Life is all about choices and trade-offs. With the Acer Iconia Tab A100, the main compromise is in size. This 417g tablet, the first to run the Android 3.2 operating system, is too big to be a smartphone and too small – at a 7-inch screen size – to watch movies on. It fills a small niche for those who want an ebook reader that also runs apps.
For some, the form factor might be just about right. While the HTC Flyer is now showing signs of age, both tablets fit into the same mould: both offer a compact 7-inch screen, the Tegra 2 processor running at 1GHz and 1GB RAM. The Acer Iconia Tab A100 is actually 3g lighter, but you won't notice.
However, there are a few differences between the two pocket-sized tabs. We say pocket-sized with a smirk – you really need pretty large pockets for that to work.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 runs Android 3.2 out of the box, whereas most HTC Flyers have to be updated to 3.2.
This version of the operating system, named Honeycomb, supports screen scaling to run apps made for smartphones. However, on the 7-inch screen the resizing for smartphone apps isn't that noticeable.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 also provides a few interesting apps. One is called Planner and it presents a handy all-in-one view of recent news, your email, calendar and notes.
Like the Acer Iconia Tab A500, the A100 uses an app categorisation system for grouping apps into bins for social networking, ebooks, games and so on. Sure, it's nothing more than an extra home screen system, and doesn't look that great, but at least we're not talking about plain vanilla Android here.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 also provides a 5MP rear-facing camera and a 2MP front-facing chat camera. The HTC Flyer's chat camera is only 1.3MP.
Most critically, the HTC Flyer uses a single-core CPU while the Acer Iconia Tab A100 stays current with recent 10-inch tabs by offering the Tegra 2 dual-core chip.
In truth, most of the other differences compared to the HTC Flyer are cosmetic, or related to usability and the screen technology used on the two tablets. However, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 gets the nod over the HTC Flyer if only for including a new version of Android.
And there's a smart fold-open case for the Acer Iconia Tab A100 where you can set it almost vertical on a desk.
We should mention the BlackBerry PlayBook, even though many tablet users have forgotten it exists. There are still no strong apps on it to speak about, but the PlayBook also has a 7-inch screen. We can't recommend it unless you really need the business security features or already use a BlackBerry smartphone. Both the HTC Flyer and the Acer Iconia Tab A100 are better buys because of the boatload of Android apps available.
Oh, and there's still the first-gen 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, which shares some similarity in size but uses the older Android 2.2 Froyo operating system. It enables you to rent movies, but otherwise its apps are all designed for smartphones.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 8GB model we tested costs only $330 in the US, and £299.99 in the UK. The HTC Flyer is priced at £480. That makes the A100 the better buy. But the reality is that 10-inch tabs aren't that much more expensive, not that much heavier – the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is only 148g heavier than the A100 – and better suited to watching movies and playing games.
In some ways, we're not sure where the Acer Iconia Tab A100 fits. The larger size of a 10-inch tab such as the Apple iPad 2 is a bit unwieldy for books, so in many ways the 7-inch screen of the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is more suited to book pages.
Otherwise, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 comes with all of the expected specs for a modern tablet: the Android 3.2 operating system, a 7-inch screen with 1024 x 600resolution, Wi-Fi, GPS, tilt sensors, a micro USB port for connecting to your computer, a micro HDMI port for video and audio-out to an HD TV, a 3.5mm headphone jack and Bluetooth 2.1.
The tablet is only 12.7mm thick and looks like an oversized smartphone.
The speakers are below the Home button in a portrait orientation. There are volume control knobs on the right, and a screen lock switch. There are no buttons on the left-hand side. At the top, it's easy to find the power button and the headphone jack.
Also below the Home button, you'll find the HDMI and USB ports, and a port for connecting the Acer Iconia Tab A100 to an optional dock. This dock includes audio connections for external speakers and one for running an HDMI-out cable to an HD TV.
One word of caution: even though the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is small and nimble, it's not long-lasting. The tablet is rated for only five hours of battery – the small size clearly means a small battery. Streaming videos will chew up the battery in about four hours, and other rich media might make the Acer Iconia Tab A100 die after four and a half hours.
The Tegra processor is faster than those on some tablets like the Flyer. I
Like the Acer Iconia Tab A500, the A100 comes with a few minor user interface enhancements, but none of them will make you want to rush out and buy the tablet.
It's more of a system for organising apps than a real UI addition – you run an app that groups other apps. There's an app for games that simply provides another place to put game app icons instead of the main home screen.
Acer doesn't provide any extra widgets beyond those offered as standard by Android 3.2 Honeycomb.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100's smaller screen size means the interface might be more cumbersome to use than that on a 10-inch tab. That's because, even though Android 3.2 is supposed to resize objects on the screen automatically, the screen still runs at 1024 x 600 resolution. So when you select some buttons, you might need to use a fingertip. When you do, the click might register on the capacitive touch screen.
The screen also shows a lot of glare and isn't that easy to view from a side angle, so the user interface is harder to use than you might expect.
We tested several apps made for smartphones, and the overall impression is that Android 3.2 doesn't really make much of a difference. The 7-inch screen is already not that much bigger than, say, a Samsung Galaxy S2.
Apps including Skype just space out the buttons a little differently.
Android market and apps
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 isn't exactly rich in first-party apps made by Acer, or in third-party apps.
We mentioned the lacklustre system for organising apps in the Interface section of this review. No tablet really enhances the Android experience all that much, but Samsung offers the most UI add-ons, which actually seem to work. For example, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 now includes a social networking aggregator for seeing feeds from Twitter and Facebook.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 includes a SocialJogger app, which is really just an entry point to Facebook and Twitter.
Worse, some of the apps on the Acer Iconia Tab A100 just don't add that much value. The Nemo music player provides another way to browse photos, music and videos, but isn't that different from the included Android apps, and has an interface that looks dated.
Unlike the Toshiba Thrive and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, there's no branded Acer app store, which is okay with us since most of the extra app stores are superfluous anyway. The only exception is the Amazon app store, where the prices are a bit lower in some cases, with a few special deals.
Acer offers its clear.fi service for streaming content to and from the Iconia Tab A100. The service works with DLNA, so you can connect the tablet to your Xbox 360 or TV streaming set-top box. Setting up this app was one of the smoothest processes we've seen, and worked well. However, the Wi-Fi on the Acer Iconia Tab A100 only works over 2.4GHz 802.11 and not the steadier 5.0GHz band.
Acer includes the Documents To Go app for opening Microsoft Office files, and it works fast in most cases. When you open a Word document in your email, for example, the doc pulls up quickly in Documents To Go.
Otherwise, the typical Android apps are all here. A Navigation app provides turn-by-turn directions, even though the interface is minimal, not showing any icons for points-of-interest along the route. A maps app and a music app that uses the Google Music service in the cloud are also included.
Acer includes an Air Sync app for syncing contacts, appointments, photos and videos to your computer.
The Planner app is the only notable new addition for the Acer Iconia Tab A100. As we explained in the Overview section of this review, Planner groups your email, calendar, social media news feeds and notes.
The screen on the Acer Iconia Tab A100 isn't fantastic, but it's not wholly terrible either.
There's a lot of glare coming off the screen. In bright light, the screen is almost not viewable.
And, some icons seem to glow like they're on a mirror, hovering just above a sheet of glass beneath. To picture this, imagine using a 3D screen like the one on the HTC Evo 3D, except not in 3D mode, and on a bigger screen.
Another problem is the screen isn't that responsive. You might have to press a button a few times before it registers. Oddly, for typing, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is good but cramped, registering clicks accurately even with haptics to help give the sensation of tactile feedback.
Most of the issues we had with the screen were related to the size, however.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100's price isn't incredibly low compared to 10-inch models, so the tablet needs to sell itself on portability, readability and colour quality. You get portability. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Apple iPad 2 and even the Motorola Xoom all have brighter and clearer screens.
We rented the movie Priest using the Market and found that this dark film looked even more colourless than it should.
Connected to an HD display using a micro HDMI cable, the movie still looked too dark. We loaded up the Blu-ray version of the film and saw that there are dark scenes, but they're still viewable. The contrast is so unappealing on the tablet that we stopped the movie halfway through.
So, what about usability for the 7-inch Acer Iconia Tab A100? That's something we measure carefully over an extended period, using the tablet as any mobile user would – checking email in a cafe, checking directions in the car and listening to music using earphones. The trouble is, a smartphone such as the HTC Evo 3D serves all of these purposes, lasts longer and has a better screen.
Compared to the HTC Flyer, it's a toss-up. The Flyer looks better – with a white-silver design and an interesting slight curvature that makes it seem like something Steve Jobs wouldn't scoff at repeatedly. The Acer Iconia Tab A100 is just flat and rectangular. At least with the Toshiba Thrive, there's a snakeskin pattern for extra grip on the back.
The optional case for the Acer Iconia Tab A100 improves usability, because you can protect the tablet and be a little more careless with it. You can also fold the top cover back and prop the Acer Iconia Tab A100 up on a desk, and use it occasionally as a secondary display next to your main computer.
The categorisation system isn't that helpful for usability. It's much easier to just group apps on home screens in your own way, and saves on extra finger presses. Most users will probably end up doing that anyway, and the Acer UI for these category apps has a faint glimmer of Microsoft Bob.
Still, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is small and agile – it has the same benefits and detriments as the HTC Flyer. For those who read ebooks and tend to use a tablet in short spurts and don't watch movies, the A100 isn't a bad choice. There are hundreds of compelling apps compared to the BlackBerry PlayBook, which seems to have languished in the unknown land of RIM.
Media consumption is either a blessing or a curse. For movies, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 isn't that usable, and you might decide not to watch them on it. The screen looks dark, and there were a few times when test movies – loaded using the microSD port – and a few YouTube HD videos, would pause for no apparent reason.
For music, we tested the MusicA app included with the Acer Iconia Tab A100 and the Google Music app. We loaded albums from The Boxer Rebellion, some techno from Daft Punk and a few pop hits as a sanity check. The Acer Iconia Tab A100 isn't bad as an MP3 player, and the speaker quality gets a boost from Dolby Mobile in terms of tonal clarity – basically, like someone adjusted the EQ in a good way.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 isn't bad for viewing photos on, but some images had a glossy look thanks to the mirror-like effect of the screen. They screen isn't warm and rich like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, or clear from any angle like the iPad 2, and it's a bit too small for detailed images. In this regard, the HTC Flyer looks about the same.
However, as an ebook reader, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 was serviceable. Pages turned quickly, and you can hold the device in one hand without a lot of effort. It has a good degree of portability to start reading anytime without the extra heft of a 10-inch tablet.
The Google Books app has good prices and a wide selection. You can also download the free Amazon Kindle app for an even wider array of ebooks.
Screen crispness isn't a major selling point of the Acer Iconia Tab A100. So when you use one as a camera, the images will look passable, but this isn't a tablet that makes you want to go around and show the masses your recently snapped photos – they just don't pop that much on the screen.
Fortunately, the 5MP camera does take good photos, and the smaller tablet is easier to grasp without shaking and position for a good shot. The camera app has few extra settings beyond what is included with Android 3.2, including sepia and black-and-white modes.
In the video camera, there are no surprises either. The tablet's easier to hold steady for shooting video than a 10-inch tablet, simply because of the smaller size. Our clips of a cat on a sunny day looked fairly smooth, although they had a very slight jittering look compared to those we captured with the Toshiba Thrive.
It still feels a bit awkward shooting video – a smartphone makes more sense because you can be a bit more subtle. You can't use such a bulky device to record events such as football matches without feeling awkward and getting shaky results.
The front camera on the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is passable. We snapped a few photos and videos, and they looked predictably washed out and less clear than the rear-facing camera.
One obvious note is that people on video chats will look smaller and maybe not even that recognisable on the smaller 7-inch screen.
It's hard to recommend the Acer Iconia Tab A100 in light of the 10-inch alternatives. Yet, for such as ebook fans and those who like smaller tabs, this is the best of the 7-inch lot.
The Android 3.2 operating system is a smart option. In our tests, older apps looked more reasonable on the screen. All of the benchmarking apps we tested, which are designed for smartphones, filled the screen correctly. Even the Astro File Manager app filled the screen to the edges and lined up icons in a neat row.
Ebook reading works well, although the screen's a bit glossy with a slight mirroring effect that might cause some eye strain.
Android 3.2 resized most apps well, but that's not a huge problem at this screen size.
The Acer Iconia Tab A100 is fast – it blew through several benchmark tests, even if the basic operation of loading apps, playing games and watching movies didn't seem to benefit that much from the CPU speed.
The screen on the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is mirror-like, with a weird glare, as if it's in 3D but not quite. From a side angle, the screen looks too shiny. Contrast ratio for movies wasn't good at all.
The battery life is only about five hours, because the battery's so small. If you stream a lot of movies online, the battery will last for four hours or so.
Processing was fast for our benchmark tests, but Android 3.2 runs about the same for most apps as it does on a 10-inch tab. The smaller size doesn't make it quicker.
Somewhere, there's a niche for this tablet. It's mostly for folks who want a smaller tablet, but then they could just select a smartphone with a large screen, such as the HTC Evo 3D. Ebook reading worked well, if you can live with the somewhat glossy screen.
To say the Acer Iconia Tab A100 is the best 7-inch Android tablet is a bit misleading. But we do prefer it over the HTC Flyer, due to the included Android 3.2 operating system.
In some ways, the BlackBerry PlayBook is better in a technical sense – at least it does real multitasking – but it has too few apps. We like the A100 for an express purpose: greater mobility and book reading. For most tasks, a 10-inch tablet is a wiser bet.