At $449, Acer’s Iconia Tab A500 is among the least expensive Honeycomb tablets available today. Acer was able to keep costs down by limiting the internal flash memory storage and eliminating the mobile broadband radio: The A500 is available in a Wi-Fi only model. While that limits where you can use the tablet, it also skips the monthly data plan requirement that often comes with a 3G or 4G tablet. So how does the A500 compare to more expensive models with mobile broadband, such as the Motorola Xoom and T-Mobile G-Slate? I spent the last two weeks with Acer’s newest Google Android tablet to find out.
|Acer Iconia A500 Highlights and Specs|
|10.1-inch touch screen (1280×800)|
|16GB internal memory, microSD memory card slot|
|5-megapixel rear cameras w/auto-focus, LED Flash, 2 megapixel front camera|
|1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU; Android 3.0.1|
|802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 2.1 +EDR, GPS, microUSB port, full USB, HDMI out|
|10.24″ x 7″ x 0.52″, weight 1.69 pounds|
Hardware and Performance
Acer is probably known more for its utility rather than as a high-end hardware manufacturer, but the A500 is a solid attempt to change that perception. Most of the device is built from aluminum, with just a little plastic on both the left and right edges as well as one small covering for the microSD card slot. The glossy 10.1-inch display provides a wide viewing angle and offers adequate brightness. Here’s a video overview of the hardware I shared upon receipt of the A500 review unit.
The tablet offers the ports and amenities you’d expect on a tablet: microUSB, micro HDMI, a docking port, stereo speakers, a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack and even a full-sized USB port. That USB port proved handy for viewing videos and listening to music from a USB flash drive and works with USB keyboards as well. Although the tablet didn’t recognize music on my microSD card in my video overview, that was only because I didn’t wait long enough for the device to scan the memory card: The A500 works perfectly fine with microSD cards up to 32 GB.
While other Wi-Fi tablet models skip the GPS radio, Acer’s A500 actually does offer location services by way of GPS. The tablet can use Wi-Fi networks to supplement the GPS radio, but you don’t need an Internet connection to find your location. However, most map-based or location-based apps will need a wireless connection to function, so the inclusion of this radio may be limited for some. I found the GPS to work quickly while outside in my tests; it worked much better indoors when Wi-Fi was enabled and assisting. The A500 includes a gyroscope, accelerometer and compass which can be used for Google Maps or any other apps suited to take advantage of them.
The two included cameras are standard fare for a Honeycomb tablet today, but the picture quality is slightly sub-standard based on my experiences. Still images aren’t as crisp as I expected and while the A500 is capable of 720p video capture, my test videos came out very soft. The front-facing camera was a little more disappointing, but not due solely to marginal image quality. I tested Google Talk video chat with my son and found it a challenge to use.
Acer chose to place the camera on the left bezel about 1.5-inches from the top of the A500 as held in landscape mode. The camera sensor isn’t tilted in any way, so to use it for video chat, I had to hold the tablet well off-center in order to keep my face in the video frame. Holding the device in portrait mode was no better as evidenced by this example: I’ve centered the A500 to my face, but I’m barely in the picture. My son could only see me properly if I held the A500 at odd angles and placements, although he did get a good look at my bedroom lamp.
Holding the A500 at any angle can become a chore after a while, however. Although the rounded edges feel good in the hand, the A500’s 1.69 pound weight feels a bit hefty, especially when compared to other tablets. For the price, I found the A500 to generally hold its own against its peers in terms of performance. That shouldn’t surprise, though, because all of these tablets are built with very similar components.
Nvidia’s Tegra 2 works well for video playback and full-screen gaming based on my tests using Let’s Golf, Need for Speed Shift and Hero of Sparta HD. Battery life was solid: if you’re going to use the device constantly during the day, you should easily get 8 or more hours of run-time, unless you spend much of that time gaming or watching videos. For occasional use as a supplemental device, I was able to go nearly three days on a charge.
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As I’ve noted in prior Google tablet reviews, Honeycomb isn’t quite ready for prime-time. Acer included version 3.0.1 on the A500 because Google released Honeycomb 3.1 after the tablet launched; just last week at Google I/O. However, Acer representatives tell me that the A500 is expected to see the updated software by the end of May. For now then, the A500 is held back a bit by Honeycomb’s current issues: mediocre performance and a lack of tablet-optimized applications in the Android Market. I’m not sure if the lack of mobile broadband has anything to do with it, but I experience fewer application crashes on the A500 than I did on the Xoom or G-Slate. I didn’t find the browsing experience to be different from the other Honeycomb tablets I’ve used.
Acer has tried to improve the Honeycomb experience with its own interface, but it’s mainly just a slight rehash and reorganization of what Google already offers. On the home screen you’ll find four icons: eReading, Games, Multimedia, and Social. Tapping any one of them brings up a custom bookshelf-like interface with relevant shortcuts. The eReading screen houses LumiRead and Google Books, for example. But these are nothing more than themed program launcher screens that a user can customize.
Aside from the standard Google Honeycomb apps, Acer preinstalls a number of other software bits, but most aren’t top-tier titles and there are few that I’d consider to be a “must have” for most. Two exceptions for home media buffs are Acer’s Clear.fi and Media Server applications that can help share media content with other devices. Google’s standard apps are installed, so the A500 offers Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk. DataViz’s DocsToGo is also standard fare and handy to read PDFs or other office documents while offline.
For the price, Acer’s A500 is a reasonable tablet to consider. It provides the same general performance as the more expensive Honeycomb choices and will see the same Android software update that should improve the device. If you’re looking for a tablet to use often as a camera or for video chat, I’d probably pass because of the quality and user experience issues I experienced. The addition of a full-sized USB port is attractive for USB periperhals, especially since Google just announced new USB support features in Honeycomb 3.1. Acer tells me that USB mouse support will arrive in the second quarter via a software update, so that’s another feature to consider.
Overall, the A500 isn’t a bad tablet for those on a budget and don’t mind hunting for Wi-Fi or using their smartphone or a Mi-Fi as a mobile hotspot. Just be sure to build up your arm strength because the A500 surely isn’t the lightest tablet on the market today.