Acer's tablet: dawdle on software and die

Summary:The Iconia A500 would have been more successful had it gotten its Honeycomb 3.1 act in order quickly.

The Iconia A500 would have been more successful had it gotten its Honeycomb 3.1 act in order quickly.

Since late April, I've been in possession of an Acer Iconia A500 Android Honeycomb tablet. And you know what? For the most part, I like it, a lot.

So you may be asking, why did you wait so long to review this device? I'll get to that in a bit.

Android Tablet on the Cheap: Acer Iconia is the XOOM "Light" (April 2011)

First, let me talk about what I like about it and then I'll get into the issues that I believe which kept Acer from making any significant retail headway with this device, and why it took me so long to write this up.

Acer did a really nice job with the build quality and overall construction/design of the device. Like the iPad 2, the device uses metal (brushed aluminum) for the casing and most of the buttons combined with glossy plastic for the screen bezel. It is a sleek and fashionable-looking device, and in that respect, I have no qualms with it.

In terms of weight and thickness, it is comparable with both the XOOM and Transformer as well.

Like all current large-format 10.1" Android Honeycomb tablets, it is based off of the same basic Tegra 2 reference hardware as the Motorola XOOM, the Asus Transformer, the Samsung 10.1 Galaxy Tab and the recently introduced and value-priced Toshiba Thrive.

Like the XOOM and most of the aforementioned tablets, it sports a 2MP camera in front and a 5MP camera in the rear (The Galaxy Tab 10.1 sports a 3MP rear camera).

Aside from the basic flash memory configuration (16GB SKU only) I would say it was a comparable device to the Transformer and to some extent, the more expensive XOOM.

From a performance perspective, the Iconia is on par with all of the "Me too" Android tablets running on that same basic reference hardware.

There are some minor things about the Acer I would have like to see improved upon in terms of the tablet hardware. First is that while the device does support 802.11n high-speed Wi-Fi, it only supports the 2.4Ghz band.

This is in contrast with the XOOM and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 that support both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands. However, since most of the transmitters on these tablets only have a single antenna, you don't really get the speed benefits of the 5Ghz 802.11n band if your home router supports it and has multiple antennae.

Second is the integrated MicroSD slot. I had several instances where the spring-loaded slot would shoot the tiny cards in an arc above my head when I was removing them and I had to go hunting for them in my cluttered office.

My recommendation is that the next version of their tablet use strictly a friction/clip slot like most cell phones do, or have the spring be less aggressive.

Third is the charger. I'm not going to single Acer out because Motorola and a few other tablet makers are also guilty of this -- like several of its competitors, it uses a barrel connector instead of a standard MicroUSB connector to charge.

The Iconia A500 does have a MicroUSB connector (as well as a full-size USB) onboard, but it's not used for charging. Instead, they supply an AC charger using the barrel connector with 1.5 amps of output.

In all fairness, the Iconia is not the only tablet with a unique connector and a higher charging requirement. Tablets such as the Iconia, the XOOM, the iPad 2, the BlackBerry PlayBook and HP's TouchPad need anywhere between 1 and 2 amps.

But the HP TouchPad (and the BlackBerry PlayBook) actually uses a MicroUSB connector to charge, even though it is supplied with a 2 amp charger. This allows you to travel with just a single charger or simplify your designated charging station at home or in the office, since MicroUSB phones can use the same charger. They just step down to accomodate.

I'd really like to see Acer and other tablet manufacturers conform to a 2 amp and MicroUSB charging standard, if possible.

As far as battery performance goes, I got anywhere between 6 and 7 hours of continuous use out of the tablet. Not horrible, but not great. But for a "value-priced" tablet, I wasn't expecting anything stellar.

But these are all minor nitpicks to the real issue I have with the Iconia A500 and why I waited so long to review it -- the software.

Back in April, I also looked at the Motorola XOOM. My biggest complaint about the product was the unfinished Android Honeycomb 3.0 software it shipped with. I had such a negative experience with the product that I decided to return it.

Up until very recently, the Acer Iconia A500 was plagued with the same software issues as the initially-shipping XOOM. I decided that I wasn't going to do another "Yeah this software sucks" review, because it would just be a repeat of what I wrote before.

Instead, I told Acer that I would wait until a Honeycomb 3.1 update was out, and then I would review it.

Originally, the update was slated for June. In that time, both the Motorola XOOM and the Asus Transformer received Honeycomb 3.1 updates, not long after the software was announced at Google IO.

All of June went by with a minor firmware update from Acer, but still no Honeycomb 3.1.

In that gap, Acer's competitors had a significant functionality advantage, and to make matters worse, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was only $50 more for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, sporting a much sleeker industrial design that rivals even the iPad 2 was now taking pre-orders and pending shipment to customers.

Suddenly, the $450 Iconia wasn't looking so great when compared with the Asus Transformer or the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

I did actually get Honeycomb 3.1 running a few weeks before Acer actually shipped its official ROM update last week by rooting the device and using an unauthorized port of the Asus Transformer's ROM called PRIME.

In my opinion, PRIME actually works better than Acer's official ROM, because I still have some stability issues with Android Market and a few other things that seem to have a bunch of unresolved quirks.

Still, an end-user should not have to resort to hacking and rooting in order to get the most functionality out of a device. When it comes to updates, vendors should get them out as quickly as possible, especially when the competition is being extremely responsive with theirs.

I don't envy Acer's position right now. They've got a tablet retailing at $450 when both the two "Premium" leaders in the Android space, the 32GB Motorola XOOM and the 16GB Samsung Galaxy Tab are only $50 more at $499. And the iPad 2 of course continues to dominate the tablet space as a whole.

At the entry-level, the 16GB Asus Transformer is streeting at $400 and Toshiba's utilitarian, Japanese-engineered full-sized ports with 11-hour replaceable battery workhorse, the Thrive, is now selling as low as $429 for the 8GB model.

Two months of dawdling on updates almost certainly caused Acer lot of sales. It also allowed its competitors to get their act in gear and attract pre-orders.

What should the company do now? Well, I think a price adjustment on the Iconia A500 is probably in order, at the sub-$400 level, in order to keep the device attractive.

[UPDATE: The Iconia A500 as of 7/15/2011 has been streeting at under $400, which makes it currently a very good tablet value]

The moral of the story is if you're an OEM/ODM in the Android ecosystem, if you dawdle on software updates, you die.

Do you own an Acer Iconia A500? Was it worth the wait for Honeycomb 3.1? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Tablets, Android, Hardware, iPad, Mobile OS, Samsung, Toshiba, Web development

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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