Acer on Android: Design, enabling hardware and a nod to Samsung

When Acer announced it was entering the smartphone business at Mobile World Congress 2009, we couldn't quite take it seriously. The message seemed to be volume and price, but wasn't wholly realistic in our eyes, not with the competition digging in for a fierce fight.

So when we sat down with Acer to talk about its smartphones, and find out a little more about where Acer is going, we wanted to know about strategy, as well as the new phablet, recently announced at Computex 2013.

Focus on design

"Last year we stopped what was going through the chutes," said Allen Burne, EMEA vice-president of smartphones for Acer, "then ST [ST Liew, president of Acer smartphone] drove the business to get back into industrial design. Our first real Acer design handset was Cloud Mobile, which won awards for industrial design."

Cloud Mobile did win an iF Product Design Award in 2012, and it was a design ethos that was set to run across the Acer smartphone portfolio, including tablets, but also to tie in with Acer's notebook range too, like the sumptuous Aspire S7. But designing a phone to be desirable is no easy thing.

"If you look at a lot of phones in the market today, they all look like iPhone. It's very difficult to design anything completely different because the screen size dominates the design," said ST Liew.

"We did a lot of work to see this curvature," Liew continues, showing off the curved rear of the new Acer Liquid S1, the company's 5.7-inch phablet. It's a curvature that runs across Acer's current smartphone portfolio and holding the Liquid S1 in the hand, it feels surprisingly adept. It's a great big phone, but it's great to hold, admittedly, it does feel well designed.

Give them what they want

"What do people want?" says Liew as we push on about about Acer's strategy. "Entertainment, music, etc, so we put dts in, even down to our lowest-tier product," Liew continues, pointing out how Acer is looking to provide hardware enhancements, rather than the full software overhaul.

"Android, we think, is a pretty cool OS," says Burnes. "Our software elements, or overlays, are not to re-write Android because we think the system's quite good. There's some dropdowns that we put in to make some of the pain points go away to make the consumer experience a lot better," but not go to over-the top providing a completely redesigned Android experience, or tinkering with things that don't need to be changed.

"In smartphones, whatever you want to do, you can download from the marketplace [Google Play]. So you don't want to over-engineer the stuff that people can get anyway, but you focus on the enablers, so we enable a good camera," says Liew.

The hardware focus from Acer covers the camera, as well as audio reproduction with dts as mentioned, audio capture, the display and finally the feel of the device coming from the design.

"Our high-tier phone," says Liew, waving the new Liquid S1, "it's not as high tier as Samsung, but we call it high tier in our perspective, comes with six microphones."

It's perhaps a surprising nod to a rival device, the Samsung Galaxy Note, that has lead the charge in phablets that Acer, among others, now chases.

It's these hardware elements that Acer will focus its attention on when it comes to its smartphones, to stay focused on the relevant. "Some of our competitors, in my mind," says Liew, "are trying to solve problems that do not exist." Briefly, we wonder if he's still talking about Samsung.

Fancy phablet

The Acer Liquid S1 is the hero device, sitting at the top of the range. "We just announced this guy in the phablet space," says Liew, again brandishing the Liquid S1, which he promises will be very competitively priced.

Demonstrating how these various elements have come together in the Liquid S1, Liew fires up the front-facing camera. "It has a very wide angle, you can get in the entire office." That's certainly true, meaning that you can hold the S1 at arm's length and get more than just your face in the picture or video.

Moving on, Acer's software customisation on the S1 doesn't run too deep, but includes clever things like a quick way to pop-up functions you might need, like a scribble pad or calculator, that you can use mid-call, similar to the mini apps offered by Sony Mobile on the Xperia family of devices.

"You could say that Samsung has the same thing," says Liew, "but it's slightly different. Ours is more of a reverse migration of the PC experience into a handheld device and it's made possible because we now have devices of this size."

But that doesn't mean only the phablet will get this attention. Acer will bring the same feature to smaller devices, but Liew emphasises that you have to do it correctly.

"Looking from a design perspective, our design language across platforms, and then adding all these smart features that might be coming from PC or from emerging technologies, is where we think we can triumph. Then we focus on these things because they are the things that the consumer will really want to have."

The Acer Liquid S1 will be available in Europe from August, with Burne telling us there was lots of interest from both retailers and networks, so watch this space.

Acer also revealed why it was staying away from Windows Phone 8.