A New Tablet From Acer Challenges iPad on Price

The tablet-computer race is heating up. The latest entrant, Acer Inc.’s Iconia Tab A500, is the first to offer compelling competition to Apple’s dominant iPad in one crucial area: price.

The Iconia Tab has been keenly anticipated, if only because Acer, a Taiwanese company that made its mark by offering sharp but inexpensive laptops and netbooks, is the world’s second-largest PC maker after Hewlett-Packard Co. The Iconia Tab is Acer’s first to run Google’s Android operating system, and joins an increasingly crowded tablet field that features the PlayBook by Research in Motion Ltd., Motorola Inc.’s Xoom, LG Electronics Inc.’s G-Slate and Apple’s own iPad2, which went on sale in March.

A WiFi-only version of the Iconia Tab went on sale on April 24 for $449.99. A new model that works on AT&T Inc.’s 4G wireless network is slated for release this summer for an as-yet-undisclosed price.

I have been putting the Iconia Tab through its paces, and, in my view, it offers the best value of any Android tablet on the market. While it doesn’t beat either iPad overall, the Iconia Tab offers a decent alternative to Apple, especially for multimedia enthusiasts who want to display their content on a TV, PC or smartphone without additional gear.

Trying to best Apple hasn’t been just a matter of hardware and software design— it has also been a pricing challenge. The first-generation iPad launched at $499, and Apple has knocked it down to $399. So far, the new Android-based tablets have induced sticker shock.

The base price of a Wi-Fi-only Xoom is $599 and the G-Slate will run you $750 without a phone contract. The PlayBook retails for $499, but requires a user to link up a BlackBerry phone to run basic apps such as email.

The Iconia Tab is a relatively light, metallic device with a 1 gigahertz, Nvidia dual-core processor, 16 gigabytes of storage, front- and rear-facing cameras, superb sound from Dolby and a high-resolution, 10.1-inch, multitouch screen. It runs the new version of Android, Honeycomb 3.0, a more reliable and elegant operating system than the Android system used on last year’s tablets.

The 1.33-pound iPad 2 is lighter than the Iconia Tab, which tips the scales at 1.69 pounds, but the Acer’s promised battery life of eight hours of gaming and video use and 10 hours of Web browsing matches Apple’s claimed 10 hours.

The Acer tablet also offers a few key features not available on the iPad.

Chief among them is the ability to transfer home movies, family vacation pictures or other content off of the tablet to your TV or PC through an HDMI port, microSD card, or USB port. Apple sells a digital audio/visual adapter that does the same thing for HDMI compatible displays, but it costs $39.

Another nice feature allows a user to create up to five different home screens with an assortment of icons and apps that you choose. Finally, the Iconia supports the Adobe Flash technology, the computer code that supports videos on many websites. It’s a capability notably excluded by Apple.

But the Iconia and its Android brethren prove again that when it comes to a tablet’s software—long an Achilles’ heel of the tablet market that kept it from fulfilling its promise—they are still playing catch-up to the Apple whizzes.

Honeycomb is a far more stable operating system than its previous version, Android 2.2—dubbed Froyo—which frequently crashed and was far from intuitive to use. Still, apps on the new, Honeycomb version crashed infrequently when used over a few days. And it still pales in comparison to Apple’s operating system, which is much easier to learn and use.

For example, while the iPad offers access on its home screen to basic apps such as a Web browser, still and video cameras, and email, the Iconia forces users to click on an “Apps” icon in the top, right-hand corner of the screen to find those apps.

Even at this point, you can’t just move the apps to your home screen. To do so requires a user to click on an even less obvious plus sign in the same top right corner, which then offers access to an “App shortcuts” screen. This allows a user to drag and drop icons to the home screen.

Another major downside of the Iconia and other Android tablets is that the operating system isn’t currently supported by several top Web video providers such as Netflix or Hulu.com. That underscores the No. 1 drawback of the Android tablets—a lack of third-party applications optimized for the tablet’s screen. While iPads can run just over 95,000 apps designed for a tablet, Android claims fewer than 100.

Google says many existing Android apps, though built for phones, will work nicely on tablets. That was true for Angry Birds, which worked great.

That monumental app gap will shrink, as it did on the smartphone, but until it does, the Iconia and other Android tablets will be challenged to compete with the iPad.

For now, the Iconia is the best choice for consumers looking for an alternative to the iPad, and for those willing to be patient as software designers get to work and roll out more goodies for Android tablets throughout the year.

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