Acer Iconia Tab A500 Review

Iconia_tab_A_03After watching the tablet market for quite some time I decided to bite the bullet and buy one. I was looking at a number of Android based templates as I didn’t want to get an iPad, mainly as I prefer not to be locked into a vendor like Apple, and second I just can’t stand the iTunes application which you are forced to use when using anything Apple with the PC. Besides I can get an iPad through work if I really want one.

Anyway, I had been monitoring the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab along with the Acer Iconia A500 Tab and after several good reviews and comparisons with the others it seemed like it ticked all the boxes, good features, best price, and best of all I could play with one in store.

My need for a Tablet was limited, my original need was for an eBook reader but one with a colour screen because I subscribe to a number of technical magazines that publish colour diagrams, photos and drawings and basically to see good detail you need colour. Kindles and other eBook readers are still grey scale and carrying around a laptop to read eBooks can become a chore after a while, so I often printed out eBooks on my colour laser, but is still ok when you live out of hotels a lot.

A Tablet I thought was the best choice given the lack of colour eInk readers on the market, and it offered the ability to surf the web on a decent size platform which I think is the other main selling point of Tablets. So having justified to myself that a Tablet was now a requirement off I went to the local store. Having asked a few questions to the in store salesperson trying not to look over keen to make the purchase and trying to get some clarity on how functional the USB port and wireless connectivity was I was satisfied it met my needs and the sale was complete.

At home with the proud as punch smile on my face having acquired my new toy I opened the package and revealed the slick looking new Iconia A500 Tab. To be honest they are a nice looking unit, but they are a little heavy (Tablets are heavier than you think, and still don’t come close to carrying a real book or magazine).

Powering up the unit you are presented with a wizard to step you through the setup, all fairly straight forward and I was connected to my wireless network at home in short time and off surfing the web and browsing through the Android Apps Market looking for whatever goodies I could download. predominantly social networking apps for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Messenger, and whether there were any mail apps that could connect with the corporate Exchange system. All was good and I was happy and ready to take it to the office the following day and bask in the glory having owned the first Android based Tablet that any of the Techs in the office had seen. I was a rebel armed with the opposition hardware.

Strategically pulling the arsenal into view I proceeded to power on as if it was my normal routine, and soon a a few curious soul’s gathered nearby to see the new kid on the block. Eye candy and window dressing was all proving to make people pay closer inspection to a possible rival to the standard issue iPad 1 units in the office. But serious work was to be done and I had to prove the new champion in the ring, so connecting to the corporate network and doing some semi productive work like checking the latest Twitter updates and online news were a must.

Ahh oh! Houston we have a problem. In fact we have two.

I couldn’t connect to my corporate network. I must have missed something because it was so easy to connect to my home wireless router. Checking my wireless settings, they all looked fine and I could see 20+ wireless networks in range all just waiting for me to connect including our corporate network. The problem was that our corporate network used certificate based authentication to connect, and well the A500 just doesn’t support it. To be honest it is more to do with the Android 3.0 OS that doesn’t support it.

Hmmm, ok not so bad, diverting my attention to my laptop (convincing people I had work to do, which I had, but I really wanted to play with this new toy) as long as I could connect to some wireless network I still had connectivity, so off in search of our Lab wireless network.

I could see the SSID of our corporate network being clearly advertised, strong signal, and no problem connecting. Back to the A500 and now a second problem, the Lab wireless network could not be seen. 20+ networks yet the Lab just didn’t show up no matter how I configured the limited wireless settings in the device. What is going on, my world was quickly crumbling and I feared that dipping my toe in the pool of Tablets had turned into falling into the ocean of too far from land to worry about using one in the first place. Surely this was a simple thing, I mean these days it is pretty straight forward connecting to wireless networks, select network, provide wireless security key for WEP\WPA\WPA2 whatever is in use and off you go (almost plug and play). Not the Iconia A500, this was becoming a real problem. I knew wireless worked because I had connected successfully to the wireless network at home the night before.

Back to my laptop to look at the settings for my Lab wireless network, fairly standard, WPA2, Channel 13…wait Channel 13, hmmm check manual, yep Channel 13 supported, try again, still can’t see Lab network. Back to laptop checked all the other wireless networks (which also showed up on the Iconia), and a common theme  began to emerge. They were all configured on the standard Channels 1-11 most commonly used as they are universal. Only a few countries in Europe and other parts of the world allow Channel 12-14 (with these restricted in the US). Australia has no restrictions on these channels, and given the manual said the Iconia supported these channels I started thinking that maybe we had US models being sold in Australia. No problem, I could take it back to the store later and ask for an Australian based version that supported the extra channels. In the meantime I was about to head to Sydney for work and decided I could test out reading my eBooks while on the road.

Off to Sydney and into a client site to discuss some business. They had guest wireless access also, so I thought I would give it a go. Low and behold it was also configured for Channel 13 and didn’t show up on my Iconia. I had a second lot of proof now that it didn’t support channel beyond the standard 1-11. Now this was starting to limit its secondary function that I had used to justify its purchase and that was internet access. How common could it be that everyone was using Channel 12 & 13 in Australia. Well surprisingly more common than  though enough to cause me problems.

OK I have some serious connectivity issues at this point. If I can use my phone than I have a work around. Should be simple enough, the Iconia A500 has Bluetooth support and it’s Android based so I assumed I could quickly tether to my phone for internet even if it meant downloading an app to make it work. After attempting native Bluetooth pairing without success I tried several free apps that said they supported tethering. All to no avail. Back to the manual as a last resort, hidden away I found that Bluetooth support extends only to headphones and speakers. What?, this is supposed to be an open platform, surely someone would have built something for Android that enabled Bluetooth modem tethering to your mobile phone. I mean this is Google’s big play in the mobile device arena, Android based devices, surely they wouldn’t have missed this one. Well, several Google searches later seemed to confirm that it is indeed not possible (even after Root). Apparently it is not supported in the current supplicant. This was confirmed with Acer support later, who advised it is not a limitation with the wireless hardware but a limitation within the Android OS. As it turns out it was also the reason I couldn’t use wireless Channels 12-14.

At this point I was seriously thinking that I was effectively carrying around a fancy stone age tablet, because connectivity was now a real issue. I knew full well when I purchased to Iconia that it did not support 3G network connections (apparently coming in the A501), but I had wrongly presumed that having Bluetooth I could quickly tether if I got in such a jam, much like I do with my laptop when on the road. Besides if I had wireless I didn’t really need 3G, but as I discovered wireless access was also proving difficult in the places I was going to use the tablet the most (besides home).

Generally speaking the Iconia performed admirably, USB support was good and although there is no native file transfer support for USB, plenty of free Apps provided the capability, and the SD Card also provided more than enough storage for all my eBooks. Reading PDF magazines, eBooks, web browsing, and APP support were all very good, and the device was fast and responsive, comparable to the iPad’s. There were some minor stability issues however, with the device locking up and requiring a rest to recover periodically, but I put this more down to Android 3.0 than the hardware.

The one last issue with the Iconia, and I am not sure this is to do with the device or the software, but you cannot use video with Skype with either the front or back facing cameras. Strange because I thought this would have been a no brainer for tablet devices to do Video calling. Of course Apple also made the same mistake.

So I contacted Acer support and ran through the list of issues and they confirmed they were all known issues and that I could return the device to the store and obtain a refund. So off I went and return the Iconia and went back to a Tablet less world, a lot wiser, having relieved my craving for a tablet, and realising that after all the bells and whistles wore off in the first few days I was really struggling to find any real could not live without it features. Even without the above issues there was nothing compelling about the need for a tablet after having used one, it really added no real value to my life. Apart from being able to surf the web more easily from the comfort of my lounge chair, and reading a few eBooks, both of which I have found aren’t all they are cracked up to be, there wasn’t much else for me to do. And I still find that real paper, books, newspaper beats a tablet hands down any day. Everyone goes on about how you have search capabilities at your finger tips, but they assume you:

1) Know what it is you are looking for in say the days newspaper and,

2) Actually want to search.

I have found I rarely do either of these things. I usually read what I want to read because, well I wanted to read it, and browse for things that I find of interest. You just can’t pick up a tablet and flick through pages like you can with a book or paper sitting on the bench at home, casually looking and occasionally reading something that has caught your eye.

So in summary the Acer Iconia A500 has four main killer problems, some that only apply to the Australian market, and others that can be a nuisance depending on your situation. They are:

  • Wireless Support for Channels 1-11 only. This is apparently an Android OS issue, so I imagine it will be fixed at some point. Really only affects some users in some countries depending on local communication laws, and the extent to which you need to use Channels above 11. Home users and probably most corporates won’t have that much of a problem.
  • No certificate based wireless authentication. Can be a real issue in corporate arenas that use this type of security as part of their wireless policies.
  • No Bluetooth tethering to your mobile phone. This to me is a must for non 3G models, even more so considering there isn’t actually a 3G model in the market at this point. It is a software issue only so it doesn’t cost anymore to add the capability. The hardware will support it. There are real reasons why users may want this capability, such as their mobile plans already include large data plans and their is no need to sign-up for another one. Sure 3G models mean you don’t need your phone, but hey when am I ever without my phone these days.
  • No video support for Skype. Now this to me could have been the one redeeming reason why I had to keep a Tablet. Video calls and conferencing are becoming mainstream by the day, especially when talking to family, and being able to sit around in the lounge room  and pass the tablet around to the kids and the wife to talk with Nanna and Pop is much better than all huddling together in the study or pulling out the laptop and setting up on the dining table. Without it, it is just making my case for a new SMART-TV more compelling and once I have one will pretty much put a nail in the coffin of all Tablets for any home use requirements.
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