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REVIEW: ACER ICONIA A1 ANDROID TABLET

A whole lot of bang for your buck

I didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to the launch party for Acer’s new tablet device.  A quick Google search showed the rumour mill was abuzz with talk of Windows 8 tablets and high-end Android devices.

What was presented was perhaps more humble, but to my mind a lot more impressive than what I’d read online.

Read on to find out why…

Look and feel

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Acer were paying a little too much attention to a certain fruit based company.  There’s more than a passing familiarity to the front of the device, with the wide bezel resembling the larger iPad variants.  All of the review models on display featured black bezels, and unfortunately I couldn’t grab any of the Acer staff to ask them if a white bezel would be available as an option.

Acer Iconia A1 photo forward

Spend a little longer with the A1 and you start to appreciate some of the more original parts of the design.  The back is a single matt-white piece of plastic, with cutouts for the single speaker grill and camera.  The Acer logo in the center is tasteful, and can’t be felt when holding the device, which is useful if you find protruding badges and logos as annoying as I do.  The front and back are joined by a single piece of silver plastic, in which the power and volume buttons and ports are inlaid.

Overall the build quality feels good.  The matt finish on the back is a refreshing change; no mucky fingerprints on the rear side, that’s for sure.  Unfortunately, I was one of many people last night who commented that the glass on the front is one of the worst (or should that be best?) fingerprint magnets out there.  Sure, we were all diving in to the buffet at the same time, but it does seem that the screens became mucky rather fast, and it took an awful lot of napkins to clean them back up.

That small gripe aside, I’m quite taken by the A1.  It’s not the thinnest or lightest device by any means, but it feels good in the hand and it small enough to fit into the front pocket of any satchel or rucksack.  Or into the side pocket of my cargo shorts, at a push.

Specifications

The A1 measures 11.1mm thick and weighs 410g, and being such a small device I wasn’t expecting anything amazing in terms of technical specifications, but I’ll admit to being a little surprised.  The display is a 7.9″ 1024×768 panel, which is essentially the same as that of the iPad Mini.  It’s an IPS panel, with a viewing angle of 170 degrees.

Iconia A1_side

Inside the device you’ve got a quad core 1.2GHz ARM processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB or 16GB of storage space.  That might not seem like a lot of space, but bare in mind that the A1 also has a Micro-SD card slot, so you can easily bump the storage space up by 32GB.

As well as the Micro-SD slot you also get a Micro-HDMI port for connecting the tablet to a TV or projector for screen mirroring.  You also get a Micro-USB port for charging, but no word on whether this can be used via an adapter for accessories.

You also get two cameras thrown in to the mix; a 5MP rear facing camera which can shoot 1080p video at 30fps, and a 0.3 front facing camera for video chatting.

In terms of connectivity, you get 802.11 b/g/n wifi, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.  All of the versions on display last night were WiFi only, though Acer confirmed that a 3G equipped version will also be available shortly.

Using it

The A1 comes with a pretty vanilla version of Android 4.2 Jellybean.  You do get a few bundled apps and widgets, but you also get the stock Android UI, which I always prefer to any alternatives offered by big players like HTC and Samsung. The customisations that Acer do include are subtle, but useful.  My favorite is the Touch Wakeapp function which allows you to open a specified app by placing 5 fingers on the screen while the device is on standby.  While some might find this trivial, it can be an excellent feature if you find yourself using one app more than any other.

I sat quite happily for a couple of hours last night as the A1 downloaded my apps and settings from the Google Play Store over the function room WiFi.  The device itself can just about be held in one hand, though some people may find it a little uncomfortable.  That being said, the size makes it a doddle to type in portrait mode using two hands.  In fact, I started writing this review on the A1 on the train home, only stopping because the guy next to me kept pointing out my spelling mistakes.

Iconia A1_w_Hand

Though the screen is not the best I’ve seen, it’s far from the worst.  I’ve been spoiled in recent months by very high dpi screens on my other devices, but most users will find it perfectly usable.  Photos and videos display well, with no ghosting or blur.  Colours could be a little more vivid, and reading in bright sunlight can present a slight problem due to the amount of glare, but for the most part it performs well, it’s certainly more than adequate for indoor use.  On the subject of video playback, most users will find that the built in mono speaker a little inadequate, but it’s still usable for personal viewing, and you can always make use of the 3.5mm headphone jack.

Acer didn’t provide too much information on the CPU, other than specifying that it’s quad core and clocked at 1.2GHz.  Whatever the specifics, it performs pretty well, and is more than powerful enough to drive the Android interface without any stutter or buggy animations.  Apps are quick to open and are for the most part responsive.  Angry Birds aficionados will be happy to know that they can commit hogacide with no issues whatsoever.  In fact, the A1 performed surprisingly well with more demanding titles such as EA’s Real Racing 3.  While performance was not as good as on my Nexus 4, the game still chugged along nicely with very little stutter.

Quite frankly this was a surprise to me, as the A1 had been described to the group as a budget device, so I’d written it off as a gaming machine before I’d got it in my hands.

When it comes to the built in cameras, the A1′s offerings are pretty much in the middle of the deck.  The rear facing camera produces pretty good videos at 1080p, and the built in microphone is surprisingly capable.  Unfortunately, both cameras fair badly in low light conditions (and when I say low light, I mean indoors), making video chats almost pointless.

What a miserable day
What a miserable day – Click for original

Conclusions

I’m quite taken with the Iconia A1.  Not least because all of the features above come at a very competitive price; just £140 for the 8GB, WiFi only model.  It’s not the cheapest tablet out there, in fact it’s not even the cheapest tablet that Acer make, but it does give you a heck of a lot of functionality for a comparatively low cost.

Comparisons will inevitably be made with the iPad mini, and while Apple may win when it comes to design aesthetic and build quality, Acer have got them boxed in the corner when it comes to included features and expandability.

From a personal perspective, this is the type of Android tablet that I would look at buying.  Day to day performance is good, and it can even be surprisingly useful as a gaming device or as a productivity tool.  I can honestly say that I’m more comfortable blogging on this device than I am on my iPad 3, even when using an external keyboard.  The smaller size and weight make it an ideal device to throw in your bag on the way out the door, and the battery is good for a working days use on a single charge.

If you can accept the limitations of the camera, and the middle of the road performance of the screen and speaker, then the Iconia A1 is definitely a device you should consider buying.  The low price makes it ideal for those who want the Android experience without breaking the bank, or for those who have a track record of destroying or losing their devices.

Author

Matt

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