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Acer’s inventive Iconia laptop falls into that exclusive category we sometimes call executive laptops. These are typically high-priced, highly designed systems that look great on a CEO’s desk or in the first-class airline lounge. But they’re also usually underpowered, overpriced, and too reliant on gimmicks that offer little in the way of actual utility.
The high-concept feature that sets the Iconia apart is actually two: two 14-inch touch screens. Instead of a screen and a keyboard, the Iconia ditches the keyboard for a second screen, which can be used either as an extended desktop or for a virtual keyboard. (We’ve seen a similar concept before, but with dual 7-inch screens, in the Toshiba Libetto W100.)
In practice, it works better than you might expect. Onscreen typing is still nowhere near as intuitive as the real thing, but a few generations of iPhones and iPads have trained us to tap-type without too much trouble, at least for short writing tasks. The experience is much closer to typing on an iPad than typing on one of the many Windows tablets we’ve tried over the years–and that’s a good thing.
There were still frustrations with the Iconia, however. The onscreen keyboard had a hint of a lag, although it would probably only affect the fastest of touch typists. The onscreen touch pad is too small, and lacks the kind of touch gestures a purely software touch pad could easily offer. And, most annoyingly, the CPU is one of Intel’s last-generation Core i5 processors. By moving up to the current generation of CPUs, the Iconia could have faster performance, longer battery life, and better graphics.
One final positive note: unlike other so-called executive laptops we’ve seen, such as Dell’s Adamo XPS, the Iconia is arguably reasonably priced, at $1,199–not a budget system by any means, but less than we’d expect to pay for two 14-inch touch screens.
The Acer Iconia packs its dual screens into an unassuming package. The thick, heavy chassis has a light bronze lid with black accents, and is not nearly as sleek as this week’s other high-end laptop, the Samsung Series 9. Boxy to a fault, we can only imagine the engineering required to fit the two 14-inch displays in safely. The Iconia feels sturdy enough, but it’s also too heavy and bulky to easily tote around.
Flipping the clamshell open, it’s almost like looking at two iPads joined together at the center hinge. Both screens have glossy edge-to-edge glass with black bezels and no other buttons, controls, or accessories (except for a tiny pinhole-style Webcam above the top screen). The hinge folds all the way to 180-degrees, so both screens can lie flat against the table, although that does block the bottom-mounted speakers. From our experience, there’s no difference between the two displays, but only the bottom one uses a 10-finger input gesture to pop up the onscreen keyboard.
To get to that keyboard, either touch all10 fingers lightly on the bottom screen, rest your plams on where the palm-rest would normally be, or hit the dedicated physical keyboard button located on the side of the left hinge. The pop-up keyboard that results is similar to what you’d see on a horizontal iPad, but it is bigger, with generous letter keys and large Enter, Shift, and Arrow keys. A few customization options are available, including larger or smaller F-keys and the overall key pitch.
It will never be as intuitive as typing on a physical keyboard, but with a little practice, we found it to be about as easy as an iPad keyboard, which is to say that it works for basic interactions and writing blocks of text up to about 500 words. There’s an audio cue for typing that clicks with each keystroke if you turn it on, but there is nothing resembling haptic feedback, which would be very useful in this situation.
While the keyboard doesn’t autocorrect or autoformat on the fly like the iPad does, there is a “smart input” feature, which behaves like T9 predictive text–but it was incredibly annoying to use, literally covering up whatever you’re typing with a huge list of possible words. We quickly turned it back off.
The virtual touch pad that sits underneath the virtual keyboard also could have been better. It functions well for controlling the cursor on the top screen, but lacks multitouch gestures, and is surprisingly small. You’d think with a software-driven virtual touch pad, it could be as big as you wanted. The top screen allows for Windows tablet gestures, such as swiping down as a page-down command, but it’s not as smooth as the tap-and-drag controls on an iPad (which is the large touch surface the Iconia is most likely to be compared to).
With that in mind, Acer has still done a decent job of crafting a touch control ecosystem within the limitations of the tablet support built into Windows 7. Tapping with five fingers on the bottom screen brings up a jog wheel that launches touch-friendly photo and video apps, a social media aggregator, as well as a two-screen custom Web browser and access to some systems tools, including power options and the capability to turn off the backlight for either screen. The bundled software seems well made, but the learning curve for using these proprietary apps instead of the standard apps and Web sites most of us already use make us unlikely to use them regularly.
Both 14-inch displays have a 1,366×768-pixel native resolution, which is what we’d expect on a midsize laptop such as this. The top screen seemed brighter to us, perhaps because the lower screen has an additional Gorilla Glass protective coating–not that it prevented either screen from being a fingerprint magnet.
Despite the fact that this is a big bulky laptop, you miss out on several typically standard features. There is neither Bluetooth, nor an optical drive, nor–shockingly–an SD card slot. You do, however, get a USB 3.0 port.