Revisited: Acer Iconia Tab A501

The Android tablet revolution started not with a bang, but with a pent-up whimper. There was so much anticipation — will Honeycomb rival iOS; what about apps; are tablets going to be cheaper; should I buy one — and the answers to those questions were infinitely more complicated than we initially thought. Despite Android 3.0 Honeycomb emerging out of the source code of its smartphone namesake, it was a drastic and unfortunate change in design, inconsistent to the point of incoherence. Many promised features were half-implemented or omitted completely while others, like an improved multitasking menu, were stunted by a five-app maximum.

Subsequent releases, to Android 3.1 and 3.2, fixed many performance bugs and fleshed out much-needed features, and this is where we come to meet the Acer Iconia Tab A501. Released by Rogers in November, the 3G version of the popular Acer tablet is available exclusively at Wireless Wave and its subsidiaries. We used the WiFi-only A500 when it was released earlier in the year but scoffed at its numerous software bugs and dearth of quality tablet apps.

In this entry of Revisited, we’ll take a look at the Rogers Acer Iconia Tab A501 and see how it stacks up today, and for the future.

It’s not hard to imagine that most of your electronics will be largely obsolete a year from now. This is the nature of our breathtaking and largely impatient industry. Which is why, on paper, the Iconia A501 looks rather stale.

Inside the rather chubby chassis is a 1Ghz dual-core Tegra 2 processor, 1GB DDR2 RAM, 16GB internal storage, a 5MP back camera and 2MP front camera, along with 21Mbps HSPA+ modem for Rogers 4G connectivity. Its display is 10.1-inches at 1280×800 pixels, relatively standard in today’s tablet marketplace. It’s biggest selling features are the full-sized USB port, mini HDMI port, microUSB port and microSD slot; a lot of inputs make for a very versatile device.

In many ways this is the anti-iPad. Its operating system has an accessible file system, with optional USB host support to plug in things like an external hard drive or even a Playstation 3 controller. It performs well, but hiccups often enough to remind us that Honeycomb needs a lot of work. It’s infinitely more Windows than OS X, but in that complex architecture, buried menus and, dare we say it, homely interface, is potential.

Android 3.2 cleans up a lot of the issues from the first two releases: infinite multitasking lists, better browser performance, improved stability and an app compatibility mode to help turn smartphone apps into tablet apps. They don’t work quite as well as if they were native, but they work and for many users that’s enough.

Acer has loaded a few games on here, an eReader app and some fabulous DLNA options for extending your media connectivity to your television. We tried the app at home and it worked without issue, beaming a 720p x264-encoded movie to our set smoothly. With two 3260mAh batteries inside the tablet, battery life tends to be good — around 9-10 hours on a single charge — though if you use the Rogers 4G modem a lot total uptime shrinks dramatically.

That’s the other benefit to the Iconia A501: 3G connectivity lets you use the tab where you wouldn’t otherwise. We didn’t realize how helpful it would be not being tethered to a WiFi connection, or having to use our measly smartphone data plan to create a hotspot, burning our pockets in the process. The 21Mbps baseband averages around 4-5Mbps down and 1-2Mbps up, so you’re not emulating peak WiFi performance, but it’s tremendously helpful nonetheless.

Build quality is decent, certainly on par with the likes of the original Asus Transformer and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Despite the all-plastic exterior its bulk makes it more comfortable to hold, and there is minimal creaking unless truly forced. The bezel is quite large, though, so its total size is above the competition, but in daily use we found it to be of little consequence.

As with all Android tablets of this size, holding the Iconia A501 in portrait mode is clumsy. Most apps have been developed to be used primarily in landscape, and performance on the Tegra 2 processor is noticeably worse when in portrait mode (this is a known bug with the entire chipset line). Its 16:9 aspect ratio translates into long and skinny when held upright, so stick to its recommended use case and you’ll be fine.

App performance is on par with other Honeycomb tablets, which means that it varies wildly depending on a number of factors, including multicore- and GPU-optimization, as well as number of background tasks. Honeycomb can be smooth, but it isn’t there yet. We’ll see what happens with Ice Cream Sandwich for tablets.

We like the Iconia A501, though it’s aging quite quickly. Tegra 2 is going to be replaced by Tegra 3 soon, and while the screen on this tablet is nice and sharp, we’re looking at 1080p displays in the coming generation. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like about Acer’s first stint into Android tablets, even as the year draws to a close. At $199.99 on a 3-year term it is not cheap, so choose wisely.

The Acer Iconia Tab A501 for Rogers is available exclusively at Wireless Wave, TBooth and Wireless Etc. stores.