Tablet face-off: budget models from Acer and Asus vs. Apple’s iPad 2

The Apple iPad 2 and the Asus Transformer Pad 300 are highly competitive, but the Acer Iconia Tab A200 falls behind.

It appears that $400 or less marks the new sweet spot for 10-inch class tablets. First Apple reduced its iPad 2 to that price, and now we have a pair of Android tablets, the Acer Iconia Tab A200 and the Asus Transformer Pad 300, coming in at $350 and $380, respectively. If you have four bills and want a 10-inch tablet, which of these represents the better deal? The answer may surprise you.

Or maybe not. We’ve already established that, for some, an Apple iPad 2 may be enough tablet and represent the better buy over the newer third-generation iPad. But now we have two new Android models, each from large PC manufacturers, and each competing for the same market Apple’s targeting with its iPad 2.

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Of the three, the Asus Transformer Pad excels in some of the PCWorld Labs’ tests, and stumbles slightly in others. Even so, its overall performance score puts it just a few points behind the iPad 2. Acer’s Iconia Tab A200, clearly the more valued-priced model of the three, makes some sacrifices that aren’t worth what you save.

Three Tablets: The Basics

The Acer and Asus tablets each have a 10.1-inch, 1280 by 800 pixel resolution display; the Apple iPad 2 has 9.7-inch 1024 by 768 display. At their base price, all three offer 16GB of storage and 1GB of memory. Both the Acer and Asus have microSD card slots for supporting up to 32GB microSDHC cards, and the Acer even has a full-size USB port, so you can jack in USB flash drive, too. Digital packrats will love that Asus’s Transformer Pad, for just $20 more than the base price, doubles the on-board memory to 32GB—at the same price as Apple’s iPad 2 with 16GB.

Of the three, the Acer is the heaviest, at a hefty 1.58 pounds. The Asus weighs in at 1.4 pounds, while the iPad 2 weighs 1.33 pounds.

Both the Acer and Asus models run Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich, the most current version of Google’s Android operating system that’s available on tablets. Apple’s iPad 2 ships with iOS 5.x.

Transformer Pad: A Value-Priced Contender

In our tests, the Asus Transformer Pad comes surprisingly close to beating out iPad 2. The two tablets showed some competitive give and take in our results, with the Transformer Pad edging iPad 2 in a few tests, lagging in a few others, and doing better than iPad 2 on our still and video image tests.

The surprising thing here is that the Transformer Pad has Nvidia’s latest Tegra 3 processor inside. But like the Asus Transformer Prime, which also uses the Tegra 3 system-on-chip platform, the Transformer Pad’s performance was actually quite close to what the Apple iPad 2--which uses Apple’s A5 processor circa early 2011--logged on many of our system performance tests.

The Transformer Pad was a bit faster than the iPad 2 on one of our Web page load times; but the iPad 2 beat it on GLBenchmark’s average frames per second on Egypt Standard, with anti-aliasing off (55 fps for Transformer Pad to iPad 2’s 59). Transformer Pad nearly matched the iPad 2 on battery life, logging 7 hours 30 minutes to iPad 2’s 7 hours, 37 minutes. It was speedy at recharging, too, requiring half the time to recharge as iPad 2 (1 hour 55 minutes to iPad’s 4 hours, 10 minutes).

The Transformer Pad gained ground on the iPad 2 thanks to its 8-megapixel camera, which captured better images on all of our metrics than iPad 2 could muster; and it captured impressive high-definition 1080p videos, too. However, Transformer Pad lost ground on our display tests, where our judges deemed its still image presentation to be very good, albeit not as good as iPad 2’s, and its video quality to be subpar compared with the iPad 2.

By comparison, Acer’s Iconia Tab A200 falls behind both of these with its Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. Last year’s CPU means that this model stumbled hard on some of our performance tests, particularly the GL Benchmark test; although, the A200’s posted results were (mostly) in line with other Tegra 2-based tablets. The A200, inexplicably, lagged dramatically on our custom Web page load test, taking more than a minute to load what took iPad 2 10 seconds to complete, and the Asus 12 seconds. Its battery life was an hour shorter than the others, lasting 6 hours, 31 minutes.

The Iconia Tab A200 was also hampered by its display, which could only manage a score of Fair in our comparative display tests. Factor in the A200’s lack of a rear-facing camera, and it becomes clear that you’re making a lot of performance trade-offs for Acer’s entry-level 10.1-inch tablet. Perhaps if this model was priced at $300 or even $275, those trade-offs would be worth the lower price-of-entry, but as it stands, you can do better for not much more.

All About Apps

Which brings us back to iPad 2 vs. Transformer Pad 300: Which is best? Well, the answer there, as with any tablet purchase today, depends largely upon how you plan to use your tablet.

The toughest sell around Android tablets today remains the rough state of Android tablet apps. There are a handful of apps that impress, and the rest, well, don’t. And finding apps truly optimized for 10-inch class tablet remains a challenge, more than a year on from the introduction of the first Android tablet operating system. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has not been the great savior for tablet apps as was once hoped; too many apps continue to look like blown-up smartphone apps, instead of apps that truly take advantage of a tablet’s extra screen real estate.

By contrast, Apple continues to have the more mature app ecosystem, even if your capabilities are sometimes limited by Apple’s walled-garden heavy-handedness. The lack of file-level control and direct file transfers (only syncing and file transfer via iTunes or the cloud) remain unfortunate constraints on Apple’s otherwise appealing tablet.

If you’re buying into a tablet because you’re looking for nifty software, and want to keep your costs down, you’re still better off with iPad 2. But the Android platform has its advantages, too, and the Transformer Pad 300 remains the best value choice today—especially if you opt for the 32GB version at $400. Not only will you get a lot of bang for your buck at that price, but the Transformer Pad’s Tegra 3-optimized graphics are capable of some impressive tricks over the iPad 2, if the handful of games optimized for the platform appeal to you.

This story, "Tablet face-off: budget models from Acer and Asus vs. Apple’s iPad 2" was originally published by PCWorld.

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