In March 2011, Motorola Xoom was the only tablet running on Google’s latest version of Android, Honeycomb. Not long after that Acer came up with the shiny and super glossy Iconia A500, followed by the launch of ASUS Eee Pad Transformer.
Of course, Samsung was yet to release their second round of Galaxy Tabs and Xoom, at almost Rs 40,000 a pop, was out of everybody’s reach. Even out of the reach of most of early adopters. This paved a perfect opportunity for Acer to popularise the much cheaper Iconia A500, only-WiFi version. It was a few weeks ago, in September, that Acer decided to up the ante by launching the 3G version – Iconia A501.
Priced at Rs 32,990, the 3G version is about Rs 6,000 costlier than its WiFi-only counterpart that costs Rs 26,660 on Flipkart. How does Acer’s Honeycomb tablet fare against the rest of the ilk? Is the extra cost for 3G actually worth is, or are you better off with just the WiFi version. Read on to see what we discovered when we took the A501 for a spin.
A first look at the Iconia Tab and we fell in love with that gorgeous touchscreen, with small and shiny black bezel. The tablet is worth every single penny when it comes to its looks. The tablet is 260mm in length, 177mm wide and just 13.3mm thick. The front of the tablet has a LCD capacitive screen with 1280x800 resolution, bordered by about half an inch of shiny black bezel.
If you hold the tablet vertically, then at the top you should find a tiny webcam (undisclosed resolution) that’s very useful for video chats – on Instant Messengers. Video calling via 3G is not supported.
The Iconia Tab is housed in a beautiful aluminium chassis that gives it a classy look without being branded as aiPad clone. The back has the tablet’s ho-hum 5 megapixel camera with a single LED flash in the upper right hand corner and a pair of silver stereo speakers along the bottom edge.
We'll be frank here -- Speakers have been an afterthought on most every tablet we've seen, and they usually range the gamut from "you'll want headphones" to "what are you doing to my ears?" That's not quite the case here. Acer's tiny speakers -- augmented by some Dolby Mobile wizardry -- sound good enough to share. They're still pretty tinny, mind you, and lack any meaningful amount of bass, but the sound field they produce was rich and full enough to accompany movies and games, and sounded good whether the tablet was held in our outstretched hands or lying flat against a hard surface.
The left side of the tablet has the power button, the standard 3.5mm jack and, towards the other edge, a mini HDMI port.
The power button is a bit flushed with the side and is easy not to feel it if you try to press it without looking at it. However, with a bit of practice and getting used to, it was pretty easy to power on the tablet’s screen in a matter of seconds. The translucent button also doubles up as a charging light. It lights up every time the tablet is put on charge.
We're slightly miffed that Acer couldn't cram a full-size HDMI socket in the copious space here, or at least include a mini-HDMI cable in the box. Regardless, the video connection works fairly well, performing full, responsive display mirroring at 720p resolution, albeit suffering from a bit of overscan. (Acer says 1080p video-out will be supported in a Q2 update.)
At the top, there is a volume rocker. While everybody knows what a volume rocker does, this one is an intelligent one that decides which key should increase/decrease the volume depending upon the orientation of the tablet. For example, in the landscape mode, the right side of the rocker increases the volume. However, the same side decreases the volume if the tablet is in portrait mode, because that is the natural way to reducing the volume in that orientation.
Unlike most of its competitors, the Iconia tab has aa hardware orientation lock at the top, that saves you the hassle of digging into the software for the requisite menu option.
Sadly, of these buttons are made of cheap plastic and are stuck into the aluminium frame. While the volume rocker can still be easily used with enough practice, the orientation lock key is very hard to feel in the dark and shall need to be used carefully.
There is a plastic flap beside the orientation lock button that houses the MicroSD card and SIM card slots. The MicroSD cards work out of the box.
On the right side, there is the power jack, a reset button and two USB slots. One is a micro-USB slot that can be used to data transfer and charging the device. The other is a full fledge USB port that can be used to transfer data to and from external USB storage media. Unfortunately, the tablet has no provision of utilising the USB port for a USB keyboard/mouse, or even the USB modems.
The bottom of the tablet has a docking connector for the optional charging dock with infrared remote.
At 777 grams, the tablet is not too heavy. However, since it’s a 10.1” tablet, the centre of gravity is further from the wrist, thus making it feel weighty and long reading very uncomfortable. Nonetheless, while the size of the screen is an important decision to make, every 10-incher should be uncomfortable to use for a long time with just one hand. Yes, that includes the iPad 2 too.
Processor / Chipset / Performance
Acer has been quite generous in the performance department by providing a 1GHz Tegra 2 processor, with 1GB of DDR2 RAM. Sure enough, the tablet did not disappoint at all. We had constantly tested the Iconia Tab A501 for a week, and the tablet did not hang or get stuck up anywhere for even once. All the special effects and transitions have been smooth as butter.
The A501 played 720p video like a charm (though not 1080p) and did well in Android 3.0's handful of graphically intensive games, but on rare occasions we noticed some graphical corruption when playing certain videos in RockPlayer.
The TFT LCD Display of 1028x800 resolution has a mirror-like finish. While that does make the tablet looks very stylish, the display also becomes a fingerprint magnet and there is a lot of glare in the screen if its kept under direct light.
Nonetheless, the videos on the display are very crisp. It has a very high viewing angle and gets washed out marginally when viewed from very oblique angles. The clear texts make reading on the Icnonia a pleasure.
The keyboard is the default one shipped with Honeycomb. The keys are spaced out comfortably, and are pretty large to type. However, as with any other 10-inch tablet, they are a little too big to manage. It is during these times that one is reminded of the thoughtful split keyboard designed by Microsoft for their new Windows 8 tablets. Anyway, if you wish to type with just your thumbs, then you are advised to rotate the tablet in portrait mode. That sure makes life a lot easier. In addition, there is also a XT9 keyboard provided by Acer. Of course, if you are comfortable with neither, you can always download another keyboard from the Android Market.
The battery life is one aspect where no Android device could ever impress the author. And the situation is even worse in the case of Iconia Tab A501. While other Honeycomb tablets like Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab 750 easily last for over 8 hours, the Iconia Tab struggled to survive for over 6.5 hours, thanks to the 3260 mAh battery. It’s a shame that with all the horsepower provided with this stunning the tablet, they couldn’t provide a fatter battery in their effort to keep the tablet’s guts slim.
As already mentioned above, the Iconia Tab’s audio is hardly praiseworthy. It is actually tinny, at its best. The only silver lining is that the sound is much louder than many other tablets in the market, and definitely better than that of the iPad 2.
Voice Activated Search
I am very excited at the way Google’s developing its speech recognition software. I remember getting blown away by the first Speech recognition demo given by Google at the launch of Nexus One. Sadly, all my excitement was blown to bits when the speech recognition software had gone for a toss during my tests. I realized, like any other speech recognition software, I needed to be an American or a European to be able to make efficient use of them.
I am proud to announce that the voice activated commands provided with Honeycomb is much more efficient and I managed to achieve a success rate of about 90% on it. I admit that I have a neutral accent. But then again, it was me who had tried out the software 2 years ago and was miserably disappointed.
I am hopeful that in another 2-3 iterations of the speech recognition software that ships with Android, it shall be more useful than the keyboard in cases where I shall need to speak just 3-4 words at a time.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb
The Honeycomb homepage actually offers up a great deal of functionality - it isn’t just a collection of your apps. The top left-hand corner offers a Google search area, comprising both text and Voice Search. The text search is a straight Google search returning the results you’d expect. If you’ve not experienced Voice Search before it is worth playing around with.
Move over to the top right-hand corner and it is here that you’ll find the apps menu and the customise “plus” icon we’ve already mentioned. The apps menu simply opens up the full-page menu which scrolls left to right. Again, you can see you have something over the page by an outline of the app icon, which is pretty smart.
The bottom System Bar on Honeycomb swings in and offers some of the (usually) persistent top notification bar you’ll be familiar with in Android on your mobile phone. On the left-hand side it offers three major navigation icons: back, home and recent apps, which pops-up so you can easily switch to something else. These three icons exist in most Honeycomb windows and are always in the same place so you pretty much know what you are doing all the time.
The control icons in the bottom left-hand corner will change - for example when you tap the recent apps icon, the back button turns into a down arrow to close that menu. You’ll also get a menu icon appear in relevant apps, which opens the regular app menu for your Android application. It’s here that things are a little inconsistent as native apps (Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Talk, Music, Books, Android Market, YouTube, Calendar, Contacts, Google Maps, Movie Studio), which have all been written for Honeycomb, feature a menu button in the top right-hand corner when open on the Action Bar. As a result, existing apps and new native apps are controlled slightly differently. It isn’t a huge deal once you know about it, but it would be nice to see a degree of uniformity for something as simple as menus.
The bottom right-hand corner of the System Bar is all about information. It is here you’ll find the time, the connection status, battery life and notifications. Honeycomb is lightyears ahead of iOS when it comes to notifications. Notifications will appear as icons in the bottom right-hand corner, so will inform you of emails, tweets, app updates and so on. These can be tapped to pop them up and deleted individually, or again tapped on to open up the relevant app.
It’s a sensible approach to notifications, meaning you can be getting on with whatever it is you do and deal with those over events as and when you like - be that an IM chat over Skype, checking your new emails or a reminder from your calendar. It is similar to the existing Android notification system, but given the extra space, there is more information which is exactly what you want from a tablet.
The Honeycomb browser is well designed. It packs in a lot of functionality familiar to those who’ve used Google’s Chrome browser, with a little twist for especially for the space conscious tablet user. First and foremost, it will offer up a regular browser window very much like chrome in appearance, with tabs across the top of the page so you can very easily switch between different browser windows. Beneath this is a very standard set of controls (back, forward, refresh) and your address bar, which also doubles as search. You get the option for Voice Search again and finally you have a bookmarks icon.
Like Chrome for your PC, you can opt to have the start page of the browser open on your most visited websites and you have the option to open an Incognito window which will let you research nefarious content without that activity finding its way into your most visited sites or search history.
It is incredibly fast to load pages and because this is Android, it will also offer up Flash content once you’ve downloaded the update from the Android Market. At the time of writing Flash Player 10.2 is classed as a beta build for Android 3.0.1, and we found it to be mostly stable, but not entirely adept at controlling the Flash content it was dealing with.
We love Honeycomb and there are so many things about it that feel right and it is useable at the moment, but it isn’t the polished experience that iPad owners get, and Android users expect. Yes, the iPad is a year older, the OS is more established, but Apple would never put a product on sale that failed as often as the Honeycomb tablet we’ve been using.