A key bullet-point in the argument that the Acer Iconia W500 is a viable netbook-replacement is its keyboard accessory. It offers full-size keys plus a rubber trackpoint instead of a mouse trackpad. However, it’s not quite the seamless solution we were hoping for.
The tablet slots into this dock with the aid of the W500’s bottom USB port and two stabilising metal prongs that are shoved into the tablet’s backside. Once connected up, this join is stable, but something doesn’t quite feel right.
As there’s no trackpad, the keyboard feels oddly stunted even though its keys are fully-grown – not unlike the official keyboard dock for the first Apple iPad.
The most pressing problem, though, is the way the dock mechanism works. Rather than having a hinge into which the tablet sits, which then allows you to tilt the tablet back and forth just like it were the screen on a laptop (as on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer), the W500 has a fixed dock. The mounting points on the dock do fold flat into the body of the dock when not in use but the tablet has to be removed for this to work. Fold the dock’s mechanism all the way back in and the tablet and dock can be sandwiched on top of each other, but compared with a simple laptop hinge, it’s hopelessly clumsy.
Two magnets at the back keep one half of the W500 in place when arranged like this, while a plastic hook secures the other half. Under a small amount of pressure, this works just fine, but give the magnet-secured back-end more than a nudge and it’ll separate, threatening to take the weedy plastic hook with it. Indeed it’s quite easy to have one or other of the parts go flying if you’re not careful how you prize them apart. You can reduce the risk of damage to a minimum by grabbing a case for the tablet but nonetheless the whole solution feels like a bit of a fudge.
The chiclet-style keyboard is comfortable to type on – much more so than the iffy virtual keyboard Windows 7 has on offer – but its built quality is unremarkable. It feels plasticy and toy-like, giving us some concern about how long its rotating dock parts will last.
The rubber mouse nipple is also an acquired taste. It works rather like a tiny analogue joystick – nudge it lightly and the cursor moves slowly, press with more force and it’ll move quickly. It takes a little getting used to, but is surprisingly refined in its execution, given it is a tiny rubber blip nestled between a few keys in the keyboard. We found its placement, relative to the two mouse buttons, harder to get used to though.
Using your middle finger to drive the miniature rubber flight stick, you can keep your first and third fingers on the two buttons, but it doesn’t feel comfortable and any other arrangement feels slower and clumsier than the traditional mouse/trackpad setup.