rocker on the top edge, and Windows button on the right-hand edge (or at the bottom, when you're holding in portrait mode).

One other quirk of design is the asymmetrical screen placement. The size of the black bezel around the screen is constant, but the strip of white plastic swells out to accommodate the Windows button on the right, meaning that the screen isn't dead centre when you hold the W3 in portrait. Sure, it's no deal-breaker, but still a slight annoyance.

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Using It

Hardware

Speaking of deal-breakers: the screen. First impressions were that someone had left a screen protector on the W3; but no, the display's just that terrible. The resolution is acceptable -- 1280x800, giving a PPI of about 188, up there with most non-Retina tablets -- but the rest is a horror show. Grainy, dim, with shocking viewing angles and distracting glossiness, it rivals ATMs from 1967 for the prize of worst screen.

It's certainly enough to put you off using the W3. Regardless of the rest of the device, the screen is your primary means of interaction with a tablet; and when it sucks this bad, it makes the entire device unusable.

When (/if) you manage to get past the dreadful screen, things perk up a little. The W3's running an Intel Atom processor, with 2GB of RAM and onboard graphics. Sure, it's not going to win any benchmark-offs, and it won't play demanding PC games, but for the bulk of tasks, it's more than good enough. Browsing the internet while listening to Spotify, and maybe editing a small image in Photoshop? Easy as. Even HD movies play back OK, without all the stuttering you'd normally associate with netbook-level internals.

On the down-side, you'll need to be streaming those HD movies over Wi-Fi, since there isn't a lot of storage space on the W3. Out of the box, there's just 11GB of free space on the W3's internal storage. Now sure, you can add more on with a microSD card, but that's both inconvenient, and an imperfect solution, since programs won't natively install onto the SD card.

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Software

The Iconia W3 is running full-fat Windows 8, which is a mixed blessing. Especially since the release of Windows 8.1 (in beta, at least), Windows 8 feels like a proper tablet operating system. With a few notable exceptions, most of your day-to-day business can be conduced just dandy in the Metro UI, which works pretty well on the 8-inch screen of the W3.

Sometimes, though, you're forced into the classic Windows desktop. On a screen this small, trying to hit tiny menu items that were designed for use with a mouse is somewhere between farcical and incredibly frustrating, depending on how urgent your task is.

Good case in point: the Office suite. Microsoft has been nice/desperate enough to include a free copy of Office Home & Student with every small tablet. Given the W3 only costs about £280 for the 32GB model, that's a pretty sweet deal. However, Office apps will only run in desktop mode; trying to do any kind of serious work on the W3's terrible, tiny screen is a real chore.

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The Best Part

Battery life is surprisingly good for a Windows tablet. Looping a video at max brightness (trust me, any less and you wouldn't be able to see the screen) saw the W3 die in 9 hours. That's a bit less than the iPad Mini, but on par with most Android tablets. Although that might not sound like much of an accomplishment, for a device running a last-gen Intel processor, just keeping up with the ARM-powered competition is a feat.

 

Tragic Flaw

Do I even need to say it? The screen sucks. It completely, totally ruins the W3. I have seen better-looking Etch-a-Sketches.

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This Is Weird

Wi-Fi connectivity is a little weaker than you'd expect. In places where other tablets and smartphones were picking up full bars of signal, the W3 would be languishing on a couple bars.

 

Testing Notes

-The speakers are completely average for a tablet. That is, they're probably not going to do Beethoven's 5th much justice, but they'll make a vaguely passable noise, and are loud enough to wake you up in the morning.

- The W3's got two cameras: one front, one back. Both are basically webcams: clear enough to Skype with, but if you try and use your W3 as a camera for anything serious, you'll be sorely disappointed (side note: tablet photographers are jerks).

- Normally Acer can't resist cramming each and every device chock-a-block full of bloatware. The W3 is a pleasant exception to this rule: the only pre-installed apps are (gasp) ones you might actually use, like Evernote or Kindle.

acer iconia w3 review DoF

 

Should You Buy It?

No. Although the W3's a decent stab – heck, the only stab – at a small Windows 8 tablet, the combination of incredibly bad screen, weight and a lack of internal storage are bad enough to leave it DOA. Although you can use full Office on the W3, your eyeballs will melt and fall out after about 15 minutes; you'd be much better buying an iPad Mini, or any of the cheap and decidedly excellent small Android tablets.

This isn't the death knell for small Windows 8 tablets, though. The concept is certainly sound: a smallish device you can carry round, but plug into a second screen and use as a workstation when the spreadsheets call.

Moreover, the Metro UI makes a lot of sense on an 8-inch screen. Although there's no quantifiable reason it should work better on a small screen than on the Surface Pro's 10-inch screen, it just does. Were it not for the Iconia W3's few hardware pitfalls, the first 8-inch Windows tablet would also be one of the best machines on the market.

 

Acer Iconia W3

Gizrank: 2/5
Price: £280 for 32GB, or £300 for 64GB
Processor: Intel Atom, 1.5Ghz
RAM: 2GB LPDDR2
Storage: 32 or 64 GB SSD
Screen: 8.1" 1280x800 TFT LCD Display
Weight: 500g
Size: 219x134x11mm