Apple's rivals are packing an extra inch to go head-to-head with the iPad mini, but Acer's 7.9-inch Iconia A1-810 asks you to sacrifice a lot in return for the extra screen real estate.
When you pick up the $249 Iconia A1 it doesn't make a great first impression. You're immediately struck by its bulk, making it feel like a throwback to the old days of chunky Android tablets. The A1 weighs in at 410 grams and is 11.1 millimetres thick, which feels quite cumbersome compared to something like a 7-inch Nexus 7. The new Nexus 7, which sells for $US229 and should be in Australia soon, tips the scales at 290 grams and is a slender 8.65 millimetres thick. The extra width and bulk of the A1 makes it less comfortable to hold in one hand for extended periods.
The key difference is that the A1 sports a 7.9-inch, 4:3 screen -- a size which is becoming more common with Android and Windows tablets. This makes one of the A1's other key rivals the 8-inch, 16:10 Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 which will set you back $549. That one extra inch offered by these tablets doesn't sound like much to brag about, but it's actually more significant than you'd think. Jumping from 7 to 8 inches offers around 30 per cent more screen area.
The larger screen naturally comes at a cost. The A1 is 40 per cent heavier than the Nexus 7, which might seem too high a price to pay if you've become accustomed to sleek and slender tablets. If you're really concerned about the screen size to weight ratio then perhaps look to Apple's $369 iPad mini. The iPad mini's screen size is the same size as the A1, and the same 4:3 aspect ratio, but Apple's offering is significantly thinner and lighter while presenting a smaller footprint thanks to its narrower bezel.
Most Android tablets feature a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio. This makes for tall, skinny devices which seem a little narrow for reading in portrait mode but when you turn them on their side to landscape mode you find they're roughly the same shape as a movie. When you turn a 4:3 tablet like the A1 on its side you're stuck with much larger black bars at the top and bottom of the picture. If you're more interested in reading content then watching it you may find you prefer a 4:3 display.
Acer's A1 offers more screen inches per dollar than its rivals, but choosing a good tablet is more than a numbers game. Shop on quantity rather than quality and you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The A1 is a good example of this, as in many ways it feels like it's a generation or two behind other Android tablets.
The 1024x768 screen is the first major disappointment, as it certainly isn't the sharpest or brightest display on the market. The screen on the new Nexus 7 offers double the pixel density. Even the first-generation Nexus 7 is sharper than this Acer offering. The A1's pixel density is on par with the iPad mini, at least until we see a Retina model, but Apple's offering still looks crisper and brighter with wider viewing angles. The A1's whites and colours look somewhat dull, rather disappointing considering it's an IPS-LED display. It's a similar story with the hollow and tinny built-in speaker.
Acer has included a 1.2GHz MediaTek quad-core power plant with 1GB of RAM, which should be enough to satisfy your average user but can feel a little sluggish at times. Apps take that extra moment to launch and web pages can be slow to load. Not painfully slow, but still noticeable if you're paying attention. Meanwhile the Nexus 7 has raised the bar with a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon chip and 2GB of RAM
Under Quadrant benchmarks the A1 scores better than the old Nexus 7 but falls short of the new one. If you're after the cutting edge it's worth noting that A1 only comes with Android 4.2.2 rather than the new Android 4.3. It ships with pretty much a stock-standard version of Android, with the few pre-installed apps but far short of the extra content services you'll get from a rival like Samsung.
Unfortunately there are no 3G/4G capable models, only the lone A1-810 wi-fi-only model with 16GB of storage. If you want mobile broadband or more onboard storage you'll need to look elsewhere (such as in the US where Acer offers a 3G-enabled A1). There is support for micro-USB, microSD and micro-HDMI – the last two about the only features which help the A1-810 stand out from its competitors. The micro-HDMI output is rare on a small Android tablet.
So what's the verdict? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you can't avoid the fact that Acer's Iconia A1 simply isn't as good as the Nexus 7 or more expensive Galaxy Note 8.0. It's not that the A1 is terrible, but it's hard to even view it as a decent budget tablet when for the same money you can do so much better if you're prepared to sacrifice that one extra inch of screen real estate and the micro-HDMI port.
If you absolutely have your heart set on an 7.9-inch, 4:3 Android tablet and your budget is tight then you might consider the A1-810, but apart from the screen size it simply doesn't measure up against the competition.