Whether it likes it or not, Acer's got a reputation in the consumer electronics business: its computers are rarely the most well made, but they're always the most affordable on shelves. It's exactly what launched Acer to become a top computer manufacturer a few years ago and what made the company so successful in the netbook market. The 10.1-inch Iconia Tab A500 is Acer's first attempt at applying that thinking to tablets, and as the majority of Honeycomb tablets cost north of $550 and are being sold with pricey 3G plans, the $450, WiFi-only tablet comes at an absolutely perfect time. The A500's specs match the rest of the Honeycomb tablets – it's got a dual-core Tegra 2 processor, 16GB of storage, dual-cameras, and a 1280x800-resolution display – but for $150 less than the others, does it suffer from Acer's typical sacrifices in screen and manufacturing quality? Can the Taiwan company succeed at taking on Motorola's Xoom and LG's G-Slate not only in price but in actual usability and features? Hit the break to find out in full review.
We've been hearing lots of talk of tear-shaped hardware lately, and coincidentally, the Iconia Tab A500 follows a similar design philosophy. When held in landscape mode, the right and left edges funnel inwards, and while the aesthetic choice may seem minor, it actually made it easier to hold than the Xoom's boxy, chiseled back. There's also another major design component Acer's got Motorola beat on – unlike the Xoom's power button, which is located on the backside, the Iconia's glowing on / off nub lives on the left edge. Again, it may seem like a small detail, but it makes a world of difference when you want to wake up a tablet immediately and get online. My only complaint about that button is that it and the plastic edge it lives on feels a bit cheap in comparison to the rest of the slab, however, those are really the only parts of the tablet that feel a bit cheap. The silver, brushed aluminum, which covers the back and flows onto the front, doesn't only look classy but gives the entire product a nice rigidity. As I intimated in the introduction, I was a bit worried about the overall quality of the device, but I've really been pleasantly surprised at how sturdy the hardware seems. (Note: I still haven't gotten the ASUS Transformer to review so I'm not making direct comparisons to that product here.)
It's a fierce tablet size war out there, and while the Iconia Tab A500 stacks up rather well against its Honeycomb rivals, the iPad 2 wins by quite a bit on both thickness and weight. The handy chart below has everything you need to know, and though the .52-inch / 1.6-inch Iconia is slightly heavier than the Xoom, I wouldn't put much weight on those numbers -- in hand it just feels lighter and slimmer. Of course, neither of these 10-inch Android tablets are as easy to hold as the 9.7-inch iPad 2 – for that, we must wait on Samsung's .33-inch Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The Iconia does beat the rest on port selection; its left edge is home to a 3.5mm headphone jack and a mini-HDMI port, while the right side holds full-sized USB and Micro USB ports. Under the port cover on the top you'll find a MicroSD card slot, taped-over SIM card slot, a rather stiff volume rocker, and a rotation lock switch. The USB 2.0 port is certainty a bragging right for the Iconia, but it really shouldn't be at the moment – I couldn't get it to read an external hard drive or transfer files from my laptop. I finally got it to recognize a USB flash drive but only in the Gallery application.
Obviously, the heart of the Tab A500 is its 10.1-inch 1280x800-resolution display, and well, it's actually quite a healthy organ for the price. The screen is extremely bright and crisp – just as bright as the Xoom, though not a bright as the iPad – and while it's not an IPS panel, both horizontal and vertical viewing angles were more than adequate. At some angles the display did look a bit washed out, but looking at it dead-on or with it slightly tilted while lying down was never an issue. Like the rest of the tablets out there, the glossy screen picks up loads of fingerprints streaks (seriously, it's a photographer's nightmare), although to Acer's credit, a handy "Notebook Cleaning Cloth" comes in the box. The touchscreen itself was responsive, though the haptic feedback was so weak that I actually disabled it.
The Iconia's two stereo speakers are situated on the bottom left and right corners of the back of the device, which makes blocking them when you're holding the tablet in landscape mode way too easy. Still, the speakers, which are matched with Dolby's Audio software, provided some surprisingly nice playback. The standard settings – with Dolby powered off – created for incredibly tinny sound, but after futzing with the Dolby settings, Kanye's "Dark Fantasy" sounded shockingly full. The two speakers are a notch above the Xoom's in volume and quality, but they're not as loud as the ones on the iPad 2 or the Playbook – Josh has actually been pretty smitten with the latter.