Acer announced four Windows Mobile handhelds earlier this year after buying handheld specialist E-TEN. We recently reviewed the first to arrive, the dual-SIM-toting DX900; now it's the turn of the more sedate X960, which has a high-end, if unremarkable, feature set. It does have one standout feature in the shape of its user interface, which has been laid on top of Windows Mobile. Our review sample came from Clove Technology.
The Acer X960 is a fairly standard-looking Windows Mobile handheld. Its outer shell is a mix of black and silver plastic with a shiny, fingerprint-attracting, finish. The silver extends to a band around the edges of the device and the frame of the navigation button beneath the screen.
Acer's X960 is a well-specified Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone with a 2.8in. VGA-resolution screen. It costs £339.25 (inc. VAT; £295 ex. VAT) SIM-free from Clove Technology.
The remaining front buttons — Call and End, Home and a button bearing a satellite logo denoting GPS functionality — are all large and easy to access.
The X960 is a slightly squat device. Its side edges are tapered inwards, making it seem slightly thinner than it actually is, but the measured dimensions reveal it to be 106.4mm tall, 59mm wide and 13.7mm thick. It weighs a relatively hefty 132g.
The screen measures 2.8in. across diagonal and has a native resolution of 640 by 480 pixels (VGA). The edges carry a range of connectors and ports, all embedded in that band of silver. On the bottom is the mini-USB connector that caters for power, PC connectivity and the supplied stereo headset.
The left edge has a volume rocker and a button that activates the built-in voice recorder. On the right edge is a camera button, the main on/off switch, and a microSD card slot. This slot is protected by a hinged cover that we found rather awkward to lift. You definitely need fingernails, and may have to resort to removing the backplate for easier access.
The Acer X960 ships with an AC adapter, a USB PC cable, a screen protector, a stereo headset (with USB connector), a printed short manual and two CDs containing documentation and PC connectivity software.
The Acer X960 runs Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional. It has 256MB of ROM and 128MB of RAM. If, like us, you choose to install the four applications that are offered at startup, you'll be left with just 80MB of free storage memory — in which case you'll probably need to add extra storage via a microSD card. The processor, a 533MHz Samsung SC3 6400, is the same as in Acer's DX900.
The four applications on offer are: a backup utility, a replacement for Windows Mobile's on-screen QWERTY keyboard that's slightly larger and therefore easier to use; a streaming media player; and a USB management utility.
Acer has packed plenty of features into the DX960. It's a quad-band GSM phone with HSDPA, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), Bluetooth (2.0) and GPS (SiRFstar III) and it has a front-facing camera for two-way video calling. The main camera at the back is a 3.2 megapixel unit with a small LED flash and self-portrait mirror. Cameras on Windows Mobile devices tend to be somewhat lacklustre, and this one is no exception. However, it's fine for the odd snap unless you're in low light or want high-quality output.
Where this smartphone stands out from the crowd is with its user interface. Windows Mobile devices often have an overlay onto Windows Mobile itself, to help them be more finger-friendly and appeal to a wider audience. The X960 comes with such an overlay, and it's significantly different to anything we've seen before.
The main screen is actually three screens wide: you move left to right by dragging with your finger. It offers three groups of shortcut icons to applications, arranged to look like items sitting on an office desk. The first screen offers email, messaging, calls (all three with a status indicator of missed calls or incoming messages), diary and weather information (which is updated over the air). Flip to the next screen and you have contacts, music and photos, all of which appear in carousels that you can finger-scroll through, avoiding the Windows Mobile user interface itself.
Acer's three-screen interface shell is designed to resemble an office desk.
The third screen offers web access, settings and a link to QuickMenu, which is a grid of user-configurable application icons. There are 12 icons on-screen at any one time, but you can finger-scroll to get to more.
The QuickMenu screen is accessible from any of the 'desk' screens, offering a 4-by-3 grid of pre-configured application icons.
Finally, from any of those 'desk' menu screens, a vertical finger-scroll will bring up a pre-configured menu of application icons. The Windows Mobile Start button is accessible at all times, allowing you to bail out to the standard Windows Mobile UI if necessary.
Google Maps is built in, and there are some other extras, including Memory Optimiser. This allows you to automatically end tasks that have been idle for a set period of time, automatically restart the device at a specified time and set a restart when memory gets below a certain level — an indication that Windows Mobile's memory management is not what it could be.
Performance & battery life
The X960's 533MHz processor is up to the task of driving this well-featured handheld. Call quality was fine, while battery life was reasonable for a Windows Mobile 6.1 device. To test the latter, we set the X960 to play music non-stop from a full battery, which it did for 7 hours 53 minutes. This beats the Acer DX900 (5 hours 38 minutes) by some margin.
Of course, if you use HSDPA, Wi-Fi or GPS for extended periods, then battery life will be considerably less than this headline figure.
Acer's X960 provides plenty of features, including a VGA-resolution screen. However, this Windows Mobile smartphone's build quality and desk-metaphor UI overlay could be classier.