If you are in the market for a new Android smartphone, here are a selection that offer a level of power and performance that would give the iPhone a run for its money. ...
Acer Liquid Metal
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Acer launched a number of smartphones in 2010, including Windows Mobile 6 and Android devices (no Windows Phone 7 handset yet, though). The Liquid Metal, released towards the end of last year, is an upper mid-range Android device with some top-end features. It retains Acer's somewhat quirky Android skin and adds shake control functionality.
Acer isn't known for great smartphone design, but the Liquid Metal is one of the company's better efforts. The black front and chrome edges are standard enough, but the design is lifted by a brown stainless steel back comprising a striped, textured middle section topped and tailed by solid strips. We wish Acer had been brave enough to carry the brown over to the front. A silver model will also be available.
Acer's stylish 3.6in. Liquid Metal runs Android 2.2
The Liquid Metal is clearly designed to appeal to consumers, but it's not in any way tacky and shouldn't put business users off. The shiny front does attract fingerprints though. Beneath the screen are four touch-sensitive buttons with Android's usual Home, Search, Back and Menu functions.
The sides offer a standard array of buttons and connectors. The top carries the power switch and a 3.5mm headset jack. The right edge has the volume rocker and a camera button, while the left edge is clear. On the bottom edge is the microUSB connector for PC connection and recharging.
The top edge also houses a trio of status LEDs that glow through the silver of the top edge. A battery status light flashes when the battery is charging and glows white when it's full; an envelope icon pulses to indicate unread messages; and a white arrow symbol flashes to indicate an incoming call or missed call.
Status LEDs on top of the Liquid Metal
The Liquid Metal's shape is noteworthy: the back of the chassis is curved with the left and right long edges tapering to a thinner profile than the middle, which means the device doesn't sit flat on the desk and prodding at the screen causes it to tilt left and right. This problem isn't as pronounced as on the Palm Pre 2, though.
The Liquid Metal measures 63mm wide by 115mm tall by 13.5mm deep at its thickest and weighs 135g. We found it tricky to reach right across the 3.6in. screen for one-handed use with our relatively small hands.
The upper and lower framing for the capacitive screen occupies more space than we'd like. Still, it has a resolution of 480 by 800 pixels and is very sharp and bright. The front of the chassis is very slightly curved: this curvature is barely noticeable, but it helps to make the screen appear really vibrant.
Acer's Liquid Metal ships with an AC adapter, a micro-USB cable, a stereo headset with flat in-ear buds, a 2GB microSD card, a screen protector, a slipcase and printed quick-start guide.
The Acer Liquid Metal has an 800MHz Qualcomm MSM 7230 processor at its heart. This puts it just behind the 1GHz leading edge — but then, the price is lower than that of top-end Android smartphones and the remaining specifications make no compromises.
HSPA connectivity supports downloads up to 14.4Mbps and uploads to 2.0Mbps. There's Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) and GPS. The Liquid Metal runs Android 2.2 and so can act as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing other devices to use its internet connection.
Internal memory is limited to 512MB of RAM and ROM, augmented by a 2GB microSD card. The card slot is not under the battery, but you do need to remove the battery to access it, so you can't hot-swap memory cards.
There is a 5-megapixel camera that shoots 720p video with a range of effects, including face and smile detection.
Acer has worked hard to give the Liquid Metal a unique feel, and there are three key elements to this: the Android skin; the use of shake control; and the addition of extra applications.
There are two shake controls: you can shake the Acer Liquid Metal from side to side to mute an alarm; and when playing music, shaking to the left takes you to the next track, while shaking to the right takes you to the previous one. The alarm control was fine and required little effort, but the music controls required more vigorous shaking.
Acer's Android skin, Breeze, provides five home screens that can be populated with widgets in standard Android style, although you can't put application shortcuts here. These five screens sit on top of the main applications screen, which you access by sweeping what looks like a turned up corner in the bottom left of the opening screen.
The main screen is itself divided into three sections. The largest occupies the top two-thirds of the screen and shows the date and time. Sweep left and you can see your usage history, presented as a carousel of thumbnails. You can scroll through these to get to a recently used app or service. Sweep right and you're offered shortcuts to media — images, music and videos — again as carousels. You can't edit these shortcut areas to show other kinds of data.
Beneath this section is the narrow strip of the Android status bar. Tap it and a series of sub-screens pop up, through which you can sweep. These show you messaging alerts, notifications, battery level plus clock and alarm settings, and let you see and change comms settings such as GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and portable hotspot. When music is playing you can also access a quick control panel from this bar.
Beneath this again are two rows of four application shortcuts. Sweep upwards on this and it expands to offer a full screen of application shortcuts. The two rows move to the top of the screen and are fixed, while the remaining shortcuts sit on horizontally scrollable screens. There are three screens by default, and more are added as you install further applications. You can drag-and-drop any apps onto the two rows of four to make them quickly accessible.
Although this system gives you access to a fair amount of data reasonably quickly, you can only add widgets by holding down the home button to get to customisable versions of the five home screens. It's all rather more convoluted than HTC's Sense skin — or indeed, vanilla Android. If you really dislike Acer's Breeze UI you can switch it off and revert to the basic unskinned Android interface.
Acer adds a number of extra applications, prominent among them being SocialJogger, which aggregates your Facebook and Twitter feeds. The interface is a little overcooked, with a large virtual scrollwheel for moving through posts where a simple scrollbar would have worked just as well, if not better.
Other applications of interest to professionals include the ability to view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files and RoadSync for access to Microsoft Exchange. Others apps include a barcode scanner that can look up prices and review scanned items and which reads barcodes, QR codes and DataMatrix. Spinlets, Acer's media streaming service and urFooz, an avatar generator, are also present.
Performance & battery life
The Liquid Metal's 800MHz processor did not respond to every screen press in a flash, even when we had very few apps running. Acer's Breeze Android skin must be fairly processor-hungry, as there was a short wait even when selecting a tune to play when no other apps were running.
Acer says the Liquid Metal's 1,500mAh battery is good for 11 hours of talk and 450 hours of standby. We found the battery to be fairly good compared to other smartphones, with enough capacity to get us through an average day easily. However, use the GPS for extended periods or run the handset as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and you'll exhaust the battery pretty quickly. If you intend to use these features it would be wise to carry a charger.
The Liquid Metal is attractively priced given its generally impressive specifications, which are marred only by the somewhat sluggish 800MHz processor. We have no serious complaints about the design, while the screen extremely vibrant — if a little small. Acer's Breeze user interface is an acquired taste, but you can switch it off if it doesn't appeal.
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
Acer Liquid Metal
Caption by: Sandra Vogel