Recently the Acer Iconia A100 Android tablet went on sale, and I have had a couple of weeks to play around with one and formulate some opinions. Dan also grabbed one, and we had been chatting about the Iconia back and forth until he returned his. Even before I got the A100 there were a few things I had read about it that were troubling, and other things that had me quite excited! I wanted to document some of the great things about the tablet and latest version of the Android OS … and some things that make the moniker ‘Amateur Hour’ all too fitting!
The Acer Iconia A100 Android tablet is the first 7″ tablet running Android 3.2 Honeycomb OS, and features a laundry list of desirable features. In fact, before I get into the good & bad discussion, let’s take a quick look at the specifications:
- OS: Android 3.2 Honeycomb
- CPU: NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core mobile processor (1.0GHz)
- Display: 7” Multi-Touch Capacitive-Touch Display, 1024 x 600 resolution, 16:10 aspect ratio, NVIDIA GeForce Graphics
- Memory: 8GB eMMC storage (16GB available), MicroSD up to 32GB
- Cameras: 5MP rear-facing camera with auto focus with single LED flash; 2MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wireless (802.11n 2.4GHz only), Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Ports: Micro USB 2.0 port, Micro-HDMI out (support for 1080p and dual-display), 3.5mm combo jack, DC-in jack for AC adapter, docking station port
- Battery: 1530 mAh Li-polymer battery with up to five hours of battery life
- Dimensions: 7.68(w) x 4.6(d) x 0.50(h)-inches
- Weight: 0.92 pounds
- MSRP of $329.99 (8GB model at Walmart only)
Looking at that list makes the Iconia Tab drool-worthy on many levels, but of course as many Android tablets are learning … specs don’t mean a thing if the tablet doesn’t deliver a solid user experience. And most so far … have not. So I bought a new Class 4 16GB Micro-SD card and loaded up the Iconia with some of my standard apps and put it to the test. Let’s see what I love … and what I hate!
Why It Is Great
- OS: Android 3.2 Honeycomb: unlike other tablets I have played around with, most running Android OS 2.2 or 2.3 or perhaps the early Honeycomb 3.x releases, the Iconia A100 is running the ‘latest and greatest’ OS release, 3.2. This is designed for the tablet from the ground up, and is tailored to work with the larger screen area and different use cases a tablet presents.
- Performance : running a dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM gives the Iconia loads of room to operate. Multitasking is smooth, and the graphics performance is there for any app that requires it.
- Size: this is worth a picture – here is the Iconia on top of my LiveScribe ‘Lined Journal’ and next to my Livescribe Echo pen. It is an absolutely perfect size for me to carry around all the time. It reminds me much of the old Handheld PC Windows CE devices – but thinner.
- Connections and expansion: I would never buy a 8GB iPad or iPod Touch, because once you commit to the device you are done – and that isn’t enough space for me. With the Iconia I could grab the 8GB model and load up a 16GB MicroSD card and have loads of storage for cheap (and since I nabbed the SD card for $16 on Buy.com it was a trivial add-on!). Add to that the 3.5mm audio output jack, HDMI (micro) output and USB connectivity and you have a great setup for doing just about anything.
- Touchdown: Touchdown is an app that allows Microsoft Exchange users to have an elegant client on their Android device. Not simply get email, which all of the current smartphones can do (provided you have a standard Exchange server configuration with ActiveSync) … but a true mobile client. Better still – it is the ONLY way I have found to deal with our company’s non-standard Exchange implementation until they transition from Blackberry to their ‘beyond Blackberry’ program later this year. I have used this since 2009 … and it just keeps getting better, including tablet support.
- Indirect app installs: I love that I can have my Iconia plugged in and charging downstairs and see a new app on the market (like a G5 game) and simply choose to download it with the Iconia as the target, then when I go downstairs it will be on the tablet.
- Navigation: I already love Google Maps and Navigation on my Motorola Droid Pro (even if how it got there was an exercise in draconian anti-competitive tactics), so when I found that the Iconia had a built-in GPS that would allow me to play around in Maps via WiFi then use Navigation when driving … it was excellent!
Why It Is Crap
- OS: Android 3.2 Honeycomb: Honeycomb on the Iconia is the very latest version, and it is definitely more mature than the earlier 3.x devices I have played with. Yet it is far from stable and complete – I have reset the device completely six times in the last two weeks due to instability, weird behavior or total system slowdowns. I haven’t installed too many apps and kept system utilities off until they are released for Honeycomb, yet there are just oddities that mark the OS as not quite there yet. Last winter that might have been acceptable, but after a year it should be at least as good as the iPad in April 2010 … but it isn’t. Also, there are loads of inconsistent UI decisions – many tasks now take more movement around the screen than before, and the notifications menu and how built-in apps deal with removing notifications is erratic. Also, the cool graphics at top and bottom take up way too much space on a 7″ device.
- Android Market: I wanted to call this out separately, but it is a clear sign of the Android Honeycomb experience and how Google treats users. Android Market runs in landscape mode. If you are reading something in portrait mode that sends you to the market the screen switches to landscape and you are forced to rotate the device. Even if you enable rotation lock – which is your unequivocal way of saying ‘don’t switch to landscape’ … the Android Market switches to landscape. Sorry Google, you failed user interface 101.
- Screen shape and viewability: when it first arrived I spent over an hour with a brand new Xoom, and found that the screen width to height ratio was just plain wrong. It might have worked for a demo of watching movies, but once you tried to get to usability for portrait mode … it was garbage. The Iconia is acceptable for reading ebooks in portrait mode, but not much else. To make matters worse, the viewing angle is just terrible, particularly in landscape mode – which is how you will typically use the Iconia! So if you decide to set the Iconia flat and read emails or RSS feeds or whatever, you will need to view from a very tight angle. I have taken to using an old Palm Touchstone charger I have – it is the perfect angle for me!
- Too many apps just don’t work: Until the very latest build (Sept 2nd), the Kindle app didn’t work at all … and still crashes too much. Facebook won’t install. The internal social app Yammer we use won’t install. MOG starts but really doesn’t work at all. Spotify is spotty. Hulu … Crackle … Netflix … and on and on and on. Heck, I can load Facebook on my iPad and look at the crappy 2x screen – but Google decided to ‘protect me’ from Facebook on my Iconia.
- It’s an App-centric World … and Honeycomb is just too far behind: there have been many folks who have said that ‘it isn’t how many apps you have, but rather if you have the RIGHT apps’. I agree, and would add ‘and if the apps have all features necessary’ and say that no OS is worse about that than Windows Phone 7 in terms of ‘app spam’ in the market, and existing apps (like Slacker) being pruned down crap. But over the last year or so I have built my world around the iPad, and am serious in saying that aside from a couple of programs specific to my work as a statistician I could replace my work PC with the iPad. That is not even close to being true for Android. Aside from the OS polish, Android breadth of apps for music playing and production, office productivity, Mac and PC interoperation, statistics, media consumption and creation, and on and on. Then there are the games … I will say it again: there isn’t a single game that plays better on Android than iOS, leading me to think that the OS is inherently inferior. And trust me … I’ve tried!
- Build Quality: there are two issues here – fit & finish, and the screen. The image below shows the Iconia next to the iPad. One was cleaned the day before, the other one hasn’t been fully wiped down since April. Both are used for hours each day. Yet the Iconia screen is an absolute mess. I have no idea what sort of oleophobic technology Apple is using, but it makes a huge difference, and makes the Iconia look cheaper. Speaking of which, on my iPads every element is perfectly formed and fit together. On the Iconia there are loads of slightly mis-matched edges and way too much plastic. The difference is massive.
- Connection Confusion: Here is a scenario: My work has a ‘guest network’ with a funky configuration. On my iPad, if I let it go to sleep for a bit and then try to open a web page it will go through the reconnection process and I’ll be all set. Same for OpenFeint games, and pretty much anything looking for a network connection. On the Iconia, it will simply sit there and eventually fail unless I head to the WiFi setup manually and then to the web browser to step through configuration again. Oh – and the web browser can’t already be open or it will fail.
- More Connection Confusion: I have a nice Apple BlueTooth keyboard, and would love to use it with the Iconia. I have used it with Apple devices, HP and Lenovo laptops, and Palm phones and tablets, all without issue. With the Iconia I was able to get the system to see the keyboard, and then to identify it and ‘pair’, I have yet to find a way to get it to be usable as an input device. I know it works with other Android tablets based on forums, but it sure as heck isn’t a simple user-friendly process!
As I said from the start, the Acer Iconia A100 tablet represents everything good and bad with Android tablets. It is cheap, offers great performance with the dual core Tegra 2, has a solid resolution that allows for viewing videos and playing games, and offers the full experience of the Android 3.2 Honeycomb OS. But that is part of the problem – Honeycomb remains a ‘but you can fix that by root/hack/ROM’ OS, not really a completely satisfying user experience. I find Froyo on my phone a much more logical fit than Honeycomb on the tablet … there is something that simply doesn’t scale as elegantly as iOS does from my iPod Touch to my iPad.
I love the 7″ size – after playing with a variety of tablets and realizing that nothing approaches the iPad, I realized that something on the size scale of the old Handheld PC (like the Jornada 728 I still have) would be perfect. But I feel the aspect ratio is still wrong, the build quality is mediocre, the screen is very much lacking … and on and on. For every great thing I see, there is at least one lousy thing to say.
But I do think that Android tablets are making tremendous strides in terms of the overall experience, and as more and more developers bring apps to the platform it will continue to grow and finally become realistically competitive rather than just being a bunch of me-too clones. Until that day, try to get some significant hands-on time before buying any Android tablet to be sure it fits your needs. For some, the very flexible nature of Android is enough to overlook the warts, but for many expecting a top-notch consumer experience – or even something on the same level as Android phones – they will find that Android tablets have yet to graduate to the big leagues.
Review: Acer Iconia Tab A100 7″ with Android Honeycomb
Where to Buy: Walmart.com
What I Like: Performance; size; Android OS; some Apps; flexibility; connections and expandability
What Needs Improvement: Android still half-baked; too many missing or non-working apps; mediocre build quality; inconsistent performance and implementation of standards
Source: Personal purchase