Acer is the latest company to jump aboard the tablet wagon with the Iconia A500 Android tablet. The 10.1in Acer Iconia A500 runs the latest version of Google's Android operating system, 3.0 Honeycomb, and has a full-sized USB port for storing and transferring files, along with an HDMI port for direct connection to a high-definition television.
Read our guide to the best upcoming tablets in 2011.
Acer Iconia A500: Design and display
Our first impressions of the Acer Iconia A500 Android tablet weren't all positive, but the longer we played with it the more we appreciated its brushed aluminium back, curved bottom and top edges, and flat sides. We like how the brushed aluminium back wraps around to the bottom and top bezel on the front, and, although Acer can't claim to offer the same superb industrial design that Apple is well-known for, the Iconia A500 feels sturdy and well built. Side-mounted headphone jack, USB and HDMI-out ports, a bottom-mounted proprietary port and a plastic flap housing a microSD card slot along the top complete the Iconia A500's exterior.
The downside to the industrial look and feel of the Iconia A500 is that it is a little on the chunky side, and at 730g it is rather heavy. Acer will be hoping that potential buyers may be happy sacrificing a little size and weight for some extra features — while we think many people will be happy to do so, we still have our reservations about carrying the Iconia A500 around all day. We also didn't like the external buttons: The power, volume and screen-orientation lock keys are all too small considering the size of the unit, and the volume key is not raised enough so it feels a little awkward to press. The plastic flap housing the microSD card slot feels flimsy.
The Acer Iconia A500 has a 10.1in LCD with a 1280x800 resolution. Indoors the display produces vibrant colour and crisp text, but its glossy surface makes it very tough to see in direct sunlight, and its viewing angles aren't great. Importantly, the Iconia A500's display is responsive to touch.
Acer Iconia A500: Software
Along with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v, the Acer Iconia A500 is one of the first tablets to run Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb platform, which has been specifically designed for tablets. The software is a "vanilla" version of the Honeycomb OS, though Acer does include a few small hubs to store and sort downloaded apps. These include social, eReading, Game Zone and Multimedia; they are merely a fancy bookshelf background where you can group application shortcuts.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb has a completely redesigned interface that aims to take advantage of the larger screen of a tablet. New UI features include an "action bar", a contextual option group displayed at the top of the screen, five customisable home screens with a big emphasis on widgets, a recent apps list for easier multitasking, a redesigned on-screen keyboard, a new browser and improved copy and paste.
Most of the changes are positive. The Acer Iconia A500's Web browser is slick, fast and displays Flash content, most of the time with minimal delay. It also supports tabbed Web browsing and the entire browsing experience is as close as you'll find to a full desktop or notebook computer. The on-screen keyboard is also spacious and comfortable to type on once you get used to its layout.
The Android Honeycomb user interface of the Acer Iconia A500, particularly the home screen, looks striking and is easy to use, and the handling of notifications is excellent. The recent apps list also makes flicking back and forth between recently used programs a breeze. We love the flexibility of live widgets, and they are particularly useful on a tablet device with much more screen real estate than a smartphone. We did however notice that flicking between home screens populated with more than three or four widgets does tend to make scrolling jerky.
Despite all Android Honeycomb's positive experiences, it is clear the software is still in its infancy, so the overall out-of-the-box experience isn't as slick as it could be. The Iconia A500's browser still automatically switches to mobile versions of many Web sites (including Facebook) and Flash video performance — a key advantage the device is claimed to hold over the iPad — is hit and miss. Sometimes, the browser would crash trying to load Flash-heavy sites, while other times it would load them almost perfectly. Browsing Twitter, for example, was also clunky at best.
A more pressing issue is the lack of third-party apps in the Android market that have been designed with a tablet in mind. Many common apps, including the official Twitter and Facebook apps, have not yet been optimised for the larger screen size the Iconia A500 offers. Default Google apps like Maps, Gmail and YouTube worked excellently, and there are a handful of downloadable apps like Angry Birds and Pulse News Reader that filled the screen perfectly and worked without issues. But many apps in the Android Market simply resize to fit the Iconia A500's screen. This issue will, of course, change over time as the platform evolves and develops, but means the current user experience offered by Android tablets like the Iconia A500 are still very much a work in progress.
Acer Iconia A500: Performance and hardware
Acer says the Iconia A500 offers a "superb mobile and home entertainment experience". The Iconia A500 supports HD video playback and recording, and has an HDMI-out port, so it can be plugged directly into a high-definition television. It also has a full USB port for storing and transferring files. The Iconia A500 doesn't come preloaded with a file manager but a quick and free download of one from the Android Market (we recommend Astro File Manager) makes it easy to access files on the USB port. Even more convenient is the fact that you can plug in a USB keyboard into the Iconia A500 and use it for text input.
The Acer Iconia A500 is powered by a 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor — the same used in the Galaxy Tab 10.1v — and 1GB RAM. The Iconia A500 comes in 16GB and 32GB sizes, and both models come with expandable memory via a microSD card slot. Critically, the tablet felt slick and fast throughout testing.
The Acer Iconia A500 has a rear 5-megapixel camera, and a 2-megapixel front camera for video calls. Although both take significantly better quality photos than the iPad 2, the quality of still images and HD video recording can't match those captured with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v.
Acer claims the Iconia A500's battery is good for up to 10 hours, but we experienced much less during testing. Though the Iconia A500 often lasted over two days with moderate use, which is a fair result, listening to music and watching videos reduces battery life. We used the Iconia for an hour of video and music listening during our morning and afternoon commute, as well as playing a few games and doing some casual Web browsing and e-mailing, and managed about seven hours of use before the battery needed recharging.
The Acer Iconia A500 starts at $579 for the entry-level 16GB Wi-Fi model, and $678 for the 32GB Wi-Fi model, but it will also be released in Wi-Fi + 3G variants at a later, unannounced date.
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