We had a brief hands-on with Acer’s ICONIA Tab A500 back in May, when they announced it in India. We returned from the conference quite pleased with what we saw. Finally! A worthy competitor to the almighty iPad – we thought. On paper, the A500 is way more feature packed when compared to Apple’s offering and at a lower price tag. We finally received the A500 for review and I must say we were all pretty excited as it was the first Android Honeycomb tablet to hit the labs. So we took it through its paces and here’s what came up. 

Form factor

Honeycomb in all its glory

Honeycomb in all its glory



The first striking feature you’ll notice after unboxing the A500 is the build quality and finish. The tablet has a very nice brushed metal coat that covers the entire rear and extends a bit towards the front. It’s fairly slim measuring 10.24mm in depth, which is slightly thicker than the iPad 2. It's slightly heavier at 730g, which isn’t apparent immediately, but after a while you’ll feel the fatigue in your wrist if you hold it in one hand. Acer has reserved quite a bit of space around the bezel making it easier to use in portrait or landscape mode. The glass covering is a magnet for fingerprints and is quite reflective but not any more than any other tablet device out there at the moment, iPad 2 included. The 10.1-inch screen has a decent resolution of 800 x 1280 pixels which gives you really sharp and vibrant images. The capacitive screen supports multi-touch and is backed by an accelerometer, gyro and proximity sensor. 

The volume rocker and micro-SD card slot

The volume rocker and micro-SD card slot

The volume rocker and orientation lock switch is located on the top along with a small flap – that’s incidentally not the easiest thing to pry open – that conceals the micro-SD card slot and an empty space that would be the SIM slot in upcoming models. The A500 comes with 16GB built-in, so there’s plenty of space to work with. I noticed the chrome coated plastic feels a bit flimsy and it doesn't sit well in the mould. Over to the left we have a translucent power switch that glows white when ‘On’ and orange when charging. Next is a 3.5mm headphone jack followed by a mini-HDMI port. Acer does not bundle the cable along, all you get in the box is a power adapter, data cable and a sleeve (that doubles up as a stand) for the tablet. There’s a slight problem with the sleeve/stand though – due to the dock connector at the bottom, the surface isn’t even so if you use it in landscape mode with the stand, it tends to wobble.

Helps when watching movies

Helps when watching movies

Finally, the right side plays host to the charging port, micro-USB port, standard USB 2.0 connector and a reset button. Currently, the USB port does not support NTFS formatted drives but will, in a future update. 

Coming to the rear of the device, we have two speaker grills on either side, at the bottom. Now, if you plan on watching a movie by holding the tab, your hands will block the grills giving you a slightly muffled sound. However, the speakers are quite loud for their size, hence it’s not too much of a problem. The connector at the bottom is for a dock that’s part of Acer’s optional accessories. Last but not the least, we have a 5MP auto focus camera gracing the back along with a LED flash. There’s even a secondary 2MP camera in the front for video chat.  

Features  and Performance

Interface

No way to delete extra home screens

No way to delete extra home screens

With all the hype surrounding Google’s tablet version of Android, I couldn’t wait to see what the fuss was all about. The A500 runs Honeycomb 3.0.1 and is due for a 3.1 update, hopefully by June end. Now even though this was my first time with Honeycomb, I‘m quite familiar with the mobile version of Android up to the current Gingerbread edition. This is however, quite a different experience, something I did not anticipate. Booting it up takes a bit of time and once done, you’re greeted with a lock screen that you drag in any direction to unlock it. There is no notification bar that you can pull down from the top of the screen, it instead, now appears at the bottom right corner along with the time and other information like battery status, Wi-Fi signal strength, brightness adjustment or access to the Settings. 

The A500 does not have any physical touch sensitive buttons, so instead you have on-screen buttons for Return, Home and recently opened apps. The five apps in that list remain in memory and run in the background, so when you switch to them it’s instantaneous. On the upper left, we have the Google search box which you can set to either search the web or just the contents of the tablet, like music, contacts,etc. It also has the voice search feature. On the other side, we have a shortcut to take you to all your apps. To add a widget or shortcut, either press the ‘+’ sign above or simply hold any empty space on the home screen. Doing so, brings up all the available widgets and shortcuts that are neatly categorized. 

Acer has bundled a few widgets for weather, recently viewed web pages, popular apps in the Marketplace, etc. They’ve also included a bookshelf-like UI that gives you a one-stop shop for your games, movies and music, social networking and e-book readers. Even with all of this in place, the interface is not exactly user-friendly. Icons for various tasks are spread across the screen in different corners when it could have have been placed at the bottom where there’s ample of free space. The stock Honeycomb launcher seems to add too many steps to do simple tasks like getting to the settings page. After installing Launcher Pro, navigation was so much easier. When holding the tablet in landscape mode, I could simply browse all my apps, scroll up and down, all with my right thumb without having to search the corners. In the main apps menu, you can choose between ‘All apps’, or just the ones you’ve installed. Most of the system apps are designed to take advantage of the larger screen. For instance, the Settings menu is split in two columns, with the left showing you the main menu and the right giving you the sub-menus, again similar to iOS on the iPad. The same applies to GMail, Marketplace, etc. 

The Acer A500 packs an Nvidia Tegra 250 dual core CPU running at 1GHz, so I expected blazing fast fluid operations with zero lag, no compromise whatsoever. However, this was not the case. Whether you’re simply sweeping through the home screens or browsing through apps, there’s always a slight lag. You’ll see that the interface is struggling to keep up with your actions. There was a similar problem when typing, many times you’ll notice the screen doesn’t register your input and if you type fast (which is easier said than done) it tends to skip some of the key presses altogether. Luckily, the auto-correct helps a little, but you’d ideally want to use it with a Bluetooth keyboard if you plan on doing a lot of typing. Now, we can’t fault Acer entirely for this as it appears to be more of a glitch with the OS itself. Remember how slow and buggy Cup Cake was when it first launched, hopefully that’s the same problem with Honeycomb which should improve with future updates.This is where iOS has the upper hand and no wonder everyone’s trying to emulate it. 

If you’ve used an iPhone, you can expect the same experience with the iPad, there’s nothing new to learn there. However, the same cannot be said about Honeycomb and say, Gingerbread. It takes you some time to figure out where everything is and how it works. A simple task of deleting an icon on the home-screen can be a chore as you have to drag it all the way to the upper right corner while battling the intermittent lag that occurs when performing such a task. When switching from the home screen to the apps page, the animations are not very fluid, the same is the case when switching from portrait to landscape mode. Suffice to say, Honeycomb either needs to be radically customized to be user-friendly or reworked a bit in terms of UI design, at least. 

Media

Stay in touch with Facebook and Twitter

Stay in touch with Facebook and Twitter


Acer has bundled some popular games like NFS: Shift, Hero of Sparta and Lets Golf (that refused to download the relevant files for installation). It also has a link to Gameloft’s HD games section for Android devices. 

For videos and music, we have Nemo player which is a bit clunky and wasn't able to play some popular formats like .MOV and .FLV. It can handle 1080p AVIs just fine, though. To truly test the playback capabilities of the device, we installed MoboPlayer which I highly recommend to any one using an Android device. They also have their own codec pack which you can install separately. With this, we were able to get .FLV and .MOV playing on the A500, however the device blatantly refused to play MKVs properly. We tried RockPlayer as well but no luck. The video would play if we switch to software acceleration, but with heavy framing. 

Coming to the sound quality, the Dolby Mobile enhancement does a decent job of bringing out the subtle nuances in music, while giving you richer treble and deeper bass. You can tweak the settings to your liking or simply choose some of the presets. I found switching the presets off and bumping up the Treble and Bass mid-way gave the best sound. You won't notice this with the built-in speakers (they’ll just seem louder), but with a decent pair of IEMs, you’ll appreciate the improvement. There’s no way you can toggle this feature in Acer’s Nemo Player, which means I need to go all the way to settings. A little toggle switch in the player would have been greatly appreciated. I also felt the max volume could have been a little more. 

Connectivity

The A500 packs in Wi-Fi ‘n’ which works well and has a good range with the 3G versions of the product slated for a Q3 release probably. It also comes with Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP support. Like I mentioned earlier on, the USB port does not support NTFS, but will be getting it through a future update, according to Acer. We tried thumb drives (up to 16GB) and card readers and it read it just fine. Just for kicks, I plugged in my Android handset to see if it would read it in mass storage mode, but sadly it didn't. We were told that the ICONIA A500 will support 3G modems (Wireless data cards), but we couldn’t get a Reliance 3G modem to work. 

If you need to browse all the contents of a drive then I'd suggest you get Astro File Manager since Acer hasn’t bothered to include a file manager. Otherwise, videos and music show up in Nemo player just fine. We also tried the HDMI out feature which gave us some mixed results. The A500 immediately detected a connection and mirrored the screen except for the notification bar at the bottom. After doing so, the tablet became unresponsive and would not react to any input. As soon as we disconnected it, it was fine. We plugged it back in and it started acting up. 

A category for 'Tablet Apps' would have been helpful

A category for 'Tablet Apps' would have been helpful

Acer has given us the proper Android Marketplace and not just some custom app store filled with rejected apps that no one has ever heard of. We also get the tablet version of the Marketplace which dare I say resembles Apple’s AppStore, a bit. I noticed another little glitch here, as well. If you search for an app and click to install it, it will get stuck on the “waiting to install…” message endlessly. A quick fix that I found was to go to “My Apps” first, then switch back to the app you want to download and hit install. The screen switches back to “My Apps” and your app is installed in seconds. 

Nvidia’s Tegra Zone is also pre-loaded, but unfortunately has an extremely limited amount of games on hand – 18 – to be precise, out of which three are free, four, are not yet available and the rest are priced between $2.99 and $6.99. These games have been categorised here as they’ve been designed to take advantage of the Tegra 250 GPU. Acer also has some of their own apps like Clear.Fi which lets you stream media to a DLNA certified device. This works in conjunction with a Media Server app that automatically starts up once you use the service. MusicA which is the equivalent of Shazam, SocialJogger consolidates your FB and Twitter into a neat little window with a speed control dial on the side for scrolling and there’s Photo Browser for an album like view of all your photos. The stock browser is not bad at all. Web pages are rendered well and features text wrapping for just the first level of zoom, though. You can bookmark a page, search or simply browse your history easily with shortcut buttons placed right next to the address bar. There’s even support for Flash 10.3. 

Misc. Features

Overall, Acer’s bundled apps don't really offer anything new that you won't get with an existing free app. In fact, most of the times the free apps tend to offer better functionality and smoother operation. The A500 comes with an e-book reader called LumiRead and a web radio app, Aupeo! that turned out to be a useful little app. 

Camera

The end result is not very pretty

The end result is not very pretty


The 5MP auto-focus camera is a real disappointment. Leaving aside the fact that there’s no macro mode or touch-to-focus, there isn’t even a focus grid – the little rectangular brackets that let you focus on a particular object. The end result is a disaster with the camera trying to focus on everything seen in the viewfinder leaving you with slightly blurry, out of focus pictures. Video recording isn’t great, either. Even in ‘High’ settings (supposedly HD), it still records in a 3GP format. The video ends up very grainy and with a lot of jitter with even the slightest movement, suffice to say there’s no video stabilization feature. There are a bunch of scene modes, white balance settings and color tone, something we’ve seen in almost every portable device. The camera application leaves a lot to be desired sadly and with the overall weight of the device, it’s easy to hold it steady.

Battery

The A500 packs in a 3260mAh Li-Polymer battery. For regular use, with Wi-Fi on all the time, a bit of music, internet, one whole movie and some gaming, I was able to get about a day and a half before the tablet shutdown. This is quite decent, but could have been much better. I came across another small niggle here. If the tablet is kept in sleep mode, it tends to drain about 30-40 per cent of juice in about four to five hours, which is very odd. Another annoying thing is that it will shut itself down when not in use for more than a couple of hours, which is really frustrating. I’m not sure if this is some power saving feature in Honeycomb, but it can get on your nerves since the boot up time is not exactly quick.

Verdict

The Acer Iconia A500 ended up being a bit of a mixed bag and as an overall experience, we were left wanting more. On paper, it appeared as if the A500 can do no wrong what with a Tegra 2 processor under the hood and 1GB of memory. It does deliver though in areas like gaming and HD video playback (minus MKV files support of course). You also get the real Android Market place despite this not having a SIM card which is a bonus. In the end, the real deal breaker here has got to be Honeycomb itself and until the A500 gets the 3.1 update, it’s not going to get my vote of confidence. Apart from that, Acer needs to work on their bundled apps, as well. They seemed rushed and unpolished and there are many little quirks like the poor camera application and freezing issue when connected via HDMI to an HDTV etc. They need to iron out all these chinks in their armor and not sit idly by. 

At Rs. 27,990 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, it feels a bit expensive even though it is one of the cheapest 10-inch tablets in the market. Against the iPad 2, it doesn’t come close in terms of user experience but that could soon change, I hope.

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