Friday, June 10, 2011

Acer Iconia A500 review

If you are thinking about buying an iPad, you may want to stop and think. Beginning several weeks ago, the “Tablet Wars” have started with the introduction of some heavy hitters versus the iPad. The game has changed and now consumers have something that has been the biggest problem with Apple products, choice. Welcome the Acer Iconia Tab A500. 

The A500 is a 10.1” tablet computer running on the latest version of Google’s popular Android OS called Honeycomb. With a starting price of $450 for the 16GB model, it’s $50 cheaper than a comparable iPad. But that price gets you a lot of bang for the buck. There is also a 32GB model available and, later this summer, a 3G compatible model. It also features 1GB RAM and the wonderful 1GHz nVidia Tegra 2 dual core processor.

So it’s cheaper than an iPad, but how good is it? Well for starters let’s compare size. At 765 grams, it’s not light compared to the iPad 2’s 601g. That is not to say however, that this is heavy. If you consider just over a pound and a half heavy, then you should probably hit the gym. It does get a bit taxing to hold one handed after a while though, but laying it on a knee or stomach for support, or even holding with two hands, is no problem. Let’s face it, using a tablet is likely to be a sitting or lying down activity with the occasional wandering. So the extra weight doesn’t play out as a big issue. There is also a separate docking station available if you want to set it down.

What is wonderful with this tablet is the 16x10 widescreen format. Tablets are commonly used by most people as media consumption devices. Watching movies on the iPad 2, you lose screen space because it’s in the 4x3 format. Not so here. Feel free to enjoy your favorite fare in all its widescreen glory. The Iconia also has thicker bezels which actually make it a little easier to hold without accidentally flipping home screens or starting an app. 

Speaking of the screen, it’s very nice. It is not the nicest screen on the market, but still very nice. It is highly unlikely that most consumers are going to notice that it’s only 256k colors versus 16 million on some of the competition. It is however a very good 1280x800 resolution, the same as the more expensive Motorola Xoom and higher than the iPad 2’s resolution of 1024x768 (higher numbers mean more detail). The multitouch interface is very responsive and follows finger movements fluidly. The scratch resistant Gorilla Glass tops it off, but like other tablets and touch screen devices, the Acer is a finger print magnet.

A very wonderful switch that Acer was smart to include on the Iconia is an orientation lock for the screen. When you are reading a book, for example, you can lock it into portrait orientation so that if you turn it, the screen remains correctly positioned. Hopefully others will take a clue from this and add it into the future as it is very handy. As with any LED/LCD device, it is glare prone and difficult to see in bright sunlight, but who wants to sit out in the beating hot sun and watch YouTube?  The on screen default keyboard is also quite easy to type on in both orientations. If anything, it’s a little bit too sensitive at times.

As far as other buttons go, on the top right is the power/sleep button. It is well positioned and only takes a press and hold for a few seconds to boot up, and just a tap to put to sleep. The volume rocker is along the right hand side and is a little stiff, but it sits flush enough to the side where it is unobtrusive. Also along the top of the device are a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro HDMI port for connecting to your television. It will output at full 1080p resolutions so you can watch movies or have music and, yes, play Angry Birds on a bigger screen. The left side has the proprietary docking connection for accessories like the docking station. The bottom has the power charging port (DC plug) --Just a note, the power cable is very short, so don’t expect to use it while plugged in unless you have an extension cord. There’s also a mini USB for computer hookup (and also charging your cell phone in a pinch), and the BIG news, a full sized USB port. With this little gem you can directly connect your camera, flash drives, and even portable hard disks. This makes expanding the storage on your device easy and gives users more functionality than some other tablets. Of course the other option that sets the Iconia apart from the iPad is it also has a microSD expansion slot for up to another 32GB of memory. Along with the microSD is a SIM card slot for 3G support, but the manual says if you remove the cover on it, the warranty is void, so that is to really be left alone for the time being, if it is even functional. 

There are also two cameras. A front facing 2MP camera for video chat using Google Talk --Skype support is not yet available, and a rear facing 5MP camera for stills and 720p video. It would have been nice to see full 1080p support for the video, but being a first generation device, it’s probably safe to say this is coming in the future. The picture quality is fine in good lighting conditions, but not the greatest in low light. This is not a knock against the Iconia because this is still typical of these small mobile cameras. The sensors are so tiny they are just not able to give the same level of detail as dedicated cameras. There have also been some reports with the video quality lacking and dropped frames. This does not seem to be problem with the hardware, but will need to be addressed with a software update. Again, it’s not really that big of a knock because it’s fixable, but it’s sort of awkward to hold this thing and take a video/photo anyway. There are more portable means for that.

Okay, so all these specs are well and good, but at this point the question is, does it work? Well yes and no, but mostly yes. There are some hiccups, but these are most likely due to Honeycomb being in its infancy. Issues will hopefully be addressed in future updates. The swipe motion to change to any of the five home screens is responsive and easy. It is tricky to find the correct format to play videos on. It has been a bit frustrating, but I think this has more to do with a lack of proper video conversion of my digital movies. It doesn’t support digital rights protected iTunes files which coming from an iPod Touch is what my digital movies are in. When it comes to battery life, the Acer is quite good. Depending on use, it’s good for around 8 hours or so. This is for constant moderate use. One small note about the battery life is that it could be longer, but there is a ghost drain coming from a “cell standby” mode. This is not a problem with the Acer, but it seems to be problem with Android as it has been reported with the Xoom and Nook Wi-Fi models. Still, turning it off at night is a great way to save the battery! There is also a lack of a good default file explorer, but there are several on the market to choose from. Oh and it sounds great! The Dolby speakers and software do a wonderful job for such a small package. It’s not bass abound by any means, but it sounds really good. Some have said it’s the best sounding on the market. 

Need to navigate? Another fun fact is that there is a built in GPS unit. It needs a few minutes and a clear view of the sky, but you can use Google Maps and Navigator to plot your course. It will work as a stand alone GPS and appears to have no problems. It's fairly accurate, especially with WiFi assist. When you plot your trip on your WiFi network, it will save your data for turn by turn directions when you hit the road.

This is a good tablet. I can say that for the price this is a very nice machine with some very nice features. The full size USB is a huge plus. Oh, in this regard you can even plug in a keyboard and type away much easier than the on screen keys. The Wi-Fi reception could be better, but then again not having the latest N speed router, that could be the problem. The screen is nice, and the Android Market grows with more fun apps all the time. Android has the customization and tweaking that the tech people like, but is still simple enough to use if you are able to read an instruction manual. The on screen mail, time, browser, and weather widgets, to name a few, are much nicer an interface than the wall of icons of Apple’s iOS. Live wallpaper is fun too! Acer Iconia Android tablets have a lot of potential and with over 200,000 units sold in the two months it’s been out it seems to be doing quite well for something not a lot of people know exists unless they’ve been already looking into getting one. So, there are still some hiccups to overcome, but the road ahead looks good for Google and Acer with the Iconia A500. 

-Andrew Reese

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