Acer's smartphone onslaught continues, this time with a budget offering in the form of the beTouch E400. This is the Android version of the Acer neoTouch P400 we reviewed last month: the same hardware but with a different operating system.
It comes rocking Android 2.1, much to the chagrin of a host of other manufacturers who are still a set behind. The device gets Acer's rather light user interface and a host of pre-installed applications, a move that will be familiar to owners of Acer products.
The handset measures 115 x 59.3 x 12mm, with a weight of 125g, and as we found with the neoTouch, we can't help feeling that better use could be made of that length. Although you get a 3.2-inch display, a lot of space seems wasted with the Acer logo and touch controls running across the bottom of the front of the device.
The construction in plastic is fitting with its budget status, although the matte back of the phone is free from creaks under manipulation and doesn't attract fingerprints. The white waistband gives way to the single piece plastic front, which is soft and flexible, in fitting with the screen's resistive touch technology. Even so, the feel of the front and the uneven texture below the display doesn't make for the best feeling as you poke it.
The curved edges around the back make for a nice enough feeling in the hand, although the top lip of the front makes a noticeably hard line across your ear when it comes to making calls. You also get a choice of black, white and red back covers in the box, along with a 2GB microSD card and SD adapter so you can easily add content from your computer, adding to the negligible internal memory.
Around the body of the phone there is a volume rocker, a dedicated camera button and a power/lock button. The bottom of the phone sees a Micro-USB connection for charging and file transfer, whilst the top gives you a 3.5mm headphone jack. Around the back of the phone is a 3.2-megapixel camera, with no flash, and an external speaker. Of course you get the full platter of wireless connectivity, with HSDPA and Wi-Fi b/g and Bluetooth 2.
Power on the phone and Acer has decked it out with a simple yet useful interface. This gives you five homescreens where you can drop shortcuts and widgets - a fairly typical arrangement for Android handsets across the board these days. Acer offers a couple of widgets, the mainstay of which are for media and bookmarks.
These take the form of a half-carousel that sits on the edge of the screen. The media widget lets you flick through media you have on your phone's memory, offering photos, video and music which you can tab through. It's a nice arrangement, meaning you can quickly scroll through the content of your phone, although it is a bit of a tease; it showed us HD videos that it wouldn't play, selecting them causes the phone to lock-up for a time. But otherwise it seemed fairly accepting of various file types, playing back a selection of MPEG4 and AVI files without too much of a problem, but MKV and DivX files weren't detected.
The bookmarks carousel is great, as you can scroll through to Pocket-lint and open the browser and check out the latest gadget news, with a proper miniature-screen thumbnail, rather than just a dirty icon representing a bookmark.
Little touches like offering a thumbnail (rather than an icon) for application switching after a long press of the home button make the beTouch E400 a surprisingly pleasant experience, handed down from the high-end Liquid models.
The pre-installed content doesn't throw-up too many surprises, and the likes of Twidroid you might want to swap-out for Twitter for Android, but at least you have the choice. The Android Market is present and correct, offering up and increasing number of applications to customise the phone to your liking.
You don't get the deep-level integration of social networks like you do on HTC Sense or Motoblur, although this integration is present to a certain level; you can use the in-built "syncing with contacts" option in Twitter and Facebook to bring a little more to the contacts list. Of course, being an Android product, you get syncing with Google apps - Gmail, calendar, contacts - which is great for those who don't want to constantly sync with their PC.
nemoPlayer swings in to provide your music playback, and it is all simple enough, but we'd have liked to see some music control whilst the screen was locked - as it is you have to unlock it, make your changes, then lock it again. You can adjust the volume whilst locked though, which is always convenient.
The 3.2-inch display is a resistive touchscreen so you don't get the same accuracy you'd get from a capacitive screen and a noticeable awkwardness when it comes to scrolling and swiping around: sometimes you'll be selecting contacts when you want to scroll through the list and so on. It has a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels, so it isn't the sharpest screen out there. The finish also makes it near impossible to see in bright conditions.
The phone sports a 600MHz processor, typical for this class of phone that sits down from the top of the pile. We found it mostly ran cleanly enough, although opening some applications seemed to make you stop and wait - try to place an application shortcut on the homescreen and you'll be sitting wondering what is going on before the list pops up.
We’ve seen Android struggling on some phones recently, with models from HTC and Samsung throwing up the occasional Android application error. In this case we had a persistent error with SMS messaging, but a simple install of Handcent SMS stepped around this problem which perfectly characterises what we like about Android: you get choices.
The portrait keyboard is a little small and we found ourselves forever hitting the wrong keys, using Acer's twist on the keyboard. Predictive text is supplied by the XT9 system, which is better than nothing, but not as sophisticated as HTC's system. The keyboard is reasonably responsive, but can be a little slow, and we found that it would also register a press, highlight a character and fail to enter it into the word, leaving you with plenty of deletions. It's never going to be the fastest keyboard in the world, and we found that reverting to the default Android keyboard gave us better results.
Switching from portrait to landscape can be a little slow as the accelerometer wakes, but the landscape keyboard does provide you with more space to type. It's a shame that standard Gmail in landscape format doesn't give any suggestions to choose from when you enter the name of the person you want to send a message to, something of an oversight, but again, a problem we resolved by switching to the standard Android keyboard.
There is also GPS included, with this phone benefiting from the free navigation that Google Maps offers, so in a pinch you can fire up your phone to get you out of Dodge, but the experience is a little crude for UK drivers. The GPS seemed fast enough to locate us when called upon.
The browser experience isn't too far removed from the native Android experience, so you get a good fast browser, although there is no multi-touch available, so you'll have to rely on the zoom keys on-screen. As we've said, scrolling isn't the smoothest experience and this does hamper your movement around websites to a degree.
The 3.2-megapixel camera is rather basic in its offering, being of the fixed focus variety, so there is little detail in distance shots and it won't focus on close subjects. It struggles with bright conditions, low light and high contrast, so if the camera is important to you, look elsewhere. Video capture too is a little mediocre, offering a 720 x 480 capture at varying frame rates, we averaged about 26fps.
The battery managed to get us through an average day, but intensive use will see you having to charge the phone every night. We found calls to be clear.
The Acer beTouch E400 offers a reasonably stable Android experience which has only been lightly tinkered with by Acer. It doesn't offer the best experience because of the hardware specs, however. The screen could be more responsive, it could be a higher resolution, the camera could perform better and the design could be tweaked to make better use of space.
We're not so sold on the idea of shoe-horning different operating systems into the same hardware. Whilst you might argue that hardware is hardware, it does leave you feeling that the generic approach to handset manufacture needs a little more love, especially if you are looking for consumer appeal.
As it is, the beTouch E400 doesn't really get us very excited, but it also just about gets on with the job.