Acer Iconia A1 £199.99
26th Nov 2013 | 16:56
Budget Android tablet looks solid but unexceptional
Weighing 410g (14.5oz), this 8-inch Android alternative is 25 per cent heavier than the original iPad mini, and somewhat thicker at 11.1mm (0.4 inches) slim, too.
The Acer Iconia A1 offers a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 at 1.2GHz, with 1GB RAM, which wasn't bad at launch - and still holds its own now, although it's been out-done by the quietly impressive Tesco Hudl.
In practice this tablet won't avoid comparison to the Nexus 7, but in use the Acer Iconia A1 feels much bigger. The screen's single inch advantage in the diagonal measurement hugely increases the overall screen real estate. Its 4:3 aspect ratio just looks and feels more productive than the smaller Nexus 7's 16:10 shape screen.
In technical terms it matches the iPad mini 2, though the chassis is plastic all over - white on the back and silver at the sides. The screen bezel measures 23mm above and below, and 12mm at the sides, so as such it resembles an iPad mini, if only relatively loosely.
Unlike Apple's mini (Wi-Fi only) effort, GPS features here, which could help put the Acer Iconia A1 in the driver's seat, while it's equipped with cameras back and front that manage five and 0.3 megapixels, respectively.
Our Acer Iconia A1-810 review sample had 16GB of storage built-in, though only around 12GB was usable. It also had Wi-Fi connectivity, although there's also a 3G option for £40 more.
Like the iPad mini, the Acer Iconia A1-810 has a 4:3 aspect ratio that appeals to us, especially for browsing, though it does mean black bars above and below widescreen movies. It's consequently got the same resolution as its rival, too, with 1024 x 768 pixels on its 8-inch LCD panel.
Physically the Acer has a few hidden gems, with GPS and its quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 1.2GHz processor leading the way.
Held in portrait orientation, the left side is completely barren of buttons and connections. On the top is a single standby button on the right, while the bottom hosts a 3.5mm headphones jack and a micro USB slot (for charging and file transfers), also on the right.
The right-hand side hosts the rest of the ins and outs - an HDMI output for routing to a TV and a volume rocker both flank the Acer Iconia A1's microSD card slot.
That's certainly something the iPad mini doesn't offer, and it does mean the Acer Iconia A1's native 16GB storage can be improved upon by as much as 32GB extra. Still, a USB slot, as found on the Acer Iconia Tab A210, would have been great - what a brilliant idea.
In the centre of the top of the tablet is a VGA camera for video calls and basic selfies, while the rear optic - housed in the right-hand corner as you look at the screen - manages five megapixel images and Full HD video at 30 frames per second.
There's a single speaker on the back of the Acer Iconia A1, so get your headphones at the ready.
Interface and performance
The Acer Iconia A1 runs the latest Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, but there's more than a few useful additions by Acer that create something genuinely more user-friendly. Sadly we've not heard word of an update to Android 4.4 KitKat (or even the newest version of Jelly Bean, for that matter).
Down the bottom of the screen are the usual virtual touch-buttons for back, home screen and current tasks, but above is a useful taskbar that contains some nicely sized app icons.
It's possible to customise this taskbar, adding or junking whatever you want, but by default ours had links to the apps for Google Play, Calendar, Google Maps, Gmail, Acer Life (more on that later) and the vanilla browser.
They're ranged either side of a six-dot grid of icons that leads to the standard Android layout of all other apps and widgets.
Google Now is fully integrated into Android 4.2.2 on the Acer Iconia A1, with an icon for this text or voice-activated search service permanently etched on to the top portion of the home screen.
The screen's right-hand corner shows the time and a visual indicator for battery power, but the latter is too small to read properly. Drag a finger downwards from this corner and a nine-way grid of handy utilities comes with it.
On here is a link to your Google account profile, alongside another battery indicator, this time complete with the percentage remaining, a link to Settings, and very handy on/off toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, Brightness, Timeout and Auto Rotate (toggle to lock orientation). It's hence possible to do all of your housekeeping, such as joining networks or making sure you're flight-safe, quickly and simply.
There's also a link to Acer's Touch WakeUp feature, which - if specifically set up - enables you to wake the Acer Iconia A1 up from sleep mode by either touching the screen with a 'five finger gesture' (four fingers and a thumb, surely?) or by grabbing the Acer Iconia A1 like a book and touching the sides of the screen with the pads of both thumbs.
The latter scenario, for reading, is an obvious reason for TouchWakeUp, though we fear it's actually aimed at addicts who reach for their tablet first thing in the morning before even kissing their wife/husband/cat.
In use, Touch WakeUp behaved rather oddly: two thumbs only worked in portrait mode, though as well as waking up the Acer Iconia A1 and bypassing the security, it insisted on always firing up the built-in camera. We would prefer a fully customisable choice of any app.
The five finger gesture worked fine, settling on the home screen, though the ten-point capacitive touchscreen did put up a fight at times - on one occasion we had to touch the screen three times before the Acer Iconia A1 registered what we'd done.
Like many a tablet, the Acer Iconia A1 is also in need of some rubber pads on the bottom to stop it sliding off clothes and sofas, though a matt chassis with some resistance would do the job.
There's the usual rather pointless choice between the vanilla browser and Chrome, though it's the former that is installed by default on the Acer Iconia A1's taskbar. When setting up the Acer Iconia A1 initially we logged in to Google services and launched Chrome, which imported all of our bookmarks in seconds.
Both browsers are a cinch to use, they're quick to navigate and present web pages concisely. Zooming in is no problem, while we managed to navigate to the BBC News website and almost instantly play videos and clips.
Visit the BBC iPlayer site via the vanilla browser and live channels aren't viewable, while playback requires installation of the BBC Media Player app.
The Acer Iconia A1 took us straight to the Play store, downloaded and installed the app within 15 seconds, and the video we wanted then played immediately and very stably. In the same experiment using Chrome, playback stalled badly and took at least 20 seconds to load and play.
The Acer Iconia A1's screen is a tad slow to reorientate, and there's no ambient light sensor, so you might have to make adjustments as you move into rooms with different light levels, but the browsing experience on the tablet is generally top notch.
Media, apps and battery
Movies, music and books
Though video playback is fast and smooth, it's here that we begun to notice the Acer Iconia A1's physical shortcomings. Yes, the resolution is a bit low, and if you're watching any HD files you won't exactly be blown away, but we're actually more worried about the screen's other drawbacks.
It's not very bright, even on its highest setting, and though that's more of a problem for browsing that watching movies or reading, it's indicative of a pretty uneventful display.
Colours don't exactly whizz from the screen, and we also noticed a slight bias towards yellow-green, while contrast is lacking and black areas of the image get a uniform dark grey look.
Viewing angles aren't the best, though they're enough for some accelerometer-fuelled smooth gameplay from CSR Racing, and a blast of HD video proved the Acer Iconia A1 was fit for purpose, if hardly awe-inspiring.
The Acer Iconia A1's screen does a reasonable job for reading, where brightness and colour accuracy aren't as relevant. In our test, text proved readable enough, though only after we'd toned down the panel. An auto brightness sensor really would be handy. That done, the pixel grid is pretty hard to miss at all times
Audio is a predictable letdown; just one speaker resides on the Acer Iconia A1's rear, and it spits out tinny, mono sound that's just about acceptable for short news videos.
In terms of navigation of entertainment, Acer's own Astro File manager is here to present pictures, music, video and documents stored in disparate places - everywhere from a microSD card to Dropbox and Facebook. It works really well, though there are some annoying, if tiny, adverts along the bottom.
Unfortunately, video codec support isn't great (there's no support for MKV, AVI or MOV files, just MPEG4 ones), while music playback is diverted to apps for either Google Play Music or 7digital.
Apps and games
In the widgets area we found a range of Acer's own apps. Acer Cloud storage is available, as are a range of apps under the Acer Life banner.
Life Image is on the Acer Iconia A1's taskbar by default, and is a live scrapbook that's clearly aimed at kids. You take pictures within the app - no need to fire up the separate camera app - and automatically edit, caption and resize them for the digital page.
It creates a chronological scrapbook that's completely GPS stamped, so you can touch the corner of each photo to have the Acer Iconia A1 launch Google Maps and locate the exact location that the photo was taken from.
Other Acer-made apps include Life Digital Clock and Life Weather, which are just what you'd imagine. Otherwise, there's access to the full suite of apps on Google Play.
The battery is one of the Acer Iconia A1's highlights. Acer promises a seven-hour stint between charges - a shade under the original iPad mini and about the same as the current generation - though in our real-life tests we consistently managed a little more.
It compares well to other eight-inch tablets, since the hour-long Nyan Cat test on full brightness set the Acer Iconia A1 back from fully charged to 86 per cent, while a Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 sunk to just 56 per cent - though the Samsung does have a much brighter, much better screen. Perhaps a better comparison is with the similarly priced and sized Archos 80 Titanium, which reduced to 64 per cent in the same test.
An Acer Iconia A1 left fully charged at 11.30pm, with Wi-Fi left on, was down to 98 per cent the next morning.
The universal Peacekeeper browser test earned the Acer Iconia A1's Chrome browser app a score of 541, which compares well to the Archos 80 Titanium (332), but not to the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (844).
In performance terms, there are no surprises on the Acer Iconia A1; it comes mid-way between the cheapest and most expensive eight-inch tablets around.
Despite Touch WakeUp automatically opening the camera app when the Acer Iconia A1's screen is thumbed, photography is not this camera's strong suit.
Nor should it be, perhaps, but it's best you know that the front-facing camera's whopping (joke) 0.3-megapixel skills are just about acceptable for some grainy, noisy video calls.
Ditto the flash-free, focus-free main camera on the back of the tablet, whose five megapixel images are ruined by dull colours, blur and blocky blacks that lack detail within. However, having dual cameras is relatively rare on tablets this size - and the panoramic feature is useful if you take things slowly.
Video is recorded in 720p resolution at 30fps, but the resulting files (which have a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels in the MP4 format) are soft, grainy and blurred on any kind of movement. It's HD in name only.
Photos can be inspected within the standard Gallery app, or through Acer's own Astro file manager. The latter gathers up photos from a variety of sources - cloud, network and inserted microSD card - as thumbnails, opening them with Astro Image Viewer.
It's more functional than Gallery, with better transitions during slideshows, though the carousel of thumbnails across the bottom does take a while to load.
Even a 5MP shot lacks detail, with visible blocking.
Using the Acer Iconia A1's digital zoom is a no-no.
Colour and contrast are good, but edge definition and detail are not.
Images from the Acer Iconia A1's camera can very easily be washed out.
Close-ups look blurry and colours aren't well saturated.
Panoramic shots must be performed very slowly. Rendering takes 20 seconds and flattens the image, but with some banding.
Hands on gallery
With the number of Android-based seven- or eight-inch tablets rising steadily, the Iconia A1 is starting to look a little lost in the tide, despite looking on paper to be a decent family tablet.
In that scenario, maybe its dual cameras and panoramic mode will help the Acer Iconia A1 appeal to anyone looking for an all-round good value tablet for kids.
Despite its drab design, the Acer Iconia A1 is a very solidly made tablet that we'd be happy to throw around a house for a few years at least. The Touch WakeUp app proves useful in removing a layer of often pointless security, while we love the microSD card slot and HDMI out ports - both of which being features that iPad mini 2 owners miss out on.
Few tablets of this price have dual cameras, while we're also fans of Acer's move towards using a micro USB connector to recharge the tablet, rather than using its own proprietary chargers. Mostly, however, we like the Acer Iconia A1's battery life, its speedy browsing and a touchscreen that's just good enough for the job - and all at a price of just £160.
With Apple improving the iPad mini display, as well as Google and Amazon also pushing hard in this area, the Acer simply can't keep up.
Looking to beat its rivals on price above all else, Acer hasn't allowed itself to get to carried away with hardware generally. The use of grey plastic around its rim isn't fooling us, though it's the white plastic reverse that compares especially badly to an iPad mini - it's more comparable to the cheaper Hudl.
An auto brightness sensor is needed, too. And though we liked Touch WakeUp, we do wish it was possible to customise which app is fired up from here - perhaps Gmail, books or a browser would be more useful to most people.
This isn't the ultimate tablet for any specific purpose, but for those after something highly portable, well made and with a long battery life, the Acer Iconia A1 could just be it.
The Acer Iconia A1's screen is fine for browsing and gaming. Its 4:3 aspect ratio makes it better for browsing and general productivity than, say, the smaller Google Nexus 7 or Tesco Hudl, though the quality of its screen can't rival the ones on either of those, or (especially not) on the far pricer Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0. It is, however, superior to the good value Archos 80 Titanium.
A few months ago this was an acceptable tablet, and it's still a good-quality alternative to the iPad mini 2 if you're wedded to the 4:3 screen ratio - but otherwise there are many better options for less money, and even more for only a few pounds more.