It may have some big flaws, but we can't help but find this little 7in Honeycomb tablet rather likeable.
Until now, if you wanted a Honeycomb tablet, you had to have a screen of 9in and above. Smaller devices have so far been restricted to running adapted smartphone versions of Android, but with the 7in Acer Iconia Tab A100, that problem is left behind: it comes with Android 3.2, which has specific optimisations for smaller screen sizes.
In the case of the A100, the most noticeable change is the height of the System Bar that occupies the bottom 48 pixels of the 1,024 x 600 screen, or 7mm in real money. On Honeycomb tablets with larger screens the System Bar is 8.5mm high.
In use, it means the A100 is almost as easy to manipulate as its larger cousins, with menu options, buttons and bars all perfectly proportioned. It also means the tablet feels as at home in portrait mode as it does in landscape.
The smaller screen means widgets and icons occupy more desktop real-estate, and typing on the standard Honeycomb keyboard is a little more fiddly, but we’d take those small niggles for the sheer portability this tablet offers. It’s slim and compact enough to slip into an inside jacket pocket, and reasonably light at 400g.
The rest of the design is perfectly acceptable too. The grey glossy plastic back isn’t luxurious, but general build quality is good, and we like the fact that, when you hold the A100 in landscape orientation, the extended ends give your thumbs somewhere to rest.
There are other nice touches: next to the volume rocker there’s a lock switch for preventing the screen from auto-rotating, and all the ports and sockets (the 3.5mm audio output, Micro HDMI, and proprietary docking port) are located sensibly on the short edges of the tablet.
So, the A100 matches its larger cousins almost blow for blow, and internally it’s also up to scratch. There’s no 3G option yet, but you get 8GB of internal storage and a working microSD slot for expansion. It’s powered by a 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and has 1GB of RAM to back that up, so Honeycomb fair flies along.
Scrolling, panning and pinch-to-zoom operations in the browser are as responsive as you could hope for, and we found standard-definition BBC iPlayer and YouTube videos played smoothly. Some YouTube 720p clips were watchable; others were juddery. The only caveat is that horizontal scrolling animations in the app launcher view seem to shudder as you swipe left and right, but this is more a mild glitch than major irritation.
In performance testing, the numbers back up our initial impressions. It isn’t quite up there with Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, but the A100 is otherwise the match of any Android tablet we’ve seen. It loads complicated pages quickly and without fuss; the BBC homepage appeared in five seconds on average. The SunSpider test completed in 2,219ms, and in the Android-only Quadrant benchmark, the A100 achieved a decent score of 1,823.
Generally, we’re big fans of the way Acer has put together this neat little Android tablet, but inevitably there are some annoyances. The first concerns the screen. It’s sharp enough, but brightness, contrast and viewing angles leave a little to be desired.
We measured a maximum brightness of just 239cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 646:1, and colours quickly change hue as you tip the tablet back and forth in landscape orientation.
The next problem is battery life. According to Acer’s specifications the A100 is capable of “up to five hours”, and sure enough we achieved a time of 4hrs 53mins in our looping, low-resolution video test. That’s well short of average for a Honeycomb tablet, and lags significantly behind its main rival for the 7in tablet crown – the HTC Flyer – that managed 8hrs 4mins.
The A100’s 5-megapixel camera is another disappointment. Its stills, even in good light, were muddied by chroma noise and heavy compression. Video shot at 720p and 20fps, meanwhile, looked extremely soft and was also spoiled by excessive compression and violent shifts in white balance.
Finally, we found the odd compatibility problem as we went through loading our standard list of apps. Most notably, the Amazon Kindle app crashed every time we attempted to load a book, and was missing critical navigational controls. Hopefully, this is something Amazon addresses soon in an update.
This isn’t the perfect tablet, then, not by a long chalk. And with average screen quality, below par battery life and a poor camera, you’d think we’d be ready to stick the boot in.
But the Acer A100 is actually a rather likeable device. It’s nice to use, snappy and responsive, and looks even more attractive when you put it in context of the immediate competition. It costs £300 inc VAT, the same as the ageing 7in Samsung Galaxy Tab, and a massive £180 cheaper than the 16GB HTC Flyer. If a 10in tablet doesn’t appeal, this little alternative just might.