- Review Date: 04/28/11
- Bottom line:
Acer's Honeycomb tablet, the Iconia Tab A500, has similar strengths and weaknesses to its direct competitors, but its $450 price is easier to swallow than some others.
Inexpensive. Zippy Tegra 2 processor. High-res screen. Solid connectivity options with USB, HDMI ports. Good media-specific
Comparatively large and heavy. No 3G or 4G options. Front-facing camera isn't optimally angled. Honeycomb isn't yet a mature app platform.
Is anyone else starting to see a pattern here? It's a simple recipe, really: A scoop of Honeycomb, mixed with a fast Tegra 2 processor and a splash of Flash beta, served inside a big, bright screen. That's what Motorola did with the Xoom ($599-$799, 3.5 stars), LG and T-Mobile did with the G-Slate (3.5 stars, $629), and it's what Acer offers up in its first Android tablet, the Acer Iconia A500. The 10.1-inch Iconia's spec sheet reads a lot like the Xoom's and the G-Slate's, with three major differences: it's a bit bulkier, it's Wi-Fi only, and, at $449 (direct), it costs less. If that combination sounds good to you, the Iconia A500 might be your cure-all tablet.
Before we dig in, a quick pricing note: For now, there's a single Iconia tablet, and it's a 16GB Wi-Fi-only model. AT&T has announced a 4G version, coming this summer, and Acer has confirmed that there's a 32GB version hitting the U.S. soon. But for now, there are no carrier models, and no options for more than 16GB storage (though you do get a microSD slot that accepts up to 32GB cards). The $449 price is at the low end of the spectrum—at least, among the Android tablets that you should consider buying—bested only by the same-capacity, Wi-Fi-only Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 ($399, 3.5 stars).
Solidly constructed, the Iconia isn't the all-glossy-black, sleek beast the Xoom and G-Slate are. Instead of opting for an all-around black bezel, Acer added a pewter-color brushed aluminum frame above and below the screen, which also covers the tablet's back panel. The Iconia is also larger than the Xoom, despite the same-size 10.1-inch screen. The tablet measures 10.25 by 7.0 by 0.56 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.65 pounds—each of those numbers is higher than the Xoom, G-Slate and the Apple iPad 2 (4.5 stars, $499). That said, it's not so big or heavy that it feels unwieldy.
The tablet's front is pleasingly minimal—there are no logos or buttons, only the 10.1-inch, 1280-by-800 LCD, and a small dot on the upper left side for the front-facing camera. The screen is just slightly higher than 720p resolution, but the omnipresent black bar at the bottom limits it right to 720p. It's a capacitive touch screen, and, in my tests, was extremely responsive to presses, pinches and swipes. I only had one real issue, and it was the aspect ratio. A 16:9 display is nice when you're watching a movie or playing a game, but when trying to browse the Web in portrait mode, the screen is just too narrow—you need to surf in landscape.
The back panel is also sparse, all blushed aluminum except for an Acer logo, camera with flash, and stereo speakers. Elsewhere, ports and buttons abound: on the bottom (if you're holding the tablet in the landscape view) is a proprietary connector for docking the A500, and on the right panel, you'll find both standard and micro-USB ports, along with a Reset button and the port for the AC adapter. On the left are the headphone jack and a micro-HDMI port. On top, there's a volume rocker and an iPad-esque rotation lock slider to disable the accelerometer, The microSD card slot hidden behind a door, accepts up to 32GB cards. Connectivity options abound with this tablet, especially compared with the iPad 2, which is notoriously stingy with ports. You can't hook up a keyboard or a mouse via the Iconia's USB port though. Acer claims that support will come in a future update.
The A500 has 802.11n Wi-Fi inside, as well as Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. There's the aforementioned accelerometer, plus a gyroscope. Battery life is rated at eight hours of video playback or 10 hours of Web browsing. We're running battery tests now, and will update this review with the results shortly.
Performance and Honeycomb
The Nvidia Tegra 2 processor is the chip of choice for powering Honeycomb slates: it's found in the A500, the Xoom, the G-Slate, and the Transformer. As such, its performance and test results are similar. In the PCMag Labs, we run a series of tests to determine tablet processing power—ranking everything from the tablet's ability to calculate Pi, to its graphics capabilities. The A500 is almost identical, performance-wise, to the very-speedy Xoom. Everything from loading Web pages to launching apps was extremely fast with the Iconia.
Running the latest version of Android, 3.0.1, the Iconia's UI looks pretty much the same here as on the other Honeycomb-powered tablets. For a deep dive into Honeycomb, read our full review. Generally speaking, though, Honeycomb does a lot of things well—notifications and multi-tasking in particular—but has some organizational and design flaws. Still, it's a giant step up from earlier non-tablet-specific Android versions we've seen on some tablets.
Acer doesn't change much about Honeycomb, except for a few icons on the home screen and the default background. When you turn on the A500 for the first time, you're greeted by four folders instead of app icons. You'll find eReading, Games, Multimedia, and Social with a few apps in each. You can add other apps to the folders to make them easier to find, or remove the folders entirely. Otherwise, though, you're looking at pure Honeycomb.
Apps and Multimedia
The app story is a slightly different one—here, Acer's mark is more obvious. All the standard built-in Honeycomb apps are present: Books, Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Camcorder, Camera, Clock, Contacts, Downloads, Email, Gallery, Gmail, Google Search, Latitude, Market, Music, Navigation, Places, Recorder, Settings, Talk, Voice Search, and YouTube. Acer adds a number of extras: games like NFS Shift (a simple racing game) and Let's Golf, productivity software Docs to Go, a link to Facebook, a universal social-networking app called SocialJogger, and several others. Android's persistent problem of not offering enough tablet-friendly apps remains, but the basics are here, and they all work well.
Flash isn't pre-installed, but it's easy to download via the Android Market. It's not exactly a perfect browser experience, though: this version of Flash is still in beta, and in my tests led to some stuttering video and finicky performance—par for the Android course.
Acer also includes several apps that improve the tablet's abilities as a media device and hub. There's a Shazam-style app called a MusicA to help you identify songs you hear. An app called Media Server sets up the Iconia as a DLNA server, which makes it easy to get files off the tablet and onto a computer. Clear.fi lets you access and stream files from other devices, and NemoPlayer is a media player app that I like much better than the stock Android Music app. There's a strong focus on networking and media with Iconia, and that's a good thing.
It's a shame the tablet doesn't sound better. There are two internal speakers, and Acer uses Dolby technology to enhance the audio—the Dolby does a lot to improve what is naturally pretty anemic sound, but it doesn't do enough. The A500's speakers point directly backward as you hold the tablet, which doesn't help the volume, and the output is seriously tinny. The speakers are louder than the single speaker on the iPad, but I preferred the sound quality from the iPad.
The Iconia has the ability to mirror its display onto an HDTV via the micro-HDMI port. It fills a TV screen nicely, and can output video up to 720p. (Acer says a 1080p support update is coming this summer.) It's a great way to watch YouTube videos, flip through a photo slideshow, or even browse the Web on a larger screen. Plus, when you're mirroring the display, you can take advantage of your HDTV's speakers, which are sure to be better than those on the Iconia.
Cameras and Conclusions
Just like with other Honeycomb tablets, you get two cameras with the Iconia, but each comes with a slight caveat. Take the front-facing camera, for instance: it's a 2-megapixel camera designed to be used for video chatting, but it's aligned not-so-slightly off-center, so that to get your own face in the frame you have to point the tablet above and to the right of your head. Otherwise, it's a nice solution for video chatting (though not particularly high-quality), mostly because Google's built-in Talk app is great.
The rear-facing camera is 5 megapixels, and shoots decent pictures as long as you're in good lighting conditions—it's got an LED flash and autofocus, both of which help photo quality. It had trouble focusing on things far away, making close-ups much better than broader shots. The rear camera can shoot 720p video, though it had a serious problem with motion blur anytime the tablet or its subject moved—which is hard to avoid with such a large device. The real problem here is the viewfinder: As with other tablets, using a 10-inch screen as a viewfinder for a camera or camcorder is a bit awkward. Also, like with all the other tablets we've tested, including, and especially the iPad, none are a replacement for a dedicated digital camera.
Here's the thing about the glut of Honeycomb tablets we're seeing right now: They're really not all that different. Our Editors' Choice, the Apple iPad 2, remains the best tablet on the market, but if you're set on Android, you should definitely opt for a tablet that's running Honeycomb and packs a Tegra 2 processor. Among those models, there's not too much variation. The T-Mobile G-Slate offers a few extra features, like 4G connectivity and 3D-recording capabilities. The Asus Transformer is the least expensive at $400, and has an optional keyboard dock that turns it into a pseudo-netbook. The Iconia A500's advantage is having more connectivity options and better multimedia support than the others. In general, though, you'll get more or less the same thing from all of the top Android tablets right now.
If you happen to be focused on media consumption, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 will serve you well. But if you can wait to jump into the tablet game, things are likely to get more interesting as more major manufacturers including HP, HTC, Samsung, Sony, and others release tablets in the coming months.