Acer’s Iconia Tab (A500 model) is one of a plethora of tablets slated (see what we did there?) to hit Australia in the middle of 2011.
Like a number of its rivals, the tablet features impressive specifications — boasting NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 processor, a 10″ screen size, verion 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android platform and a plethora of other features designed to make Apple’s iPad weep. But despite this there’s no doubt the Iconia Tab is the lowest profile of the lot — it’s been left out of the hype cycle completely; so far it has a low profile.
Is the Iconia Tab a diamond in the rough, or is it just an also-ran? Read on to find out.
The first impression that you get when you pick up the Iconia Tab is its sheer size and weight. We’re not going to say that the device is similar to the tank-like design of Telstra’s T-Touch Tab; the Iconia Tab is a more sophisticated beast than that. However, there are definitely shades of the T-Touch Tab’s excessive weight and bulkiness here.
The Iconia Tab’s weight (765g, according to its box, although it is listed as being lighter in online specifications) places it at the heavier end of the currently shipping 10″ tablets in the Australian market. The iPad 2 tops out at 610g, while Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1v is even lighter at 600g, and the Motorola Xoom is also 730g.
Many people may laugh at the fact that we think weight matters so much in a tablet, given that most laptops are significantly heavier. But when you consider what the current flock of 10″ tablets will be used for, and the way that users navigate their user interface, we think the current crop of devices is in general too heavy — and the Iconia Tab is one of the worst in this regard.
Your writer is a large, tall man with large hands accustomed to reading massive fantasy novels of 1,000 pages or more. Even so, we found the Iconia Tab was too heavy to hold in one hand for more than 30 seconds without having to rest it on something. The weight made any serious reading of books or online articles a trial, although it was OK when we could prop it up in our lap and get some emailing or casual web browsing done.
The weight also made us reluctant to add the Iconia Tab to our laptop bag as an extra device to carry around with us on a daily basis — it was an extra more than half a kilo that we didn’t want to lug around.
Apart from its weight, the Iconia Tab’s design is quite nice, if relatively bland.
The tablet’s large 10″ screen is clear and colourful, although we noticed the pixels a little too much, being spoilt by the Retina Display found in Apple’s iPhone 4. One little annoyance is that the screen is surrounded by a border of about 1.5cm of black plastic, which we felt enlarged the tablet unnecessarily. We’ve also been spoilt recently by smartphones with screens which run almost to the edge of the handsets themselves.
The back of the device is gunmetal brushed metal, with a couple of more plasticky grips on either side which aid you in holding the device with both hands when it’s held horizontally. On the bottom of the device when it’s held vertically is the input for its power adapter, as well as a micro-USB port, and, somewhat redundantly but charmingly, an actual full-sized USB port and a small reset button which we assumed resets the tablet to factory default settings.
On its top is a mini-HDMI output port, a standard 3.5mm headphone adapter and a power on button. On the right-hand side at the top is one large volume button, which can be tilted either way to change that setting, and an orientation lock switch — which we felt was a bit redundant, as this could easily be a software feature. A covered slot for a microSD card can also be found here. A largish non-standard port on the tablet’s bottom was a docking mechanism where you can plug in things like an optional keyboard.
On the back of the tablet is its five megapixel camera and flash, as well as two decent-sized speaker grilles, which did a decent job of producing sound when used — although we would prefer the sound to have been directed at the user, not away from them.
Overall we weren’t that impressed by the Iconia Tab’s design. We didn’t hate it — but it definitely didn’t stand out as being anything special.
As with its design, the Iconia Tab’s feature list is pretty much standard but not exceptional.
A speedy NVIDIA Tegra 2 A9 CPU at 1GHz beats underneath its case, its 10.1″ screen does 1280×800 resolution, and it supports HDMI output at 1080p, a resolution which it can handle video at pretty well. The rear camera is rated at five megapixels, while the front-facing camera is a two megapixel model. It comes with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of on-board storage memory.
We’ve seen the Iconia Tab listed as being 3G-capable internationally on either the A500 or A501 models, but in this aspect, as well as a number of others (such as the slightly heavier weight), the A500 we were sent in Australia showed no evidence of supporting 3G mobile broadband. It does, however, support 802.11b, g and n Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth. And its sound quality receives a bit of a boost courtesy of its support for Dolby Mobile. The model we received also listed GPS support.
To be honest, we found using the Iconia Tab to be a bit of a chore.
Much has been written about how version 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android operating system was going to revolutionise the tablet paradigm, providing a platform that for the first time was designed from the ground up for tablets and not for smartphones.
Many readers, for example, have informed me that they didn’t buy the 7″ version of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab series when it was released in late 2010, because there were no plans to support Honeycomb on that device, and so they considered the 7″ Galaxy Tab nothing more than a glorified smartphone.
However, the truth is that in 2011, Google’s Android platform is still not yet really mature.
Manufacturers like HTC and Samsung have had several years now to polish their Android-based user interfaces for smartphones, and it shows. We reviewed HTC’s Incredible S smartphone this week, which boasts version 2.3 (Gingerbread) of Android, and the device is simply a wonder to use — intuitive, beautiful; something which is qualitatively more attractive and accessible than other smartphones on the market, including, in many respects, Apple’s iPhone.
The promise of tablets is that they should be intuitive; their unique touchscreen interfaces begs that the user play with them, almost caress them — the user should enjoy the experience.
However, I found much of the Honeycomb interface on the Iconia Tab to be inconsistent; with on-screen controls differing markedly between applications. Most of the time I had to hunt around for five minutes or more to change the simplest setting. A good example would be setting a YouTube video to stream in 720p rather than 480p — it took me a good while to work that one out.
I’m not sure how much of this is related to Acer and how much to Honeycomb — but if a technology early adopter like me finds the Iconia Tab’s interface troublesome, I’m going to bet that less tech-savvy users will as well.
There were also other issues with the Iconia Tab.
Trying to stream a 480p video from YouTube over 802.11g Wi-Fi was pretty non-functional. My broadband connection is such that it’s normally no problem for me to stream 720p or even 1080p YouTube videos of StarCraft II matches to my MacBook Pro when I’m lying in bed. This was a task that the Iconia Tab was incapable of performing — even streaming at 480p suffered lengthy two minute buffering jags.
The user interface of the Iconia Tab was also jaggy — just navigating around and launching applications felt a little like you were using a device with an underpowered CPU. The touchscreen is also not that sensitive.
And then there’s the battery life … to be honest, it’s not great. Don’t expect to be using this tablet all day on the road without recharging it — especially if you’re using it for multimedia. For a road trip of a few hours it would keep the kids occupied in the back with a few videos — but eventually you’re going to need to plug it into the cigarette lighter to keep them happy.
And for anyone that is serious about using the Iconia Tab for e-reading, newspaper reading on the train or emailing … we would suggest there are probably better, longer-lived alternatives. We left the device on our desk for a couple of days only to come back and find it completely dead. Again, the battery on the Iconia Tab is nowhere near as poor as that on Telstra’s T-Touch Tab — but it’s also no iPad 2.
Having said all this, there is a lot to like about the Iconia Tab. Its speedy CPU and graphics chips mean apps, including modern Android games, perform absolutely fine when they are loaded, and we loved the on-screen keyboard; it’s extremely sensitive and made emailing and web browsing a breeze.
After propping it up on your lap a few times, you more or less get used to the tablet’s form factor, and the weight isn’t that much of a headache once you find the right position. Honeycomb’s not mature, but it will improve fairly regularly — with the Iconia Tab already wanting to download an update in the few short weeks we had it.
The Iconia Tab is neither a standout device like Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s 7″ Galaxy Tab, nor a tank of a product like Telstra’s T-Touch Tab. It’s a modern Honeycomb tablet which sits squarely in the middle of the spectrum. It’s got most of what you need, but it’s not svelte or beautiful, and it’s a bit jaggy and heavy.
However, it’s not currently priced in the middle of the spectrum. Starting at around $579 in Australia, which is precisely the starting price of the iPad 2, the Iconia Tab is too expensive at the moment. We’d like to, and no doubt we will, see this tablet come down in price to at least $300 before we could recommend it.
If you are going to spend close to $600, buy an iPad 2 instead of the Iconia Tab. To put it bluntly, if Acer is going to charge the same price as a low-end iPad for its Android tablet, it needs to give consumers a reason to believe that the device is at least as good, if not better, than Apple’s offering.
The Iconia Tab is good — and a year ago, it would have been great — but in mid-2011, the tablet is merely mediocre. I’m betting that in a few months, it will halve in price (let’s not forget the $700 price drop in a matter of months the 7″ Galaxy Tab went through this year) and you’ll be able to pick it up for a song. If you want a cheap, solid 10.1″ Android tablet, wait until that point and buy the Iconia Tab. At that lowered price point you won’t regret it.
Image credit: Acer