Review: The Acer Iconia Tab A500 boasts specs on par with many more expensive competitors, but picks up weight in exchange for its low price tag.
It’s a season for new operating systems. Last week, the BlackBerry PlayBook hit shelves and now the Acer Iconia Tab A500 is bringing Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) to a sub-$500 price point. But how does Acer’s new tablet compare to the iPad, G-Slate, Xoom, and Galaxy Tab? Pretty well, actually.
Acer has had a tough time breaking into the Android smartphone market, but its background in PCs and laptops is a strength when developing a larger tablet like the 10.1-inch Iconia Tab. The tablet isn’t as sleek as the iPad or PlayBook, but it looks a lot more useful from the get-go, with a full-size USB port on the side, a MicroSD slot, two rear speakers, a mini HDMI port, two cameras, an LED flash, a high-speed charging port, a stereo headphone jack, and a standard MicroUSB port. Its power button is also in a good spot and easy to press (unlike the PlayBook’s).
The volume rocker and screen-locking toggle are less exciting. It’s a bit difficult to know when you’re pressing volume up or down on the unit, and the button for it is hard to press, in general. While the PlayBook has a prominently placed menu item for locking the orientation of the screen (if you don’t want it shifting whenever you rotate the screen), the Iconia Tab’s iPod-style locking switch seems a bit unnecessary and in the way. The same goes for its bulbous docking port, for which you’ll get no use unless you plan on coughing up another $80 to dock your Iconia Tab.
The Iconia Tab A500′s design is two-toned. If held horizontally, a shiny black border surrounds the screen and extends out to the left and right edges. A plastic case with a brushed-metal design covers the back and clamps the top and bottom of the unit, giving it a nice tapered edge that, while not as sexy as an Apple product, does make it easier to hold.
It’s a good thing that the A500 is easy to hold too, because it’s the heaviest tablet on the market so far, weighing 730 grams — slightly more than the Motorola Xoom. Fortunately, the Iconia Tab, while heavy, has a more balanced weight distribution than Motorola’s tablet. The A500 also has competitive enough stats to justify its weight with 16GB of built in storage, a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel rear camera, a 2-megapixel front camera, and all those ports.
The Iconia Tab’s screen is a standard 1280 x 800 resolution, though its colors seem a bit washed out compared with the iPad 2 and PlayBook. The touch sensitive grid is also more visible than we would like. However, these problems are minor, at most.
Most problems we’ve had with the Iconia Tab aren’t hardware issues. Most of them are caused by the still buggy and unintuitive Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) OS. There were a lot of complaints about BlackBerry’s tablet, but the PlayBook’s operating system and iOS run circles around Android 3.0 in usability, design, and stability. Instead of looking forward, Google seems to have taken a step back in intuitive design, making the touch-based Honeycomb more like Microsoft Windows than anything else. And if you’ve ever tried to use Windows on a touchscreen, you know how much we just insulted Android 3.0. The PlayBook and iPad have operating systems that are built around a consistent user experience and universal gestures. Google’s first tablet OS is a chore to set up and forces users to build their desktops from scratch. Worse, it has an ugly, bland Tron-like design scheme to it that actually makes the experience less exciting than if it had no style at all, like previous versions of Android. Actions and gestures are inconsistent and the placement of items is baffling, at times. While Android has always lead the pack in multitasking and notifications, the PlayBook may have it beat. Android 3.0′s multitasking elements are not well implemented.
We’re not huge fans of Android 3.0, but it is still the only real option for a manufacturer like Acer. For its part, Acer’s assortment of apps and widgets do not make Android any worse or slower than it already is. The unit comes preloaded with a couple new media players — nemoPlayer and Clear.fi — which are both probably better than Google’s default player. Several nice-looking bookshelf organizing folders are also included for different app types. There’s a folder for eReading, Games, Multimedia, and Social. A SocialJogger app that combines your Facebook and Twitter streams is also available. Most of these weren’t really our thing, but none are harmful. It’s nice that Acer includes Docs To Go as well, since Google has failed to develop its own mobile or tablet versions of Microsoft’s Office suite.
The tablet also comes with two games: Lets Golf HD and Need For Speed: Shift. Both are a fun diversion and make use of the system’s 3D capabilities (no, not the kind of 3D with glasses).
Downloading apps is easy with the Android Market. We downloaded about 20. Running these apps, most of which we’ve used before on mobile versions of Android, wasn’t very fun. While some apps have updated interfaces that take advantage of Android 3.0′s features, most do not, and there is no way to know if your favorite app has made the leap. Running old apps is usually okay, but the menu buttons are in a different place (perhaps better) than updated apps. Others, like Jewellust, are completely broken. Google needs to start requiring developers to adhere to better menu standards inside apps. There are plenty of app, but they are all messy on a tablet.
This is another category that falls on Google’s shoulders. The Web browser in Honeycomb is not up to par with the iPad or BlackBerry PlayBook. It isn’t as good as the Android 2.2 browser running on the Samsung Galaxy Tab. At best, the browser renders Web pages in a blurry and ugly way. At worst, it crashes when you try to load complex sites. Oddly, Google’s tablet browser also tends to load mobile versions of sites, which tend to look rather odd when stretched over a 10.1-inch screen. Webpages also don’t reorient themselves particularly well when switched from landscape to vertical mode. Many apps also crashed when switching orientations. Acer’s dedicated orientation lock is making more sense now.
Though the Iconia Tab’s speakers certainly aren’t anything grand, they are great for a tablet. Acer’s decision to include Dolby sound is one of the best things the tablet has going it. It’s remarkable how much deeper and less tinny music can sound with headphones or from the speakers using Dolby’s technology. We almost didn’t discover this difference, either. For some reason, Acer disables Dolby at first. It’s up to you to dig into the Settings and turn it on. You’ll really notice the difference when you wear headphones. It seems like computer makers are taking sound more seriously these days. We couldn’t be happier.
The A500′s battery life is slightly less than the 10-hour standard Apple has set for the category. According to Acer, the unit’s battery lasts about 8 hours if you’re watching nothing but movies. For Web browsing, the number is a bit higher. This is about on par with what I’ve been seeing. The battery definitely doesn’t last as long as the PlayBook or iPad, but eight hours isn’t bad.
Acer’s Iconia Tab A500 is one of the, if not the, best Android 3.0 tablets on the market. We prefer it to the Xoom and at $450, it is most definitely a hell of a lot cheaper than the G-Slate ($750) or Xoom ($800), yet offers almost identical, if not better, specs. It’s even cheaper than the PlayBook and iPad 2 by a cool $50 as well.
The two big downsides to the Iconia Tab are its weight and its operating system. At about 1.7 pounds, it is heavier than the Xoom, so if you’re looking for a mobile tablet, this may not be the one for you. Its OS, Android 3.0, is still a bit too unstable and quirky for our tastes, especially when pitted against refined experiences like Apple’s iOS or even Android 2.3. We hope Google takes a good hard look at Android 3.0 and fixes it up in the next few months.
However, if you’re looking at a larger tablet and know all about Android 3.0 (we recommend you get yourself to a retailer and try it out), the Acer Iconia Tab A500 is the best deal around. It has specs that compare with the best at the lowest price. Win.