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REVIEW: Acer Iconia Tab A100 - not bad for a 7-inch tablet

REVIEW: Acer Iconia Tab A100 - not bad for a 7-inch tablet

Crammed with ports, this stylishly designed tablet is the first to ship with Android 3.2. We get a chance to play with it.

We've seen 7-inch tablets before, but the category gets a new spin with the Acer Iconia Tab A100. Acer manages to pack in a slew of ports and slots in a well-designed, compact tablet. The A100 also happens to be the first 7-inch tablet with Android 3.2, and the first from a major brand to hit a sub-$US350 price — albeit for a model with just 8GB of storage.

The A100 comes in several flavors. The 8GB models, dubbed A100-07u08u and A100-07u08w, will cost $US330, while the 16GB A100-07u16u costs $US350. While the minimal on-board storage could be an issue to some, all of these models have a micoSD card slot, so you can expand capacity at will, by up to 32GB.

Acer A100: Specs and Design

Acer took its time to bring the A100 to market, and that extra time shows through in the solid design of this tablet, which, much like the 10.1-inch A500, was originally slated for a spring release.

But where the A500's design and hardware disappointed, the A100 does the opposite, delivering a refreshingly positive experience on the whole.

The A100's core specs have a familiar ring to them: a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of memory, and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. But this is the first Tegra 2 tablet with a 7-inch display. And it's the first tablet, 7-inch or otherwise, with Android 3.2 Honeycomb. This latest version of Honeycomb is specifically optimized to support different screen sizes, and to make it easier for developers to design for different screen sizes. Beyond this, Honeycomb is largely unchanged from 3.1.

A few other specs caught my eye. The camera specs are beefier than what's on many tablets: The A100 has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera.

Most notable, though, is this tablet's impressive complement of ports and slots. Along the bottom edge (when holding the tablet in portrait orientation), you have an Micro-HDMI port, docking connector, and microUSB port, flanked by the tablet's stereo speakers. At the far right bottom is the AC power port. Just up along the right edge of the tablet (or top, if holding it in landscape orientation) is the sturdily designed slot cover that protects the microSD card slot. (It looks as though there's already an accommodation in place for a SIM card for a future connected version of the tablet, but that slot was closed off on this unit.)

This connectivity is all the more impressive given that the Acer crams it into the A100 without exceeding the physical size and weight of competing 7-inch tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi and the HTC Flyer / Sprint Evo View 4G.

The A100 measures half-an-inch thick, effectively the same as Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi and the HTC Flyer, but the A100 has a gently contoured design that gives it the effect of seeming slimmer than the Tab. The Acer tablet is slightly longer than the Galaxy Tab 7-inch, though the display size and resolution is the same (1024 by 600 resolution, 16:10 aspect ratio). Its dimensions log in at 7.7 by 4.6 inches, compared with the Galaxy Tab at 7.5 by 4.7 inches.

Its weight is 0.92 pounds, practically the same as the HTC Flyer, and just a bit more than Samsung's 0.85 pound weight.

In extended use, I found the A100 very comfortable to hold, especially in one-handed operation. The balance of its internal components actually makes it feel as if the A100 is lighter than either Galaxy Tab or HTC Flyer — a pleasant surprise given everything else the A100 packs in, to boot.

The power button on the top of the unit is well-defined and easy to press; to the right of the power button sits the headphone jack. The rotation lock, just above the volume rocker along the right side, is similarly as easy to move (not always the case with lock switches, and yes, I'm looking at you, Apple). A nice touch: The volume rocker logically switches which button is “up” based on how you're holding the tablet.

In fact, the only design guffaw was the inclusion of a capacitive touch home button, centered below the display. That physical button is just not necessary with Honeycomb (which has an on-screen home button), and, while I occasionally tapped it for convenience, I also discovered its touch sensitivity made it surprisingly easy to accidentally invoke the button while casually holding the tablet.

I found the A100's display to be a pleasure to view. There was a minimal air gap, so I found the screen a bit easier to read. Oddly, in spite of the tighter gap between glass and underlying LCD, the tablet's viewing angle was less than spectacular: I found Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi easier to read from off-center angles. I could see faint traces of the touch overlay's grid lines, but they were nowhere as overt or distracting as on the A100's big sibling, the A500.

Text onscreen mostly appeared crisp and easy to read. But I say mostly, because the experience depended very much on the app I was in. For example, the Amazon Kindle for Tablets app didn't appear to know how to take advantage of the screen real estate in Honeycomb on a 7-inch display; and as such, text looked smaller. The Kindle app hadn't been optimized for 3.2 at this writing, though, and that may account for the app's confused appearance (and crashes).

Colors looked good, too, with better detail and saturation than on the HTC Flyer, but images still weren't as sharp as they are on the 7-inch Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi, and flesh tones lacked the warm browns that they ought have had. Furthermore, images with text appeared to suffer on the A100: On our Web page screenshot, text was fuzzy and not as crisp as it was on Android 2.2 on the Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi.

We'll have more to say about the display once we run the A100 through our gauntlet of tests.

We have run some of our tests, and the early returns are promising. The A100 was among our top performers in its Web page load times, and it completed our SunSpider 0.9.1 JavaScript Benchmark test in 2.1 seconds, making it among the fastest tablets we've tested (only the Iconia Tab A500 scored better, at 1.9 seconds). It was also among the fast at booting up from a cold start, requiring just 23.9 seconds to go from dark to an Android screen. But it was one of the pokiest tablets on GLBenchmark 2.0.3 (and there, it only completed one of our two tests).

Acer says the tablet will last up to 4.5 hours during 720p video playback; we'll update this review with battery life tests, and more from PCWorld Labs, when we have our full results.

One more thing worth noting about the A100 is its reasonably good audio output. Given its small size, I didn't have high expectations for the built-in speakers; this even though I count the stereo speakers on the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook tablet among the best today on any tablet. The A100 didn't come close to the fullness of the PlayBook, but it was still surprising good on my test tracks. Audio piped through basic earbud headphones sounded even better — well-balanced, with good midtones. Acer incorporates Dolby Mobile into its A100, just as it did with the A500 before it. The Dolby Mobile audio option comes enabled by default; and Acer says the technology should extend bass response and enhance high frequencies.

Software, Android 3.2, and the A100

Really, Android 3.2 looks and feels like Android 3.0 and 3.1. There's not a whole lot that's clearly different on the outside. Google's apps generally behave similarly in a 7-inch screen as in a 10.1-inch screen. Honeycomb definitely makes sense, even on a smaller tablet; native apps like Mail and Gmail can really take better advantage of the display, as compared with the not-ready-for-tablet Android 2.2, found on the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi.

But I also noticed that Android 3.x Honeycomb's overall structure, with its navigation soft-keys were more bothersome on the smaller display. Since the navigational buttons are always present onscreen, they in turn rob images, for example, of valuable screen real estate; images are resized in a way where they don't take up the whole display — something that happens on larger Honeycomb tablets, too, but is all the more painfully obvious on a 7-inch screen than on a 10.1-inch screen. This may account for why text images looked so poorly, for instance.

Rather than wholly rework the Android interface, Acer instead provides convenient apps to aggregate like apps within. Preinstalled on the tablet are apps for: eReading, Games, Social, and Multimedia; within each app is a bookshelf metaphor, for organizing apps you choose to add.

Acer also supplies its SocialJogger app, so you keep track of Facebook and Twitter in one place. Acer also provides its own Planner calendaring app, Media Server, and Clear.fi for DLNA streaming. Among Acer's preinstalled apps: Nemo Player for video and stills; MusicA for identifying what's playing; HW Solitaire SE; Astro file manager, Documents to Go for viewing Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe PDF files; and Adobe Flash 10.3.

As I mentioned earlier, Amazon's Kindle app for tablets gave me grief. But it wasn't the only app on Android 3.2 that crashed on my unit: It's worth noting that of the five randomly chosen tablet-optimized apps I loaded, only one didn't give me one of Android's fabled “Force Close” errors. This, coupled with my experience with the Kindle app, makes me wonder about Android 3.2's stability. It also makes me wonder where the issues lie: With the operating system itself, or with the apps that need to be retested, again, and tweaked for so they may run on Android 3.2. Given there's so little time before this fall's launch of the great unifying OS for tablets and phones, Android's Ice Cream Sandwich, it's very likely that app developers may punt on on optimized for tablet for now, knowing that a different set of tools will be coming at them soon enough for Ice Cream Sandwich.

Accessories

As is typical with tablet releases, Acer plans to offer several accessories, including a form-fit wallet-style case with adjustable angle/kickstand for $30, a full-size Bluetooth keyboard for $70, and a an IR doc with an external speaker connection for $80.

Bottom Line

The Acer Iconia Tab A100 forges new ground for innovation on a 7-inch tablet. With its feature-laden yet practical design, and compact size, the A100 has the goods to deliver a modest-sized alternative to the 10-inch class tablets. Android 3.2 appears to have some rough spots, though, and app compatibility may be an issue until app makers and Google can issue the appropriate firmware updates.


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