Some reviews are harder to write than others. Not only because you like a specific brand or because you end up being disappointed with something you were excited to spend some time using, but because the entire inefficacy may not even rest with the manufacturer. Of course all that has to be put aside and each product must face a fair evaluation as whole sum of its parts. So as I look over my desk full of respected Acer laptops and bang away on the keys of my trusty Acer Chromebook, I have to write about a misfire from the Taiwanese manufacturer that I have spent the past month with; the Acer Aspire R11.
The specs and capabilities of the R11 understandably read as an alluring package. Getting my hands on it, I was excited to spend some time with it.
- Model Number: R3-131T-P344
- Display: 11.6″ HD Widescreen LED-backlit Display Multi-touch screen, supporting 10 finger touch (1366×768 resolution; 16:9 aspect ratio).
- CPU: Intel Pentium N3700 Quad-Core Processor 1.6GHz with Intel Burst Technology up to 2.4GHz
- RAM: 4GB DDR3 Dual Channel
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics
- Communication: 802.11ac WiFi featuring MIMO technology (Dual-Band 2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.0
- Camera: HD webcam (1280 x 720)
- Audio: Two Built-in Stereo Speakers, with High-Definition Audio Support
- Ports: 1 – USB 3.0 port, 1 – USB 2.0 port, 1 HDMI out with HDCP support, 1 combo headphone/mic jack, 1 DC-in jack for AC adapter, Ethernet port, Secure Digital (SD) card reader
- Battery: 4-cell Li-Ion (3220 mAh) Battery for up to 8 hours battery life
- Dimensions: 11.73 x 8.31 x 0.82 inches
- Weight: 3.31 lbs.
- Operating System: Windows 10
- MSRP: $399.99USD
On top of all that is the touchscreen and a 360 degree hinge that allows R11 to be used as a laptop, a tablet and a variety of other creative modes for display and interaction such as tent and display modes. Then there’s the price. $399.99 gets you a lot and comparisons to Chromebooks and Netbooks of olde are inevitable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and this a step at a time.
For a budget notebook, the R11 is very well put together. It won’t win any awards, but the look and feel of the device are hardly afterthoughts. Clothed entirely in plastic, the Acer feels solid, with no creaks or bending/flexing. The top and bottom have a mesh-type texture giving a nice feel and a unique look. Our test model was a very nice all white version that drew some looks and comments in public. When closed, the laptop is fairly thin and compact, taking up only a little more overall space than my Acer C-720. It’s by no means light though, tipping the scales at just over 3.3 pounds, making it difficult to hold in one hand for tablet-use for any length of time.
On the right side you will unexpectedly find a power button and volume rockers. Most laptops house both somewhere in proximity to the keyboard. Most laptops however don’t flip into other modes of use. The alternative placement allows you to reach both when in tablet, tent or presentation mode. However the small size and the fact that both are fairly flush, made it difficult to always identify correctly by touch alone. Numerous attempts to adjust the volume ended with me hitting the power button and putting the device to sleep. The volume buttons also do not adjust between modes. What this means is when the R11 is flipped into tablet mode, the buttons work in reverse.
The keyboard and touchpad on the Acer are fantastic. Low and mid-level laptops are no longer subject to cheap crammed keys and rage-inducing trackpads with the accuracy of Stormtroopers. The R11’s well spaced and large keys have a good amount of travel and clicky-ness making typing as easy as on a much larger PC. You will however need a night lite when it gets dark since the keyboard is not backlit.
The hinge on the Acer feels very sturdy and does a good job of holding it solidly at any angle in any of its multiple modes. And after a month of constant use, it felt just as tight as it did on day one. It’s basic, but it works just fine.
Since costs have to be cut somewhere, Acer clearly decided to start with the screen. The display on the Acer is poor – and that’s if I’m being kind. Although bright, the unimpressive resolution and terrible viewing angles ruin almost any experience on the Acer. Watching videos or playing games on this screen is just unpleasant. Unless you are looking at the screen at one perfect angle, you’d be lucky to make out what is actually being presented. This also makes using the Acer in portrait tablet mode (not something you will do often but still) almost impossible as you are either distorting the bottom or top viewing angles. “But it is a touchscreen” is something you have to keep telling yourself to justify the fact that you can barely see what you’re tapping on.
Unlike the screen, the speakers perform very well. Again, these will not impress any audiophiles, but the sound is crisp, loud and balanced. You may not enjoy actually watching that music video, but at least you will have no problem listening to it.
Yes. Moving on.
The R11 originally launched with Windows 8 but Acer was good enough to upgrade ours to Windows 10. This served as a blessing and a curse. I mentioned at the start that the shortcomings on the R11 were not necessarily all hardware-related. Well I’m inclined to believe that Microsoft’s newest OS was more than partially responsible for the Acer’s performance.
Look, I like Windows 10… I even really liked 8; yeah I said it. I have used both on different hardware without any real problems. On the R11, Windows 10 felt like an un-optimized burden as we examine in the next section.
Everything was slow. The Acer froze and lagged with barely any programs running. You have not felt true frustration until you press your finger on a text field; wait for an eternity-seeming 15 seconds for the virtual keyboard to appear; give up; flip back into laptop mode; watch as the virtual keyboard appears; flip back into tablet mode; watch as the virtual keyboard vanishes, flip back into laptop mode and have your laptop decide it has had enough and it will now restart to teach you a lesson in futility, but not before installing 10 minutes of Windows updates you put off because you really needed to get some work done. More than once, the Aspire could not decide if I was in fact in laptop or tablet mode, occasionally disabling the keyboard and blocking half the screen with the virtual one.
One of the main arguments in the Windows/Chrome OS debate is that Windows is a “full” operating system and allows the installation and use of games, powerful productivity software and the likes. Not to mention multitasking all of the above. My experience showed that the R11 fell into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Tempting fate and my blood pressure, I set aside my usual work laptop and put all my software on the Acer, seeing if it could handle this plethora of software that my not available on my Chromebook. As a graphic designer, this meant the Adobe CC suite, and some additional sound and video editing tools. Microsoft Office was of course put into play; and for some variety, I downloaded a couple of games from Steam and the Microsoft App store. Also along for ride were the Firefox and Chrome browsers. All these things worked and did so acceptably well. Sure Photoshop would occasionally bog down when working with huge files but that is more than excusable on a sub-$500 machine. What’s not acceptable is the fact that this was only true when using them one at a time. Photoshop just being open alongside Chrome loading half a dozen tabs would mean dramatic slowdown. Running more than one Adobe app a time was out of the question. Trying to surf while any graphic or video app was running a process, a practice in frustration. Gaming was a no go. Playing anything that came out years ago barely chugged along on the lowest settings. I had no expectations of the budget Acer to run modern, top of the line, graphic-intensive entertainment, but even the most basic tablet games from the App store brought the whole system to it’s knees.
This leaves us with browsing. As long as you don’t use Edge, browsing is a fine experience until you suddenly realize that having the same amount of tabs open as you would on a Celeron-powered Chromebook with 2GB of RAM brings introduces severe lag, you have to believe something is very wrong.
There are more software-based elements asking for consistency and improvement. Why does my Acer Chromebook turn on automatically when I lift the lid whether it’s completely off or sleeping, but the R11 does not? Why are there two displays for the volume settings on the screen (see image below). Why does launching the virtual keyboard in Windows not adjust the screen, often blocking the text field unless it’s already in the top half of the screen? Why does the “Hey Cortana” voice command randomly stop working? You get the picture.
At the end of day the biggest indicator was that instead of using my fancy touchscreen convertible R11, I found myself reaching for my $200 Acer Chromebook to do everything but heavy design work. I’m left feeling as if someone, somewhere was supposed to check the box for “Works with the Acer Aspire R11” and simply forgot because it was a Friday.
Acer promises about 8 hours of battery life out of the R11. A respectable number, especially when you figure that it can function as a content devouring tablet. In this case Acer was being humble and reaching 8 hours and more was a breeze. On days of heavy use where I pushed the R11 to its limits non-stop, it still gave me an honest 6 hours. You should have no problem leaving the charger at home and making it confidently through the entire day with battery life to spare. As a side-note, another indication of hardware and software not playing nice were completely arbitrary battery-life estimates displayed. Fully charged, Windows would peg the Acer at about 4 – 4.5 hours of battery life. While hitting the 50% would often tell me I still have… that’s right… 4 – 4.5 hours of battery life. I realize these are meant to be rough estimates and not guidelines to go by, but really, with this level of inaccuracy, why even bother.
On paper the Acer screams value. $400 split between a full OS, a touchscreen, and the ability to transform into multiple modes, you would have to use the thing before realizing that the R11 is a long list of “shoulds” and “coulds” but very few actual “dos.” Acer makes other devices in this price range that would serve you better, even if you have to give up things like a touchscreen.
You will have to either spend more money or sacrifice some features if you want a device that does more than temporarily impress your friends. The tradeoffs and compromises here are simply overwhelming. What good is a laptop that can barely handle real-world tasks, and a tablet with a poor screen. Having said that, there is at least hope that some upcoming updates to Windows will fix at least some of the issues. Acer is also releasing a Chrome OS version of the R11 later this year and it will be interesting to see how the two compare.
*We were sent a demo unit of the Acer Aspire R11 for the purposes of this review.
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