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Acer Creates Windows PC for IPad Generation: Rich Jaroslovsky

You’ve never seen a personal computer quite like this one.

Acer Inc. (2353)’s new Iconia 6120 Touchbook has many of the features you would expect from a full-sized laptop: an Intel Corp. (INTC) i5 microprocessor, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Windows 7 operating system, a 14-inch display.

It’s also missing one feature you would expect: a keyboard. In its place is a second 14-inch touch screen. Need to type something? A full-sized virtual keyboard, complete with touchpad, appears on the bottom display when you lay your palms on it, to be used and then dismissed when no longer required.

Think of the Iconia Touchbook as a Windows PC for the iPad generation, for whom having to type on glass is a feature and not a flaw.

The dual-screen approach isn’t original with Acer; Toshiba Corp. (6502) did something similar with its Libretto last year. The Libretto, though, was a limited-edition concept PC with much smaller screens than those on the Acer. While the Iconia lacks a DVD or CD drive, it’s otherwise the antithesis of an under- equipped, lightweight netbook.

The computer, which is available for order now and shows up in stores later this month, costs $1,199.99. It weighs a hefty 6.2 pounds, and comes with 4 gigabytes of memory and a 640- gigabyte hard drive standard. It also has a webcam, high- definition video and audio connections and three USB ports, one of them the new, ultra-fast USB 3.0.

A Choice of Control

The Iconia’s upper screen, like the lower one, is touch- enabled, giving you the choice of controlling your Windows applications from the virtual touchpad on the bottom screen, or directly with your finger, similar to Apple’s iPad. If you’re in direct-control mode, you can drag windows from one screen to the other, or even expand them to fill both.

A number of the computer’s functions and settings can be accessed via the Acer Ring, a sort of virtual dial you can summon on the lower screen. Here you’ll find controls for video, photo and music applications as well as the Gesture Editor, which lets you design your own set of taps and swipes to start programs or perform other tasks.

Typing on the glass takes some getting used to, though it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected. I could adjust the size of the function keys, and by angling the screen was able to find comfortable typing positions in a variety of situations. My biggest problem wasn’t with the keyboard but with the trackpad, which is so small that my finger kept sliding past its virtual edges.

Keys and Clicks

While there’s no tactile feedback when you land on a virtual key, as there is on some smartphones, you can hear an audible “click.” It’s a nice idea, except that there is a noticeable lag between hitting the key and hearing the sound.

Other features designed to make things easier fall short as well. While you can enter text with your finger or a stylus via a handwriting-recognition window, the process is laborious. And Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN)’s included predictive-text software, which came enabled by default, annoyingly kept trying to “correct” the spelling of my passwords and the capitalization of words I wanted to be uppercase. I quickly turned it off.

Power Drain

The biggest drawback is the battery. The two touch screens suck power like a vacuum cleaner, and even Acer’s claim of three hours on a full charge may be on the high side if you’ve got the screens set to bright and are connected to a Wi-Fi network. Moreover, the battery isn’t user-replaceable, so you’ll tend to find yourself tethered to an electrical outlet.

Like many PC-makers, Acer is groping to find its way in a market increasingly moving toward tablets and other mobile devices; its chief executive officer, Gianfranco Lanci, resigned last week in a rift with the board over strategy.

With the Iconia Touchbook, Acer at the very least deserves credit for doing something unusual in the well-ordered if ho-hum world of Windows computing, and a certain sort of user may find the laptop’s technology-forward approach irresistible.

Most people, though, will probably conclude it is a little too out there, and too hampered by its heft and battery-life issues. If it’s possible to be a really cool failure, this one is.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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