It's been just over two years since Apple introduced its first iPad. Initially, there were numerous jokes about the name, and serious concerns about the viability of the device's form factor. But now, it;s estimated that at the end of 2011, more than 67 million iPads have been sold. That's no laughing matter unless you're Apple, who's been chuckling all the way to the bank. And when a class of device is an overwhelming success, you can bet that other vendors are going to want a piece of the pie.
So there's no way that Acer wasn't going to offer a tablet. In fact, the Iconia A510 I looked at is Acer's fourth offering in the US market, following the original Iconia A500, the A200, and the 7-inch A100. With an affordable price, the latest CPU, and the newest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, the Iconia A510 is going to appeal to a wide market that doesn't want the new iPad, and isn't satisfied with the new low-end Kindle Fire or Barnes & Noble Nook.
Build & Design
Let's face it - one tablet looks pretty much like another. The function is generic, and form usually follows function. That's why so many users jazz up their notebooks and tablets with skins and fancy cases.
The Iconia A510 doesn't wander far from the mode. It's got a modest black bezel, edge-to-edge glass and the Acer name on the bottom front with the Iconia Tab label on the top right of the front panel. Also at the top of the front bezel is the front-facing 1-megapixel camera and light sensor. Finally, the front contains the screen itself, a 10.1 inch 1280 x 800 capacitive touchscreen.
The back is a textured rubber-like material, making the tablet more secure to hang onto even if your hands are slightly damp. At the top of the back panel is the camera lens, with no flash. This does impact the low-light performance somewhat, but there's no set light level where you can predict how the image will be affected. You just need to take the photo, and see how it comes out.
The rear panel also contains the speaker grilles, which for the most part aims the sound downward rather than outward. The other noticeable items on the rear panel are all logos: the Acer logo, the five-ring Olympic logo (Acer is one of the sponsors of the upcoming London Olympics), and down at the bottom, a label for the Dolby Digital Plus sound enhancement technology. All of this labeling seems somewhat unnecessary to me, but it certainly doesn't hurt anything or affect performance or use of the device.
The rubber-like backing extends to the very top and bottom of the A510. On the top of the tablet, from left to right, are the volume control, the screen lock button, and a just barely visible hole not much larger than a pin-prick which covers the microphone. As small as this opening is, it did not seem to affect the tablet's ability to pick up sounds, record voices or music (though the fidelity was nowhere near as good as when using an external mic), and respond to voice commands. The bottom of the unit contains slots on the left and right sides which channels some of the sound (the grilles are actually on the back panel), the microUSB jack which also serves as the power connector, and a tiny hole for accessing the system reset (which requires a very thin paper clip or similar wire). Packed in the box are a standard 5-volt power supply, and a microUSB to full-sized USB adapter plug, which I thought was a nice touch.
The sides of the tablet are an attractive brushed metal, and provide a nice accent to the device. The left side panel contains the power switch and standard 3.5mm headphone jack, while the right side has a microHDMI connector and a card slot cover that protects slots for a microSD card and a second slot for SIM card should one of the major carriers start supporting the Iconia. The Iconia Tab comes with 32GB of built-in storage, but if you plan on having a lot of media, plan on buying a large microSD card as well.
Comparing the A510 to most other tablets, one thing that's pretty noticeable is weight. On our lab scale, the A510 came in at 23.8 ounces, just about a pound-and-a-half of tablet goodness. And there are some new Ultrabooks that weigh only about another pound and provide a larger screen, keyboard, and more storage. To be honest, though, the slight extra heft isn't going to really make much of a difference except when you need to hold the tablet for an extended period of time, like reading or watching video in bed. Otherwise, an easel/folder style case can keep the A510 at an angle without the slightest strain on your wrist or arms.
Screen and Speakers
When you purchase a desktop, you get to be really picky about the display. That's less practical with a laptop and you have even less choice with a tablet. You can control the brightness, but that's about all you can do. The color accuracy and saturation are at the mercy of what the manufacturer thinks it should be. The Iconia Tab A510 tends to slightly oversaturate some colors. It's most noticeable on the reds, but unless you know what the image is actually supposed to look like, you probably wouldn't catch it. If color accuracy of the displayed image is really that important to you, you can always use the microHDMI output to put the image up on a stand-alone monitor which can be calibrated or has adjustments for saturation and hue. However, I doubt that many people will bother.
More noticeable is the problem that most tablets suffer from -- screen glare. The Iconia Tab A510 suffers from it, but it's pretty much endemic to the form factor. Most tablets, the A510 among them, use a highly polished glass faceplate. And the high polish reflects light very efficiently, causing considerable glare depending on the angle you're holding it at and the location of light sources. Plastic film screen protectors sometimes help cut glare, but they often also cut down on screen sensitivity to touch controls, especially with capacitive screens like the one on the A510. The glare sometimes can be compensated for by adjusting the viewing angle.
Aside from the same glare problem that pretty much every other tablet suffers from, the A510's screen is one of the better ones. Touch response is very good. When there's a lag, it's usually the fault of the application being run. Gestures such as swiping, pinching, zooming and scrolling are fast and accurate. Depending on the setting, you can enable or disable haptic (vibrational) feedback. The default keyboard is the English Android keyboard, which will be familiar to anyone who owns an Android phone. You can also specify Google voice typing or XT9 Text Input.
Response during a video chat application such as Skype is much more dependent on the Internet bandwidth you have available than the processor and screen response, but watching a movie stored on internal memory is a pleasant experience even if it contains considerable movement. Contrast, for the most part, is good in both video and photo applications, though details tend to disappear in dark areas of a photo or video.
The A510's speakers are located at the bottom rather than the more common location of the sides of the unit, and the grilles are faced slightly downward, though there are slots at the bottommost edge. I can't see this being a problem, though if the tablet is placed on a very sound absorbent surface, such as a blanket, the output might be slightly muffled. The Iconia A510 incorporates Dolby Digital Plus sound enhancement, but sound quality from the speakers in any tablet is, at best, only going to be acceptable, not exceptional. The Dolby Digital Plus does give the A510's audio output somewhat more crispness and clarity.
But the real benefit of the Dolby audio emerges when you plug in a good set of headphones or earphones. Under these conditions, using both Sennheiser headphones and Ultimate Ears earphones, the Dolby Digital Plus provided a noticeable improvement over several other tablets I've tested that lacked this audio enhancement. After listening to a variety of different music genres, I'd definitely have my playlists stored on the A510. The Dolby enhancement is also very obvious when watching and listening to stored video on a good quality HDMI display and speaker set using the micro HDMI output.
Acer Iconia A510 specs:
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