The Dell Venue Pro was announced in October last year, along with a range of other smartphones running the then-new Windows Phone 7. However, the Venue Pro suffered from several delays, and has only recently become available to buy. It's the only Windows Phone 7 handset with a slide-out (portrait-format) QWERTY keyboard, a feature that's seen it dubbed as a business-friendly smartphone.
Our review sample came from Clove Technology, where it costs £420 (inc. VAT, £350 ex. VAT) SIM free.
The Venue Pro is quite a chunky smartphone, thanks not only to the keyboard but also to its large screen. Measuring 4.1 inches across the diagonal, it edges towards the upper limit of screen size before the hardware becomes simply too unwieldy to handle comfortably.
At 192g, the Venue Pro is appreciably heavier than the 4.3in. HTC HD 7, which weighs 162g. It's also heavier than the HTC 7 Pro, which — even with its landscape-format slide-out keyboard and 3.6in. screen — comes in at 185g.
The Venue Pro's weight is noticeable in the pocket; also, when the keyboard is deployed for use the handset feels top heavy. This is particularly noticeable when you're trying to tap out text one-handed — we found the large screen too big to use the on-screen keyboard comfortably one-handed. For the record, the Venue Pro measures 63.5mm by 122mm by 15.25mm.
The ergonomics are a trade off, of course, and the large viewing area is superb for reading emails, scanning web pages and viewing media. The resolution is Windows Phone 7's standard 480 by 800 pixels, but the Venue Pro's AMOLED screen technology ensures a particularly sharp and bright display.
Dell's Venue Pro Windows Phone 7 smartphone is notable for its slide-out portrait-format mini-QWERTY keyboard
The sliding mechanism that reveals the mini-QWERTY keyboard is very smooth, though we'd prefer a little more of a 'sprung' action and less need for actual pushing and pulling.
The keyboard occupies an area just 55mm wide and 30mm tall and comprises four rows of contiguous keys. Although the keys are slightly domed, we found the keyboard less comfortable than some — RIM and Nokia produce the best keyboards of this size and type.
Most keys have a secondary function, giving access to numbers and a variety of punctuation. However the '£' is not present, while the '$' is. To get the former, you need to hit the Sym key on the bottom row, and then move to a second screen of symbols. For a handset primarily aimed at the business community it's surprising to see a dedicated key for emoticons; we'd prefer to see the @ key in this prime slot to the right of the space bar.
As usual, on-screen keyboards in both landscape and portrait modes are also available. The '£' sign, incidentally, is on the first symbol screen in this instance. You'll need to use the on-screen keyboard when working in landscape mode, and we found typing on-screen in both modes about as speedy as using the physical keyboard. The real gain is in improved viewing area: when texting, for example, you can see a full screen-height's worth of threaded conversation when using the physical keyboard, but only about a third as much with the on-screen keyboard in the way.
The chassis design departs slightly from the standard black-and-silver business livery: the backplate has a nice etched diamond pattern, but the use of plastic throughout is a little disappointing, and the backplate is rather flimsy.
The backplate is also slightly bowed, which makes for a pleasing design but means the Venue Pro doesn't sit flat on a table, wobbling around when you tap the screen. When will handset designers learn that a flat backplate is extremely important for on-desk use?
Microsoft stipluates three front buttons for Search, Back and Start (home screen) functions, and these are large, touch-sensitive areas on the front of the Venue Pro chassis, beneath the screen. Another Microsoft requirement is a side button for the camera, in this case a 5-megapixel unit; there's also a volume rocker, a microUSB connector on the bottom, plus a 3.5mm headset jack and an on/off switch on the top.
The Dell Venue Pro ships with an AC adapter, a PC connector cable, round in-ear headphones and a small printed user guide.
The Dell Venue Pro is a little way behind the leading edge in terms of its general specifications. It's driven by a single-core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250 processor, whereas the very latest batch of top-end smartphones, such as LG's Optimus 2X and the upcoming HTC Sensation have dual-core CPUs.
More of a concern for many users may be that the Venue Pro has no removable storage, which Microsoft bans from Windows Phone 7 devices. Our review unit had 8GB of built-in storage, and anyone accustomed to hot-swapping microSD cards may be less than impressed — especially considering microSD cards currently go up to 32GB.
Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) and GPS are all present and correct, along with HSPA at 7.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up. There's also an FM radio, and two speakers on the bottom edge of the chassis deliver reasonable volume.
We've already noted that Microsoft exerts tight control over the implementation of Windows Phone 7. There is no opportunity for skinning the user interface, so hardware partners are left to differentiate themselves in either chassis design or additional applications. Dell has only chosen to work on the former, contenting itself with a vanilla deployment of Windows Phone 7.
In terms of look and feel, then, the Venue Pro offers a familiar array of tiles on the main screen, which can lead to actual data (such as a location found with Bing Maps), an application such as Internet Explorer, or a hub — an area that collocates data from several sources.
The Office hub, for example, brings together PowerPoint, Excel and Word documents, can access SharePoint data (if the back end runs on SharePoint Server 2010) and gives access to OneNote. Of less interest to mobile professionals, perhaps, is the Xbox LIVE hub, which lets you access your account and personalise your avatar.
Everyone who registers for a Windows Live ID gets 25MB of online storage at SkyDrive, which includes the ability to automatically upload photos — which, thanks to the dedicated camera button, can be taken with the handset in standby mode.
For anyone without corporate email support, and whose computing is still desktop- rather than cloud-based, it will be annoying that there's no facility to synchronise calendar and contacts directly with a PC. The Zune software allows you to synchronise music, video and photos, but calendar and contacts must be synced over the air — using, for example, Windows Live or a Google account. This is the same for all Windows Phone 7 handsets, though, and Dell is merely complying with Microsoft's protocol.
Performance & battery life
We had no problems with the 1GHz Venue Pro's responsiveness, and Windows Phone 7 itself is a rewarding operating system to use once you become accustomed to its foibles.
Dell doesn't specify how long it expects the 1,400mAh battery to last. In our experience, the Venue Pro was slightly less long-lived than the average high-end smartphone. It had no trouble keeping going all day without a battery boost under light usage (mobile email and voice calls). But when we started using the GPS for longish stretches the battery suffered. You should expect to require a recharge during the day if you think of yourself as a 'power user'.
Dell's Venue Pro is a (somewhat late-to-market) first-generation Windows Phone 7 device whose standout features are a large screen and a slide-out keyboard. Some business users, especially in hard-line Windows environments, may find this an appealing combination.