Acer Iconia Tab A500
Low cost, second tier device from a well-respected vendor with experience in the tablet business
by Daniel Rasmus
It may seem a little strange to be writing a review of a shipping tablet just as CES 2012 hits the shutdown button. But unlike much of the gear touted in blogs, endless television coverage and various radio shows, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 is shipping, and at a reasonable price.
Many tablet manufacturers have realized that they can't sell their tablets at the same price as Apple's iPad unless they offer comparable features or better. And it all starts with footprint and weight. If you are bigger and heavier you simply can't recover, unless you are also less expensive. Acer has followed that movement by dropping its price, with some retailers, below $350, for its entry level unit.
As with most shipping Android tablets, the Iconia Tab A500 come with the NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU and HD-optimized graphics from the ultra-low power NVIDIA GeForce GPU with Flash 10.2 support (which matters only until Flash ages now that Adobe has announced its mobile demise).
At 1.7 pounds and over a half-inch thick, the Iconia Tab is a little thick and a little heavy, but not unmanageable. Like other Android tablets, the extra weight excuse usually comes with a feature review. In the case of the Iconia Tab, that includes a power port, microUSB connector, a full USB connector, microHDMI, and a microphone and headphone jack.
The 800 x 1280 pixel display is sharp and clear from every normal viewing angle, and—like most tablets—glossy. Finger prints on the display surface more than make up for those not captured on the nice, silk-finished back plate. That back-plate has a nice curve to it and it integrates basic stereo speakers well. What isn't so integrated is the obtrusive port connector (which is only useful if you buy a proprietary dock or keyboard) and the camera, which also interrupts the flow of the panel.
Two clear features differentiate the Iconia Tab from the iPad: expandable memory and on-board HDMI. Implementation of both is a little sketch, but acceptable. The on-board HDMI goes for small with a micro HDMI (Type D) connector that, of course, nobody has. So I had to truck down to Radio Shack for an adapter. The microSD, on the other hand, is more common, but its implementation is marred by the plastic cover that protects its port of entry. This cover challenges the smooth lines one expects from tablets. It does, however, take up to a 64GB card, making it a useful edition for heavy viewers of video or takers of digital photographs.
Hidden from view, as they should be (but hey, wouldn't a clear class back that showed off the innards of tablet be cool, like the back of a good Swiss watch showing the movement moving) are the GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope and compass.
And yes, cameras. Rear-facing 5 megapixels with an LED flash that captures 1280 x 720 (720p HD) video, along with a front-facing 2 megapixel camera for video conferencing. Standard and basic. Low light is not their thing.
Note to all Tablet manufacturers: integrate social but don't create a social client. Your software teams are never going to keep up with what's going on with social and they aren't going to outcompete social-focused start-ups, so stop trying. If you are buying an Acer Iconia Tab for SocialJogger (which I doubt that you are) then don't. Don't get me wrong, SocialJogger isn't bad, but Acer isn't in the social software business and it shouldn't pretend to be. Again, learn from Apple, who integrated identity with the iPad without pre-installing a client. Apple offers the convenience (when other companies use the API) of signing in once and being able to tweet from most clients. That's a good model.
SocialJogger is an app that lives within one of Acer's four themed containers. It of course, resides under "Social." Other app containers include eReading, Games and Multimedia. E-reading is home to apps like Google Books, Zinio and nook. It also includes LumiRead, an Acer reader with Adobe tech under the hood. Again Acer, stay out of the consumer software market.
Multimedia contains apps for YourTube, music, media playing, photo looking and a not Pandora or Spotify streaming service called Aupeo! Another confusing app here is clear.fi which seems to offer another view into multi-media files that you can already access via other apps here (like video). It looks like the Iconia Tab has at least three video players. I'm not sure why.
The Photo Browser 3D app provides a unique, but I'm not sure how functional, new set of gestures for using the motion of the tablet itself to go from picture to picture—everybody seems to want a differentiated patent, even if they don't really add value. Swiping and pinching work just fine, thank you.
The game center includes what appear to be full copies of NFS Shift, Lets Gold HD and Nero of Sparta. Games can take advantage of the various sensors to make the tablet into the game controller. I'll let someone who plays interactive games more than I do determine the value here. All I can say is these aren't the games I see advertised on television. I do have to say the animation and graphics were pretty cool and very fluid after a good wait to load the games.
Other software is Android standard fare, along with the Android market which frees you to turn the Iconia Tab into whatever you want it to be.
Acer sells a variety of accessories from cases made to fit the contours and ports of the Iconia Tab to a docking station that is the only think that provides any credence to the puffy bottom connector. Also available are international travel adapters and a Bluetooth keyboard. Nothing outstanding or innovative in the lot. I've been watching video just fine on the Tab using a $5.99 acrylic stand acquired from the very hi-tech crafts store, Michael's.
As with most iPad competitors, the Acer fall short in multiple categories—some attributable to Acer, some to Google. At Acer, they need to decide what they want to be, and if they want to compete head on with Apple and the iPad, they need to consider different approaches to their port strategies and dramatically reduce the unit in size and weight without giving up some of the unique features that do add value beyond the iPad, like the microSD card. And they need to stay out of the software business. Partner with good services and use their apps, don't write your own unless they are hardware specific utilities.
I've written extensively on Android issues before, so I won't reiterate those. I do find it interesting that Acer is hedging their bets with a convertible unit that runs Windows 7. It's still early in the Tablet wars and even though iOS is dominant now, fast thin devices running Windows 8 and the next version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich will keep the market moving and guessing.
As with most post-iPad tablets, if you can't be of equal quality and value to the market leader, then you probably shouldn't enter the market. Acer I'm sure will try again with thinner, higher performance more differentiated units, but for now, the Iconia Tab A500 rates as a low-cost, second-tier device. If you want storage or connection options, or to play HDMI-video in a dorm room, the tab may be a good choice. If you are looking for a great tablet experience, you may want to wait for Acer's next entry, the Iconia Tab A700, which has some cool features, like a 1920x1200 resolution screen, though it appears to still be heavier that the Galaxy Tab or the iPad 2, and more than a hair thicker. But as I said in the opening, that unit isn't shipping yet. When it does, look for further price reductions on the A500. At bargain prices it will make a good alternative to handing over Mom or Dad's tablet to the kids on a trip.
See the Iconia TAB A500 Tablet at the Acer website
Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent analyst and strategy consultant. He is a former Vice President at the Giga Information Group and Forrester Research. Dan is the author of five books, including Management by Design (Wiley, 2010) and Listening to the Future (Wiley 2008). He blogs regularly at http://danielwrasmus.wordpress.com. Additional information can be found at http://danielwrasmus.com.