We'll stop just short of quoting Top Gun here, but if it's speed you crave, these next thousands of words could have you emptying your wallet. How's that for an opening line? To be honest, it's been quite some time since any of us Engadget editors booted up a brand new device and immediately let loose a stream of expletives -- all expressing unbridled delight, of course. Such was the beginning of our meet-cute with Acer's Iconia Tab A510, the company's first Tegra 3 slate, and the second to ship with Ice Cream Sandwich.
Apart from that 1280 x 800 TFT LCD display, this 10-incher looks, feels and performs nothing like its predecessor, the A500. Turbocharged with that quad-core CPU and 1GB of RAM, this Android 4.0 tablet joins a crowded category with a generous 32GB in built-in storage and a reasonable $450 price tag to match. So, does that excellence lose its luster with more extensive use? Is your money better spent on any of the other umpteen tablets running ICS? Will the lack of a higher-quality display prove too much of a con for your exquisite tech tastes? Follow on as we probe the A510 for answers.
Tablet design is unoriginal -- a complaint we've issued before and one we'll steer clear of in this review. So, consider this: when a manufacturer excises any emphasis on how something looks, the only thing left to focus on is how it feels. Though the A510 is flush with silicon at 1.5 pounds (680 grams), we're inclined to forgive that extra heft, since we get some jaw-dropping runtime in return (spoiler alert!). Besides, overweight or no, it manages to feel reassuringly grippy in-hand, at 10.2 x 6.9 x 0.43 inches (260 x 175 x 10.95mm). Sure, if you hold it in landscape mode the sharp edges feel a wee bit too sharp, but even so, it feels rigid, formidable. Much like the A200 before it, the tab's smooth back is made of a soft, matte plastic and studded with bumpy dots that should eliminate any worries you might have about dropping it. Curiously, the company's also slapped the Olympic logo next to its own, smack dab in the center of the back cover, underneath which lies that hearty 9,800mAh battery. Clearly, it's a case of pimping out public awareness of its London 2012 partnership, but here it just seems awkward and unnecessary; a scarlet letter of sponsorship instantly dating this debut.
Above that collision of corporate branding is a 5-megapixel rear camera -- the same one used on the A500, only this time it's lacking an LED flash. On the opposite end there's a logo for the Dolby Digital Plus audio compression powering the dual speakers tucked into the tablet's bottom edge. Hardware keys and ports are sprinkled around the perimeter of the A510, leaving no side untouched. A micro-USB socket and recessed reset button take up residence on the lower edge, a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack lie on the left, a volume rocker and orientation lock up top and, finally, HDMI-out and a covered microSD slot sit on the right. Acer isn't throwing in any external storage to complement the tab's built-in 32GB, so if you plan on heavy media consumption you'll want to supply your own card.
The A510's front face is the usual mix of bezel, branding and camera, although in this instance Acer's downgraded that module from the 2 megapixels found on the A500 to a measly 1 megapixel. We don't have to spell out for you what that means in terms of imaging performance, so take care to check your disappointment before we continue on to the camera section below. Once you've powered on the device and completed the initial setup process, the A510's speed becomes readily apparent, as does the relative excellence of the screen. Yes, the 1280 x 800 TFT LCD display has remain unchanged in this hardware refresh, bringing with it fairly good viewing angles that are, more often than not, occluded by its propensity for incredible amounts of glare. Wake the tablet from a dead sleep and you'll see the cold boot time hovers in the 30-second range. Even a year ago we were seeing tablets that could best this, but otherwise, the rest of the user experience here is surprisingly nimble and fast-paced.
What more can be said about Ice Cream Sandwich at this point, especially when that Android UI's dressed up in Acer's familiar UX? Yes, the interface here has been altered to include the same uninstallable ring launcher we previously saw on the A200. Nothing has changed in the jump from that lower-end slate to this one: you can still pull up that circular shortcut menu from the bottom of the homescreen, as well as access the gallery, browser, settings, bookmarked tabs or snap screenshots. We did notice, however, that while performance is generally zippy, this one particular enhancement suffers from uneven performance, waffling between an immediate and somewhat delayed response time. The lockscreen also features the company's subtle modifications, adding the ability to set shortcuts for specific apps.
As you might've come to expect, navigation throughout the five homescreens is carried out with a refreshing briskness that blessedly spills over into the app drawer, as well as the various menus peppered throughout Android 4.0. Browsing takes on the same rapid pace, with page load times ranging between 15 and 30 seconds for full desktop sites. Pinch to zoom also feels amazingly responsive, though we did notice some tiling and blank gray spaces as we waited for pages to scale.
You want an Android slate, you get some bloat. So, when you boot up the A510 and are greeted by a dozen-plus apps filling up its drawer, try to feign surprise and righteous indignation. It's all rather rote at this point. Acer's shoveled only a couple of its own applications onto the internal storage, along with various third-party offerings like Amazon's Kindle, MP3 and Appstore trio; Netflix; Polaris Office; Evernote; SoundHound; HW Solitaire; and TegraZone. Thankfully, at least, purists can easily uninstall all of these in the settings menu.
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 ($379)Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($250)Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS)SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better)
Benchmarks are hardly the be-all and end-all in predicting a device's performance: their quantifiable results don't necessarily reflect a product's real-world experience. With the Iconia Tab A510, though, you can sweep away all of that uncertainty. Pitted against the Transformer Pad TF300, another recently released Tegra 3 slate, as well as dual-core contenders like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 and the lower-end A200, this girthy tablet absolutely dominates. There's no doubt about the massive processing power of its 1.3GHz SoC and 1GB of RAM. In nearly every category, the A510 leapt ahead with decisive, crushing victories -- a string of wins that repeated themselves over and over in everyday use.
Its dominance may be unchallenged, but don't confuse the A510's top-dog ranking with consistently fluid performance. A quad-core CPU is not some magic wand an OEM gets to wave over its offspring to eradicate performance hiccups. As we saw with Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1) at MWC and the ASUS Transformer Pad we've just finished reviewing, there will be moments, fleeting though they may be, when the OS hesitates to execute an action. It's ever-so slight, but you will notice and wonder why, with all that horsepower under the hood, this forward-facing combination of Tegra 3 and ICS should stumble at all.ASUS Eee Pad Transformer PrimeT-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad)
By no means will you be disappointed with the juicepack Acer's included in the Iconia Tab A510. Rated for 12 hours of video playback, the 9,800mAh battery should get you through bouts of heavy use with a charge to spare and then some. The lightest of users will probably wonder when they ever actually have to plug the tablet back in, given that it only fell to half capacity after three days of infrequent browsing. Put through the paces of our formal rundown tst, the A510 fell a couple of hours short of the company's claim, but still kept a smile firmly planted on our faces as it racked up an impressive total of 10 hours and 23 minutes, putting it on par with Apple's iPad 2 and the Transformer Prime. Mind you, that's with brightness set to medium, Twitter syncing at 15 minute intervals, one push email account activated and WiFi enabled.
Taking photos with tablets not only looks silly, but it feels ridiculous. We throw that caveat out there because camera quality on Android slates is one of those areas best met by lowered expectations. To say the module on the Iconia Tab A510 is serviceable would be far too generous. Its 5-megapixel shooter takes decent shots with an acceptable level of detail that diminishes as soon as you start to zoom in. Colors -- reds in particular -- are rendered in an oversaturated, unnatural way, while other parts of the image appear dull in comparison. As for Acer's custom camera app, it delivers an uneven experience that demands a fair amount of juggling while you attempt to access the various options scattered about the screen. And you can forget the robust array of scene modes offered in other slates: the feature set here is plain and straightforward, almost as if it's acknowledging how useless it really is.
The A510 is also capable of 1080p video, but the finished product doesn't necessarily translate into the full HD experience you'd expect. Given the camera's lack of image stabilization, the shaky quality makes the video almost unwatchable, with the occasional crisp frame when the slate was being held still. What did blow away our expectations was the phenomenal power of its Dolby Digital Plus compression technology. As you'll hear in the sample video, the sounds of a far-off saxophone make a distinct cameo, as do pieces of various off-camera conversations. The downside to this stellar feature is the inconsistency with which it renders your intended audio -- namely, your own voice. We shot several sample videos and noted occasional elements of distortion as the tablet attempted to parse all that background noise.
So you're ready to take the plunge into the wild world of tablets, but where to start? No doubt, lots of first-timers are going to end up taking their credit cards and flinging them in Apple's direction. $500 for a 16GB iPad may be a steep price tag to swallow for some, but the simplicity of iOS make for a wise new purchase. You could also buck any pressure to have the next best thing and fork over four Benjamins for a 16GB iPad 2, though we've gone on record saying newcomers are better off splurging on that high-res Retina display.
But maybe you're not exactly a post-PC virgin, or you simply prefer Android to iOS. Luckily for you, you've got a plethora of options to choose from. For the sake of helping all the overwhelmed shoppers out there trying to make sense of the market, we'll narrow the field down to similarly priced 10-inch tablets running Android 4.0. For $400, the Transformer Pad TF300 is, in many ways, the A510's direct competition, loaded up with unskinned ICS, a Tegra 3 SoC and 32GB, though this, of course, is offered with an optional keyboard dock. The only downside preventing us from steering you directly to the Transformer is battery life. Though it managed eight-plus hours on a charge (12, if you count the $150 docking station), it's no match for the A510's ten-plus hours of runtime.
Meanwhile, if you cut the built-in storage to 16GB, lower the number of cores from four to two and keep the Android 4.0 software there's Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1). It costs $400, the same as the 32GB Transformer Pad TF300, and twenty dollars more than the Transformer with 16GB of storage. Cast in that light, it's not quite as compelling a purchase, is it?
Spec for spec, you're really left with only two contenders: the A510, which costs $50 more, or Transformer Pad TF300. Shoppers hell-bent on heavy multimedia consumption should probably stick with what Acer's selling, if only for the phenomenal performance of that 9,800mAh battery. Android purists and folks intrigued by the idea of a laptop replacement, on the other hand, might want to jump on ASUS' bandwagon.
We can still hear the echoes of NVIDIA's CEO teasing the prospect of $300 Tegra 3 tablets, but while the promise of that affordable future isn't quite a reality yet, impatient consumers eyeing quad-core performance have a readily available option: the Iconia Tab A510. Acer's succeeded in building a superb Android 4.0 tablet, and it's one consumers with a penchant for media consumption might want to consider. Alright, so it isn't the immaculate Tegra 3 conception Acer (or NVIDIA) might've wanted it to be, prone as it is to brief software fits, though we'll confess we've noticed similar bumps on the similarly priced ASUS Transformer Pad TF300, as well as the dual-core Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. So should those stifled hiccups enough to put you off the A510's Olympic-branded trail? They shouldn't. With its bleeding-edge quad-core performance, exceptional battery life and all the benefits of Ice Cream Sandwich, this is a 10-incher worth its slightly heavier weight. For those of you intrigued by the idea of a tablet that can also double as a netbook replacement, we still heartily recommend the well-performing, reasonably priced Transformer TF300. But if you're willing to invest in a dependable tablet and it's exceptional battery life that you're after, those $450 bucks stop here.