If you recall, the 10-inch Acer Iconia W510 tablet was the first finished Windows 8 device we tested, so it's not surprising the company is laying claim to the first 8-inch product as well. And whaddya know? The W3 looks just like its big sibling, except cut down to size. This, too, has a gray plastic back cover and a band of white ringing the sides and front. At 1.1 pounds, it's the lightest tablet we know of that runs full Windows 8, but that's just a victory by default -- it's not like there are any other 8-inch Win 8 tablets yet or anything. Even more than its actual weight (it's only slightly lighter than the W510), its real advantage is its more compact size, which makes it easier to hold. We'd argue, too, that as boxy as the tablet is, its chunky shape helps make for a comfy fit. Ditto for the rounded corners and softened edges. Not pretty, exactly, but pleasant to touch.
And by the way, despite the fact that this is sort of a thick tablet, it doesn't actually make room for that many ports: There's your requisite power / lock button on the left, along with micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports. Flip it over to the right landscape edge and you've got both speakers, along with the power port and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. All that's left are the volume buttons up top, plus an exposed microSD slot (and a bit of conspicuous Iconia branding). Wrapping up, there are cameras on the front bezel and also around back. Surprisingly, they're actually the same resolution: two megapixels.
Unlike with the W510 when it first came out, the W3 doesn't come standard with a keyboard; you have to buy it separately for $80. One thing hasn't changed, however: the Bluetooth keyboard here is still the most awkward part of the design. In this case, the 8-inch W3 is paired with a full-sized keyboard, one that would be more at home on a 13-inch laptop. According to an Acer rep we interviewed back at Computex, the company decided a larger keyboard would make for a better typing experience, even if the small tablet and big keypad make for an unsightly duo. We can't say we disagree: the keys are well-spaced and deep, even if the underlying panel is a bit flimsy. And besides, if other PC makers can't nail the typing experience on a 10-inch device, how was Acer ever going to have a chance of success with an 8-inch model? Can you imagine the things we would have written in this review? Two words, folks: field day.
Even so, this thing has some incredibly strange design elements. Starting with the keyboard deck itself, there's a rounded slot where the tablet is meant to sit, along with a slightly protruding piece to prop it up. When it's just sitting there, the tablet stays put. But when it comes time to change rooms, or pack up and go elsewhere, you've got two choices, one of them being: "Hold the keyboard as steady as you can, with the tablet still inside, and pray you don't drop it." The other option is to pop the tablet into a scooped-out area on the back of the keyboard, which was designed to cradle the device when not in use. The problem is, inserting it can be a slightly finicky affair, particularly since the device doesn't make much of a "click" when you set it in, so it can be unclear when you've actually inserted it correctly. (To its credit, it never, ever fell out during our testing.) Additionally, having to stop to put the tablet in its slot takes time. Not much time, but a few seconds each go-round, especially if you don't yet know what you're doing. It would be much more efficient to snap the tablet into a keyboard dock with a proper hinge mechanism, and simply shut it when you're ready to move.
Display and sound
Even for a budget tablet, the W3's 8.1-inch, 1,280 x 800 screen feels like a letdown. Head-on, at least, colors are balanced and the pixel density is pleasing, but once you adjust the screen angle at all, whether it be horizontally or vertically, the panel quickly becomes washed out. Pick a really off-kilter angle and the screen takes on a sickly yellow overcast, especially in areas that are supposed to be white. That's bad news for people who don't immediately buy the optional keyboard dock; you're going to spend a lot of time with the tablet resting face-up on a table or your lap. And it's a shame, because we're pretty sure the industry is better than this: if ASUS and Amazon can make budget Android tablets with knockout screens, surely the same can be done for Windows... right?
As for the sound quality, it's some of the tinniest, weakest we've heard from a tablet yet. Were you expecting much more from an extra-small, extra-affordable device?
Performance and battery life
Lately, we've mostly been testing Windows PCs with full-fledged Core processors inside -- you know, Core i5, occasionally Core i7. And as more and more OEMs have upgraded their wares to Haswell, we've noted a sizable performance jump, particularly with regards to battery life. In the case of low-powered tablets, though, we don't yet have a new Atom chipset from Intel, which means all the models we're testing continue to have identical specs: namely, a 1.8GHz Z2760 CPU, Intel HD graphics and 2GB of RAM.
Not surprisingly, then, it performs more or less like the others, particularly when it comes to read and write speeds. In the disk benchmark ATTO, the Samsung-made drive reached peak read / write speeds of 84 MB/s and 35 MB/s, respectively, which is near-identical to what we've seen on every other model, plus a megabyte or two. We also logged a 15-second startup time, which isn't exceptional, exactly -- the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 performs just the same -- but it's still faster than what we've seen from a few competing offerings. HP's ElitePad 900, for example, takes a full 30 seconds to boot into the Start Screen. If anything, we wish the accelerometer were quicker to switch between landscape and portrait orientation. Not that other tablets are great at this either, but with larger 10-inch models, you're probably less likely to ever use it vertically in the first place.
Otherwise, it performs about the same as other Atom-powered tablets. Though it scores slightly higher in PCMark 7, a possible result of the upgrade to Windows 8.1, that doesn't translate into significantly better real-world performance. As we've always said, Atom processors, as low-powered as they are, are sufficient for precisely the sorts of things you might do on a tablet (especially a little one like this). We had no problem streaming music and video, or opening and switching between apps. It will choke on graphically detailed games before you even get past the opening animation sequence, but again, you're not buying a tablet like this because you want to play BioShock Infinite.
Acer rates the W3 for eight hours of battery life, but really, that's just a conservative estimate approved by the company's legal department. As it happens, the tablet managed an impressive nine hours and 21 minutes in our battery test, and that was under fairly grueling conditions too (video looping off local storage, WiFi on, brightness at 65 percent). Had we stuck to web surfing and lowered the brightness a notch, we're sure we could've squeezed out even more runtime.
Software and warranty
Because we borrowed our review unit from Microsoft while attending the Build 2013 developer conference, it came pre-loaded with Windows 8.1 Preview. As you might already know, it'll be another month yet before Microsoft even ships 8.1 to PC makers, so for now the tablet comes with regular old Windows 8 out of the box. Of course, you can download the preview yourself anytime you're ready (hit the more coverage link below for the download page).
If you're interested in a full rundown on what Windows 8.1 includes, we encourage you to read our in-depth hands-on, which details all the new apps, as well as the various UI tweaks (think: enhanced windowing options, the return of the Start button, et cetera). For the purposes of this review, though, we'll say this: Windows is a delight to use in portrait mode, which you might have rarely done before, but will be tempted to try now that there's finally a tablet small enough to comfortably hold in a vertical position. And while you may have always been one of the few to use Windows 8 in portrait, the newest version of the software brings some tweaks that make it especially well suited to smaller, e-reader-sized screens. For example, the expanded choice of Live Tiles, including the super-small ones, means you can better make use of that narrow screen real estate when holding the tablet vertically.
Windows is a delight to use in portrait mode.
Additionally, Microsoft's added a pair of keyboard shortcuts that make on-screen typing easier. In particular, you can swipe the space bar to cycle through spelling suggestions, and then tap it to select the one you want. This works like a charm, saving you the (minor) pain of having to remove your hands from the QWERTY area to tap on a spelling pop-up. Also, you can long-press a key to get at alternate characters (the question mark doubles as the exclamation point, for instance). Even better, once you know where those secondary symbol options are going to pop up on-screen, you can just swipe the button in question in that specific direction. Coming back to that exclamation point, for instance, the exclamation always appears as a pop-up above the question mark, so you can swipe upward on the question mark to make an exclamation point. This, too, works as promised, so that you don't have to tap multiple times just to get to those foreign currency symbols.
Also, we love that you can now take photos from the device's lock screen. This will be a welcome feature on 10-inch Windows 8.1 tablets too, but it's especially convenient here, where the form factor is light (and maybe even discreet) enough to use as a standalone camera. Finally, in a refreshing twist, Office 2013 doesn't just come pre-installed on the W3; it's also free to activate. Just use a code that comes in the box and enjoy.
Like other products from Acer (and pretty much every other company, really), the W3 comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 phone support.
Configuration options and the competition
As impressive as our review unit's $430 price is, it's not even the cheapest configuration Acer has to offer. For $380, you can get it with mostly the same specs, except with half the storage space (32 gigs versus 64). Oh, and if you happen to be shopping for this on some third-party site, like Amazon, the configuration codes are as follows: W3-810-1416 for the 64GB model, and W3-810-1600 for the 32GB one. Either way, as we mentioned, the keyboard will add $80 to the price, while an optional carrying case costs $35.
For now, if you're looking for a smaller-screened Windows tablet, the Acer W3 is your best and only option. ASUS is rumored to be working on something similar, and we're inclined to believe that Wall Street Journal story at the link, even though company officials have so far declined to comment. The problem is, if this report is to be believed, the tablet(s) won't arrive until later this year, which probably means holiday shopping season at this point, as ASUS has basically missed the back-to-school window. Finally, we also wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft chimed in with a smaller Surface tablet, though good luck getting Microsoft to comment on that.
Assuming you're not dead-set on an 8-inch device, though, there are plenty of good Windows tablets, most of which offer impressive battery life even on last year's Atom CPU. Excluding any ARM-powered Windows RT devices, our favorites are the affordable ASUS VivoTab Smart and the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, which costs more, but adds pen support, optional 4G LTE and the best dang keyboard dock we've ever used. We'd recommend more powerful Core i5 models like the Surface Pro too, but most haven't been upgraded with Haswell yet, and the battery life won't be nearly as long as what you get here.
For the time being, at least, the Acer Iconia W3 isn't just the best small-screened Windows 8 tablet; it's your only option. Even if there were more to choose from, though, the W3 has a few things to recommend in its own right. Number one is price. With a starting MSRP of $380, Microsoft Office included, we can just about forgive most of its flaws, including its cheap build quality and that oddly designed keyboard. And to be fair, it'll be hard for any OEM to craft a good 8-inch keyboard. Just sayin'.
Additionally, the W3 lasts nearly nine and a half hours on a charge, and that's under grueling conditions, and without the aid of a second battery. The only thing we'd really change is the screen -- if budget Android tablets like the Nexus 7 can have nice screens, so can low-end Windows tablets. As is, though, the W3 proves that Windows 8 is a great match for smaller-screened devices. Even more than that, it's a great value; the best bang-for-your-buck Windows 8 tablet you're going to find. And yes, that includes the larger guys too.