What should a tablet computer look like? If this question has you imagining Apple's iPad, then you're not alone; it seems as though you share this concept with Acer's design team. The A500 sports a 10.1-inch display up front, surrounded by cool, grey brushed metal in a shade slightly darker than that chosen by the Cupertino designers. Unlike the iPad, the A500 is littered with ports and switches around the edge of the tablet, offering connectivity options unknown to anyone who has bought a tablet before now.
Acer hasn't left out a single port or plug in this portable computer; there's the standard micro USB for file transfers (charging is performed via a proprietary port) and a microSD card to bolster the internal storage. There's also mini-HDMI-out, a feature we are seeing more and more in 2011, but the real kicker is the USB Host port on the bottom-right of the slate. Acer also includes a proprietary dock-mount in the base of the A500, though we didn't get a chance to play with an Acer dock during this review.
The A500 sports a 10.1-inch WXGA display, in line with what you can expect from the Motorola and Samsung 10.1-inch tablets, and for the most part this screen is up to the task at hand. Colours are good, though the LCD panel is recessed deeper than we'd like, making the blacks look a little washed-out, and the glass surface is extremely glossy. Both of these factors can impact everyday use of the tablet, though you'll see it most outdoors and under natural light, where the images on-screen can become difficult to read.
These many elements add up to a feature-packed tablet, though they are also the reason it is so heavy to hold. At 730g, the A500 will be the equal-heaviest tablet on the market alongside the Motorola Xoom, and there's just no way to see this as a positive aspect. More than 10 minutes with the A500 was enough to have us looking around the room for a cushion to cradle this hefty baby on. When we took the A500 out with us, the extra weight had us wondering if it would be easier to surf the web on our smartphones rather than hold this tablet up for an hour on the train.
Following Samsung and its Galaxy Tab 10.1v, the Acer Iconia A500 employs a stock Google Android Honeycomb experience. Aside from a few custom Acer apps on the homescreen, there is little difference between the two tablets when you first power them on. Honeycomb itself offers a flexible, fast user experience, though there are some unusual button positions — like the Apps button on the top-right of the screen — that will take new users a moment to get their heads around.
Acer's custom apps are a bit baffling; Games, Social, Books and Media act as catch-alls for new apps on the tablet that fall under each of those headings, but they do not automatically populate as you download apps. Instead, the user must add each new game or book to the lists, making them a little more work than they are worth. Until you've downloaded in excess of 50 apps or so, we found it much easier just to find the shortcut for the app we wanted in the Apps drawer, or to dump a shortcut to the app on any of the five homescreens.
USB: useful side bit
We mentioned a number of these features in the opening of the review, but let's take a closer look at them now, in particular the USB Host port. The first thing that we did with the A500 after we received the test unit (OK, the second thing — after we installed Fruit Ninja) was disconnect our wireless keyboard and mouse from our office PC and connect each of them to the tablet. The results? The keyboard worked but the mouse didn't. Even then, a full-sized keyboard connected to Google's Honeycomb system isn't great; you can control most of the system with a standard Windows keyboard, but it'll certainly make you wonder why you aren't just using your fingers and touching the screen.
You can also connect USB memory to the A500, in the form of either a flash memory stick or a powered USB hard drive, but be aware that Honeycomb doesn't recognise these devices or mount them like you might expect a PC to. There's no notification of new hardware, and no separate folder tree in any file explorers, though images and videos on storage devices will show up in the Gallery. To access files manually, we had to navigate to the device storage by using a third-party file manager, then to a folder named "mnt" and again into another folder titled "usb_storage". We can understand Google not including USB storage-management in Honeycomb, but it does seem a bit strange that Acer wouldn't include a USB-friendly file explorer tool, considering that it bothered to include the port on the tablet.
Media and the web
If you're in the market for a tablet, then chances are you plan to watch movies on the machine and surf the web from the couch. The A500 is great at both tasks, with its powerful processor dishing up great performance in both applications. Acer hasn't expanded the file-recognition capabilities of the Honeycomb OS, so you will be restricted to H.264 and MP4 video formats, and our 1080p test video file didn't play, so you'll need to keep the resolution of files on this tablet to 720p.
We were also extremely impressed with the quality of audio produced by this machine. Acer includes Dolby Mobile audio-enhancement software, adding EQ settings that are otherwise absent on a Google tablet. Switching between the different EQ presets made a huge difference to the music we listened to while testing, complementing the excellent default Honeycomb music player.
The web browser is on-par with the browsers in both the Galaxy Tab 10.1v and the iPad 2, as you can see in the BrowserMark benchmark results below:
- Acer Iconia A500
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v
- Apple iPad 2
- Longer bars equal better performance 87727 91507 67867
Across the board, the Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core 1GHz processor in the A500 delivers pleasingly fast performance across all applications. We tested some high-quality 3D games, like Samurai 2, on the tablet and found smooth gameplay was the order of the day.
The only major downside to report was the battery life of the A500. Unlike the Galaxy Tab 10.1v, our review unit wasn't a 3G-compatible model, but even without the burden of 3G connectivity on the battery, the A500 battery cycles were noticeably shorter than with Samsung's Tab. Two days of light use was enough to drain the battery of this machine, with a good portion of this drain occurring during standby, or you can expect about six hours of continuous use. Because the A500 requires the use of a proprietary charger, you will have to plan carefully to make sure the tablet always has some juice.
Looks can be deceiving, and although your tablet choices may seem to be down to Apple or Samsung, there are many more options to consider. Acer's first Android tablet effort is cautious but assured, the hardware feels solid, it's feature-packed and, most importantly, its performance is comparable with its competition. It's also considerably heavier and its glossy screen is tough to read outdoors on a sunny day. Between the A500 and the Galaxy Tab 10.1v, you're choosing between features and portability; trading off HDMI and USB ports in the Acer for a much lighter tablet in the Galaxy Tab. This is a personal choice that you'll have to make, though we're leaning towards the Samsung. A difference of 130g may not sound like much, but your wrists and forearms will tell you otherwise after the long commute to the office.