Walt Mossberg

The Iconia W3: A Windows Tablet Aimed for a Mini Market

Windows PC makers have had a tough time selling tablets, even though Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system is touch-centric, sports a tablet interface called the Start Screen, and, as a bonus, allows tablets to run traditional Windows desktop programs.

The best example of this struggle came in recent weeks when Microsoft had to slash by about 30 percent the price of its own Surface RT, a well-built, full-size tablet that runs desktop Microsoft Office. That led to a $900 million charge in the software giant’s financial results.

Now, one of the major PC makers, Acer, is making a new attempt to dent the tablet market that is dominated by Apple’s iPad, but is seeing growing sales by companies using Google’s Android operating system. Last month, Acer introduced a smaller, less expensive Windows 8 tablet, the Iconia W3.

Acer, which also makes Android tablets, is hoping the W3, which has an 8.1-inch screen compared with the 10-inch screens of standard tablets, will hit a sweet spot that has eluded other Windows tablets.

But after testing the W3, I doubt it. The W3 has some advantages over its most obvious competitor, the 7.9-inch iPad mini, including a higher screen resolution and the same built-in, limited edition of desktop Microsoft Office featured on the Surface RT.

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The Iconia W3 has a higher screen resolution than the iPad mini and a special $80 full-size keyboard with a slot on top for the tablet.

Overall, I found it to be no match for the iPad mini. Compared with the smallest iPad, the Acer features cheaper, bulkier construction; a worse-looking, slower-responding screen; significantly less battery life; and drastically worse cameras. And it’s Wi-Fi only, with no cellular data option.

Plus, like all Windows 8 computers, it’s burdened by a paucity of tablet-style apps and a dual interface that is best used with touch in one mode, and with a keyboard (which costs extra) in the other.

One sign the W3 isn’t a runaway hit: After only seven weeks or so on the market, Acer has cut the price of the product. Last month, the entry-level price was $380, for a 32-gigabyte model. Now, that same model is $300. The iPad mini starts at $329, with 16GB. (Windows 8 machines need more memory because the operating system itself takes up a huge chunk of storage.) Samsung’s new 8-inch Android-based Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 tablet costs $300 with 16GB.

The Iconia W3 is a white, plastic tablet that can be easily held with one hand. Unlike the iPad, it has a USB port and an HDMI port for exporting video to a TV over a cable. But these are mini ports, which require adapters and cables, and those accessories aren’t included. It also has a memory-card slot that can add up to 32GB of memory with an optional card.

It runs the full version of W8, so in addition to tablet apps, it can be switched to the traditional Windows desktop, where you can install and run most programs that work on Windows 7. The most important of these, Microsoft Office, is included in the price, though in a version that omits Outlook. Office, which must be installed manually using a free activation code, worked fine in my tests.

The W3 starts up quickly and the screen has a resolution of 1280 x 800, compared with just 1024 x 768 on the iPad mini.

However, the W3 had many key disadvantages compared with the iPad mini. It weighs about 60 percent more and is about 61 percent thicker. While the mini isn’t as svelte as the 7-inch Android tablets, I can carry it in my back jeans pocket, even with its cover on and with a wallet sharing the space. Not so with the W3. And the small iPad also has a sturdier metal case.

The screen on the W3 was very distracting. It has a faint speckling, especially visible when viewing white. I also found the screen occasionally slow to respond to touch.

In my standard tablet battery test, where I keep the screen at 75 percent brightness, leave the Wi-Fi on to collect email and play videos until the battery dies, the Acer lasted seven hours and 22 minutes. This means that, in normal use, you could almost certainly get the unit’s claimed eight hours of battery life. In the same test, the iPad mini lasted nearly 3½ hours more, even though it’s much thinner and lighter.

Then there are the cameras. The Acer’s main rear camera is only 2 megapixels, compared with 5 megapixels for the iPad mini. Photos I took with the W3 were fuzzy, both indoors and out, much worse than similar shots taken with the iPad.

Acer boasts it has created a special accessory keyboard for the W3, which costs $80. Like other add-on keyboards for tablets I’ve tested, it has a slot at the top for the tablet and it works fine. I consider it a necessity for Windows 8 desktop apps, like Office, because they don’t work optimally with the on-screen keyboard.

The Acer keyboard is full-size, much longer and wider than the tablet itself. It has a cavity underneath to store the small tablet for traveling. But that makes for a large package, since the keyboard is much wider and longer than the tablet.

Bottom line: The Acer Iconia W3 has too many flaws for me to recommend, despite its compact size and lower price.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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