Acer’s latest entry into the cheap convertible space is the Aspire R11.
It’s a notebook with an 11.6 inch touchscreen display, an Intel Braswell processor, and a hinge that lets you fold the screen back 360 degrees until it’s back-to-back with the keyboard.
Unlike a 2-in-1 device which is a tablet with a detachable keyboard dock, the Acer Aspire R11 is a convertible with a built-in keyboard that’s always there. This means you’ll never misplace the keyboard, and it also means that the screen can be adjusted to a variety of different angles. There’s also more room for full-sized ports.
On the other hand, this computer’s a bit heavier in tablet mode than a detachable model like the Aspire Aspire Switch 10.
Acer also made some compromises to keep the price low: the Aspire R11 has a 1366 x 768 pixel display with limited viewing angles and an all-plastic case.
So is the Aspire R11 worth the relatively low asking price? Maybe.
Acer loaned me an Aspire R11 convertible to test, and it’s not a bad little laptop. But I’ve rarely found myself using it as a tablet, which makes me wonder if you wouldn’t be better off with a tradition laptop or a 2-in-1 model with a better display.
The unit Acer sent me features an Intel Pentium N3700 quad-core Braswell processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. This configuration has a list price of about $400.
Acer also offers a model a $330 model with a Celeron N3050 dual-core Braswell chip, and the company just brought its entry-level model with a Celeron chip, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB to the United States. That version sells for $249.
Each model has the same design: a two-color plastic case with a black keyboard, touchpad and screen bezel and a different color for the lid, sides, and base of the laptop. The demo unit I received has a white exterior, but Acer also sells the R11 in blue.
The outside of the laptop has a textured finish that looks a little bit like a fake-knit pattern. It does a pretty good job of not showing fingerprint smudges.
On the left side of the laptop there’s a full-sized HDMI port, a full-sized USB 3.0 port, and a full-sized USB 2.0 port as well as an Ethernet jack and a headset jack.
The right side of the computer features power and volume buttons which are positioned so that you can reach them whether you’re using the PC in laptop or tablet mode. A power adapter jack is also on this side of the system.
I had to look at the spec sheet for the Aspire R11 before I realized it had an SD card slot. That’s because it’s located at the back of the computer, where it’s kind of hidden from view when the laptop lid is open. But you can press the little fake plastic SD card that comes with the computer to pop it out and slide in a full-sized SD card.
Look at the bottom of the laptop and you’ll find two speaker grills near the front of the system, but no other holes in the case. The Pentium N3700 is a low-power processor that doesn’t generate a lot of heat, so Acer dressed this laptop in a fanless case.
That allows it to run nearly silently while staying relatively cool. The bottom of the case does get a little warm during extended use, but it never gets really hot.
The system would probably be cooler, even quiet, and and more responsive with a solid state drive. But Acer equips the Aspire R11 with a hard drive instead. The upshot is that while many of the latest low cost Windows laptops offer just 32GB of flash storage, the Aspire R11 has 500GB. But the computer can feel a bit sluggish when performing certain tasks, something which may be attributable to the fact that hard drives often have slower read/write speeds than flash storage.
Also on the bottom of the case are 12 screws. You can remove these to open up the case and get at the insides of the computer. While Acer ships the Aspire R11 with 4GB of RAM, the computer can support up to 8GB of memory. There’s only a single SODIMM slot, so you’ll need to remove the 4GB SODIMM and replace it with a higher capacity model if you want to upgrade the laptop’s memory.
The keyboard is… a kind of mixed bag.
On the one hand, most of the keys are full-sized, well spaced, and offer decent travel. You can press down hard on the center of the keyboard to notice a little flex, but it’s not something I noticed most of the time while typing. For the most part, I find the keyboard very comfortable to use.
There are some quirks to the keyboard which I find awkward though… although if you’re used to Acer computers, you may not find these quirks quite so annoying.
First, the company ha a habit of cramming six keys into the space where you’d normally find just two or three: the PgUp, Pgdn, up, down, left, and right arrow keys are packed tightly into the lower-right corner of the keyboard. Hold the Fn key and these six keys also become home, end, volume up, volume down, brightness up, and brightness down buttons.
Since the keys are so close to one another, I find it very difficult to figure out which one I’m about to press by touch-typing. I often think I’m about to hit the end key, only to find myself adjusting the screen brightness.
I also find it awkward that the mute button is triggered by pressing Fn + F8, while you adjust the volume by pressing Fn + up or down. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put all the volume keys together?
Perhaps you can train yourself to get used to the position of these keys, but after using the laptop on and off for about a month, I never really did. The only way I can reliably figure out which key I’m about to press is to take my eyes off the screen and look down at the keyboard.
Speaking of the screen, when you’re using the Aspire R11 in laptop mode it looks… adequate. The computer has a 1366 x 768 pixel glossy display with a fairly large black bezel in the glass area around the usable portion of the screen. There’s another thinner black plastic bezel around that.
The display can get reasonably bright, but colors look a little dull no matter how bright the screen gets. A bigger problem is the viewing angles: they’re pretty much awful.
Colors look a little washed out when you view the screen from the left or right, which could make it hard to watch a video together with someone sitting on the couch next to you. If someone’s standing and looking over your shoulder, it’d be nearly impossible for them to see the screen, because pictures start to look like photo negatives when you tilt the screen back horizontally by just a few degrees.
That’s a little annoying when you’re using the Aspire R11 as a laptop. But it makes the experience of using the computer as a tablet kind of awful.
I downloaded a few eBooks and fired up the Kindle app hoping to spend some time reading in order to get a sense of what it’s like to use a 3.5 pounds, 0.8 inch thick, 11.6 inch computer as a touchscreen reading device. I figured the biggest problem would be that the Aspire R11 is a bit thick and heavy.
But I couldn’t stand to use the system in this mode for more than a few minutes, because making minor adjustments to my grip on the Aspire R11 would make the text basically disappear from view.
Part of the appeal of a convertible laptop is that you can use it in laptop mode, flip the screen around and pick it up to use as a touchscreen tablet when you want to play games, watch videos, read text, or perform other activities where you might not need a keyboard and touchpad. But the Aspire R11’s lousy display makes the tablet experience pretty lousy, so I found myself primarily using the computer as a laptop.
That’s too bad, because while it would be nice to think of this computer as a laptop with a bonus tablet mode that you could use occasionally, it’s really more like a cheap laptop that’s made more expensive by a feature that you’ll probably rarely use.
You can reach up and touch the display when using the computer in notebook mode. But like a lot of low-cost laptops with touchscreen displays, the Aspire R11 display wobbles a little bit when you touch it, which makes it kind of unpleasant to tap or swipe the screen. So I mostly used the laptop with a mouse.
The touchpad isn’t bad. It’s fairly wide, reasonably responsive, and supports mult-touch, tap, and click actions. I just generally prefer to use a mouse.
Acer loaned me a unit with an Intel Pentium N3700 quad-core processor based on Intel’s Braswell architecture. It has 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, but the company also sells lower-priced models with Celeron N3050 or N3150 dual-core chips. So performance will vary depending the version you use.
In 2013 Intel launched a series of low-power Atom, Celeron, and Pentium chips that all used the same Bay Trail architecture. This year the company split things up a bit, with Cherry Trail chips replacing the low-power Atom processors, and slightly more powerful Braswell chips taking over the Celeron and Pentium lineup.
The Pentium N3700 chip is one of the most powerful in this family, but it’s still a low-cost, low-power chip with a 6 watt TDP. That said, the Acer Aspire R11 does appear to have more horsepower than any Bay Trail or Cherry Trail system I’ve tested to date.
I ran a handful of tests and the Aspire R11 was able to create ZIP archives and transcode audio and video files more quickly than last year’s Acer’s Aspire Switch 10 2-in-1 tablet (with an Atom Z3745 Bay Trail processor) or a Tronsmart Ara x5 mini-desktop (with an Atom x5-8300 chip). It’s even faster in some tests than the Zotac Zbox CI321 nano mini-desktop, which has a Celeron 2961y Haswell processor.
On the other hand, most computers I’ve used with recent Intel Core M or faster chips were able to complete the same tests in less time.
While the Aspire R11 also performs better than some systems in graphics benchmarks, this isn’t really a gaming machine. Sure, you can play some casual games, but don’t expect stellar performance for bleeding edge titles.
OK, so those test results let you know what the CPU and GPU are capable of… but then there’s the experience of actually using the Aspire R11. It’s… occasionally unpleasant.
I’ve gotten so used to Windows computers taking less than 10 seconds to boot and just a few seconds to resume from sleep that I’d forgotten what it used to be like. The Acer Aspire R11 has reminded me. It takes much longer to reach the Windows login screen than any other computer I’ve tested in the past year or two, and once you enter your password it takes a while for the Windows desktop to load.
Sometimes apps also seem to take a while to load, and for the most part they perform smoothly once they’re up and running. But from time to time, even while I’ve been typing the text of this review, my Chrome web browser would slow to a crawl and I’d have to wait a moment for the text I’d just typed to appear on the screen.
Part of the reason for this is probably that the computer has a 500GB spinning platter hard drive instead of solid state storage. But I used CrystalDiskMark to to check the hard drive read and write speeds, and it doesn’t seem much slower than a computer using cheap eMMC flash storage.
Another explanation could be the sheer amount of bloatware that comes pre-loaded on this computer. Plenty of computers come with a few pieces of software you may not need, including trial versions of McAfee security and Microsoft Office, for example.
The Aspire R11 had both of those apps… plus WildTangent games, CyberLink PhotoDirector, Foxit PhantomPDF, Spotify, Evernote, Flipboard, plus a ton of Acer-specific apps and shortcuts to Amazon, eBay, and more.
I uninstalled a huge number of apps, and the system did seem to get a little more responsive, but just a tiny bit.
To reiterate — the computer can be reasonably fast for a low-cost, low-power system when it’s performing specific, CPU-intensive tasks. But it can also experience occasional slowdowns and the slow boot and resume speeds can be kind of annoying if you’re used to faster systems.
It might be possible to address these issues by performing a little minor surgery. RAM upgrades are pretty easy.
You may also be able to replace the hard drive with an SSD or a faster or higher-capacity hard drive. I didn’t attempt this on the demo unit Acer loaned me, because it involves removing a cable and lifting a cover, which I wasn’t absolutely confident I could do without causing damage.
The Aspire R11 features Bluetooth and dual-band 802.11ac WiFi. I had no trouble connecting to WiFi networks, and data transfer speeds seemed pretty zippy when connected to a 5 GHz network.
While the stereo speakers aren’t going to blow you away with their sound quality, they were reasonably loud and clear when I used them to listen to music or videos.
The notebook has a 3220 mAh battery which provides around 6 to 8 hours of run time when using the laptop to web surf, watch the occasional YouTube video, and edit pictures and documents. While the battery isn’t designed to be removed, it is accessible if you open the case, so you may be able to swap it out for a replacement if it loses the ability to hold its charge in a few years.
As I mentioned, I don’t really enjoy using this computer as a notebook, because the screen viewing angles are awful and it’s a bit big and heavy to hold in your hands anyway. But there is one rather nifty feature I should point out: the Aspire R11 supports the Continuum feature of Windows 10.
That means the operating system will notice when you push the screen back to use the PC in tablet mode and ask if you’d like to change to a tablet user interface. The Start Menu is then replaced with a Start Screen that takes up the entire display area.
Windows Store apps that were already running will also switch to full-screen mode automatically, and any such apps that you open now will run in full-screen windows, although you can view multiple apps side-by-side in resizable windows by dragging the top of the window to the side of the screen and then choosing a second app to fill the space.
You can close apps in tablet mode by swiping down from the top of the screen, or bring up the Windows Action Center for notifications and controls by swiping from the right edge of the screen.
Flip the screen back to notebook mode, and Windows will ask if you’d like to exit tablet mode. You can also choose to have Windows remember your preference and stop asking, so the computer always switches to and from tablet mode automatically. You can also search for Tablet Mode or Continuum settings in the Start Menu/Screen to adjust your preferences.
This is the first Windows 10 convertible notebook I’ve tested, and I think the Continuum feature is a really nice addition to the operating system. While I never had trouble using Windows 8 on a laptop, some folks had complained that the operating system felt like it was designed first and foremost for tablets.
Windows 10 makes keyboard-and-mouse/touchpad input a first class citizen again. But you still have the ability to use touch-friendly controls when you switch to tablet mode.
It’s just a shame that the limited viewing angles make the Aspire R11 so unpleasant to use as a tablet.
You can also use it in tent or stand modes though. Instead of tilting the screen back 360 degrees, you can turn it about 270 degrees or more and prop up the tablet using the keyboard like a stand. This lets you get the keyboard out of the way if you’re not using it, and could come in handy if you’re watching videos or reading recipes in the kitchen, just to name a few possibilities. If you position the screen just right, you might not be bothered by the poor viewing angles in these modes.
The Acer Aspire R11 makes a decent little low-cost, portable laptop with a fanless design, and it offers performance that’s a little better than most systems you would have been able to find a year ago in this price range.
The Pentium N3700 Braswell chip offers a bit of a performance boost over the Bay Trail chips it replaces, and the notebook offers decent battery life, fast WiFi connection speeds, and while it’d be nice if it had two high-speed USB 3.0 ports instead of just one, at least it has one.
Unfortunately the Aspire R11 is a little more expensive than some other low-power budget laptops, because it’s not just a laptop. It has a touchscreen display and a hinge that lets you hold the computer in tablet mode. But since it’s a low-quality display, I’m not sure you’re actually going to want to do that.
If Acer has included an IPS display, it’d be a lot easier to recommend spending $400 on this laptop, even though it can feel sluggish from time to time. That said, you don’t necessarily have to spend $400. Acer sells cheaper models with less powerful processors and from time to time you may even find stores selling the same version I tested at discount prices.
But if you want something even cheaper, you might want to look at the entry-level Aspire R11 with a Celeron N3050 dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of eMMC storage. It has a list price of just $249, which makes it a lot easier to justify buying a convertible laptop with an inferior display.
Don’t think you need the touchscreen tablet features? Then you might be better off with the new Acer Aspire One Cloudbook line of low-cost laptops with prices starting at around $190.