The 10.1-inch Acer Iconia Tab A500 is one of the first tablets to run Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system. Honeycomb is a sweet treat that's packed with features, but the A500 lacks some of the style of its competitors.
The A500 is available for around £450 from Dixons, which provided our review sample. A version with 3G, as well as Wi-Fi, connectivity is expected later this spring.
The hive mind
We loved using Android on the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. Although that tablet used a smart-phone version of Android (2.2 Froyo), the device was still fun to use. The A500 should be even better, as its Honeycomb software is optimised for use with tablets.
If you've used an Android phone before, the A500 will feel familiar. As on Android phones, the tablet has five home screens on which you can place shortcuts to your favourite apps, as well as widgets.
Honeycomb ditches the physical home and back buttons seen on Android smart phones, and replaces them with virtual buttons in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The advantage of these virtual buttons over physical ones is that they move when you rotate the A500 between portrait and landscape orientations, so they're always on the lower left-hand side of the display. Alongside the home and back icons in the lower left of the screen, there's an icon that brings up a list of thumbnails of your recently used apps.
The menu button, another common sight on Android phones, has been pretty much ditched. A virtual version appears when you're using an app that was originally designed for phones, but Google's own apps move the menu options to the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
Due to the size of the A500's display, your home screens can quickly become a chaotic mess. There's enough space to pack 56 icons on each home screen, and the widgets that come with the A500 rarely fill more than a sixth of the display. If you love customising your devices, there's plenty of fun to be had in arranging the A500 exactly as you like. But you'll have to keep an eye on your widgets and so on to prevent the home screens from becoming a confusing mess.
At any rate, there's nothing to stop you from removing shortcuts from the home screen with the swipe of a finger. Also, developers are bound to start creating innovative widgets for Honeycomb that better take advantage of the screen space on offer.
Google sorely needs to sort out its app store now that tablets have joined the Android family. There's no way to search specifically for apps designed for tablets in the packed Android Market. You can search for keywords like 'Honeycomb', but that method depends on developers including accurate descriptions.
Nvidia, which makes the A500's dual-core Tegra 2 processor, has its own mini app store on the tablet, so you can quickly find games that take advantage of the chip's graphics capability. But some of the games in the Nvidia app store were developed for phones that also use the Tegra 2 processor, such as the LG Optimus 2X, rather than tablets.
The apps that Acer has pre-loaded onto the A500 are fine, but they didn't blow our minds. For example, Acer has included an app that aims to sort your apps into certain categories, each represented by a virtual bookshelf. There's nothing wrong with this app, but, on a device that already lets you sort your home screens a hundred ways from Sunday, it feels rather superfluous.
Despite such drawbacks, Android's built-in apps really shine. Everything from the Android Market to the calendar has been revamped to fill the screen. The email client and calendar both have a clean, easy-to-use design that reminds us of Google's websites. Throw in the fun of Google Maps on a tablet, and you won't have any shortage of apps to keep you entertained while you wait for developers to release more Honeycomb goodies.
In fact, you need not depend on apps, thanks to the A500's fantastic Web browser. Tabs help you move quickly between multiple open Web pages and it also supports Flash, so you can catch up on videos, photo slide shows and other Flash media on the Web.
Thanks to Flash support, BBC iPlayer works in the browser. That's fortunate, since the Android app doesn't seem to work properly on the A500 yet. Note that you have to download and install Flash from the Android Market before you can start enjoying its charms.
The Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM in the A500 meant it handled everything we threw at it with aplomb. Apps booted quickly and ran smoothly, and the whole user interface felt smooth and responsive.
We especially love the Honeycomb on-screen keyboard. It supports multi-touch, so you can touch type. You can also hold down the shift key or number key to get quick access to certain characters. We found its spelling-correction function to also be reliable.
The A500 has a 10.1-inch screen with a 1,280x800-pixel resolution -- just like the Motorola Xoom, which is currently the A500's only Honeycomb tablet competition.
The A500's screen is very glossy, which means it attracts fingerprints and suffers from reflections. But we like the brightness of the display, and its wide-screen aspect ratio makes watching films a delight. On the other hand, the screen feels quite narrow when it comes to reading books or surfing the Web in portrait orientation.
Thanks to the micro-USB port, it's easy to move films and photos on and off the A500, and you're not limited to using iTunes when it comes to syncing your media, as you are with the iPad 2. Acer offers its own syncing software, Acer Sync, too.
The A500 also has a micro-HDMI port for connecting it to your TV. Unfortunately, our sample didn't come with a suitable HDMI cable, so we weren't able to test this feature.
Acer claims the A500 supports microSD cards, so you can supplement the 32GB of built-in memory. There's a card slot tucked behind a wobbly plastic cover on the top of the tablet, but, when we tried popping a card in there, it wasn't detected. Motorola has said that support for memory cards won't be available until Google's issued an Android update, so we assume it's a similar situation with Acer. It's just too bad that Acer doesn't tell you that in the packaging or on the device, as far as we can see.
The memory-card slot sits next to another slot that's covered by a flimsy sticker. This obscured slot will presumably be home to your SIM card on the 3G version of the tablet. The sticker warns that, if the seal is broken, the warranty will be voided, which is extremely lame. We don't like knowing that a flimsy film of plastic is all that stands between us and warranty suicide.
Other ports are well placed. For example, we like the fact that the headphone socket sits on the top, where it can poke out of a sleeve case, rather than on the side, as on the Xoom. The volume button is easy to use, but we can't say the same for the adjacent slider that locks the orientation of the screen. You'll need strong nails to flick this tiny switch back and forth.
Despite having the same screen size and resolution as the Xoom, the A500 is slightly heftier. It weighs in at 765g, so it's 35g heavier than the Xoom and 164g heavier than the iPad 2. That means watching long movies or surfing the Web for a couple of hours can feel like a workout. Our flimsy desk stand struggled to stay upright with the A500 leaning on it, so invest in a sturdy one.
The A500 is also bigger than the Xoom in terms of dimensions, measuring 177 by 260 by 13mm, compared to the Xoom's 168 by 250 by 13mm. Still, it doesn't actually look that much bigger than the Xoom.
We prefer the Xoom's stealthy black plastic and aluminium case to the A500's silver-coloured plastic case. But it's really a matter of taste.
As with the Xoom, we're disappointed that the A500 uses a proprietary charger, so you can't charge it via the micro-USB port, as you can with a phone. We accept that a normal USB connection may not have the juice to power a tablet's bigger battery, but we hate having one more port that clutters up the A500's bezel, and one more charger to cart around. At least it's not a brick-like adaptor, like the Xoom's -- it's fairly small and light.
At the current prices, we reckon the Motorola Xoom has the edge on the Acer Iconia Tab A500. The Xoom costs about £30 more, but you'll get a sleeker-looking, lighter and slightly smaller tablet. Others will undoubtedly think the lighter charger and cheaper price tag make the A500 the superior choice. Besides price, weight, size and appearance, the two devices are evenly matched.
But keep your eyes open for upcoming Honeycomb tablets from the likes of Samsung and LG. They'll offer the same Honeycomb sweetness with less bulk. You could even take a peek at the iPad 2, which is much lighter and offers a fantastic selection of apps, but lacks Flash support, a memory-card slot and a micro-USB port.
Edited by Charles Kloet