Acer's Android Smart Display Pushes Desktop Boundaries
Acer's Smart Display DA220HQL is a 21.5-inch all-in-one touchscreen released earlier this year that runs the Android operating system with a wireless keyboard and mouse and has the potential to change your desktop computing habits. I have a growing affinity for my 10-inch Asus Android tablet with detachable keyboard dock and my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone. I have adjusted my file handling and computing routines to adapt to mobile devices that run Android rather than a traditional Linux desktop.
Now, having a large-screen Android-powered desktop computer poses new computing challenges.
A Viable Second Desktop PC
Acer's all-in-one hardware solution has enough going for it to make the DA220HQL a viable second desktop computer. For casual computing tasks involving surfing the Web and handling email, social networking posts and household record-keeping, a desktop Android computer -- or even a larger-screen Android laptop -- could be an adequate replacement for a Microsoft Windows PC or a computer running a Linux distribution or Mac OS X.
Heavier computing tasks and workplace-level computing, however, are still out of Android's reach -- or at least they were, until Google's Android developers come out with a few fixes and features specifically targeting large-screen desktop operations. After all, the Android OS in its current versions is still designed for phone and tablet touch and swipe operations that are not up to snuff for more serious computing tasks.
That said, Acer's DA220HQL Android desktop computer is an impressive piece of hardware that performs extremely well. The more I use it, the more adept I get at working in a touch and swipe computing environment that I am not holding in my hands. I almost never grab its wireless mouse. Typing on its wireless full-sized QWERTY keyboard (minus number pad) is an absolute pleasure.
Tablet or Desktop?
This unit looks like a really big tablet. If you use it without the wireless keyboard and mouse, it otherwise might be. Certainly the virtual keyboard qualifies this unit as a tablet. So does the library of apps from the Google Play Store.
Still, whether you call it a large-screen Android desktop or tablet, the concept may have a hard sell. If nothing else, it may confuse consumers about what type of device they are buying.
Even some of Acer's marketing materials and website product info refer to this unit as a tablet. Other descriptions call it a desktop computer. Still other product listings call it a touchscreen monitor.
What It Does
Regardless of its category designation, Acer's DA220HQL Smart Display can connect to a PC for use as a standard touchscreen. It can also operate independently as a large-screen Android desktop with its own keyboard and mouse. Or you can lay it flat or slightly inclined and use the virtual keyboard as a really big slate computer.
Tablets imply mobility. This Smart Screen is much too large to use on your lap or cradle in your arm to read or type single handedly for any length of time. Also, this device must be plugged into a power source. It has no battery. Thus, it is not really a true mobile tablet device.
However, you can very easily carry the 9.9-pound Smart Display from room to room as long as you do not need it working while you move it. Its all-in-one design needs no tower for the computer circuitry. So this desktop/"almost tablet" is clearly slotted for a new hardware category. It is a semimobile computer/Smart Display.
A Different Approach
The configuration Acer originally released to run Android 4.0.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) on its big touchscreen has little competition. Few other Android desktops or large-screen all-in-one devices yet exist. ViewSonic recently launched its model VSD240 touchscreen, a 24-inch monitor powered by Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with a very similar configuration at a similar price point.
About three weeks after I purchased this item, however, Acer pushed an over-the-air upgrade to Android version 4.0.4. This version did not add any new features other than bug fixes and under-the-hood improvements. It also did not solve the problem (noted below) with certain apps that failed to install.
In any case, working with Android on a desktop computer environment takes computing in a very new direction. Efforts by some developers to port Google's Android operating system to run on desktop and laptop computers with x86 processors are under way. One example is the Android-x86 4.2 project.
Acer's solution with the Smart Display DA220HQL does not provide a live session Android installation, however. These touchscreen Smart Displays do not run Android piggybacked on a device with another operating system inside.
Instead, it embeds Android on a dedicated piece of multipurpose hardware. So, you cannot boot the Smart Display into another OS with a dual-boot configuration. Acer's hardware solution results in a fast, stable desktop PC running the Android OS. Since Android's memory and graphic needs are less demanding than full-blown Linux or certainly Apple and Windows OSes, the hardware requirements are less pricey as well.
Acer's DA220HQL Smart Display is a 21.5-inch LED-backlit LCD with 1080p HD multitouch display using VA Technology. The screen resolution is 1920 by 1080 pixels with a display ratio of 16:9.
Powered by a TI OMAP 4430, dual-core A9 processor and 1 GB RAM, the device offers 8 GB flash memory storage, expandable up to 32 GB via a microSD card.
The front-facing 1.2 MP camera is adequate for videoconferencing. Since the large Smart Display is tethered to its power cord, a rear-facing camera would be useless.
The hardware includes Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth and Ethernet LAN connections. It has two USB ports, one USB On-the-Go port and a micro HDMI port for connecting to a notebook, desktop or tablet for a dual-screen experience.
High-definition audio rounds out the hardware array. The speakers are located along the bottom front bezel. They crank out sound that is loud and clear. Voices and music are pleasant and crisp. That is not the case with my tablet, so I use a Bluetooth-connected speaker to make up for the poor tablet speakers. Happily, there is no need for the separate speakers with Acer's built-in audio system.
I would not be happy with only 1 GB of RAM and the dual-core A9 processor in a Windows or Mac computer and most Linux distributions. Yet that hardware combination produces rock-solid results on the Android-powered Smart Display device.
By comparison, my 10-inch Asus tablet runs equally well with its 1 GB of RAM and a Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. Using both devices side-by-side shows fairly even performance.
I especially like the feel of the Acer wireless keyboard included with the Smart Display. The key area is a full inch longer than the keyboard dock on my tablet and just a bit shorter than my standard desktop keyboard. I usually am less productive typing lengthy content on the tablet keyboard dock, but the Acer physical keyboard does not get in the way of my writing productivity. Whenever the wireless keyboard is activated by inserting the dongle into the USB socket, the virtual keyboard does not appear on the screen.
The VA screen technology rivals the brightness and crispness of my 22-inch ViewSonic desktop monitor. The Acer Smart Display's technology shows clear images regardless of my viewing angle, whether horizontal or vertical. Its display acuity ranges 178 degrees horizontal and has a 20-to-75-degree tilting capability.
The screen has a dual function and connects to a standard computer with the included HDMI cable and USB cable.
A bullseye on the bottom center of the screen activates the Acer Ring UI. This is a feature that Acer developed for its other mobile devices for providing quick access to the Web browser, settings, the screenshot shutter and photo gallery viewer. You can also use the Ring to adjust the volume and launch Google search.
An On-Screen Display soft button is added to the tray under the bottom left of the screen border next to the Recent Apps button. Use this button as another way to access the volume, brightness and contrast settings when running the Android OS. Use it to access these screen controls when using the touchscreen connected to another computer.
A bottom tool row in the OSD window provides access to the screen's SRD 3D feature, the HDMI connection, default function, and Return/Cancel button. This controls whether the unit runs Android or displays output from an attached device or computer.
The keyboard functionality in this device goes a long way in making pleasant desktop use of the Android OS. Numerous special keys eliminate the need to take fingers away from the keyboard to grab the mouse or touch the screen.
For instance, the keyboard arrow keys provide what Android's virtual keyboard does not. These keys make navigating around the big screen much more convenient. Using the Fn key with a particular arrow lets you jump to the start or end of a line of text or page up and down through a document.
The top row above the number key row, meanwhile, has its own set of what are dedicated function keys on a traditional PC keyboard. These keys let you select all text or select right/left text as well as cut or copy the highlighted text and paste it elsewhere. Other keys let you undo/redo actions and launch the calendar app, Web browser or email apps.
Above this top row of dedicated function keys is a smaller set of buttons that control volume and video or audio playback controls.
More Keyboard Controls
Using the Search function with the keyboard is pretty cool. Press the search button and a cursor appears in the top line of the screen in a classic Google search window. As you type, matching files, photos and songs from your stored Google cloud items form a list. Click on the item to launch it. This works with names of apps as well.
Some specialized keys duplicate touch options on the Android screen. For example, the Esc key returns to the previous screen or cancels the current open window. The home key returns the screen display to the home position.
The lock key blanks the screen or wakes it up, but you must then press the right-click button (to the left of the space bar) to unlock the screen. Otherwise, you will have to swipe the lock icon on the screen to resume the full-screen display.
A Few Flaws
One usability tweak is missing from the specialized set of keyboard keys. Namely, you need to touch the classic Android open app icon next to the home icon at the bottom left corner of the screen. Otherwise, you cannot switch to another running application. Alternatively, you can reach for the mouse and click on that icon; instead of touching the app to go to, you then must click on its window in the list. A keyboard shortcut or function key would solve this inconvenience.
A worse inconvenience involves some apps that only display sideways on the big screen. Unless you physically rotate the screen, you have no choice but to corkscrew your head. Another problem is that quite a few of the Google Play Store apps that I have installed on my Android smartphone and tablet are not compatible on the Acer Android desktop. That's odd, because these apps did run on those mobile devices when they ran Ice Cream Sandwich.
Meanwhile, the versions available from the Amazon Store worked just fine for some but not all of these apps. Others are not available there. A glaring example of this is the Facebook app, which is not available for this device. Instead, preinstalled is Facebook for the Web. This is essentially a link that loads the Facebook page in a separate browser session. On the large touchscreen, this is actually a better environment to experience Facebook than the clunky Facebook app.
Printer connection? Forget about it. The Android OS was not designed for printing. You can jury-rig some wireless printers to print that way if there is a compatible app for the configuration, but most printer makers do not yet support print drivers or print apps for Android devices.
When I queried Acer's tech support on this matter, the tech support person told me that printing was easy. I should upload the files to the Acer cloud (for which one year's free access comes with the Smart Display) or save it to a USB storage drive and print from another computer.
So much for relying on the Android desktop for my full-service computing needs.
Acer's DA220HQL is now listed on the company's website for a price of US$479.99.
I bought mine not long after its release from an electronics show for $499.99 plus tax with free shipping. It came with a 30-day money-back return option and the choice to pay it off in four payments.
Not a bad deal. I will probably keep it.