It's a pretty good time to be shopping for a cheap laptop, with hybrids, Chromebooks and plain ole laptops each available from a couple of hundred quid these days. So there's no need to spend a small fortune on your next portable computer.
The Acer Aspire R11 costs under £300 if you shop around, and has a typing-friendly 12-inch frame and a clever 360-degree hinge that lets it pass for a turbo-chunky tablet or stand-up by itself, using the keyboard as a stabiliser. Aside from this feature it's not flash, but it is very practical and versatile.
There's just one part of the Acer Aspire R11 that really has us cringing: the screen. Like something taken straight off a laptop from 2007 (bar the touchscreen), it doesn't feel like it belongs on a flexi-hinge device. So is the R11 the budget laptop killer, or does its screen kill what could have otherwise been a great laptop?
Acer's laptops are often practical rather than snazzy, and that's true of the Acer Aspire R11 too. These 360-degree hinge models tend to have a bit of style and flair to them, but this one is simple, plasticky, and isn't trying to convince anyone it's anything but an affordable model.
Aside from the glass on top of the screen, every part of the Acer Aspire R11 your fingers touch is plastic. Keyboard, trackpad, casing: they're all plastic, and pretty coarse stuff at that.
There's an embossed finish on the lid and the base, featuring a light roughened texture elsewhere. It seems Acer is doing it best to avoid using any cheap-feeling glossy plastic. And while what we have here doesn't dodge the cheapo factor, it does at least avoid a tacky feel.
Connections and keyboard
The whole design of the Acer Aspire R11 is relentlessly practical. It's chunky enough to fit in proper connections for one, with two full-size USBs (one USB 3.0), an Ethernet port and full-size HDMI. Plugging in peripherals is a doddle, as is attaching a monitor. There's a full-size card slot too, hidden at the back of the hinge for some reason.
The Acer Aspire R11 has the feel of a proper laptop, not a bit of tech fluff out to lighten the wallets of a few people thinking about buying a new-fangled-design model. It's also large enough to act as a day-in, day-out machine. Whereas some 11-inch models seem that bit too cramped for long-form typing, switching from a 13-inch MacBook Pro to the R11's 11.6-inch panel was less of a culture shock than expected.
The Acer's full-size keyboard feels great for a laptop this affordable, with a light and shallow but ultimately clear and comfy action (our unit has a US layout, though, as you can see in our pictures).
The trackpad is about as large as Acer could afford to fit in too. Taking inspiration from the MacBook line-up, it doesn't have separate buttons; the pad itself acts as a button, and the right mouse button is fired by holding two fingers on the pad and pressing. While a total Apple copycat move, it feels natural.
Acer has also managed to make the trackpad's surface feel great without using the sort of tempered glass surface you get on a top-end laptop. It's silky smooth, and could pass for something fancier than plastic if we weren't so sure that a laptop this price would use the stuff.
We've been using the Acer Aspire R11 as our main laptop for a few days now, and the experience is really great considering the price point.
Which makes us doubly sad that Acer has dropped the ball so much with the display, which measures 11.6-inches diagonally across. Size is not the issue, though. This is the kind of screen typical of an older budget laptop, and it's completely unsuitable for the Acer Aspire R11's main feature: the 360 degree hinge and steeper-than-face-on angles of view.
The hinge lets you move the screen around smoothly, holding at any angle you fancy. But the thing's viewing angles are dreadful, killing the idea of using the R11 as anything approaching a tablet.
The Acer Aspire R11 has a TN-type screen, a fairly basic kind of LCD that's common among monitors and simple, cheap laptops. It offers a high response rate, but pretty poor colour and extremely limited angles of viewing compared with the IPS LCDs we tend to see in tablets and many touchscreen laptops these days.
Colour quality in general is poor, but the big turn-off effect is contrast shift. To give you some idea about the extent of this, looking at the Windows 8.1 apps menu with a green wallpaper, it looks as though the background is a green-to-near-black gradient where the green should actually be bright from top to bottom. It's a nasty effect, an awkward reminder of times past. But it's back in the present with a vengeance here, and of course being able to flip the Acer Aspire R11 screen around only shows off how poor the screen is. It's bad even among TN displays.
Flipping the R11 over and using in its "tent" configuration doesn't help either. It looks poor no matter how you approach it. If you're using a word processor it doesn't matter too much as black-on-white screens aren't affected too badly by contrast shift. But we wouldn't want to watch too many films on it. It's a real missed opportunity.
It almost seems too late to touch on resolution, but that's not going to impress anyone either. The Acer Aspire R11 offer 1366 x 768 pixels, a sub-Full-HD res that makes pixels pretty clear. Still, if we had a nicer-looking IPS display we'd be more-than happy at this price point.
The one good thing you get is touch operation, which feels pretty good thanks to the glass top layer. Thanks to the TN panel, though, even a light tap causes slightly disturbing rippling distortion at the screen's edge.
Our version comes with a healthy 1TB hard drive too, making its lack of multimedia nous all the more grating. There are two main specs of Acer Aspire R11: our review sample has the 1TB HDD and 8GB RAM, while the cheaper (generally £80 less) version has a 500GB HDD and 4GB RAM.
Both have Intel Pentium processors. Our review sample uses the 1.6GHz N3700, a Braswell-series CPU that's low on power but high on efficiency. If you want to play the sort of games you might see on a console, even a last-gen one, this is not the laptop for you. It's about as powerful as a four-year-old Intel Core i3 chipset. And while it has an up-to-date 8th-gen GPU, it's not a patch on the one you get in an Intel Core i5 chipset.
We tried a few games and found that you'll hit the wall fairly early unless you stick to either very low settings or pretty old games. For example, indie favourite Dear Esther is playable, with a just-about-ok frame-rate (unless you enable anti-aliasing).
While the generous amount of RAM makes basic tasks feel fairly nimble, the Acer Aspire R11 really doesn't have the power for truly demanding tasks. As it uses an HDD rather than an SSD, it's not all that quick at booting or coming out of standby mode. It just doesn't have the lightning-fast reactions of an SSD-equipped Ultrabook or a good tablet.
Still, if you want an everyday, portable laptop to do a bit of work, email-checking and perhaps even a spot of photo editing (if you can get over the poor screen), the Acer Aspire R11 is great. It's reasonably light at 1.5kg too, although that is a fair bit heavier than something like the MacBook Air 11 or Microsoft Surface 3. And at 20mm thick it's not super-super slim.
At least having a hard drive in there and full-size ports get you some payback for that. Stamina is strong too. Acer quotes eight hours use off a single charge, and we actually got slightly more than that when using the Aspire R11 at 40 per cent brightness - that's fine for indoors document writing and the odd bit of browsing. It'll get you through a day's work if you don't ask it to do anything too taxing.
The Acer Aspire R11 multi-form laptop benefits from being that bit bigger than something like the older Acer Switch 10. It's much more comfortable to use for a good few hours of typing, browsing, or whatever needs doing.
But despite this, Acer has really dropped the ball with the screen. The R11's poor viewing angles feel entirely mis-matched for a product designed with a 360-degree hinge.
Which is a shame, because at this price point so much is otherwise right. A solid trackpad and keyboard make the R11 a joy to use for work, and it's matched with good battery life too. A good budget pick for coffee shop hoppers who like their on-screen content as black and white as their drinks, but not great for multimedia.