At last- WIDGETS!
For the last five days, I've been the proud new owner of an Acer A500 review unit. This Android Honeycomb tablet runs for between $428 and $450 depending on where you buy it. Acer is hoping that step down in price will be just enough to convince users to go with Android over iOS. After five days with the A500, I'm not sure how realistic an expectation that is.
1. Honeycomb is Riddled with Speed-Bumps.
Android 3.0 is like someone took a beautiful stretch of Interstate running through the desert and placed a series of speed-bumps along it, each exactly eight miles apart. Whenever you start to kick back and enjoy the view, the whole experience comes grinding to a halt of annoyance and frustration. Honeycomb is 90% of the way to the finish line- but that's far enough short to be a constant irritation.
My Evo, Nexus One and G1 all had the same annoying problem. Every so often, my browser would clear and dump all of my open "windows" or tabs. This problem has also shown up about a half dozen times on my A500. The default browser crashes and I lose all my open windows. I've tried Firefox as well, and the same issue persists.
There are also some weird touchscreen glitches. I'm not sure whether to blame the A500 hardware on that, or the Android software. But my gut leans toward the latter. Sometimes I won't be able to unlock the screen, because it stops registering contacts for several seconds. Other times I'll be unable to select or highlight words near the top of the screen or too close to an image. While responsiveness is generally excellent, I've ran into a few instances where this tablet failed utterly on detail work.
2. Honeycomb Looks Great.
I have never been this happy with the look of a tablet's UI. Honeycomb is gorgeous. You have a ton of screen real estate and you can fill every inch of it with apps and widgets. Gone is the swinging from menu to menu I put up with in iOS. Android 3.0 puts everything I need right in front of me. I have total control of my tablet, no matter what I'm doing.
Since I started using an iPad, I've lamented the lack of tablet widgets. Now that I have an Android tablet, the widgets are the thing I love most. I can see my email contents, bookmarks, Facebook feed and a couple of different news feeds- plus my local weather, all on screen at once. When I gaze down at my beautiful, glittering rows of widgets, I have hope for the future of Android as a tablet OS.
3. Android 3.0 Multitasking Gets a B+.
There's a button at the bottom of my A500's screen that opens up the last four or five used applications. It acts as a sort of app-switcher for speedier multitasking. I can keep my Gmail app, my browser, a book and my notes app open all at once and switch between them all pretty much seamlessly. It isn't as intuitive or as fast as the PlayBook's multitasking, but it works well enough and doesn't seem to tax the processor.
I do have one complaint. I'm unable to remove items from my recently used queue, which means things like the settings tab, which I only need to use once in a while, occasionally bump apps I am in the middle of using out of the rotation. It'd be nice to be able to 'pin' apps up there. Or to be able to 'remove' apps from the queue if you know you won't want them again.
4. Acer is Almost as Good at Design as Apple.
I really enjoyed the PlayBook, but it doesn't have the same draw as the iPad 2. The design is solid, inoffensive, but it hardly inspires obsession. The iPad 2 makes you want to touch it, look at it, use it. It feels like a chunk of the future sitting in your hands and there is something very satisfying about using it.
The A500 has the same feel. Aluminum was a wonderful aesthetic choice. It feels smooth and comfortable in your hands. Once you've used it, you'll want to keep using it. Despite possessing an SD slot, the A500 feels as seamless as the iPad in your hands. It's the prettiest Android device of any stripe I've ever used.
5. I don't get the horizontal orientation.
To me, a horizontal orientation seems kind of unnatural for a tablet PC. I like to hold mine vertically, like a newspaper or a magazine. Horizontal is good for watching a movie or maybe typing on your lap, but it isn't my ideal way to browse or do apps. Acer feels differently. Everything about this tablet- from the logo's location to the placement of the docking port, points to it being a 'landscape' tablet.
Some apps- like the market- won't even work in portrait orientation. Moving the tablet around doesn't prompt it to switch. And sometimes the gyroscope fails to register changes in orientation at all. When it does, the inevitable 'default' orientation is horizontal.
Separating the Hardware from the Software:
I don't quite know whether to laud or damn Android, or the A500 here. This product as a whole is a mixed bag: unreliable performance wrapped up in a compulsively pleasant package. It looks like Acer has pretty much left Google's software alone here, save for Clear.fi. And Honeycomb is almost enough now to carry a whole product. But the same old problems we noticed from the Xoom are still evident.
The A500 is glitchy. It lacks tablet app selection. It doesn't delight in the same fashion as the iPad, because there's still so much that needs to be polished. Having had a few days to test this product, I am more optimistic than ever about Android's tablet future.
The A500 is not perfect. But it is the first tablet I would recommend that a friend of mine purchase- if they were already a fan of Android. Honeycomb still isn't ready for the masses. But Acer has finally produced an Android slate that isn't an insult to customers.