Acer Iconia Tab A500 review

4 out of 5
£449

For

USB, HDMI, working microSD slot, Honeycomb hasn't been too badly interfered with

Against

Acer's software additions are largely dismissible and bring little value, design is rather clunky, size, short power lead, poor video support out of the box

The Acer Iconia Tab A500 is Acer’s 10.1-inch Android tablet - as designated by the “A” in it’s product name, unlike the “W” of the W500 tablet that we reviewed previously. At 10.1-inches it faces a number of Honeycomb rivals such as the Asus Eee Pad (Transformer), the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Have Acer hit all the right points with their tablet?

Design and connections

When we talk about design, Acer aren’t always top of the list. Compared to the Asus Eee Pad the Iconia Tab A500 looks a little bloated, alongside the Motorola Xoom it looks a little chunky and that’s saying something as the Xoom isn’t exactly svelte. Side-by-side with the Xoom, we’d say that Motorola’s tab is better looking. The dimensions come in at 260 x 177 x 13.3mm and it weighs about 750g.

The screen finds itself with a wide bezel at the sides and wrapping into the casing top and bottom. Unlike the iPad, or even the Eee Pad, this casing is constructed from a number of panels so you don’t get the same premium aesthetics you do elsewhere. This isn’t helped by the chrome effect volume rocker and orientation lock on the top of the Tab, which look a little cheap and dated. 

The end panels of the A500 are black glossy plastic but find themselves offering some of the more appealing features of the A500: connections. You get micro HDMI, and both a full sized USB and Micro-USB on the ends, along with the power and 3.5mm jacks. This is a useful collection of ports, meaning the Acer tablet has greater connectivity potential than its rivals.

There is also a dock connector on the bottom of the A500 which isn’t so well conceived. It is placed on the bottom edge of the tablet, but the body work is molded around it, so there is a bump. This means that if you rest the tablet on a desk and hold it, it rocks around on the dock molding, which is annoying. You can flip it the other way round if you are happy to not be able to access the volume control.

The dock connector will work with Acer’s Docking Station, which offers to charge your tablet, an audio output and comes with a remote. 

The internals, display

Like many of its rivals, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 comes with Nvidia’s 1GHz dual core Tegra 2 chipset at its core. This is supported by 1GB RAM and you get 32GB of internal memory. The memory can be expanded using the microSD card slot on the top. The A500 doesn’t alert you to the fact you’ve added extra memory like the Asus Eee Pad, it just rolls content and availability into applications. For example, head into the Gallery or Music player and it will present all your images and music, including those on the card. The same applies to the USB port - adding a USB thumb drive makes files available to the device.

The display is a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 pixel, TFT LCD, offering a pixel density of 149, which is the same as the Xoom and the Eee Pad. It offers slightly cleaner, brighter whites than the Xoom and the viewing angles are good. The glossy finish means it is reflective and it isn’t great for use in bright conditions, but it does have the brightness to still be usable outdoors.

The Acer experience

The Acer Iconia Tab A500 runs Android 3.0.1 (at the time of writing) with an update to Android 3.1 promised in June. That will bring with it a host of additional benefits, most notably enhanced support for USB devices like cameras, keyboards and mice. We found the A500 would recognise a USB keyboard anyway, although it didn’t recognise all the shortcuts that our Android 3.1 Xoom did.

Acer’s customisation of Android 3 is on the light side so most of what you get is standard Honeycomb, which, as we’ve seen in detail in our separate examination of the tablet UI, works very nicely. Acer’s additions revolve around the addition of several hubs - eReading, Games, Multimedia and Social - which are essentially pages which can be customised to organise your content. Each looks like a sort of shelf and Acer’s pre-installed apps will be in place - for example in the Multimedia hub you’ll find shortcuts to Photo Browser 3D, NemoPlayer, MusicA, etc.

The main homepage offers up links to these hubs by default, which can be easily changed to more useful apps, like Gmail or the Browser, and we can’t help feeling that you could just as easily add your significant app shortcuts to the home pages and lose all the hubs altogether - after all, all the apps can also be accessed through the Apps menu. 

On the social networking front, Acer has added in their Social Jogger app. We’ve seen this before on Acer devices and here it offers you Facebook and Twitter updates (after sign-in) and comes with a supporting widget, which will bizarrely give you access to the updates you posted and nothing else. The Social Jogger app itself is as good as useless: it offers three updates on the page (in landscape, five in portrait), so doesn’t really make good use of the screen space on offer. But its biggest failing in our minds is after skimming that content from Twitter and Facebook, it doesn’t then offer to present it itself, instead linking back to the websites via the browser. 

Acer have added their Clear.fi app which basically offers a DLNA client. If you have a compatible TV/device you’ll be able to play back content stored your tablet once sharing is turned on, but you also have that HDMI for a direct link through the appropriate (but not supplied) cable. Plugging into your TV via HDMI mirrors the device on the screen, so it’s useful for sharing not only media, but big screen browsing, YouTube or whatever. However we struggled to get Clear.fi to find our normal Cisco home media server (or a Mac running TwonkyServer) - once it did see them, it told us there was no content. The Skifta app, however, managed to see both and play content for us without issue.

Of the Acer additions on the software front there is nothing here that really excites us. Sure, the support of the hardware connections the A500 provides is very welcome, but basically we found that we just wanted to run the Acer tab without the Acer trimmings on top, which was easy enough to do.

Honeycomb performance

The touch response is good, apps open quickly and multitouch navigation was slick and smooth. There was the occasional unexplained app shutdown but we’ve found this on many tablets. One thing we did notice was that the A500 starts up (from being switched off) much faster than the Xoom. 

As a Honeycomb tablet the Acer Iconia Tab A500 runs rather well and we found that the browser was generally stable and didn’t crash as frequently as it does on our Xoom. Elsewhere the A500 is swift in operation as you’d expect given the hardware it offers, but amongst the Honeycomb tablets we’ve seen so far, there isn’t too much between them when it comes to that core experience. You can find all the details of Honeycomb in our dedicated Honeycomb review and we won't repeat it all here.

As a Honeycomb tablet it also supports Adobe Flash, so you’ll be able to enjoy a fuller internet experience. It isn’t perfect, however, and we found that sites that are too heavy on the Flash become a pain to navigate, like 4OD. No fear, something like Dolphin Browser HD often handles Flash sites better and it is worth downloading from the Android Market as an alternative choice.

One of the current criticisms of Honeycomb is the difficulty in finding apps specifically for tablets. It is true that there aren’t as many Android tablet app as there are iPad apps. Android is generally better at scaling regular phone apps and you’ll find that some apps have been “Honeycomb optimized” meaning they adopt Android 3’s menu layout and so on (like the Twitter client Plume for example). Rather than needing more apps, Android really needs developers to optimise their apps so they fit nicely on both phone and tablet platforms. Some, like the DLNA streaming app Skifta don’t fit, but still work, and some like the official BBC iPlayer app fit, but don’t work, so it’s currently a bit of a mixed experience. We’ve been detailing our favourite Honeycomb apps in a running list here.

Multimedia

We've already mentioned Flash video, of course Android also comes with its funky YouTube app. The 16:9 screen on the A500 is well suited to video playback, but the run of codecs it supports is disappointing. We offered it our normal run of test files and it refused to play almost all of them. It was happy with some low-grade HD 3GPP files and some SD MPEG4, but it steadfastly refused to tackle our other HD or DivX files. The situation can be bettered by trying a different media player, like MoboPlayer, which will expand the format choices available to you, but we’ve seen cheaper tablets offer better video support. 

You do get Dolby Mobile on board, however, which adds an appreciable boost to sound quality both through the speakers and through headphones, adding depth and widening the soundstage to give a more immersive result. The on-board speakers are around the back towards the base and provide reasonable results, but headphones would be our choice for anything other than casual online video browsing.

When it comes to photo browsing, Acer have bundled in their Photo Browser 3D. This is a neat little app which is a nice way to share photos with friends, spinning them into what looks like a photobook and offering multitouch zooming and so on. NemoPlayer, the bundled media player, also offers to display your photos and will also play music too, although the stock Honeycomb Music app is pretty good. 

Sitting in the eReading hub is a solitary application called LumiRead. This is an ebook reading application but we found it a series of dead-ends. The supporting LumiRead bookstore doesn’t offer the UK as a country option and use requires you to input your Adobe ID (to handle DRM). You can register your Adobe ID in the settings menu, but after numerous “unknown errors” we gave up trying. Similarly the existing Virginia Woolf title on the bookshelf wouldn’t open and DRM-free EPUB we downloaded wasn’t recognised by LumiRead either. 

Cameras

On the back of the A500 you’ll find a 5-megapixel camera along with LED “flash” and on the face of the tablet is a 2-megapixel model. The front-facing camera will offer you 640 x 480 video along with 2-megapixel snaps. The focusing is fixed on this camera, and as is typical, the results are nothing to get excited about.

The 5-megapixel camera offers auto and infinity focus, but misses out on the Xoom’s macro focus option. It’s not a huge deal as the camera will macro in auto mode anyway. The results aren’t great and won’t match the sharpness you’ll get from the best mobile phone cameras these days, but seeing as this is a tablet, you’re unlikely to use it for anything other than ad-hoc snapping, so it does the job.

Video from the rear camera offers HD of the 720p variety and is a little soft and lacking punch, but otherwise does the job well enough. Again, we can’t see anyone opting to use a tablet as their primary video device, so we won’t get too upset if the results aren’t that good. You get the option to switch between internal and microSD memory too.

The battery is cited as giving 8 hours of life. This would be a constant use scenario and we’ve found that the battery performance of the Acer Iconia Tab A100 has been good, lasting us several days in casual (and typical) use, but performance will very much depend on what you ask it to do.

Verdict

The Acer Iconia Tab A500 offers some features that make it attractive to potential tablet buyers. The range of supported physical connections is the big thing, accepting microSD cards and external USB drives in the tablet itself - the USB will also be more useful when Android 3.1 arrives on the A500.

Acer’s software modifications don’t really add any appeal. The hubs are largely unnecessary as you can access the apps you like directly. Some of the pre-installed apps, like Social Jogger, you can safely ignore without feeling you’re missing out. At its core though, thanks to the nice clean presentation of Android 3, you’ll find that core elements like email, contacts and the calendar are a pleasure to use. Our only real software gripes are around the basic video support which doesn’t take advantage of what we know the Tegra 2 will offer you elsewhere. 

It isn’t the prettiest tablet, but we suspect that those who want the advantage of a full-sized USB connection may overlook that fact. The price, at £449 and falling, makes it better value than the Xoom, which it bests in terms of convenience if not looks. The Asus Eee Pad still looks to be better value, however, accepting the caveat that its arrangement brings. (UPDATE: Acer have reminded us that the 16G A500 is a competitive £380.) There will also be a 3G variant, called the A501, which will retain for £529, available in late June.

Overall, you can’t go too far wrong with the Acer Iconia Tab A500 and it’s certainly worthy of consideration if it fits your budget and you crave that USB port or HDMI. Given how quickly Acer prices tend to drop, it could soon be a bargain too. But the design will deter some as it just doesn't look as good as it's competition.