Acer Aspire R7 convertible notebook
Acer's Aspire R7 is interesting, but it will turn your world upside down
- Good screen
- Well built
- Good overall performance
- Touchpad location
- Keyboard isn't great
- Lacks a palm rest
Acer's Aspire R7 challenges the concept of conventional notebook layout by placing the touchpad above the keyboard. Ultimately, it's what makes the R7 so hard to get used to, even after prolonged usage. We like its screen though, and the Ezel hinge allows it to be positioned in many interesting ways. Don't consider this model unless you want more of a touchscreen experience than a traditional notebook experience.
Acer has gone to great lengths to create a Windows 8 laptop that differs greatly from what's considered normal. The Aspire R7 has all the main physical parts expected of a modern laptop: you get a keyboard, a touchpad, and a screen that supports touch. However, the touchpad isn't where it's supposed to be, and the screen can do things like come forward, and flip 180 degrees. It's definitely an interesting concept for a touchscreen, hybrid notebook, but its design makes it very awkward to use.
Not a normal laptop or tablet
Before you even lift the lid, the 15.6in, 2.5kg Aspire R7 looks almost like any other regular laptop on the market. However, there is a hint that there's something quite different about it when you see the wide central hinge holding a mounting point halfway up the screen. It's this hinge that makes the Aspire R7 different to other convertible laptops. The hinge actually has two mounting points: one at the base of the laptop, and the other is halfway up the screen, as we've already mentioned.
The reason for the two mounting points is so the screen can be lifted up in a similar fashion to a regular laptop, but then flipped around so that it can face outwards. You can then bring it down over the keyboard and use the R7 as a tablet. Acer calls it the Ezel hinge.
As a piece of engineering, the hinge is high-quality work. It looks neat, it's very strong, and it does the job it's intended to do perfectly. It's relatively easy to manoeuvre the screen from its traditional position as a notebook screen to a tablet position. Simply flip the screen 180 degrees and then close it over the keyboard to use it in tablet mode. The screen rests over the keyboard in a satisfying way, and it doesn't actually touch the keyboard. This results in a screen that slants upwards slightly towards the rear, rather than being completely flat.
This slanted position can be confusing at first, and you have to be mindful not to push the rear of the screen down when transforming into a tablet. That said, it's strong enough to withstand some misguided pushing. To convert the R7 back into a notebook, simply lift the screen and flip it again. The downside to all of this flipping and tilting motion is that any cables you have around the notebook could end up getting in the way.
We actually really enjoyed the mechanics of this laptop a lot and think that the build quality overall is solid. The problem is, we can't get over how wrong the R7 looks and feels as a laptop. The culprit here is the touchpad, which is located above the keyboard, rather than below it. It makes the laptop look back-to-front and that its screen has been hinged to the wrong edge. But the touchpad position is there by design to facilitate a type-and-swipe environment.
Basically, you can bring the screen forward to hide the touchpad and leave it sitting right up next to the keyboard. The theory is that you can more easily use the touchscreen in this manner while at the same time using the keyboard for data entry. The reality means that you're stuck with a keyboard that has no palm rest or easily accessible pointing device. Using the touchscreen is fine when you're in Windows' Modern UI, but when you're in Desktop mode, it's not always feasible as an input device.
That said, touchscreen usage is a personal thing, and you might prefer it to using a touchpad. However, we missed the touchpad and a proper palm rest a lot. Typing on this laptop was a chore. It felt awkward and tiring because there was nowhere to rest our hands. Furthermore, some keys, such as the space bar, required more pressure than usual to be activated. But the most frustrating part for us was constantly reaching down below the space bar to look for the touchpad so we could move the mouse pointer. We never got used to the fact that we had a touchscreen in front of us that would allow us to move the pointer, and we think that this might be a problem for most traditional notebook users who pick up this model.
When we used the notebook for typing, we found it better to move the screen forward and keep it close to the keyboard, mainly because this hid the touchpad so that we didn't constantly have to think about how wrong the notebook looks. But when we left the screen back in its traditional notebook position and tried to use the touchpad, our productivity was shot. It still took us time to adjust to the fact that the touchpad was above the keyboard, and we had to keep our hands in a position that didn't accidentally cause us to press any keys.
We ended up wondering if Acer would be better off placing the touchpad off to one side, but then there would have to be two pads for left- and right-handed users (ASUS already tried this in 2010 with the NX90JQ, but placed them either side of the keyboard). We then wondered if this laptop needs a touchpad at all, and came to the conclusion that it doesn't. A better solution may have been to centre the keyboard from the front and rear of the notebook and include a TrackPoint pointing device. This could at least provide some palm rest area and a conveniently located pointing device, while still allowing the screen to come forward a little bit.
The screen itself is very good. It has rich colours, good brightness, and wide angles thanks to IPS (in-plane switching) technology. It was also highly responsive during our tests and we found it a pleasure to use in tablet mode. It's also a Full HD screen. You can watch movies on it in a regular fashion, or by flipping the screen 180 degrees so that you don't have to put up with the keyboard and touchpad being in the way while you watch.
Acer has talked to us about how this model should be regarded more as a home entertainment device rather than a traditional notebook, and part of that is because you can do so many fancy things with the screen when you want to watch videos, or even select files (by touching the screen). It still has many of the regular connectivity that's found on traditional notebooks, but it lacks a built-in Blu-ray drive, and its speakers are not great.
Features and performance
Around the edges, the unit has DisplayPort, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port and an SD card slot. Tablet-style volume buttons can be found on the right edge, and there is also a power button located near them. The power button is too easy to press inadvertently when moving the notebook, and because it's set to hibernate by default, if you accidentally press it you'll have to wait close to 20sec for it to boot again. We think the power button would be better off being a sliding switch.
You also get Bluetooth and dual-band Wi-Fi (Broadcom), and there is a webcam, too. The configuration consists of components that provide swift performance for most tasks: you get an Intel Core i7-3537U CPU (third generation, 2GHz), 16GB of DDR3 SDRAM, an NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics adapter, and a 1TB, 5400rpm hard drive and 24GB SSD cache drive.
This configuration performed as expected in our tests, returning a time of 40sec in the Blender 3D rendering test, 53sec in the iTunes MP3 encoding test and 21min 24sec in the Handbrake MP4 encoding test. The notebook will handle office and multimedia tasks easily, should you choose to use it for those types of things. The hard drive performance was expectedly slow for a 5400rpm model (only just over 90 megabytes per second reading and writing in CrystalDiskMark), but the notebook felt responsive during everyday usage.
Graphics performance was quite good thanks to the strong NVIDIA adapter, recording 12345 in 3DMark06. Meanwhile, in the latest version of 3DMark, it recorded 15881 in the Ice Storm test, 6779 in the Cloud Gate test and 1698 in the Fire Strike test. You can definitely use this thing for a bit of gaming. It has Intel HD 4000 graphics, too, which get enabled when using the R7 while on battery power. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the R7 lasted 3hr 39min, which is a solid time in this test for a laptop of this size and power.
As a regular laptop, it's too hard to get used to the Aspire R7's touchpad position and we think this is the biggest hurdle for Acer to overcome. Furthermore, it's not a good unit for long periods of typing because it lacks a palm rest and some keys require a little too much pressure to be leave their mark. The R7 should be considered only if you want a type-and-swipe machine and you know that you'll get the most out of it by always using the touchscreen. By no means should you consider this if you're after a traditional notebook experience.
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