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Originally published July 1, 2013 at 6:26 AM | Page modified July 1, 2013 at 6:32 AM

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Acer Iconia W3 is small and fun

The Iconia W3 starts to fill the gap between jumbo phones and small laptops in the growing lineup of Windows-powered devices.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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SAN FRANCISCO — After toting four computers in my carry-on luggage Friday, I was getting more enthusiastic about the arrival of a miniature, 1-pound Windows 8 PC.

The Acer Iconia W3 — with an 8.1-inch widescreen display and Intel Atom processor — starts to fill the gap between jumbo phones and small laptops in the growing lineup of Windows-powered devices. It went on sale this month for $380 to $430, depending on whether it has a 32- or 64-gigabyte solid-state hard drive.

Tiny tablets aren’t for everyone, but as computing becomes ever more personal, there’s a machine for every taste nowadays. Apple introduced its 8-inch iPad Mini in November and Samsung has been releasing Android-powered Galaxy tablets in practically every size along the ruler.

Microsoft is thrilled to see PC makers expand the range and gave Acer W3 kits to all 6,000 attendees of its Build developer conference. I’ll return mine after I’m done trying it out.

It was clever to provide developers with an 8.1-inch device on which to try out Windows 8.1. The kit also includes a nearly full-sized keyboard with a dock that holds the W3 and connects to the tablet via Bluetooth. Together they form a quasi-laptop that makes it into a passable work machine that runs most any Windows program. On the go, the tablet snaps into a recess in back of the keyboard.

If you’re planning to work with the tablet and need to type faster than you can with the touch-screen keyboard, you’ll want the $80 accessory keyboard. But that brings the price up to about $500, where there are lots of options for tablets and laptops with equal or greater capabilities.

I found the W3 to be fun and convenient and capable enough for my work. This column was written on the W3 at the airport and on the plane using the keyboard and Word 2013.

But I wonder who will buy one when there are so many other small tablets and huge phones on the market at prices that make the W3 seem relatively expensive.

The W3’s price is comparable to a low-end laptop, yet it’s not quite a laptop replacement. I see it more as an accessory — something you’d take on a trip or in the car, a nifty third PC for those who can afford to supplement their laptop and desktop machines or maybe for a college student.

To me, I’d rather save up for a thin Ultrabook with the new, power-efficient “Haswell” processors from Intel. There are too many trade-offs for the micro-sized case.

For instance, I wish W3 had full-size ports instead of mini USB, HDMI and memory-card slots. I couldn’t get pictures from my point-and-shoot camera onto the W3 because I didn’t have the proper dongle.

It would also be nice have the option of a built-in 4G radio, instead of just Wi-Fi.

Perhaps the best use of a tablet like this is media consumption. I read a chapter of a book using the Nook app on the W3. It works well as an e-reader, but it gets heavy to hold in bed.

Watching a video on the 720p screen was also fine and puts its widescreen layout to good use. But watching videos on devices this size make me feel like I’m on an airplane, squinting at a seat-back display and wishing I was watching on a larger screen.

Still, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Google’s Nexus and other smaller tablets have shown there’s interest in media tablets with smaller screens. They don’t have PC capabilities but they start at less than half the price of the W3.

The higher price of Windows 8 tablets — plus the newness of their interface and smaller selection of apps — will limit their consumer appeal, according to Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa.

“There are not many convincing reasons for general consumers to adopt Windows tablets at this time,” she said via email, adding that the coming holiday season will be a crucial time to see if they get traction.

Corporate buyers are even less likely to move toward smaller tablets or even Windows 8, even though the updates in version 8.1 make the software feel more businesslike.

It’s easier to get to settings and PC controls, where there are now more options to customize the software. Language in the menus also has become less consumer-y; you manage “accounts” instead of “users” on the operating system.

It is also slightly less jarring to switch between the Windows 8 tiled interface and the traditional desktop now that you can give both modes the same background image.

With Windows 8.1, you can operate almost exclusively in desktop mode. But on the W3, it was preferable to work in the tile mode because the smaller screen made it tricky to touch the right spots in the desktop mode. Menu items and touch targets that are easy to tap on a larger tablet or touch-screen laptop are harder to hit because they shrank along with the screen size.

The restored “start” button began to grow on me once I realized that it can be used to surface PC controls such as “control panel” and “file explorer” with a right click. I wish it was visible on the tiled interface, as well as on the traditional desktop.

Windows 8.1 “fixes a lot of the usability shortcomings of Windows 8,” but it’s not a magic bullet for companies that have held off on upgrading, according to IDC analyst Al Gillen. He said companies are unlikely to move en masse beyond Windows 7 unless they have a particular need for touch hardware.

I’m wondering if Microsoft has other plans for smaller Windows tablets. If PC makers can bring the price down, perhaps we’ll see Windows devices that compete more directly with the Kindle Fire and Nook HD — especially if the developers who received W3’s last week start building cool apps for the mini PCs.

In the meantime, Acer’s W3 is an intriguing new option for portable computing. But until the price comes down, it may appeal mostly to Windows enthusiasts and those who can afford to buy multiple PCs in a full range of sizes.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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