When it was release last year, the Acer Iconia B1 was the first tablet from a major brand to hit below the £100 mark – a sector only previously explored by smaller brands such as Yarvik, SumVision or Scroll. The problem was that the Iconia B1 wasn’t a particularly good low-budget tablet. It had an interesting blue/black design with a special corner grip at the bottom of the left-hand side, but it was saddled with a low quality 1024 x 600 TN panel screen, a shortage of RAM and a slow dual-core processor. Even in the days when sub-£150 tablets were a rarity, it was hard to recommend.
Now, however, Acer has revamped the B1 with the B1-720, making a few key changes to the physical design and spec. It’s certainly an improvement on the old B1, but in the last six months the market has changed quite dramatically, with high quality tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Asus MeMO Pad HD7 turning up at £100 to £135, and even stronger competition if you can find just a little more cash. Is there still room for the Iconia B1-710, or has Acer’s big low-budget chance passed it by?
After the original Iconia B1, the B1-720 looks and feels oddly conservative. With a two-tone grey and black finish our test sample is very much in the mould of the original Google Nexus 7, with a slimmer frame around the screen, a speaker grille at the bottom and the Acer logo discretely inlaid at the top. The rear shell is formed of curved and dimpled plastic, and there’s not really an awful lot more to say.
At 315 grams it’s a fair bit heavier than the new Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, though not to the extent that it will bother you when you hold it in one hand, whether that’s in portrait or in landscape mode. Overall it’s quite a solid bit of engineering, but let down slightly by the plastic shell. The material itself feels thin and cheap, and you don’t have to push or pull too hard to make it flex and creak.
Connectivity is absolutely bog-standard, with a microUSB port for hooking up to a PC or charging, a headphone socket and a microSD memory card slot. You’ll have this filled pretty quickly once the 8GB or 16GB of internal storage runs dry, but the slot is oddly exposed at the rear of the case towards the left-hand side. We’re also not too sure about the physical controls. It’s not hard to find the power button on the top, but it might take you a while before you can find the miniscule volume rocker on the right-hand side.
Screen and sound
Sadly, the screen hasn’t improved that much since last year’s effort. It’s reasonably bright, but suffers from the same dated 1024 x 600 resolution, and there’s nothing crisp about the image, strong about the contrast levels, or vibrant about the colours. Browse the web and you’ll find pages hard to read until you zoom further in. eBooks aren’t bad, though the text doesn’t look very clean, but digital magazines are near-impossible to read.
HD video is watchable enough, but with the MemoPad HD7 and Kindle Fire HD rocking 7in IPS screens with 1280 x 800 resolutions, you don’t have to pay an awful lot more to get a much better picture. Viewing angles are terrible, particularly in portrait mode if you’re looking slightly from the right. You hardly have to move before the picture either loses contrast or goes unusably dark.
And the sound? Well, the words tinny and congested spring instantly to mind. Again, the competition, particularly from Amazon, is much, much better. If you do buy a B1-720, keep your headphones handy.
Software and usability
Acer hasn’t gone in for any Samsung-esque re-skinning, and Android 4.2.2 is mostly left to do its thing. There is a fair bit of pre-installed software – or bloatware depending on your point of view – with several games hubs, a translate app, Acer music and video players, several unnecessary translation, weather and travel apps, and Acer’s various AcerCloud services all clogging up the tablet or adding duplicate functionality, Still, if you don’t like such things you don’t have to use them. In fact you’re free to delete them.
The biggest issue with usability is touchscreen response. The B1-720 isn’t a disaster here, but all too often I found myself hitting characters on the stock Android keyboard or trying to tap a link on a website and getting no result. At other times, I hit one virtual key and found I’d hit the neighbouring one instead. Such things happen a bit on all touchscreens, but they seem to happen more on the B1-710 than on nearly any other tablet I’ve used in the last year.
Specifications and performance
The old Iconia B1 ran on a 1.2.GHz dual-core A9 chip. The new one has a MediaTek MT8111 based on two ARM A7 cores, albeit one with the speed upped to 1.3GHz. That’s not exactly a vast improvement, but at least this year’s model takes the RAM up to 1GB, and adds a choice of 8GB or 16GB of storage (the latter model is a tenner more at £109), so on balance the specification has just about improved. Does this mean the B1-720 feels nippy and smooth? Not really.
In general use it’s fine, moving between apps pretty quickly and scrolling complex web pages with just the odd pause, but it still starts to drag if you open several apps and don’t get around to killing them. It’s certainly not equipped for more demanding apps or games. The low resolution screen helps the GFX Bench T-Rex onscreen test run at around 6 fps, but it stops and starts rather than runs smoothly, and the Geekbench 3 score of 334 single-threaded – 625 multi-threaded – is woeful. If you only want a tablet for basic browsing and email duties this will do the job, but wouldn’t you like to have the potential to do more?
Acer hasn’t stumped up for a rear-facing camera – a wise decision – but has crammed in a VGA front-facing webcam. It’s bad in good light and shockingly awful in poor light. Don’t use it indoors unless you have very bright artificial lighting (unless you want to see coloured dots crawling all over your face).
You can look on battery life as the final nail in the coffin. The Acer will last a couple of days on a single charge if you do very little with it, but work it hard at all and the battery will go down in record time. You’ll struggle to make it through four and a half hours of HD video streaming, and you won’t get a whole lot more out of it if you keep coming back to check your email and browse the web. That’s poor even by the standards of other cheapie tablets.
There’s definitely space in the market for low-budget tablets; they’re ideal as a secondary device, or as a tablet to keep the kids busy with educational apps, media and games while you reserve something decent for yourself. Unfortunately, the B1-720 still doesn’t make the grade. It’s too slow, its battery life is a problem and the screen simply isn’t good enough. When you can buy tablets as good as the Kindle Fire HD or the Asus MeMO Pad HD7 for £120 to £135, this one has false economy written all over it.
Manufacturer and Model
Acer Iconia B1-720
1.3GHz MediaTek MT8111
MicroSD memory card
7in, 1024 x 600
802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
18.6/HR Lithium Ion
Size and weight
214 x 134 x 10.2mm, 315g