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Switched On: Acer's Iconic Keyboard


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

When Acer announced a slate of new devices at a New York press conference last week, the overarching message was simple -- keyboards are as done as a Thanksgiving turkey. The company introduced an array of tablets, most of which were running Android, with sizes ranging from five- to ten-inches each. That's almost as broad a lineup as Archos, which has dipped down to what most would consider digital audio player turf with a three-inch tablet (tablette?) and a precursor to what is sure to be a merciless barrage of tablets on the slate for CES. The single manifestation of a physical QWERTY text entry device was a keyboard dock designed for a 10-inch tablet running Windows.

But as much as Acer's tablet lineup seems poised to flounder in the coming sea of similarity, its Iconia laptop stood out, eschewing a keyboard for a second 14-inch touchscreen to match the main display. Unlike the dual 14-inch hinged Kno device discussed in columns prior, this one is clearly designed to be used in a landscape orientation, and unlike the 7-inch Toshiba Libretto, the Iconia is not being positioned as some kind of limited-edition experiment. If anything, Acer signaled that it would be the first in a series of products that would unfold over the next several years.

PC companies have no doubt been inspired to try dual-screen designs featuring soft keyboards given the way consumers have embraced smartphones and the iPad, which make a similar tradeoff. Indeed, with potentially even more real estate to spare in the case of the Iconia, they can theoretically provide an even better virtual keyboard experience than those devices. Indeed, after taking a moment to orient their fingers, touch typists may find themselves very much at home row with the Iconia's software keyboard. Nonetheless, there are a few obstacles that issues that could make the fate of the Iconia less than a touching story.

Lack of need. Particularly on smartphones, it has become clear that the extended real estate offered by removing the keyboard from the front of the device can make a big difference in tasks such as Web surfing and watching videos. In contrast, while users of multiple-monitor setups regularly express how such a setup aids their productivity (particularly for multitasking), it isn't yet clear if those benefits extend to monitors that are flat against a surface, particularly for a productivity device such as the PC. On one hand, a lower display could be exploited for mixing software where a QWERTY keyboard could be replaced by a musical one. On the other hand, Acer demonstrated a media player application where the lower screen was mostly wasted by large media control buttons.

While users of multi-monitor setups regularly express how they aid productivity, it isn't yet clear if those benefits extend to monitors that are flat against a surface.

Lack of flexibility. The Iconia's upper display can open 180 degrees, and lay flat, parallel with the lower display, but more could be done. For example, it could extend to an even greater angle, folding over itself like many traditional tablet PCs or the dual-screened Kno. Or it could stand in an inverted V position with the screens facing out, enabling it to be a more flexible tool for conference room presentations or the ultimate device for digital versions of games like Battleship and Guess Who. But that leads to a third issue.

Lack of software. The iPad's game console-like platform uniformity has encouraged third parties to take advantage of such hardware features as the accelerometer. However, while Acer, like Toshiba before it, is introducing useful enhancements to Windows for the dual-screen clamshell design, how many third-party developers will be prepared to exploit such a form factor?

In addition, while an initial typing experience on the Iconia seems favorable, that doesn't mean that the Iconia will be suitable for cranking out volumes of text longer than even a finely crafted Engadget column. Dual-screen notebooks could have the best payoff for smaller notebooks – so small that they are not expected to do heavy textual looking, and where the extra screen real estate could really come in handy (taking a cue from smartphones).

Ideally, though, they would not be so small as to unduly compromise the typing experience. The Libretto W105, like the original Asus Eee PC, has a 7-inch main display, and the physical keyboard on that Eee was very cramped. The optimal screen size such a product is probably 10 inches, which is also about the minimum size required for a full-sized physical keyboard. Not coincidentally, it has also become the go-to screen size for netbooks.

For now, the Libretto W105 may be too small for a great virtual typing experience and the Iconia dimensions generally befit a PC we rely on for more. The industry will continue to pursue Baby Bear's dual-screen laptop to accommodate the would-be digital Goldilocks wandering in from the forest of indistinguishable notebooks, and see how far she gets without any keys -- if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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