The Acer neoTouch P400 shares the hardware and design with the beTouch E400, the Android equivalent of this Windows Mobile device. The Acer neoTouch P400 arrives with us at an awkward time. It comes with Windows Mobile 6.5.3 in a relatively raw form and with Windows Phone 7 around the corner, offering a substantial revision of the operating system, it's difficult to see who the P400 is going to appeal to.

Availability is also something of an issue, as Acer haven't seen wide adoption of their handsets by carriers (in the UK at least); the Android-toting Liquid has had some success, but customers interested in the P400 will most likely be looking at a SIM-free purchase at around £285, or (we suspect) be supplied the handset by an employer.

The handset isn't ugly, but we question whether the face makes the best use of the space available. Measuring 115 x 59 x 12mm, it is an average sized smartphone, but the 3.2-inch 480 x 320-pixel resolution resistive display leaves quite a gap at the bottom of the face of the phone, offering up four touch controls (home, Windows, and calling buttons). By current standards, the display is fairly low resolution, and a little on the small size.

When it comes to screen size, Windows Mobile just about works here, but as we found on the HD mini things are a little small, but the experience isn't anywhere near that offered by the HTC HD2, with plenty of screen space and plenty of power.

One nice touch is the "Home Ring" which encircles the home button. This changes colour depending on status, so will be red when charging and changes to green when charged and so on.

The handset is plastic, with a glossy black front meeting a matte black back on the sides divided with a chrome-effect band. Side buttons are picked out in this chrome finish too, offering a power/standby button the left, and a volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right.

The bottom of the handset sees a Micro-USB slot for charging and the top offers up a 3.5mm jack for your headphones and we appreciate the use of conventional connections, meaning you can easily use existing cables and accessories.

The matte back of the phone has a tactile feel to it, so gives some degree of grip in the hand. It's difficult to be offended by the design, but at the same time it doesn't do anything too exciting. The build quality feels good and despite the plastic construction, the P400 is free from creaks and should last the life of the device.

In terms of connectivity, the Acer neoTouch P400 offers you HSDPA, Wi-Fi b/g and Bluetooth 2.1. This is joined by the GPS to cover the important hardware you'd expect in a smartphone. Around the back is a 3.2-megapixel camera, but no sign of a flash or illuminator.

Internally the neoTouch P400 is powered by a 600MHz Qualcomm processor, which doesn't quite hit the highs that top-end smartphones are now offering, but given the right operating system, it shouldn't pose too much of a problem. A microSD card slot allows memory expansion.

That operating system, though, is Windows Mobile and as we said in the opening paragraph of this review, it is 6.5.3, so you are looking at an operating system that is practically obsolete. When it comes to smartphones, Windows Mobile has probably attracted more criticism than any other and the hardware offered by the neoTouch P400 doesn't meet the minimum requirements for Windows Phone 7, so you won't be able to upgrade either.

Windows Mobile 6.5.3 brings with it the advantages of easy syncing with a Windows PC, with few glimmers of consumer interest. You are more likely to find support in your IT department, but if you want a Windows Mobile device that offers a better consumer experience, you'd be better off with something from HTC, with its user-friendly HTC Sense layered over the top.

The neoTouch P400 offers two address books: Contacts and Phone Book, which duplicates the information, but with the latter offering and extra link through to "Social Networking". A for effort, but an F for achievement in this department, as the only links you are offered are to Flickr and Blogger. Elsewhere a Social Networking "application" provides the same links, with Facebook and YouTube links taking you through to those applications, so it seems sort of pointless, when set against the efforts of HTC.

The camera on the back is a little below average spec at 3.2-megapixels. We're happy with 3.2-megapixels in many cases, but in the P400 it appears to be fixed focus (despite Acer's website claiming it is autofocus), with no flash, so the results are also below average. There isn't much shutter lag however, which is a positive.

The video camera offers 320 x 240 max resolution at a low 10fps, so isn't really up to standard in this world of YouTube HD. In short, if snapping and sharing pictures is something you are interested in, then this device is unlikely to be for you. Sharing is limited to email or messaging, although you can send out photos and videos using different applications.

The display is a resistive touchscreen effort, which lacks the slick response that you'll get from the latest capacitive screens. The finish on the screen fails to meet requirements in a couple of areas: it is difficult to see in bright conditions and it gets very smeary and isn't very easy to wipe clean. You also have to put up with a soft touch, with the surface moving under your finger.

This manifests itself most significantly in general navigation, where Windows Mobile 6.5 presents you with small options, a throwback to when most interaction was done with a stylus. Some shortcut menus are okay, but drill down deeper and it is still fiddly to use, given the lack of stylus or keyboard.

Some elements seem prehistoric, like using the volume rocker gives you a full screen volume changer. Blocking everything behind it. You'll also find you have to sometimes pop-up the keyboard when you need to use it and the buttons are small, so we found that mistakes are frequent, although the response was good enough to enter text at a reasonable rate: using a stylus is much faster and more accurate however. The landscape keyboard performs a little better, with predictive words appearing too, although the letters that flash up as you press them are far to brief to really register whether you have pressed the right key.

The default Internet Explorer Mobile browser doesn't offer a great experience either. Double tap zooming is offered, along with a slide zoomer, although this zooms at a rapid pace, so is a little unwieldy. The browser is generally slow to load pages too.

Application support comes in the form of the Marketplace. The Marketplace application isn't really very slick, and like the rest of Windows Mobile 6.5, has the feeling of something that papers over the cracks, rather than really offering the best solution. It also doesn’t always contain what you are looking for and isn't as slick and easy to navigate as the best out there, like the iPhone App Store or the Android Market.

But, having said that, there are a large number of applications for Windows Mobile devices, so if you don't like the Internet Explorer Mobile you can head off and download Opera Mobile, which we think is much more agreeable. You also get the likes of Google Maps and Office Mobile, which actually works pretty well if you are a document fiend.

Media isn't handled especially well and we found the external speaker to be a little too quiet. At least you can connect your own headphones, as the hard plastic bundled headphones aren't the best, although in fairness to Acer, very few mobile phones come with commendable headphones.

The default media player is also a little clunky, ignoring the accelerometer, so if you want to view something fullscreen in landscape mode you have to enter the menu to tell it to do so. The YouTube application is slightly better, springing to landscape mode by default, but again, compare it to the YouTube app on the iPhone and you are miles apart in quality.

Of course many of these criticisms are not the fault of Acer, or this phone specifically. The hardware they have provided hits a price point and does have limitations, but the operating system is the biggest drawback when it comes to that all-encompassing smartphone experience. If media and web browsing is a primary interest, then Windows Mobile probably won't be on your shopping list anyway.

As a phone it works well enough, although there is a hard edge running across the top which we found uncomfortable on the ear. Battery life is average offering 5 hours of talk time. Average use will see you needing to charge the phone every day.

Verdict

The Acer neoTouch P400 arrives with an operating system that is accelerating towards obsolescence. It is relatively affordable, so may be the choice for bulk purchase for business, but is unlikely to appeal to consumers wanting the latest all-singing all-dancing smartphone.

The hardware itself is lacking in the camera department, but if you are coming from a business perspective this might not worry you, but the connectivity works well enough and we found the GPS to be responsive enough too.

The Acer neoTouch P400 doesn't break any boundaries or present anything new. In terms of hardware it delivers the essential specs but falls short of being noteworthy. The operating system, however, is the biggest stumbling block, with the enhanced Windows Phone 7 just around the corner.