The Acer Iconia A500 runs Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first tablet-focused Google OS. It’s a blown-up version of the smartphone Android OS, but offers many optimisations and interface tweaks that make it much better-suited for the big (well, big-ish) screen.
It packs-in much more information onto each screen, and increases the power of home screens, which are the staple of the Android OS. In practice, Honeycomb feels like a half-way house between the smartphone Android and a full computer operating system. At the bottom of the screen is an interface bar with basic nav buttons, a clock and a notifications bar that also houses a clock and battery indicator. The titles of any emails received pop up right there on the home screen, making this outer layer of Honeycomb more effective has an information hub than its predecessors.
You’re free to customise the rest of each of the five home screens as you like, with wallpapers, shortcuts and widgets. Email widgets, clocks, calendar reminders and web shortcut panels are included as standard, and apps from the Android Market will add additional ones. Twitter comes with a selection of home screen widgets, for example. However, Honeycomb is still a sapling and while the A500 is backwards-compatible with older Android 2.x apps, there are precious few dedicated tablet apps out there that make full use of the pixels and screen inches of a full-size tablet like this.
The Android Market doesn’t currently tell you whether an app’s been lovingly crafted with tablets in mind either, so finding the best apps involves a lot of experimentation. Or alternatively, you could read our top apps articles.
With a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor at the helm, the Acer Iconia A500 is as powerful as the latest crop of tablets, but few current Android apps make use of this reserve. In order to point you in the right direction, the TegraZone Games portal comes pre-installed on the tablet. It’s an NVIDIA games store featuring the titles optimised for the Tegra 2 processor. At present, there are just 13 titles available though and, predictably, the majority have already been released for iPad or iPhone. The Tegra 2 chip is a very capable gaming processor, but if you expect its presence to mean the Acer Iconia A500 and its ilk will seriously challenge the iPad’s gaming power (in terms of the number of titles available) you’re mistaken.
That said, while these early high-end games are fairly impressive the best is yet to come. Epic’s Unreal engine is being used to make games for Tegra 2 laptops right now, and they’ll boast gorgeous 3D visuals. The first, Dungeon Defenders: First Wave, is already available, and gives a hint as to what’s in store.
The processor makes light work of day-to-day navigation. It’s slick and largely lag-free. Honeycomb’s nooks and crannies are home to various minor software bugs and glitches, but these are only apparent when the Iconia A500 is compared to the experience offered by an iPad 2, not an Android 2.x smartphone. Android 3.0 may be a fresh start of sorts, but it didn’t enter the market at square one. Google has learnt a lot in its travels with Android, and that knowledge is in evidence here.