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Tablet beauty, battery beast

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Acer’s 7‚ tablet, the Iconia A100, comes packed with features and claims to rival the market leaders. SEAN BACHER puts it though Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test, and finds that the battery barely keeps up.

For many people, Acer is synonymous with Formula One racing and bright red notebooks and netbooks emblazoned with the Ferrari insignia, thanks to Acer’s sponsorship of the iconic racing car.

However, Acer does compete in other IT segments, including servers, PCs and smartphones. Oh, and tablets too. However, it has been very quiet in terms of this range, slipping them into South Africa under the radar and not really marketing them.

Is there a reason for this? Do its tablets make mighty contestants in the tablet wars, or are they just a range of products it has brought out to keep its finger in the pie?

We put the Acer Iconia A100 through the Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test to find out.

1. The sound of one-hand tapping (Can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other?)

Because the Acer Iconia A100 uses the smaller 7‚ screen, it is much easier to control when on the move. It is well weighted and the rather large 1cm dead zones around the screen make it easy to comfortably hold in one hand ‚ leaving the other free for tapping and typing.

The Iconia is also small enough to fit in any briefcase and in most handbags: you may even get away with fitting it in an oversized suit pocket.

The A100 uses the standard Android keyboard ‚ without the addition of any skins, so the virtual keyboard is well laid-out in both landscape and portrait modes. It is also clear and easy to read.

The Iconia tablet gets extra points in this department because of its overall feel. Although it is a little fat ‚ just over 1cm thick ‚ Acer has done away with the rigid, 90-degree sharp corners found on most other tablets. The Iconia’s edges are smooth and rounded, without any sharp buttons sticking out ‚ making it pleasant to run your hands over and around the exterior.

Score: 9/10.

2. The Angry Birds test (How responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)

A variety of applications were installed on the Iconia, ranging from processor-intensive racing games to simple e-readers. Each ran effortlessly and without the issues usually found on underpowered tablets..

Our benchmark application, Angry Birds, installed without a problem and the birds where whizzing through the air without lag. Lane Splitter, a motorbike racing game that uses the accelerometers in the tablet to steer the bike, also functioned optimally at speed. Quite often, on smaller tablets, I found that the bike jolted along instead of running smoothly. However, the Iconia handled it well. There was no jolting or freezing and the accelerometers reacted perfectly to my movements.

Score: 8/10

3. The tablet gender test (Can it multi-task? Hint: males can’t.)

The Acer Iconia uses a dual-core 1Ghz Cortex CPU which is coupled with 512MB of RAM. The CPU is pretty much standard, but the RAM is half that found in many of the other tablets I have reviewed. That would suggest a laggard of a machine, but the lack of RAM didn’t really show.

Applications were opened one after the other and kept on doing so until there were nothing left on the tablet to open. Each carried on running without fault and without showing any signs of slowing down.

Unfortunately, though, the Iconia doesn’t offer special features in the multitasking department. The only way to get to see which apps are open is to tap on the Open Window button, which will launch a list of open applications. You then need to select the app to which you want to switch, or click on the cross to close it.

Score: 7/10

4. Testing by the book (Can it replace novels and textbooks?)

The Iconia includes both the LumiRead e-reader and the Kobo e-reader. However, both apps are standard, offering no special features such as the ability to draw on a page or have the book turned into an audio book and have it read back to you. They are both available as free downloads from the Android Market, in the same format, so the Iconia loses points for lack of originality.

That said, it does work well as an e-reader. The smaller screen size makes the tablet easier to handle when lying down. The physical ‚Rotation Lock‚ button found just next to the Power button is a bonus ‚ there is nothing more infuriating than having to hold the tablet in a certain position to stop it from rotating the screen when you are lying down.

Score: 7/10

5. Live long and prosper (How’s the battery life?)

The Iconia fails miserably here. A fully charged battery will last just over five hours when being used to check e-mail, Twitter and to play the odd game. Watching movies brings the battery life down even more, with the Iconia just surviving the length of one movie.

Score: 2/10

6. It’s all about You(Tube) (How well does it handle online video sites?)

The A100 has a pre-installed YouTube launcher, so it doesn’t have to be accessed through a browser.

It also supports Flash sites, but only once the Flash app has been installed. Other than that, there are no special features or applications that make it stand out regarding video.

Ripped movies do however look sharp on the 16-million-colour capacitive touch screen, although battery life will be an inhibiting factor.

Score: 6/10

7. The retro test (Can it replace your radio? TuneIn Radio reveals all.)

The Iconia comes with the MusicA app installed. It is similar to SoundHound, and ‚listens‚ to a song before automatically identifying the title and artist by searching the Internet. It worked seamlessly. TuneIn radio also installed and ran perfectly.

The Iconia boasts two speakers, located at the bottom of the tablet and designed to give a stereo experience.

Overall, the sound experience was pretty decent, with the speakers able to handle maximum volume without distortion. As for the stereo sound, I didn’t really get that experience. I feel it has a lot to do with the location of the speakers at the bottom of the device, meaning that one or both speakers will often be blocked with a hand.

Score: 7/10

8. On target (Is the on/off switch easy to find and use in the dark?)

The Power button is recessed into the top right-hand corner of the tablet, making it easy to find in the dark. It is joined by a Volume rocker and the Rotation Lock, each button feeling distinctively different, making them easy to identify by touch.

Then we have a real find at the bottom of the tablet: a physical reset button should the tablet get unstable. It is found between the speakers, alongside mini HDMI, mini USB and Power connectors.

The good placement of the physical buttons combines well with the smooth subtle curves of the tablet.

Score: 8/10

9. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons ‚ hardware and software?)

The Iconia A100 is the first 7‚ tablet to use the Android HoneyComb or 3.5 operating system. However, unlike most other tablet manufacturers, Acer has taken the minimalist route ‚ meaning there is no skin or custom user-interface on top of the operating system.

All five of the home-screens are blank, letting you add widgets or smart applications from the get-go. The lack of any skin also means that the icons are easily identifiable to anyone who has used an Android phone or tablet in the past.

Just below the screen is a physical Home button, which does exactly the same as the Home button located on the left of the screen in the Android operating system, but with one difference – it is always visible and always working, meaning if an applications freezes you can get back to the Home screen and end that application without taking any drastic measures, such as forcing the whole device to shut down.

The Iconia’s uncluttered user interface is rather refreshing. It saves a lot of time when first using the device as it removes the need to delete apps and widgets that wont be used. This, with the separate, dedicated Home button count in favour of the tablet.

It is the little things that count.

Score: 8/10

10. The iPrice Test (Is it competitively priced? And we all know which device we’re comparing.)

The Acer Iconia retails for R5 000, around R700 more than an entry-level iPad, however quite possibly one of the cheapest Android tablets currently available in South Africa. It is smaller than the iPad, has a shorter battery life, but on the other hand, it supports Flash, can multi-task and features applications like Docs To Go. The price can be justified, but only just.

Score: 6/10

The bottom line

The great looks of the Iconia tablet, with its easily identifiable buttons, lack of pre-installed widgets and good price are all plusses. But all of these features mean very little with the below average battery life offered by the standard 1530mAh Li-Polymer battery.

Overall score: 68/100

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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