Acer’s Dual-Screen Laptop “Iconia” Ships Next Month

Is it a laptop?  Is it a dual-tablet?  

Looking at the dual-screen Acer Iconia, it’s hard to tell exactly what it is, but it’s clear that it’s unique.  While it looks somewhat like a larger version of Microsoft’s defunct Courier concept, the device offers you two 14-inch 720p (1,366×768 pixel) touch screens.  Some bloggers have taken to calling this type of devices “TouchBooks”.  That’s probably as good a term as any.

Acer just announced that the Iconia would begin shipping to customers in the U.S. in April, priced starting at $1,199 and available through Acer’s retail partners.

I. Look, Feel, and Hardware

The device almost resembles something Apple would make.  It features a slick, thin anodized aluminum body.  The weight is a bit higher, though, at 6.2 pounds.  Another thing that gives away that this is no Apple product is that there’s a sliding panel to allow for easy memory upgrades.

Compared to the only previous “touchbook” the Toshiba Libretto W100, this device will ship at much higher volumes and packs much more powerful hardware.

At its heart is powered by a second-generation Intel Core i5 processor, the 2.66 GHz Intel Core i5-480M.  This processor is a dual core design (Intel’s i5 moniker is unfortunately applied to both dual- and quad-core chips).

The unit also packs 4 GB of DDR3 RAM and a 640 GB hard drive.  Connectivity options include 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port.  As a nice perk, the device includes the brand new USB 3.0 standard, which allows for super-fast file transfers to capable devices.  The device also features a HDMI port, a VGA port, and 2 additional USB 2.0 ports.

The biggest disappointment is the device’s lack of a discrete mobile GPU.  Users will have to make due with Sandy Bridge’s relatively anemic integrated graphics processing unit.  Relying on Sandy Bridge’s iGPU to drive one screen is a fair proposition if you’re not doing a lot of gaming or digital art.  But driving two screens off of such an underpowered processing unit seems a tenuous proposition.

As the device’s centerpieces are the dual screens, Acer does a good job of trying to protect them, by applying a nice slab of Corning’s Gorilla Glass.  Both screens support for multi-touch input.

II. Software

The device features an installed copy of Windows 7 Home Premium.  While an excellent operating system overall, Windows 7 interface wasn’t fully optimized for multi-touch as competitors such as Android 3.0 Honeycomb or iOS were.

In order to close the gap between Windows 7 and touch-dedicated mobile OS’s, Acer has written a lot of software that runs on the Iconia.

The first key piece is the virtual keyboard.  Pressing two palms to the bottom screen brings up the virtual keyboard.

The other key piece of software is a multi-layered control “Ring”.  To gain access to this, you tap your fingertips from one hand on the screen.  The Ring allows you to launch touch-enhanced apps.  At its center is a black ball that you can draw gestures that will launch user-defined apps.  Included software allows users to make up their own gestures… for example, writing “f” with your finger might launch an instance of Firefox.

To top off the interface, additional icons have been added to windows.  One icon allows you to switch windows between the top and bottom screens.  The other is sort of like a “full screen” option in traditional PCs — it lets you stretch a window across both screens.

III. Early Reviews — Poor Battery, Poor Keyboard, Otherwise Fun

There are a fair number of “hands on” previews, but virtually all of these are just briefly tests that fail to examine multiple hours of use.  We did dig up one full review from Computer Shopper that was recently published.

The review criticized the virtual keyboard, writing:

We found touch-typing very difficult on the virtual keyboard; we had to watch our fingers the whole time. If we looked away, it wasn’t long before our fingers would drift a bit to the side and we’d be pressing, for example, Caps Lock instead of the A key. You can toggle on a predictive word-completion feature, which helps a bit, but over the course of a few days, we weren’t able to exceed about 30 words per minute (WPM) typing on the virtual keyboard, compared with our usual 100-plus WPM using even a mediocre traditional keyboard. Hunt-and-peck typists probably won’t mind this input method, but touch-typists are likely to find it frustrating.

Similarly, they’re not fans of the battery life, which appears to be incredibly low, at just over an hour and a half.  They elaborate:

The screen on any laptop is one of its primary battery depleters, so the Iconia-6120, having two, made us especially wary of its runtime away from AC power. And indeed, in our tests, the dual screens showed that they exact a dear battery-life price. On our demanding battery-rundown test, in which we stream video from Hulu Plus over the Wi-Fi connection, the Iconia-6120 lasted a mere 1 hour and 32 minutes. That’s one of the shortest times we’ve seen for a mainstream notebook, and it means the Iconia-6120 is a poor choice for on-the-go entertainment away from a power socket.

As the reviewer states, this is no huge surprise — screens are one of the hungriest components in a laptop power-wise.  Adding a second one might be viewed as a fatalistic design flaw.

Still the reviewers did offer the device some praise for its CPU power and innovative concept.  They write:

We enjoyed having the option, in a fully touch-centric device, to run any Windows application and make selections using touch. After sometimes struggling to use stripped-down tablet applications such as Keynote on the iPad, it was nice to harness the full power of PowerPoint, for instance…We give Acer kudos for bringing something daring to market.

So it sounds like if you want a dual-screen touchbook the Iconia is the device for you; if you are willing to put up with slow typing, the need to constantly be plugged in, and an at times quirky touch interface, that is. 

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