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Acer Iconia Tab A501 review: Acer Iconia Tab A501

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The Good The Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G (AT&T) is the cheapest 4G Honeycomb tablet currently on the market. Also, it includes a full USB port and Micro-HDMI.

The Bad The tablet ships with Android 3.0.1, limiting its video compatibility, features, and performance. The A501's screen has a narrow viewing angle, and it fails to earn its hefty weight.

The Bottom Line The Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G (AT&T) is the A500 with HSPA+ connectivity at a very competitive price compared with other 4G tablets; however, its adherence to Android 3.0 limits its appeal.

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6.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Review Sections

Editors' note: You may experience a feeling of déjà vu reading the following review of the Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G. The basic design is virtually identical to the A500 released earlier this year, so we've taken much of the text of that review and reused it here where appropriate.

The Acer Iconia Tab A501 is the Acer Iconia Tab A500 with 4G and a no-commitment price of $480 (16GB) and $550 (32GB); about $100 or so more than the A500.

For the price of a two-year contract, AT&T offers the tablet for $350, the lowest initial cost of any 4G Honeycomb tablet yet. If two-year contracts for tablets scare you (and they should), AT&T also offers session plans at $15 per 250MB and $25 per 2GB, if you absolutely need that "anywhere" access. But, with its hefty build and Acer's strange decision to ship it with Android 3.0.1, instead of a later version of the OS, is the A501 already too far behind to even enter the race?

Design
The Acer Iconia Tab A501 is nearly twice as thick as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 4G, making it less comfortable to hold and less sexy in general. Also, Acer's tablet is the heaviest Honeycomb tablet we've reviewed, weighing in at a beefy 1.7 pounds. Something to consider if portability is a priority for you.

Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G AT&T Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 4G Verizon T-Mobile G-Slate
Weight in pounds 1.7 1.24 1.38
Width in inches (landscape) 10.2 10.1 9.6
Height in inches 6.9 6.8 5.8
Depth in inches 0.49 0.3 0.5
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.77 0.76 0.8

As with any decent tablet, the centerpiece of the Iconia Tab A501's design is the screen. Measuring 10.1 inches and boasting an LED-backlit 1,280x800-pixel resolution, the tablet's screen does the Android experience justice for the most part; however, since the A501 uses a Twisted Nematic (TN) panel, its viewing angles, especially from the bottom, are narrower than those of other tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 4G, which uses Samsung's proprietary PLS technology to excellent effect. As a result, the contrast on the A501 dips, as does the overall screen quality, if viewed from an off angle.

Tested spec Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G (AT&T) Sony Tablet S Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 4G (Verizon) T-Mobile G-Slate
Maximum brightness 322 cd/m2 393 cd/m2 336 cd/m2 424 cd/m2
Default brightness 62.7 cd/m2 160 cd/m2 336 cd/m2 143 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.20 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.52 cd/m2
Default black level 0.04 cd/m2 0.19 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.18 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 1,568:1 842:1 1,120:1 794:1
Contrast ratio (max brightness) 1,610:1 836:1 1,120:1 815:1

Flip it over, and you'll find a 5-megapixel camera on the back with an integrated LED flash. The back is covered with gunmetal-finished aluminum, with the exception of two strips of plastic that meet your hands at the edges. Near the bottom you'll see a pair of stereo speaker grilles cut out from the aluminum. We worried that our hands would naturally cover up the speaker--and they did--but not to the point that it adversely affected sound quality. Speaking of which, we would have preferred more volume and deeper bass from the speakers.


The Acer Iconia Tab A501's 5-megapixel back camera

Another camera is located on the front, near the upper left corner of the screen. Meant to be used for video chatting or impromptu self-portraits, this camera uses a lower 2-megapixel sensor, but can still be used to record standard-definition video.


The Acer Iconia Tab A501's 2-megapixel front camera

On the sides of the Iconia Tab you'll find a number of logically placed ports and buttons. A volume rocker and orientation lock switch are available on the top edge; however, the volume rocker is embedded a bit too deeply in the tablet, making it sometimes difficult to properly click it. On the left you'll find the power button, headphone jack, and Micro-HDMI. The right side supports the included power adapter, and offers Micro-USB sync, and a full-size USB host port for connecting keyboards or thumbdrives. A dock connection on the bottom sticks out like a wart on an otherwise attractive design. Unless you feel like shelling out an extra $60 or so for a charging cradle that doesn't even offer an HDMI connection, the dock port is a waste of space.

Overall, tablet design has moved on from the chunky mold of the Xoom and Iconia A500 of just a few months ago. With devices as well-designed as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Sony Tablet S in the wild, a heavy and slightly oversize tablet has a hard time competing on the design front. The Toshiba Thrive justifies its size by including several full-size ports and a swappable battery. Still, the amount of functionality Acer included is welcome.

Hardware features
As we mentioned at the start of this review, aside from the inclusion of 4G, the Acer Iconia Tab A501 is nearly a spec-for-spec clone of the A500 as well as nearly every other Honeycomb tablet. Inside, both devices take advantage of a dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM, and each boasts 802.11 n Wi-Fi, an integrated Micro-HDMI output, support for Bluetooth 2.1, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, GPS, a digital compass, memory expansion via microSD, and a SIM card slot, although no SIM card is actually included with the A500.


The Acer Iconia Tab A501's SIM/Micro SD card slot, opened and ready to be used

The A501 is available at 16GB and 32GB capacities, with a useful full-size USB host port. And though it's a small thing, we're glad to see that Acer included a dedicated screen-rotation lock instead of burying the feature in the system menu tray.

Software features
The A501 comes with Android 3.0.1 installed; disappointing, since Honeycomb users are currently enjoying version 3.2. Check out the original Acer Iconia Tab A500 review for more information about Android 3.0.

Acer preloaded a number of applications on the A501, including Clear.fi, Acer's media aggregator; Acer Sync, which allows you to sync contacts, calendar, and media across Acer devices; and a trial version of Docs to Go, as well as various games.

The most useful addition, however, especially if you're planning to take advantage of AT&T's per-session deal, is the AT&T Communication Manager app that tracks your current data usage and your international roaming data usage, and informs you of your next billing cycle date. The app sits on the home screen by default and updates in real time.

Performance
In terms of general system performance, the Acer Iconia Tab A501 performs as ably as any of the original Android 3.0 tablets did when they debuted. Since then, Google has made noticeable upgrades to the operating system's performance, resulting in smoother Web page scrolling and zooming, which the A501 currently doesn't take advantage of. Still, apps launch quickly and the Honeycomb interface felt responsive.

Unfortunately, high-bit-rate, 720p, MP4 videos wouldn't load on the A501. The HTC Flyer, which runs Android 2.3.3, had the same problem, but this wasn't a problem with any tablet running Android 3.1 or higher. We didn't have any additional Android 3.0 tablets lying around with which to check if this was an OS issue.

In terms of photo and video quality, the A501 matches most Honeycomb tablets in contrast, clarity, and video frame rate. We did find that pictures taken on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 4G had a higher level of color saturation and a higher perceived contrast ratio than the A501's pictures. Additionally, the A501's camera can't hold a candle to the Sony Tablet S' capable camera in terms of picture quality.

The camera lens on the back of the Iconia Tab is prone to finger smudges due to its placement. If you're shooting from the hip, taking that extra second to habitually clean the lens could make or break a great photo.

The A501 uses AT&T's HSPA+ 4G network and while Web site loading speeds on the network were only 1 to 2 seconds slower than with Wi-Fi, app download speed was a different, more disappointing story.

We downloaded Angry Birds Rio, a 17MB file, using both our Wi-Fi network and AT&T's HSPA+ 4G network. Depending on where in San Francisco we were, Wi-Fi download speeds of the game were up to 85 percent faster compared with HSPA+.

Anecdotal battery life feels typical for most Honeycomb tablets, lasting several hours under maximum brightness with frequent use and 4G turned on. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Tablet Video battery life (in hours) Video battery life (Wi-Fi on, 4G off) Video battery life (Wi-Fi off, 4G on)
Acer Iconia Tab A501 6.4 6.4 6.3

Conclusion
The Acer Iconia Tab A501 4G is the cheapest 4G Honeycomb tablet currently on the market, but its adherence to Android 3.0, relatively low-quality screen, and hefty design ultimately make it the least appealing of the 4G tablets. Still, it is cheapest, so if that's your deciding factor and you absolutely need a 4G tablet right now, it's not a bad deal. If you can wait, we'd recommend giving it some time to see how the 4G tablet landscape develops over the next few months.

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