Acer IconiaTab A500: a heavy hitter

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Strong peripherals and good performance outshine the weight issue, with Acer’s latest tablet

When we tested the Motorola Xoom, the first Android 3.0 tablet to enter the market, we thought the Honeycomb operating system had the look of a work in progress.

Since that review, Google has rolled-out an update from 3.0 to 3.1, and is in the process of bringing out another update to take it to 3.2. It seems Google is now taking its tablet OS more seriously, although there’s still quite a lot of work to be done.

All of this leaves the tablet makers in a rather precarious position. They’re producing devices that look the part, and have all the power you could ask for – like the dual-core Tegra 2 chipset inside Acer’s tablet – yet they can only ever be as good as the final piece of the jigsaw that they have little control over.

When the iPad was launched, the user-interface was essentially the same as the iPhone and iPod touch. Likewise, when Samsung launched the first Galaxy Tab, it was essentially the same as its Galaxy S smartphone. Both the iPad and Galaxy Tab were looked upon as oversized smartphones.

Then Honeycomb came along with an all-new look and feel, which was considered the best move for Google’s operating system. The question is, was it actually such a good idea after all?

Google has acknowledged this and announced earlier this year that it is now working to combine Android 2.x with 3.x in the next iteration of the OS – called ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ – which could be released before the end of 2011.

Functionality
Before starting to review the Acer Iconia Tab A500, I performed the 3.1 update to make sure the device would benefit from all the tweaks, including things like being able to re-size widgets.

On top of the vanilla Honeycomb OS, Acer has loaded on some of its own applications, but it hasn’t customised things to the extent of its Android 2.x smartphones, primarily because Google doesn’t allow it. It does mean that while the exterior designs may vary from one manufacturer to another, once switched on, you’d be hard pushed to tell what product you are actually using. In the case of the A500, the only branding is on the back.

What you do get loaded on the A500 tries to make the tablet offer some of the functionality of a laptop, or an iPad loaded with iMovie and iWork. This includes a movie editor, internet radio app, Clear.fi media player, a selection of ebook readers, a media server and Acer Sync, to let you manage content via your PC.

Missing features
The home screen benefits from scalable widgets, but the OS lacks features like changing colours, text size or the size of icons. The notifications that appear at the bottom-right of the screen, regardless of the screen orientation, also need to be cancelled individually – rather bizarre given it’s always been possible to press ‘clear’ on any other Android smartphone.

You also get a copy of Docs2Go for reading Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, but you must upgrade to the full version if you want to edit, at a cost of $14.99 (£9.20) for the lot – cheaper than buying the equivalent apps for iOS individually.

One problem with the use of Acer Sync is that there’s no option to mount the tablet as a standard flash drive, which meant there was no way to mount the Acer on a Mac to drag and drop files. A work-around is to connect a flash drive with the files you want to transfer to the USB socket on the side.

The USB port even allows the connection of devices like keyboards and mice. Hooking up a mouse suddenly makes the use of the A500, like web browsing, a hugely enhanced experience. It will probably make you want to buy the optional docking station that perches the tablet upright. This will set you back about £100.

Full article in Mobile News issue 495 (August 15, 2011).

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