Acer Liquid Metal

The Acer Liquid Metal continues the work of the Acer Liquid and the Acer Stream that we’ve seen previously. Both handsets have impressed, but lacked the overall wow factor that strong rivals from HTC or Samsung have. With the Liquid Metal, have Acer hit all the right notes?

The Acer Liquid Metal owes much in its design to the Acer Liquid as you’d expect from the name, and the S120 model number that comes attached. You get some of the same curves around the body, the top and bottom look similar, but the front is more noticeably curved. The screen itself sits a little way down from the surface, but the curved finish gives the impression that the display is larger than it actually is. Where some phones are finished with Gorilla Glass, the finish on the Liquid Metal appears to be plastic, and we found it scratched fairly easily. 

At 3.61-inches, the screen isn’t exactly small but it’s an interesting design point. The screen packs a resolution of 800 x 480, entirely typical for this type of device and gives a good showing for itself, offering up great colours and plenty of detail.

Unfortunately the design doesn’t hang together quite as cleanly as we’d like. We’re guessing the “Metal” name comes from the metal backplate, as the rest of the body appears to be plastic. This isn’t a premium handset hewn from a single block of aluminium like the HTC Desire S, it’s an odd fusion of colours and finishes, which sort of lacks cohesion. The glossy black bezel runs around to plastic chrome edging, which then meets the bronze-brown metal backplate which is top and tailed with brown sparkly plastic.

The layout of controls and ports, however, is conventional enough. You have a volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right-hand side, and a power/standby button on the top next to the 3.5mm headphone hole. The bottom offers up the Micro-USB charging and syncing port, whilst across the bottom of the display are the four touch navigation buttons, giving you home, search, back and menu.

We criticised a couple of points on previous handsets - the media controls of the Stream were largely superfluous and the plastic flap over the Micro-USB was annoying, so we like the fact they aren’t present here. Like the Acer Liquid, there are subtle backlit icons in the top which illuminate when charging or when you have a message.

In the hand the Acer Liquid Metal feels pretty good. The curved body nestles down into the palm as you grip it. The curve on the display plays into some of the modification that Acer have made to the user interface (UI), but in other ways it isn’t as comfortable as some other devices. The curve of the display doesn’t lend itself to vertical scrolling nearly as well as it does horizontal scrolling, for example. 

Power the Liquid Metal on and you are greeted with Acer’s custom UI sitting on Android 2.2, Froyo. We’re not so bothered about Gingerbread at this point in time because the majority of useful functionality is within Froyo, such as Adobe Flash support in the browser. The Acer interface gives us much the same experience as we had on the Acer Stream.

Acer’s UI is interesting because it flips a couple of common Android elements on their head: it doesn’t just replicate what you’ll find elsewhere. The biggest changes involve the lock screen, widgets and the notification bar. To understand the changes, we first have to look at how the homescreen works. 

The homescreen is divided into three pages, so you can swipe left or right from a central page. The bottom half of the page is given over to a permanent selection of eight app icons. These eight apps also occupy the top of the menu, so when you open up the menu, these eight apps sit at the top, whilst the rest of the menu pans left and right. Effectively, it means you can always get to those apps that are the most important and you can change them around in the normal way by dragging and dropping as needed.

Moving left on the homescreen brings you to a history widget, where you can leaf back through pages or apps you’ve been using recently; move right on the homescreen and you get a media widget, so you can flick through photos albums, movies or music albums. On both these screens, you still get your collection of eight apps at the bottom of the screen.

Obviously, this arrangement means there is no space for widgets, so you don’t get these sorts of customisation options, you can’t add shortcuts or third-party widgets to the homescreens at all - you can only change wallpapers and turn on/off some of the features. This then means that widgets have to be dealt with in a different way, so you get an entire widget layer. 

This can be accessed via the widgets icon in the menu or via a long press on the home key, which then overlays the entire homecreen arrangement with widget layer. Some might see this as fiddly, but it has a killer trick up its sleeve: this layer is also the lock screen. That means that you get access to your widgets directly from the lock screen with minimal fuss.

It’s a clever move. We’re always saying that we want to see thing like music control from the lock screen and that’s not all you get. You get status information - missed calls,  messages - as well as being able to see that there are notifications on the notification bar (which we’ll talk about shortly). You also get weather and the time, but then you can scroll to other pages to get to those widgets. Amongst our favourites are the calendar, power control and My Location. 

As you can interact with these widgets, you can scroll through the calendar to glance at your appointments, check where you have got to on the map (although the widget is a little too small to be really useful), or change those power settings, like switch off background syncing, or change the screen brightness. Sure, all these things can be done on regular widgets in a conventional Android arrangement, but we do quite like it. We also like the fact that each widget gives you the option to unlock the phone directly to the concerned app - for example, tap the music control app (rather than hit one of the buttons) and you can slide up an unlock option to get directly to the music player. The same applies across the board, so if you want to use a widget that won’t let you interact, you can unlock the phone to go directly to the relevant app.

We mentioned notifications earlier. These run either across the bottom of the display in an app, or across the top of your eight permanent apps in the homescreen. Rather than being a drop down (or pull up) tray, tapping the notifications bar pops-up a scrollable collection of notifications and control shortcuts. So you get your system messages, alerts and so on, but can also then scroll left or right to get to the clock and alarms and then your connections: hotspot, GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can all be toggled on/off here, you can view the network and access the network settings, and see the battery level, and directly access the battery usage display.

Our only gripe with this notification arrangement is that the area you get to tap to open it up is a little too small, and sometimes it takes a little too long to pop-up. With practice you can hit it first time, but we’ve found ourselves in a rush, trying to access the notifications and hitting the icon below instead, heading off to Contacts. 

The other oddity about the Acer UI is that you don’t get an apps icon. If you want to access your menu of apps, you can either drag up the tray to enter the apps menu or press the menu button beneath the screen. This means there is no conventional homescreen option menu (where you might customise the display, or access the Settings menu for example), but this isn’t really a problem because of the limited customisation available. We like one of the options, which is to have album art replace your wallpaper. Once you are in an app, the menu button works in the normal way.

If you decide that actually the Acer way isn’t for you, then the Android UI option (Settings > Applications > User interface) will let you revert to a stock Android 2.2 appearance. Here you’ll be able to customise the homescreens as you please, the notifications all revert to standard and your lock screen is just that.

Around the back of the Liquid Metal is a 5-megapixel camera, supported by an LED flash. The camera interface has been customised by Acer and it is perfectly usable, offering up touch focusing and shooting and various settings to capture that perfect shot. The flash offers on off and auto modes, and as with most of these things, has a tendency to blow out close subjects, but it will let you grab that essential shot in the dark.

The performance is average rather than exceptional, preferring daylight that isn’t too bright and returning some reasonable quality results. The shots are perfectly acceptable for sharing, which is also very easy directly from the image preview or Gallery, but the shots don’t hold up under closer scrutiny if you were tempted to crop or magnify them.

Likewise the performance from the video camera isn’t the best you’ll find on a phone. It offers autofocus at the point of pressing the button so is reasonable for objects that remain within that focal plain, but viewed on a bit screen there is a general lack of detail and quality.

Sitting at the core of the Acer Liquid Metal is Qualcomm Scorpion MSM 7230 chipset, clocked at 800MHz. Although not hitting the magic 1GHz clock speed that tends to dominate the headlines, it is powerful and things run along without too much of a problem. This is backed by 512MB RAM and 512MB ROM, with minimal internal memory. As such, you’ll need to take advantage of the microSD expansion slot, otherwise your memory will be full once you’ve loading on an album. A 2GB microSD card is bundled in the box to get you started. 

The Acer Liquid Metal moves along with a fair lick, and it seemed relatively stable whilst we were testing it. During that time it received an OTA update from Acer and its nice to see that they are actually supporting their devices. There was the occasional freeze where the phone become unresponsive and this seemed to be down to Acer’s UI modifications, but these incidents were rare. Only once did we have to restart to phone to get the camera to start responding again – sometimes the camera seemed a little slow to launch from the button, so perhaps there’s a small bug there. As smartphones get more sophisticated we’re going to experience these sorts of crashes in varying degrees and from what we’ve seen of the Acer Liquid Metal, there is some scope for some improvement, but they don’t seem to be critical.

You get access to all the normal Android goodness, so you’ll be able to log into your Google account(s) to retrieve your contacts, calendars and emails. You get access to the Android Market, and its companion website, giving you the opportunity to download apps to your heart’s content. The Android Market continues to close the gap with Apple’s App Store and the offering is looking more compelling than ever.

Acer have added a number of applications, some bloatware and some more interesting. Their take on social networking comes in the form of SocialJogger, which will tap into Facebook and Twitter and offer updates in tiles arranged around a jogwheel that lets you scroll them up and down. It looks ok, but in practise, like Sony Ericsson’s Timescape, you can’t see much of the text so we didn’t find it as informative as the regular Android Facebook or Twitter apps. One interesting thing it does do, however, is break out those feeds in to photos and links, in case you want to look at these things in more detail.

SocialJogger does feed into Acer’s widget however, so if you like flicking through your updates from the lock screen you’ll have to sign into it anyway.

All your normal connectivity is represented here, so you get GPS, Wi-Fi b/g/n/, bags of sensors and that all important 3G connection. The GPS will feed Google Maps 5, offering up its sensational vector drawing and 3D views. There is an external speaker around the back that is a little tinny - weak on the bass - but the inclusion of Dolby Mobile means the performance through headphones is much better, so long as you use a quality pair of aftermarket headphones. Dolby Mobile lets you customise the sound profile to your liking as well.

The browser is pretty much the standard Android experience and this being Android 2.2 it will support your Flash videos, meaning you get a more complete internet experience. It won’t play everything, but it has a good go. Acer has made a slight tweak to the keyboard, throwing up predictive suggestions as you type. The response is good enough and in the landscape keyboard you’ll be able to enter text at an appreciable rate, but easily bettered with the likes of SwiftKey from the Android Market.

When it comes to video playback we found the file format support to be rather limited, so if you want wider support you’ll have to find an alternative video player from Android Market. Acer do provide a Media Server app, allowing you to share the content on your phone, but this doesn’t let you view shared content on the phone - we downloaded Skifta, with some success, but again you need a media player which supports the video formats you try to access. As a final word, the Acer Liquid Metal isn’t the best device out there for handling video. 

The speaker for calling isn’t the best as we found that some calls sounded a little washed out - nothing too significant - and at least it is a comfortable phone to hold and make calls with.

The battery inside is a removable 1500mAh li-ion model that will see you through most of the day. Like all smartphones of this type, if you are a heavy user then you’ll have to top up the battery during the day. In typical use, however, we found that charging over night was sufficient to get us through the next day.

Verdict

So overall the Acer Liquid Metal is a good device. We’re impressed with the level of customisation that Acer have undertaken - it makes it distinctive with the added addition that if you want to revert back to standard Android you can in a flash.

There are a few quirks, a few areas where we’d like to see the Liquid Metal improved, but Acer’s biggest problem may not be performance - it might be brand perception. They’ve stated their intention to get a slice of the smartphone market and we think the products are surprisingly good. But they don’t have a carrier in the UK, so if you want one, you’ll have to buy it and for many, the lure of a contract phone from the likes or HTC, Samsung or Motorola is just too great, along with the desirability of those products.

All the big rivals offer an Android experience that is excellent and although Acer doesn’t do anything necessarily wrong, we can’t help thinking that brand profile is going to be a barrier to the success of the Acer Liquid Metal.



>