While some laptop makers are creating detachable and convertible hybrids, Acer is catering to the touch experience in a different way. The $899 Aspire R7's Ezel hinge allows its 15.6-inch touch screen to essentially "float" above the keyboard, flip backwards or fold nearly flat against the deck. With a Haswell refresh, a new stylus-compatible display and a more aggressive price point, is the Aspire R7's bold design justified?
At first glance, the Acer Aspire R7 looks like a large notebook with its lid closed, but it's anything but ordinary. Acer's custom Ezel Hinge, which lets the display pivot at its middle, allows users to adjust the display at various angles when the notebook is open. Acer claims that this form factor is catered to the touch screen experience, and now that the device supports pen input, its moveable display becomes all the more valuable.
But you'll notice another odd physical characteristic when you open the Aspire R7. To accommodate the R7's adjustable display, Acer placed the touchpad above the keyboard rather than below it. So, if you want to move the display closer to your face, you won't have to sacrifice any keyboard space. It's a bold move, but that doesn't stop this hybrid's layout from feeling jarring.
In addition to the standard notebook mode, the Aspire R7 functions in three other primary forms: Ezel, Display and Pad Modes. Ezel Mode takes advantage of the adjustable display, giving the illusion that it's floating above the body. In Display Mode, the screen is flipped around completely, intended for use in watching media or giving presentations.
As its name implies, Pad Mode allows the display to lie almost completely flat against the keyboard. However, we didn't use this mode too often because the R7 feels clunky and heavy as a slate. We found ourselves using the device in Ezel Mode most often while browsing the Web, but switched to classic notebook mode when typing long emails or performing other productivity-related tasks.
The 14.8 x 10 x 1.12-inch, 5.4-pound Acer Aspire R7 is portable enough to stuff in a backpack, but it's designed primarily for home use. The Dell XPS 15 (14.6 x 10 x 0.7 inches, 4.6 pounds) is thinner and lighter, but the HP Envy TouchSmart 15 (14.94 x 9.87 x 1.18 inches, 5.6 pounds) is slightly thicker and heavier.
Keyboard and Touchpad
With the Aspire R7's inverted keyboard and touchpad layout, Acer is betting that the hybrid's users won't need the touchpad very much. When in Ezel Mode, the device's 15.6-inch touch screen display usually keeps the trackpad hidden. We're not sure if it's the flexible hinge or atypical keyboard and touchpad placement, but the keyboard seems dwarfed behind the R7's display in Ezel Mode.
The keyboard boasts smooth keys, relatively deep travel and a sturdy build, but we found ourselves missing the palm rest you'd find on a standard notebook. Unsurprisingly, it also felt unnatural to use the 4.2 x 3-inch touchpad above the keyboard when in notebook mode, which is definitely a learning curve.
Active Stylus Input
In the refreshed Acer Aspire R7's most noticeable change, it supports the $49 N-Trig DuoSense Active Stylus, which is sold separately through Acer's website. The stylus, made of aluminum, features a pen input tip and two customizable buttons for carrying out actions in Windows 8.1 and in various supported apps.
For example, you can program the stylus buttons to execute certain commands in Adobe Photoshop. The bottom button, closest to the tip, automatically serves as a left-click button, but the button above that one doesn't come with any assignments out of the box.
The R7 doesn't come preloaded with too many apps optimized for Active Stylus, but we enjoyed playing with the ArtRage sketching app. The pressure-sensitive stylus made our strokes darker or lighter depending on how hard we pressed the tip on the screen. N-Trig says its stylus boasts 256 levels of sensitivity.
The screen supports palm rejection while sketching, but the placement of the lower button did interfere with our drawing on a few occasions. When holding the Active Stylus in our right hand, we kept accidentally hitting the bottom button on the pen, which made the stylus' cursor disappear from the screen.
We also encountered some issues when trying to handwrite in certain apps. The digitizer failed to detect the correct letters in multiple instances and showed a significant amount of lag as we hand-wrote URLs in Internet Explorer. We encountered the same problem when using Windows 8.1's built-in handwriting tool in Evernote.
The Acer Aspire R7's beautiful, 15.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 IPS display boasts bright and vibrant visuals. When watching a trailer for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," we were captivated by the bright orange explosions in battle scenes and the electric-blue beams Spider Man faced in his encounters with Electro. Not only were colors vivid, but we also enjoyed such details as the wrinkles in Aunt May's worried face during close-up scenes.
The Aspire R7's display didn't catch much glare when we moved it at a right angle to our face, and we could still see the movie clips clearly after sliding our review unit over about one foot to the right. The display also remained bright and never appeared dim when we adjusted these viewing angles.
The refreshed Acer Aspire R7's display registered a slight brighter 306 lux on our light meter (vs. 300 lux for the previous version), surpassing the 215-lux mainstream notebook category average by a fair margin.
Acer touts the Aspire R7 as an optimal multimedia notebook, and the speakers back that up. When playing "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the notebook's bottom-mounted speakers pumped out boisterous sound with plenty of bass. The notebook hit 84 decibels in our testing; that's below the 87-decibel mainstream category average, but we have no complaints about the volume.
After streaming video on Hulu for 15 minutes, the R7 stayed cool to the touch. The touchpad (83 degrees F), underside (85 degrees F) and area between the G and H keys (79 degrees F) all registered below the 95-degree mark we consider uncomfortable.
Ports and Webcam
The Acer Aspire R7 comes with a slew of ports. Along the right, you'll find a headphone jack, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port and an Acer converter port. You can use this last port to attach Acer's 3-in-1 dock, which includes an extra USB port, an Ethernet port and VGA connectivity. One of the R7's USB 3.0 ports has power-off USB-charging capabilities.
The left side of the machine houses a Kensington lock slot, power adapter, the power button, volume keys, a USB 2.0 port and an SD Card reader.
The R7's 720p webcam wasn't very impressive. After snapping some selfies, we noticed that our skin color and the white wall behind us had a yellowish tone. The image also looked grainy and wasn't very bright.
Despite its upgraded processor, the Haswell-powered Acer Aspire R7 achieved subpar performance compared to its Ivy Bridge-based predecessor in various benchmarks. Running a 1.6-GHz fourth generation Intel Core i5-4200U processor with 8GB of RAM, the newer R7's score on PCMark 7 (2,853) was lower than the score of the 1.8-GHz Intel Core i5-3337U-powered previous version (3,692) and the mainstream notebook category average (3,497). The HP Envy TouchSmart 15, which runs on a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor with 8GB of RAM, also scored much higher (5,363).
The device's 1TB 5,400 RPM SATA hard drive transferred 5GB of mixed media files at 31 MBps, which is the same rate as the 500GB and 5,400 RPM hard drive with 20GB SSD cache found in the previous version. The HP Envy TouchSmart 15's 5,400 RPM, 1TB SSD transferred the same files at a slightly speedier 28 MBps.
The newer Aspire R7 took 17 seconds to boot Windows 8.1, which is slower than the 14 seconds the previous-generation R7 took to load Windows 8. This is still quicker than the 19 seconds it took the TouchSmart 15 to load Windows 8 and the 27-second mainstream notebook category average.
It took the Haswell-powered Aspire R7 5 minutes and 17 seconds to complete the OpenOffice Spreadsheet test, which involves matching 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses. This is slightly faster than the previous R7 (5:57) and the mainstream category average (5:32). The HP Envy TouchSmart 15 completed this task in a speedy 4 minutes.
Despite these below-average benchmark scores, the Aspire R7 performed smoothly during everyday use. We didn't notice any lag when streaming an episode of "Bob's Burgers" on Hulu Plus with eight other apps open in the background.
The Acer Aspire R7's integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics performed favorably in graphics-focused benchmarks when compared to its predecessor, but didn't breach the mainstream category average. The new R7 scored 951 in 3DMark11, which is higher than the older model's score of 642 but lower than the 1,430 mainstream notebook category average and the TouchSmart 15's score of 2,021.
Acer's new configuration far outperformed the former model in games. When playing "World of Warcraft" on auto settings with the resolution at 1377 x 768, we saw frame rates of 52 frames per second compared to the first gen's showing of 32 fps. This is still lower, however, than the 71 fps mainstream category average and the Envy TouchSmart 15's results of 110 fps.
When playing at the notebook's native 1080p resolution, however, the frame rate decreased to 31 fps, just like the previous version. Both rates are playable but lower than the 72 fps mainstream category average and the TouchSmart 15's score of 70 fps.
With the settings bumped up to Ultra, the second-gen R7's frame rate dropped to an unplayable 21 fps on 1377 x 768 and an even more miserable 16 fps at the machine's native resolution.
The Haswell-powered Acer Aspire R7 lasted for 6 hours and 20 minutes during the LAPTOP Battery Test, which is almost a full hour beyond the 5:32 mainstream notebook category average. Our previous review unit, which had a 1.5-GHz Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5-337U processor, burnt out in 5:08.
Software and Warranty
The Acer Aspire R7 comes with a host of Acer apps, including its own Docs, Media and Photo software, power- and recovery-management tools, and an Acer Aspire R7 tutorial. Acer also preloaded its MemoryBinder app, which lets users arrange photos, add personal messages and overlay paintbrush effects on images.
Acer Scrapboard creates a virtual scrapbook out of all the screenshots on your PC, and the ArtRage app acts as a personal sketchbook, complete with pencil and paintbrush options, stencils and more. Netflix, eBay, Kindle, ChaCha, Zinio, StumbleUpon and Hulu Plus are among the third-party apps you'll find on the Aspire R7.
The $899 Acer Aspire R7 certainly looks unconventional, but this hybrid has its benefits. Its 15.6-inch, 1080p display offers bright and crisp visuals; the new Haswell processor gives the system about an extra hour of battery life, and the new active pen adds versatility for creative types. Plus, the bottom-mounted speakers pump out clear and full-bodied tunes. However, while we appreciate the Ezel hinge's flexibility, the trade-off is an awkwardly placed touchpad. If you're willing to live with that design flaw, the R7 is worth a look, but we'd like to see Acer better balance innovation and ergonomic comfort going forward.