I started thinking about Android tablets the moment Apple introduced the iPad back in January 2010. After all, if Apple could find a way to make its wildly successful iPhone operating system work on a larger device, it seemed only logical that Google could as well.
Even before Google software engineers adapted Android to run on tablets, Samsung and some other manufacturers figured out ways to shoehorn the phone version of Android to work on larger devices. The results were mixed. But some products, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, did a pretty good job taking the Android phone experience to a larger platform.
Then in February, Google took the wraps off Honeycomb, a version of Android optimized for tablets.
Motorola was the first to employ Honeycomb with its Xoom tablet at a starting price of $800, which was $300 more than the least expensive iPad at the time. True, unlike the cheapest iPad, the $800 Xoom worked with 3G cellular service. But when Motorola started shipping its Wi-Fi only version, it priced it at $599 and, by that time, you could get a Wi-Fi only iPad for $399 or an iPad 2 for $499.
At those prices, Motorola didn't have a chance of competing with the iPad. Not only was the iPad a lot cheaper, it had already established itself as the runaway leader. For anyone to seriously challenge Apple, they have to figure out a way to make their product either cheaper or better.
Well, Acer definitely succeeded, at least on the price issue. The new Acer Iconia Tab A500 sells for $449, which is $50 less than the entry level iPad 2 (though you can now order a refurbished iPad for $349 from the online Apple store). The new Acer is Wi-Fi only, but if you have a smartphone capable of creating its own Wi-Fi hotspot, you can use that to provide Internet service to a Wi-Fi only tablet or laptop.
Whether Acer succeeded in making a tablet that's better than the iPad is a bit harder to judge. But if you prefer Android to Apple's iOS mobile operating system and want some options like a USB port, a MicroSD card slot and the ability to use Flash, you now have a viable and affordable choice. The Acer also has HDMI out to connect to a TV set.
While Apple pretty much cloned its iPhone user interface to the iPad, Google's Honeycomb is more of an adaptation. Android phone users will figure it out soon enough but there are significant changes, such as the lack of even a single dedicated button to navigate back to the home screen. Instead there are soft keys that show up at the bottom of the screen, regardless of how you are holding the screen. There is also a back key and one that shows you your more recently used applications. There is a physical on/off switch, volume control and lock to turn off automatic screen rotation between landscape and portrait mode.
Although it's optimized for a tablet and is not based on an existing PC operating system, Honeycomb strikes me as a bit more PC-centric than the iPad. For one thing, it supports a more robust form of multitasking, allowing you to see the programs you're running and quickly switch from one application to another.
And the hardware also gives you flexibility to add storage, thanks to the USB port and extra memory slots. For example, for $21 you can buy a MicroSD card that will double the device's storage to 32GB. I plugged in a 16GB external thumb drive full of music and was able to play the songs and see the cover art, though it took a few minutes before the tablet could access the files.
Beyond the interface, Acer did a nice job on the industrial design with a combination brushed aluminum and plastic case. Yes, it's heavier (1.7 pounds versus 1.33 pounds) and thicker (.5 inch versus .34 inch) than the iPad 2, but it also has a larger (10.1 inch versus 9.7 inch) display. Based on my very unscientific "how it feels in my hand" test, I'd say it's slightly better than the original iPad, but not as good as the iPad 2.
At the end of the day, the biggest difference between a Honeycomb tablet and the iPhone is the trade-off between flexibility and simplicity. Apple has designed a system that's very easy to use as long as you want to use it exactly the way Apple intended it to be used. Google offers power, flexibility and expandability.
Using Google's Honeycomb and the hardware that supports it is a little like being around a real Honeycomb. It's a bit complex and, if you're not careful, you can get stung. But once you know what you're doing, it's very sweet.
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News