We waited nearly the entire summer for the Acer Iconia Tab A501 to break daylight. Now that it's finally shone its uber-glossy face, we were anxious to see if the "4G" HSPA+ model is worth the extra coin (or two year ball-and-chain, should you go that route) over the standard A500. If you have little fear of commitment, signing the dotted line will get you one 16GB slate for $330 -- plus the added cost of a capped data allowance or a pay-as-you go plan. Not down to hitch up to the contract wagon? Cool with us... but you'll pay $150 more to get your hands on one of these. So is settling down for two of the Earth's rotations with the same tablet a wise move? Are you better off sticking with the WiFi-only model? Read on to see what we discovered when we took the A501 for a spin.
Gallery | 27 Photos

Acer Iconia Tab A501 for AT&T review



Hardware
You'll hear us say this a lot during the course of this review, but the A501 houses predominantly the same features as the A500 -- with the exception of a WWAN radio, of course. So much so that placing them side by side would make them appear identical. That said, we're still big on the aluminum enclosure that sets this tab apart from many of its plastic-backed brethren. We also still dig the volume rocker up top with its orientation locking sidekick, as well as the extra effort in the sound department shown by the Dolby Mobile technology. Just as we surmised when scoping out the A500, that empty slot beside the microSD receptacle is indeed where the AT&T SIM resides. Like many similar devices, the cover for the duo is super flimsy and could very well be the first thing on this tablet to bite the dust. We're also still digging the full-size USB port... you know, in the event we want to hard wire in to a keyboard or connect to an external storage device.

Display


Even with the onslaught of Android tablets we've seen in the past few months, the display on the A501 remains near the top of the class. Its 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 TFT LCD is still in the glare-reflecting and fingerprint-collecting businesses, but the excellent viewing angles help make peeping the latest Dark Knight flick pretty enjoyable. At times, individual pixels can be seen with the naked eye -- which is less than ideal -- but for the most part, our complaints here are minimal. As to be expected, the super high-gloss screen makes outdoor use almost impossible, so don't count on getting much work done at the beach. Sure, there are some flaws, but for a slate, the scenery here is stellar.

Camera


Don't get your hopes up for a camera upgrade though, as the same mediocre five megapixel offering from the WiFi-only A500 rears its ugly head again. The images from this camera look pretty bad once you get them off of the device and on to a larger screen -- which makes using them for anything other than a quick reference a pretty frustrating endeavor. Video and video chatting also showcase poor quality in the front-facing cam, so trying to Skype your sweetheart becomes a less than enjoyable task. Sure, we're used to subpar performance out of tablet cameras, but we can still hope, right?
Gallery | 9 Photos

Acer Iconia Tab A501 sample shots




Performance and battery life


Like its elder statesman, the A501 is quicker than the Xoom and G-Slate in Quadrant. The slate averaged out at 2,172 and broke 2,300 on multiple occasions, keeping it comfortably out in front of the above mentioned tablets. It notched above the A500's SunSpider Javascript benchmark, completing the test in 2,015ms -- which keeps it a smidge under the Xoom's time of 2,042ms. Not a huge difference there, and you probably won't be able to catch the disparity in working scenarios, but numbers are numbers nonetheless. Playing 720p (H.264) clips still goes off without a hitch, but from time to time, a bit of pixel corruption creeps up in certain videos or graphics-heavy games -- much like what we saw out of the A500.

The first time around, our biggest disappointment with the Acer Iconia Tab A500 was its battery life. Well, the HSPA+ model was no exception and actually fared worse that its WiFi-only mate.


Battery Life
Acer Iconia Tab A501 6:26
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Apple iPad 9:33
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Archos 101 7:20
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01


During a span of moderate email use, surfing the web and hourly tweeting -- using only the data signal -- the battery read 68 percent after 3 hours. We left it idle for 18 hours -- until the next morning -- still with only the HSPA+ active, and when we awoke the battery was at 53 percent. The real bummer came when we performed our battery drain test (video looping, brightness fixed at 50 percent with one push e-mail account active and Twitter updating every 15 minutes) on both WiFi and HSPA+ connections. While it managed to last six hours and 26 minutes on WiFi, it dropped to five hours and 25 minutes when we used the HSPA+ connection. This puts the WiFi runtime at about a half hour less than the A500. Sure, that'll probably get you through a normal workday, but for that DC to Boston road trip, you better remember to pack a charger. And when you consider the performance of other Honeycomb-equipped tablets in regards to battery life, the A501 puts up a fairly lackluster effort.

Software


We've discussed Android 3.0 at length since its release, but for the sake of A501, we'll give you a little refresher. Honeycomb is a quite beautiful OS that works nicely in regards to this particular slate. Gestures feel smooth and, with carefully designed hardware like we see here, perform almost flawlessly. As far as bloatware goes, AT&T slapped its WiFi app on the slate, which we never even used except to see what it was -- since connecting to a network through the OS itself is a breeze. However, Acer did take the same liberties as it did with the A500, so your tablet will come primed with several duplicate apps where Google's own version is in close proximity. The two exceptions still being Media Server and Photo Browser 3D, both of which could come in handy from time to time.

Wrap-up


If you loved the Acer Iconia A500, and you need the added connectivity of a data plan from Ma Bell, you'd be better off opting for a tethering plan with a device you're already toting around. AT&T makes the addition quite easy for your smartphone or mobile broadband device, and you'll be able to share the connection with your other tech and not just the tablet. Going this route also lends itself to any number of alternatives in the Android realm that could end up being a much better deal, including the more expensive Galaxy 10.1. You'll have to forgo the USB port and microSD slot should you settle on Samsung's offering, though. The Eee Pad Transformer 16GB WiFi model is another solid option and can be picked up for a cool $399. Not only is the price comparable to the Acer Tab, but for another $150 you can grab a keyboard dock that adds two USB 2.0 ports, an SD slot and hours of extra battery life. At $330 with a contract, the inclusion of a WWAN radio on the A501 simply becomes more of a financial burden and not much else. But, if you've got some coin to spare and you don't mind paying for a data connection for only one device, you could certainly do much worse.
Acer

Iconia Tab A501

Pros

  • High-quality display
  • Full-size USB port
  • Stellar performance

Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • Sub-par cameras
  • Too many Acer-branded apps
Summary

All the things we liked about the A500 still keep our attention with the A501. However, signing a contract for a data plan you can only use on one device doesn't get us too excited.