Long battery life, a bright, 10-inch HD screen and full-size USB host port are hallmarks of Acer's Iconia Tab A500, which the CRN Test Center has been evaluating for the last few days. Running Android 3.0.1 Honeycomb on a dual-core NVidia Tegra 1 Ghz Cortex-A9 processor, Acer's $449 entry into the Android tablet market is a worthy contender to Apple's $499 iPad. If only it weren't so darn heavy.
One pound, 10 ounces might not sound overly burdensome, but try holding an Iconia with one hand for about 20 minutes while navigating with the other; it starts to weigh on the consciousness -- and the wrist. And while the brushed aluminum casing is as easy on the eyes as on the finger tips, we might have added some rubberized accents to keep it sticky.
Still, the Iconia A500 has a lot going for it. Its beautiful 10.1-inch WXGA TFT LCD capacitive screen offers multitouch capability, of course, and is driven by an ultra low-power NVidia GeForce GPU. The screen is highly visible from any angle up to about 80 degrees. Native resolution is 1280 x 800, support for 262,000 colors, and an aspect of 16:10; adequate for viewing HD 720p content. Later this year, a scheduled update will support 1080p output to the Iconia's HDMI port.
The Iconia A500 measures 10 x 7 inches and is one-half inch thick, compared with the iPad's one-third inch thickness. Apple also beats Acer on weight at one pound, five ounces. What does one receive for those extra five ounces? Starting with a full charge, we used the tablet on and off for about 18 hours, which consumed just 27 percent of the battery's charge. Acer says that it's two 3260 mAh Lithium Ion batteries will deliver about eight hours of continuous HD playback or 10 hours of internet browsing. The iPad 2 has a single 2500 mAh battery (but extremely long life nonetheless).
The differences between Android 3.0 and prior versions are many; some are glaring, others subtle. The first thing we noticed was that controls for Home, Back and Menu -- which once had their own dedicated hardware buttons -- are now implemented in software that apps can make disappear. This gives the Iconia bezel a clean, clutter-free look without gloaming up too much screen real estate.
A new Android system bar, which has moved from the top of the screen in Android 2.3 to the lower right-hand corner, makes quick work of adjustments to screen brightness, network connections, battery and WiFi connection status, notifications and so on. There's also a button that opens a redesigned settings control panel that takes full advantage of the larger screen.
There's another subtle change that we think will serve users better over time. When swooping between desktop pages, a light blue box appears to indicate the current page's position relative to other pages. This builds on a feature introduced in Android 2.3 that flashes an orange bar when reaching the top or bottom of a scrolling list (in Honeycomb, it's a more subtle blue).
Next: More Features
Acer's Iconia A500 incorporates most of the hardware that's required for a tablet these days, including front (2 megapixel) and rear (5 megapixel) cameras, dual microphones, WiFi (b/g/n), 1 GB of dual-channel DDR3 system RAM plus 16 GB or 32 GB of eMMC flash storage, a headphone/microphone combo jack and stereo speakers.
There's also a GPS receiver, acceleromoter, Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR (enhanced data rate). What's also present and not always found elsewhere is an Micro SD card reader with support for up to 32 GB, a full-size USB 2.0 host (rectangular) connector, Micro USB 2.0 (slave) connector and a docking port.
Acer includes several excellent apps with Iconia, including an eBook reader and three classic eBooks, a golfing game and one called Need for Speed: Shift (the latest version of EA's excellent driving game), and a utility called Clear.fi, which permits file sharing and media streaming from Windows desktops and DLNA-compliant devices.
When setting up the unit for the first time, prompts appear for selecting a network, opting in or out of Google's anonymous data collection program, setting the date and time and for signing into and synchronizing with a Google account.
There were just a few things we didn't like about the Iconia A500. Foremost, there's no way to charge the unit from either of its USB ports; it can only charge using the included AC/DC adapter (with its cannon plug). We also had trouble navigating the many significant UI changes in the Honeycomb Gmail client and found ourselves unintentionally tapping the screen with unintended parts of the hand. Also, a flare in the case around the docking port causes the unit to teeter when stood up with this side down.
On the whole, Acer's Iconia A500 ($449 list) is a capable tablet with much to offer its intended audience of individuals and families for accessing e-mail, social networks entertainment and media; students for accessing learning apps, eBooks and courseware; and for business people to take written and spoken notes and for accessing company and client data and email while on the road.
Options include 3G connectivity ($50), a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard ($70) and a docking/charging station ($80). For the serious Gmail user that's looking for seamless integration with a tablet that's cheaper than an iPad, the CRN Test Center recommends the Acer Iconia A500 tablet.