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Acer Aspire R7’s Bold Design Backfires

If you’ve gone laptop shopping lately, you might have noticed that the designs are getting a lot more interesting. There are notebooks that twist, flip, slide and detach. And just when you thought you’ve seen it all, along comes the Acer Aspire R7.

The Windows 8 laptop, which costs $1,000, features a pivoting touchscreen that allows you to position it at different angles, including on top of the keyboard, so you can use it as a tablet. It’s a slightly different take on the convertible laptops that are already out there, but one of the things that makes the Aspire R7 stand out is that Acer has switched the position of the keyboard and touchpad. (Yes, you read that right, and, no, you’re not living in Bizarro World.)

The idea behind the move is to make the touchscreen, not the touchpad, the focal point of all interactions. On the one hand, I applaud Acer for trying something new, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really work.

I’ve used the Aspire R7 as my primary computer for the past few days, and though I have come to rely on the touchscreen more, there are still times where the precision of a touchpad is needed, and having to reach over the keyboard to use it is awkward. Plus, the laptop’s larger size doesn’t make for a good tablet experience. Sadly, these design quirks trip up an otherwise solid laptop.

The Aspire R7 is not what you’d call a thin-and-light notebook. Encased in an aluminum chassis, it measures 14.83 inches wide by 10.02 inches tall and 1.12 inches deep, and weighs 5.29 pounds. By comparison, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, another Windows 8 convertible laptop, measures 13.1 inches wide by 8.9 inches tall by 0.67 inch thick, and weighs 3.3 pounds. Along the left and right sides are multiple connectors, including two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, an HDMI port and an SD card reader.

It’s solidly built, but it wasn’t easy to tote around or use as a tablet. Instead, it felt more like a compact all-in-one PC, and with its pivoting display it looked sort of looked like one, too.

The 15-inch, 1,920 by 1,080 pixel touchscreen is mounted to an adjustable arm, and can be maneuvered into different positions, thanks to a hinge design — something Acer calls the Ezel hinge. There are four ways to use the Aspire R7: Notebook, Ezel, Display and Pad.

As soon as you open up the laptop, you’re in traditional notebook mode. Then you can pull the display toward you to gain better access to the touchscreen (Ezel mode), or flip the screen all the way over if you just want to enjoy your media files in Display mode. Finally, Pad mode allows you to lay the touchscreen on top of the keyboard, so you can use it like a tablet.

I have to say I really liked the ability to adjust the position and angle of the screen. My vision isn’t what it used to be, so being able to bring the display closer to me was helpful, especially when using the computer in darker environments. I can’t do that with my MacBook Air.

But, as I mentioned, the position of the keyboard and touchpad pretty much negates any benefits of the pivoting display. While it’s a change to have the keyboard closer to me, and I found it roomy and easy to use, interacting with the touchpad was just weird.

In a way, Acer was successful in its goal of creating a more touchscreen-friendly environment. Compared to some of the other Windows 8 computers I’ve tested, like the Sony Vaio Tap 20, I used the touchscreen a lot more for tasks like launching applications and navigating through menus, simply because it was easier than using the touchpad.

Still, there are multiple scenarios where I wanted the control of a touchpad, such as when I was clicking on Web links or inserting a cursor into a certain spot. Having to reach across the keyboard and click on the touchpad was uncomfortable, and it’s something I never got used to during my time with the Aspire R7. By the end of the week, I just connected a mouse because I grew so frustrated with the whole experience.

The Aspire R7 also makes for an awkward tablet because of the laptop’s larger size. It’s not something you can easily hold to read e-books or view videos. In addition, the display doesn’t lie exactly flat against the keyboard. Instead, the screen tilts at a four-degree angle, which Acer says helps for browsing, writing or drawing on the laptop. But I think it makes for an even more cumbersome tablet.

As a laptop, the Aspire R7 offers midrange features. It’s powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and has a 500 gigabyte hard drive, 20GB solid-state drive and 6GB of RAM. In addition to Windows 8, Acer ships the laptop with a bunch of extra software. I found some of it useful, like iCookbook for looking up recipes, but others — like Acer’s proprietary software — I could have done without.

I used the laptop for basic word processing, surfing the Web and streaming video from services like Netflix and Hulu, and it performed smoothly, without any noticeable lag. The display is sharp and bright, and with four integrated stereo speakers, sound was loud and rich.

In my harsh battery test, where I turned off all power-saving features, turned the screen brightness to 100 percent, kept Wi-Fi on to fetch email in the background and played a continuous loop of music, the Aspire R7 only lasted three hours. That’s an hour and a half less than the Lenovo Yoga 13, and three hours less than the MacBook Air. That said, the Aspire R7 has a larger display than the other two laptops, which can affect battery life. Also, I was able to get four hours and 35 minutes of battery life when watching video with the screen set to 75 percent brightness with Wi-Fi and email running in the background.

Acer gets points for coming up with a new design. Without taking risks, we’d be left with a bunch of laptops that look and act alike. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out this time. The Aspire R7’s ergonomic issues make it difficult to use, and until the company can resolve those issues, it’s best to hold off on buying it.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus