Windows 8: Hardware Innovation Is Outpacing the Software

by Steve Wildstrom   |   May 3rd, 2013

Aspire R7 photo (Acer)

 

Windows 8 hasn’t spurred a boom in PC sales, but it certainly is inspiring some unusual hardware designs. The problem, though, is that no one seems able to quite master Windows’ touch and keyboard-plus-mouse dual personality.

Acer is the latest to try with the Aspire R7, a striking departure from a company not particularly know for adventurous design. Aimed at what the company calls the “duality of touch and typing,” the R7 is a convertible 15.6″ notebook with a unique “Ezel” hinge that allows the screen to move from a conventional laptop position to horizontal to reversed (for presentations.) It also can lie flat in a slate configuration, but at 5.3 lb. (2.4 kg) it’s unlikely to see a lot of tablet use.

I can see uses for both the horizontal and the reversed positions. It’s the more conventional arrangement that is, in fact, the oddest. The most strikingly unconventional thing about the R7 is the layout of the keyboard deck. The keyboard itself is placed at the very front of the deck, with a large touchpad above it. Yes, you read that correctly. The touchpad is above to top row of keys.

Photo of Aspire R7 (Acer) The display can be set up in two positions. In one (photo top), the bottom end of the screen sits just above the  top of the keyboard, covering the touchpad and looking a bit like a gigantic version of an iPad sitting in a keyboard case. In the other (photo left), the screen opens like a conventional clamshell. I spent a little time using the R7 in both configurations. The screen-forward setup is more convenient for touchscreen use since the display is closer to your hand position on the keys. But in my experience with Windows 8 so far, the limited availability and frequently poor quality of “Modern” (or Metro) apps means I spend most of my time using legacy desktop applications, And since these are not built for touch, they generally don’t work very well without a mouse or touchpad.

In alternative setup, the strange location of the touchpad is a real problem. When I am working in a typing application, I typically use my thumbs for most simple touchpad maneuvers, which lets me control the mouse without moving my hands from the keyboard. There’s no similar simple stretch available to reach the R7 touchpad. Furthermore, most of us now have 15 years practice with below-the-keyboard pointing devices and will spend a lot of time on the R7 poking at empty space. I hope to spend some more time with the R7 soon; perhaps the discomfort of using that oddly placed touchpad will go away quickly.

Microsoft could make this problem mostly go away by fully touch enabling Windows and key Windows applications. Maybe the Windows Blue update due in the fall will help, but there are depressing reports that a fully touch-ready Office won’t arrive until the fall of 2014.

Aspire P3 (Acer)The Acer Aspire P3 takes a different approach to the duality problem. Though billed as a convertible Ultrabook, its design is much more like a Microsoft Surface Pro, a Core i5-powered tablet with a detachable Bluetooth keyboard. But in a sad concession to reality, it offers one thing the Surface doesn’t: A built-in stylus holder on the tablet.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Defendor

    AKA: Throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

    • jfutral

      I have to wonder, if we had access to Apple’s graveyard of abandoned ideas, how many of these products we would find? Apple is mostly about streamlining. If releasing a bridge device between a tablet and a laptop made sense to them, I would bet they would have done so already and either killed off the Macbooks right off or let them die from attrition. I don’t think their comment about fridge/toasters was an arbitrary, arrogant comment. I bet they actually tried one out and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

      But what do I know?
      Joe

      • Rich

        I think Tim Cook said that what Apple doesn’t sell is more important than what they do, meaning that they don’t let bad concepts become products.

    • Rich

      I think that does say what’s happening. Nobody knows what to do with Windows 8 because it’s fundamentally designed wrong.

  • def4

    Acer has done silly misguided form factors in the past.
    I remember their dual touchscreen laptop from a few years back.
    I don’t like throwing insults so I don’t say this lightly, but after trying that product I found it so obviously flawed that the only reasonable conclusion I could draw was that Acer was being run by idiots.

    This new product is yet another example of building the obviously wrong thing.
    Get rid of the touchpad that will only serve as a trap and source of frustration and have just a ThinkPad style trackpoint. And take that fancy hinge design and use it to deliver something of actual value: a laptop screen that can turn to change orientation between portrait and landscape.

  • capnbob67

    How is this article not called “Absurd Hardware Design exacerbates Issues of Mediocre OS”? Even if the OS and Apps were better, a 5lb laptop would still not be comfortably controlled by raising one’s fingers to the screen every time you wanted to control something. Thus the headline is wrong. There is no amount of software enhancement that would make this hardware “innovation” useful. It’s just stupid.
    How did this ever get to market?
    The lesson appears to be “Easels are Evil!”