Noting that Windows 7 has been shipping with multi-touch support since October 2009, Charles Fitzgerald recently asked: Where are the Windows 7 tablets? Well, I’ve got one. It’s the Acer Aspire 1420P, which is same the machine that Microsoft PDC attendees got last fall. The moniker is “convertible tablet PC” but for me, it’s really a “do-everything PC” because I use it in three modes: as a desktop, laptop, and tablet.
In tablet mode it’s no iPad, I’ll be the first to admit. But as a general-purpose machine that morphs into a tablet, it has exceeded my expectations. Conventional wisdom holds that Windows 7 running standard apps can’t make effective use of a multi-touch screen. But while standard apps clearly aren’t optimized for multi-touch, basic gestures work and are very useful. Tapping and scrolling are my staple gestures, but I was delighted to find that pinching and spreading map to font size adjustment in browser windows. I do this all the time now.
My primary use for tablet mode is reading — mostly reading web pages. Before I got this machine, I had already developed the habit of loading up a bunch of pages into browser tabs, using Readability to discard the cruft, and then kicking back on a sofa, or in an airplane seat, to cycle through the tabs. Now I can do this with the Acer in tablet mode. At 1.7kg (3.8 pounds) it’s not something I can conveniently hold for a long time without propping up with my legs or with a pillow. But to put things in perspective, Wolfram Alpha reports that 1.7 kg is 0.68 x the mass of the book A New Kind of Science.
Full-on tablet mode is just one option for reading, though. The other day, sitting in an airport bar reading, I used the machine in laptop mode but with the screen spun around so that the keyboard was safely away from my drink. Later, in a meeting with colleagues, I spun the screen to a variety of angles to show things to them, and to enable them to show things to one another. Now that I’ve had a taste of this kind of flexibility, I’ll never want another laptop that doesn’t have a screen you can spin around and fold back.
As a pure laptop it’s a bit of a compromise, as you’d expect. The keyboard is solid, but the screen outweighs the body of the machine which can make it tippy. The screen is also wider and skinnier than I’d like. That said, multi-touch makes it a different kind of laptop than I’ve ever used before. Now, when using other machines, I find myself reaching for the screen to scroll or adjust fonts. It’s true that general-purpose computers aren’t optimized for touch. But it’s an incredibly useful adjunct. I won’t ever want another computer that doesn’t support touch.
With previous laptops I’ve always used docking stations. For the Acer, though, I just plug in a giant second monitor. And I use a USB keyboard/mouse adapter to command the machine from my Captain Kirk chair.
Now I’m really looking forward to a next-gen version of this do-everything computer. It would be a bit squarer. It would be a bit lighter — say, .4 x the mass of A New Kind of Science. The accelerometer and multi-touch display would be more responsive. Given all that, though, I’m not sure I’d ever need or want a slate-style tablet. This machine has raised my expectations for just how flexible an all-purpose computer can be.