Acer Aspire P3 review: a nice enough tablet, but wait for the refresh

Back when Windows 8 first launched, the Acer Iconia W700 quickly became one of our favorite laptop / tablet hybrids. There were two reasons for that, really: the price was right, and the battery lasted longer than pretty much any other Win 8 device we'd tested. The thing is, it was more of a business device than something we'd recommend to the average consumer. After all, it came with a heavy, desk-bound docking station, with the carrying case and included keyboard as standalone pieces. That's quite a lot to carry if you ever feel like taking it on the road.

That's where the Acer Aspire P3 comes in. Don't worry, the W700 is still alive and kicking, but for people who've been looking for something more portable, this could be the one you want. Like the W700, the P3 starts at a reasonable price ($800) and has the guts of an Ivy Bridge laptop, including a Core i5 processor, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 120GB SSD. The difference is that rather than a clunky cradle, it comes with a carrying case that doubles as a keyboard; just prop the tablet up into a ready-made slot when you feel like watching movies or answering email. Yep, kind of like the Surface Pro, except there's no built-in kickstand and the keyboard is actually included. So is it a good deal at that price? Let's find out.

Acer Aspire P3 review

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Acer Aspire P3

Pros

  • Keyboard included
  • Thin and light for a Core i5 tablet
  • Quick bootup, fast SSD speeds
  • Runs quietly, doesn't get too hot

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • Relatively low-res display, no pen input
  • No touchpad or pointing device
  • Overall performance is weak compared to other tablets in this class
Summary

The P3 is a well-priced Windows 8 tablet with fast disk speeds, but it would be a more compelling product with Intel's newer processors to help extend battery life.

Hardware

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Take away the keyboard and the P3 looks a lot like the W700, which is to say it's fashioned out of aluminum with a boxy shape and blunt edges. At 0.4 inch thick, it's actually slimmer than we would've expected a Core i5 tablet to be, but it still makes room for a full-sized USB 3.0 connection over on the left. What's more, at 1.74 pounds, it's lighter than most of the other 11.6-inch Core i5 tablets in its class, including the Surface Pro, which weighs two pounds, and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, which weighs 1.8 pounds (3.8 if you factor in the accompanying keyboard). Granted, we'd still prefer to use a nearly two-pound tablet in its stand, or on our laps, but there's no doubt it's a bit more pleasant to hold aloft than some of its competitors.

Elsewhere, you'll see everything else you'd expect to find on a tablet, including a volume rocker, micro-HDMI socket, headphone jack and power / lock button. There's also a micro-USB-to-USB cable for charging the included Bluetooth keyboard. Lastly, it ships with a micro-HDMI-to-VGA adapter, though most of you won't need it.

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Normally we'd wait until later in the review to talk about the keyboard, but in this instance, the included keyboard case is a crucial part of the P3's identity. What's nice is that the case fits neatly into the groove where you're supposed to prop it up, and once it's in, it stays put. The whole setup feels more stable than some similar-looking setups, like the one on the ASUS VivoTab Smart. The downside to this form factor, of course, is that the screen angle isn't at all adjustable. Luckily, the IPS panel makes for easy viewing, both head-on and from slightly off to the side.

The thing is, once you get the tablet inside the case, it can be awfully hard to pull back out. Even when you do manage to wrest it out, you'll probably hit the power button or volume rocker by mistake. Also, the process of tearing away the plastic cover reveals just how cheaply made it is: it flexes in a way the tablet itself doesn't. It's not prone to breakage by any means, but it's also not the sort of thing you want showcasing your new $900 plaything.

Considering the whole thing is about the size of an 11-inch Ultrabook, the keys are remarkably well-spaced. Heck, even the arrow keys are generously sized. All told, they're easy to type on, though there seems to be even less travel here than on other keyboard docks we've tested. In fact, we sometimes went out of our way to hit the keys hard, just to make sure our presses registered. The real problem, though, is that there's no touchpad -- not even an optical pointing stick -- so you'll need to supply your own mouse if you plan on spending a lot of time in desktop apps. For what it's worth, at least, desktop items are easier to hit with your finger than on a 1080p tablet. Hey, that 1,366 x 768 resolution had to come in handy for something, right?

Display and sound

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This is as good a place as any to segue to the display section. As it happens, you already know what we like about the screen -- namely, that the viewing angles are good enough to compensate for the fixed screen angle. But what about the resolution? To be fair, as far as pixel density is concerned, 1,366 x 768 isn't so bad on an 11-inch display. Ultimately, we're probably more forgiving than we'd be if this were a 13-inch device. (Uh oh, HP. You listening?) In fact, you might not necessarily miss how tiny the objects are at native 1080p resolution. But some of you will, and as it happens, the Surface Pro offers a 1,920 x 1,080 screen for a similar price (with some caveats, which we'll discuss more later). And for all the Surface Pro's shortcomings, it does, objectively, have a nicer display than the P3, mostly because it uses optical bonding to reduce glare.

Though the P3's case has a slot that could, in theory, be used to hold a pen, the tablet doesn't actually have an active digitizer, so you can keep your spare Wacom pens stowed in a drawer. You won't need them here.

The tablet's dual speakers are located on the bottom edge of the tablet, which means they're firing down into the case when docked, but toward you when you're actually holding it. As on so many Ultrabooks, the sound quality is tinny, but it actually seems a bit worse here than on other units we've tested recently. Yeezus sounds dreadful at top volume, for instance, what with all the distortion; if you do buy the P3, you're better off sticking to a medium level or opting for headphones. Fortunately, the sound is loud enough that you can get by listening on a lower volume setting, at least if you're in a quiet space without much background noise.

Performance and battery life

PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Acer Aspire P3 (1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y, Intel HD 4000) 3,867 3,999

E925 / P503

552 MB/s (reads); 524 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Duo 11 (1.7GHz Core i7-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,545 4,807

E1,107 / P621 / X201

540 MB/s (reads); 525 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 11 (1.8GHz Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400) 4,634 N/A

E1,067 / P600 / X183

558 MB/s (reads); 255 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Book 7 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,418 4,045

E1,081 / P600

626 MB/s (reads); 137 MB/s (writes)
ASUS Transformer Book (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,414 3,840

E924 / P512 / X177

482 MB/s (reads); 317 MB/s (writes)
Toshiba Kirabook (2.0GHz Core i7-3537U, Intel HD 4000) 5,275 5,272

N/A

553 MB/s (reads); 500 MB/s (writes)
MSI Slidebook S20 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,043 3,944

E1,053 / P578

484 MB/s (reads); 286 MB/s (writes)
ASUS TAICHI 21 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,998 4,818 E1,137 / P610 / X201 516 MB/s (reads); 431 MB/s (writes)
Microsoft Surface Pro (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 3,811 E1,019 / P552 526 MB/s (reads); 201 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

The configuration we tested, which retails for $900, comes with a dual-core 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 120GB SSD. If you recall, this processor is one of Intel's lower-power Y series Ivy Bridge chips, so our benchmark scores were naturally a bit below other devices with third-generation Core processors. Fortunately, while CPU-intensive tests show a dip in performance, the Intel-made SSD actually outperforms other machines on the market. In the disk benchmark ATTO, it did something most drives don't do: it delivered nearly even results for both read and write speeds (552 and 524 MB/s, to be exact). Most other WinTel tablets / Ultrabooks don't get that fast on read tests, and they definitely don't come close on the writing side. Also, the whole thing cold-boots in seven seconds, which bodes well for fast everyday performance, even if it won't ever make the leaderboard for PCMark.

There are other signs, too, that the P3 is a capable performer. For instance, it logged an impressive score of 206.3ms in the web-rendering test SunSpider (version 0.9.1). Indeed, web browsing is a smooth affair, with fluid scrolling and zero tiling when you zoom in and out. In general, that low-power CPU does a good job of keeping the machine quiet and (relatively) cool. Even after streaming Spotify and loading up a bunch of web pages, the vents on the top edge of the device felt merely lukewarm. And even if they do get a little toasty, you're unlikely to graze the vents with your fingers anyway -- at least if you're using this thing in landscape mode.

Battery life

Acer Aspire P3 4:33
Sony VAIO Duo 13 9:40
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Sony VAIO Pro 11 6:41
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 5:30
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
Toshiba Kirabook 5:12
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung ATIV Book 7 5:02
ASUS Transformer Book 5:01 (tablet only)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Sony VAIO Duo 11 4:47
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
MSI Slidebook S20 4:34
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch) 4:18
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist 4:09
HP Spectre XT TouchSmart 4:00
ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

Acer says the P3's four-cell, 5,280mAh battery can last up to six hours on a charge, but a company rep admitted that when it comes to video playback, specifically, you're looking at somewhere between roughly four and a half hours and five hours and 20 minutes. Indeed, with a video looping off the local drive, WiFi on and the brightness fixed to 65 percent, we managed four hours and 33 minutes. With the brightness set to a more conservative level, we bet you could top five hours, just as promised.

In any event, four and a half hours isn't good, especially in light of the runtime we've been getting from early Haswell systems like the new MacBook Air and Sony VAIO Pro 11. In all fairness, the P3 does get almost an hour more runtime than the Surface Pro, which also runs on an Ivy Bridge processor. That's faint praise, though: it's not like there's much of a reason for you to buy a device with last year's chips. Not unless the price is too low to pass up, anyway.

Software and warranty

Acer Aspire P3 review a nice enough tablet, but wait for the refresh

So how bad is the bloatware load here? Well, it's not as bad as the Samsung ATIV Book 7 we reviewed last month, but the collection of pre-installed apps is still pretty extensive. Taking up two pages on the Start Screen are shortcuts for: 7digital, Zinio's magazine shop, Kindle, Evernote, Skitch, newsXpresso, TuneIn, WeatherBug, Fresh Paint, Music Maker Jam, Zeptolab and the Xbox Live game Shark Dash. Acer also threw in some apps of its own, including Social Jogger, Crystal Eye (a webcam app) and Acer Explorer (for getting to know all those pre-installed apps you didn't ask for). For malware protection, you get a trial of McAfee Internet Security, which brings all the same annoying pop-ups as we've noticed on other test machines. Finally, just like any other Acer device, the P3 works with Acer Cloud, allowing you to store files in the cloud and access them on your mobile device.

The P3 comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 phone support.

Configuration options and the competition

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In addition to the $900 Core i5 model we tested, there's an $800 configuration with a 1.4GHz Core i3-3229Y CPU. Otherwise, the other specs are the same: a 120GB SSD and 5-megapixel main camera. As for a possible Haswell refresh a little later down the line, Acer won't say one way or another if new processors are on the way. So, it's up to you if you'd rather take the machine as is (and with a fairly low price) or hold out for an improved version that doubles down on battery life.

The same goes for many of the P3's competitors. We've mentioned the Surface Pro several times already, for instance, and that, too, comes with an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor. We'd actually be shocked if Microsoft didn't soon announce a new Surface, one with a refined design and fresh processors. That said, if you can't wait, the current Surface Pro starts at $899, the same price as the Core i5 P3. For the money, though, it starts with just 64GB of storage and no keyboard (those will cost $120 to $130 extra). The battery life is also shorter but, as we said, you do at least get a sharper display with less glare and Wacom pen support thrown in for good measure.

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The performance takes a hit and battery life is only a little bit better than on competing tablets.

Speaking of nice screens, the Toshiba Portege Z10t is an 11-inch tablet with a 1080p touchscreen with Wacom pen support and -- get this -- a matte finish. As we said in our hands-on, that anti-glare coating serves a few purposes: it reduces glare, obviously, but also masks fingerprints and makes the doodling experience feel more like writing on real paper. This also ships with Ivy Bridge processors, though a Haswell refresh is coming (the problem right now is that these are enterprise-friendly vPro chips, and Intel hasn't actually released its Haswell vPro CPUs yet). You'll also find the keyboard dock offers way more ports than you'll find on the P3, though the design is admittedly clunky (and sort of ugly too). We'd also caution you of the price: $1,499 is a lot for a tablet with last-gen processors, even if it does have a 1080p display, 128GB SSD and active digitizer.

As for Lenovo, the ThinkPad Helix ($1,679-plus) falls in a similar vein, with an 11-inch, 1080p display and an active digitizer. Like so many of the other models mentioned here, it currently ships with Ivy Bridge processors (your choice of Core i5 and i7). Mobile broadband is an option too. We expect to have a review up soon, but for now, suffice to say the battery life is quite a bit better than on the P3 or the Surface Pro.

So far, we've been mentioning hybrids that are better than the P3, but also more expensive. We can think of at least one, though, that comes close to matching Acer on both price and specs. That would be the HP Split x2, which goes on sale in August for $800 with a 13-inch, 1,366 x 768 display and your choice of Intel Y series CPUs (Core i3 or i5). On the whole, then, it's largely like the P3, with two key differences: screen size (natch) and the keyboard dock. In the case of the Split, the keyboard houses lots of additional ports, and also contains a 500GB hard drive to complement the SSD inside the tablet proper. Between that and the price, we suspect some people will give the Split a second look, those last-gen processors be damned.

Wrap-up

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At $800 with a keyboard included, there are lots of things we can forgive about the P3: its 1,366 x 768 resolution, the lack of an active digitizer for pen input. But we can't shake the feeling that Haswell would have made this a much better tablet. In designing this tablet, Acer resorted to a lower-power Ivy Bridge chip, presumably to maximize the battery life. But the performance takes a hit, and meanwhile battery life is only a little bit better than on competing tablets. Based on some early reviews of machines with Haswell chips, we're quite certain the battery life would be hours longer on the P3, and that the performance would improve too, especially on the graphics side. If you can hold out for a possible refresh, the P3 will be a more compelling deal than it is now. As is, you'd be shortsighted to buy something this compromised, even if it is priced to sell.

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Acer Aspire P3 review: a nice enough tablet, but wait for the refresh