Jarred’s Take on Tablets

I’ve been heading up laptop reviews for AnandTech since 2006; to say that we’ve come a long way in that time would be a gross understatement. With my lengthy background in testing laptops, Anand thought it would be interesting to get my take on tablets in general, and the best way to do that is naturally to get a tablet into my hands. Cue the Three Stooges soundtrack….

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad, but almost from the time I opened the Iconia A500 I have been searching for an answer to the question, “What do I need this for?” Anand has touched on this in his iPad/iPad 2 reviews, and if anything I’m even less inclined to need/want a tablet. A primary issue for me is that typing on a flat, glossy surface is unpleasant at best—yes, I can type faster on the A500 than on an iPod Touch, but that’s about the limit of my abilities. As Anand pointed out, tablets appear to function best as a media consumption device (e.g. limited typing required), and with plenty of computers already present in my house I just don’t need one more. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the tablet experience at some level; I just have a hard time figuring out where I would use it on a daily basis. Let me get into the things I like first, and then I can wrap up with the problems.

Assuming you have a tablet handy and you have WiFi or 4G connectivity, browsing the web works quite well. I’m probably lucky that my first real experience here is with Android 3.0, because the presence of tabs alleviates many of the problems on other platforms, and Tegra 2 is sufficiently fast that you can actually consume content rather than waiting for pages to load. I do have an iPod Touch, and by comparison the A500 is far better for surfing the Internet. As an example: loading AnandTech.com on the iPod can take 6-10 seconds per page; doing the same on the A500 loads most pages in 3-4 seconds. More importantly, browsing the web on a 1280x800 display is eminently better than qHD (960x540). Sitting on a couch watching TV, a tablet is a more desirable companion than a smartphone.

I also found the A500 quite useful in carrying around PDFs and other data that I wanted to read, without the need to fold out a full laptop. Even the smallest netbooks are still bulkier than a tablet, and they require a surface (e.g. your lap, a desk, etc.) in order to use properly. A tablet can easily be held in one hand while you interface with it using the other. If I were a doctor wandering around a hospital, a tablet would be far more convenient than a laptop or clipboard. I’m sure there are other professions that could make good use of a tablet, but what works for one may not work for all.

The display on the Acer A500 is a bit of a mixed bag for me. In terms of quality, it’s so much better than most of the laptops I’m used to seeing. White levels are brighter, black levels are lower, and for a TN panel the viewing angles are very good. I haven’t personally used an iPad or the ASUS Transformer, but I’m sure the IPS displays would win me over; the A500 is still quite good, however. My biggest complaints with the display are the large gap between the glass and the panel (Vivek already mentioned this), and then there’s the issue of smudges. Acer thankfully includes a microfiber cloth for cleaning the display, and you’ll need something like that because you inevitably get fingerprints all over the surface. Acer doesn’t include any form of carrying case or cover, and something like Apple’s Smart Cover would really be handy.

Now we get into the things that I really didn’t care for with the table experience. I discussed gaming performance earlier and came off unimpressed, but not because tablets can’t run games; we just need better titles. There are some fun casual games out there, but with Apple, NVIDIA, and others suggesting tablets have a future as gaming platforms, I’m just not seeing it.

What I really need for tablets to be useful is a killer app. I don’t carry around a clipboard ever, so they can’t fill that role. If I need to type an email or do any real work, a keyboard is generally a requirement. For everything that a tablet can do, a decent smartphone is similar and it can fit in your pocket. So on the one hand, I love having a larger 1280x800 display that I can actually use to browse the web, but on the other hand I just can't fit something like that into my current lifestyle. The most use I got out of the A500, outside of testing, was on Sundays when I took it to church. I was able to replace several bulky items (scriptures and lesson manual) with a single device that easily fits in a briefcase, and it was easier to use than a notebook. I could still do the same thing on a smartphone or iPod Touch, but reading books/manuals on the iPod isn’t very easy on the old eyes. I would assume that students could benefit from a tablet in a similar manner, provided they can get all of their books and other materials in digital format. Carrying a <2 lbs. tablet around campus in place of three heavy textbooks sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure about note taking and I always had a soft spot for scribbling in the margins—plus I know a lot of engineering courses have open book exams, and I doubt they’d allow a tablet to qualify as a “book”.

For me, tablets in their current form end up feeling more like a fun gadget or a toy than a useful accessory. I can use it to accomplish plenty of tasks, but I can do those same tasks on other devices. As someone who has more than my share of gadgets, yes, I’d like to keep the A500 (or a similar tablet) around for occasional use, and my 8-year-old daughter definitely thinks it’s cool. If you don’t already have a laptop, a desktop PC, and a smartphone, though, I can’t see where a tablet rates as a higher priority purchase than those items.

Battery Life Parting Thoughts
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  • VTArbyP - Sunday, June 26, 2011 - link

    As usual, it takes me a while to figure out for myself why something becomes a hot. My iPod Touch was a revelation in comparison to the Palm Pilot it replaced. Who knew an MP3 player would become what it is!

    My view is that tablets are the fulfillment of the promise of a "paperless" society. The User Interface works; much better than any before it. The batteries last long enough, and color / video / 3d abilities give it scope for growth far beyond paper or even e-ink readers. If you read the end of this article, you see that the tablet works best in place of paper, books, web browsing and such. You simply don't need to print much with a tablet around - much more so than with its smaller forebears. Add back a stylus and hand written notes can be easily added. Meanwhile, Asus has the pseudo-netbook NAILED in the eee pad transformer. All the pieces, size, UI and apps, are here for tablets to save the trees and go far, far beyond printing!

    When you think of a tablet in this light, you can guess at the future. Tablets will add i/o: 1) to use them as an extra display for your "bigger iron" be it a PC or a game console. 2) to transfer any and all info (work / play / whatever you are doing) to and from PCs / Smart Phones and the Cloud. You may have noticed that display ports have disappeared from new Macs, Thunderbolt will do all data transfer including video. I'd stake good money that the iPad 3 will have Thunderbolt and use it in the way I described.

    I haven't even touched on the convertible smart phone / tablets out there or coming soon! Beware though, it's not that one "smart item" will replace what went before, rather that all of them will work together for a complete solution.

    Frankly I find this vision of the future almost scary. I'm just glad that I can see a world with little use for paper coming beforehand.
    Reply
  • VTArbyP - Sunday, June 26, 2011 - link

    Over edited post, sorry folks! Line 1:"becomes a hot." ought to be "becomes Hot." 2nd paragraph: "Add back a stylus and handwritten notes are easy." should replace the "Add back a stylus and hand written notes can be easily added." sentence. Reply
  • ex2bot - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    (A relatively minor point:)

    Jarred gives his overall take on tablets without ever using the leading tablet and its superior (in size and scope) software library?

    In my experience with the iPad 1, I don't use my laptop nearly as much as I used to. Mine is a bit of a special case in that I'm not able to sit at a desk for more than a couple hours due to a disability. The iPad lets me surf the web, read books and magazines (Zinio and Kindle!), play games, and do anything else that doesn't requre lots of typing while lying down. I'm sure the Android tablets have the similar advantages.

    I do agree about the gaming being limited. Games tend to need real buttons.

    Ex2bot
    Reply
  • henryvol - Monday, October 10, 2011 - link

    Oct. 6, 2011 After about a week of using my new Acer Iconia A500 the unit developed an issue where the battery would not charge. This was an intermitent trouble whereby at times the unit would charge the battery for a few seconds or maybe a couple of minutes before stopping the recharging process. I used multiple power adapters with the same results from each. I performed a factory reset and a hard reset on the unit but, the resets did not correct the issue.

    I contacted Acer Support and sent the unit in for repair. I received the A500 back from the repair facility 8 days later still with the battery charging issue. They returned it to me without repairing or correcting the issue.

    I contacted Acer Support this morning and again returned the A500 for repair.

    After searching some of the Acer A500 forums, I found that other users were experiencing the same issues with their A500 tablets. If the power adapter is connected the battery status indicator indicates 'Discharging' but, the battery percentage stays the same. When the power adapter is removed, the battery percentage indicator begins to decline. When the power adapter is connected, the A500 battery does not charge.

    Based on my experiences with this product and the Acer Repair Service, I would not purchase an Acer Iconia A500 again and I would not reccomend this product. Acer Service/Support has not offered to replace my defective A500.
    Reply
  • khernau - Friday, March 09, 2012 - link

    That looks great! I would love to get something like this. I have an old laptop, but it's not working right now. I need to see about getting some acer repair parts for it. Hopefully it can be fixed!

    http://www.acerparts.ca
    Reply

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