This is either brilliant or absolutely insane. Acer's new R7 ultrabook is the weirdest change to laptop design in years. It's great that Acer's doing this weird new thing that doesn't exactly make sense, just to see if it works.
The R7 switches the touchpad and keyboard placement on laptop's body, with the keyboard in front of the touchpad. This is to make using touch with Windows 8 easier, with the hinge actually working like an easel, sort of like the Sony Duo 11 or an old iMac, so it can come closer to you, covering up the touchpad at times, and make itself more touchable.
The guts are standard Ultrabook. It's got a "full HD" screen (1080p) and since it's out in May, it will be shipping with third-generation Intel Core chips but will presumably get a bump to 4th gen Haswell once those are out.
Acer's design has been right near the top of the industry for a little bit now. The S7, the 13-inch but especially the 11-inch, was beautiful. It had a few usability issues, but it was hugely encouraging as far as good design coming to Windows goes. We'll get a chance to use the R7 a bit after Acer's press conference wraps up, so we'll let you know if this is a good design shift or just batshit insane, but just the creativity alone is refreshing.
The very first thing you notice about the R7 becomes at once one of the the most and least important things about using it: the Ezel hinge. It's very godo at some of its jobs, and not very good at others. The problem is that it has more to do than the typical hinge. It's got to not only open and close like a typical laptop, but adjust forward and backward like an actual easel.
Angling the screen with the top part of the hinge feels perfect. Tilting and flipping it all the way around to the other side (a novelty, but one you might actually use) takes just the right amount of force. But while you'll appreciate the back/bottom part of the hinge being so rigid while you're using the R7 as a touchscreen monitor — there's no wobble at all — it makes opening and closing the lid, and further, adjusting it forward or backwards, pretty inconvenient. That sounds like a small detail, and plenty of people won't mind a clumsy, two-handed process adjusting the hinge, but it's something you'll be doing quite often, given the trackpad placement.
About that. I'm not sure it makes that much ergonomic sense. The unit I used was on a raised box — about the level of a standing desk — and I didn't get to sit down with it on my lap. But I got the sense that the preferred use method is going to be with the screen mostly covering up the trackpad. That's where you'll see some benefit from the design, but it's still questionable, given standard placement would allow your hands to still be near the screen, but still have access tot he trackpad. And on the lap, where the wrist rests can also act as a stabilising mechanism, this makes even less sense. There's definitely a type of user who's going to love this though.
The most disappointing thing about the R7, though, is that despite its naming lineage, it seems like a big step backward from the S7 in build quality. It's sturdy, to be sure, but its plasticy and uncomfortable keyboard are a step back from the S7's, which was polarising as far as usability, but always felt and looked premium. The 1080p 15-inch screen is very pretty, though large enough to be goofy when folded all the way down in tablet mode. It's not overly heavy, for a 15-inch device, but it ain't light either.
The R7 is pretty clearly aimed at people who will be using it at a desk all day, and who have some compelling reason to be using touch over other input methods. It doesn't really make much sense for anyone else. For now, that first group is small enough to not register on a wide scale. That might not be the case in the future, but for now, the R7 really isn't for everyone.