(Pocket-lint) - The lower end of the smartphone market is booming at the moment, with new budget phones offering decent specs for a fair price. Acer's push in this market is the Liquid Z5, a sub-£100 smartphone with a large 5-inch screen, making its rivals seem small by comparison.
If you pitch the Z5 against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the HTC M8, then it's set up for a fall. It's just not comparable. But take it on face value, with price at the forefront of your mind, and it's a whole different story. The real question is whether Acer has what it takes to stand up against the current king in this category - the Motorola Moto G.
We've been living with the Acer Z5 for a several weeks now to see what we make of it. Does Acer fall short given the competition?
The Acer Liquid Z5 is great value for money, offering a plenty of tech alongside a big display for under £100. It brings some brilliant features with it too, including decent battery life, a great Float interface for multi-tasking, as well as the Quick Mode profiles which make it a fantastic device for those unfamiliar with the full complexities of the Android operating system.
But it simultaneously fails to stand out among a strong crowd. There's no 4G connectivity, the 5-inch screen might sound great but sacrifices resolution and viewing angles for the sake of size and some of the design details don't make the grade. We weren't blown away by the camera or the sound output either.
It's not a small device so if you are looking for something pocketable with many of the features that come with the flagship devices then the Motorola Moto G is still king in this area of the market. That's the Liquid Z5's biggest problem really: the strength of the competition.
Overall the Acer Liquid Z5 is a fair proposition for those looking for a large scale screen on a budget. On that front it earns its place as a contender in the sub-£100 market and there's nothing significant at fault. Hard to argue with that.
Acer Liquid Z5
The Acer Liquid Z5 is not a small device by any stretch of the imagination, its face measuring 145.5 x 73.5mm. This makes it just millimetres smaller than the top-spec Samsung Galaxy Note 3, meaning Acer is knocking on the door of phablet territory.
Its build is solid and sturdy, despite being formed from plastic, which provides reassurance that if you were to drop the Liquid Z5 then it would probably survive. It also features rounded edges that make it seem slimmer than the 8.8mm it is.
The smooth and warm-to-touch plastic rear of the device reminds us of the Moto G, albeit with less curvature, but it is a pleasure to hold. At first we did find it a little chunky for everyday use - and it'll be too big for some users - but over time we got used to it.
READ: Motorola Moto G review
Although the Liquid Z5 has a large build, the 147g weight means one-handed use is possible without being uncomfortable. To the rear there's what Acer calls the AcerRapid button designed for quick access to two chosen favourite features. It's easy to reach this button without needing to move your hand in full, an increasingly common design feature for larger handsets.
One aspect of the design we didn't like are the flaps covering the SIM and microSD slots. These seem to add more visual fuss than we felt was necessary and we would have preferred a removable back to hide all these extras away.
The front-facing speakers, subtle branding, metal-finished volume rocker and metal-rimmed camera lens on the rear are all nice touches that add a whisper of premium to this budget device. These design cues seem to have been adopted from some of the more flagship devices on the market, which is probably why the Z5's overall look and feel provides a more premium perception than the £95 asking price otherwise suggests. If only it wasn't for those ugly seams around the card flap covers.
Big but low resolution display
The Acer Liquid Z5 comes with a 5-inch display that offers a 480 x 854 pixel resolution, meaning a pixel density of 196ppi. That's a significant step down from the 329ppi of the Motorola Moto G and a long way short of the mark in resolution terms, especially for such a large screen.
We wouldn't describe the Liquid Z5's display as brilliant by any means. It's clear how much better the Moto G's display is in terms of viewing angles and crispness when you put the two devices side-by-side, with some fuzziness visible on the Acer device. That said, you do get a lot of screen for your money - even if it's more about physical size than fidelity.
When looking at the screen face on the whites are white enough, the blacks are black enough and the colours are vibrant. In that respect the Z5 does what it set out to do; it does its job as a large display and offers an extra 0.5-inch compared to the Moto G.
But it isn't the best in the market because of poor viewing angles. Tilt the device or look down onto the screen from above and the colours aren't anywhere near as strong and contrast falls off.
Hardware and performance
Under the hood of the Liquid Z5 is a dual-core 1.3GHz processor that performs well enough, handling most tasks and not showing too much lag during day-to-day use. It was a little slower to load bigger apps such as Candy Crush Saga in comparison to the flagship devices, such as the Galaxy Note 3, but this difference was to be expected.
There were times when it took the Liquid Z5 a little longer to react that we would have liked, such as when we used the AcerRapid button to launch the camera, but it wasn't a consistent problem and we found switching between tasks was smooth enough.
However, there is only 512MB of RAM to support the processor - that's half of what is included in the Moto G and a long way behind the 2GB or 3GB flagship devices. This is what makes the difference in speed between the Acer and the Motorola, despite the Moto G offering a slightly slower processor.
In terms of storage, you get 4GB internal with the Liquid Z5, but it does come with microSD support so you can add in many more gigabytes of space for a small sum of money. Acer also offers AcerCloud for sharing and storing files and media too. Even so 4GB is quite a lot less than some of its competitors in this market, we feel 8GB should be a minimum these days because core apps need to load from the device rather than an attached memory card. With that in mind, the capacity for downloading big apps is limited.
Acer claims the Liquid Z5 has a "best in-class" camera. It's tricky to judge based on how classes are separated, but we thought the results from its 5-megapixel rear snapper were acceptable in the right conditions.
Just like the Moto G, and any camera really, the Liquid Z5 performs best in daylight, producing images with enough colour and detail. The camera sensor is back-side illuminated which means its construction allows more light on the sensor for better performance. We took some shots while on a trek in the Outer Hebrides, although upon a full-scale inspection the finer details do lack.
The Z5's lens is a five-element construction with wide f/2.4 aperture which ought to help let more light and help in low-light conditions, but we found the Liquid Z5 to struggle here. Indeed we often just got underexposed black shots when in really low light.
Shadow areas in the frame present noticeable amounts of colour noise - that green, blue, red speckled effect - which is prominent even in some daylight shots, such as the example below.
The speed at which the camera responded was a little slower than we would have liked, which is likely linked to the processor speed. It was slower to react than any other functions we used on the phone and we struggled to get any kind of action shot without taking the photo a second earlier than we wanted.
The Liquid Z5 runs on Android v4.2.2, which is an older version of the operating system than the Moto G runs on. That means you won't get all the latest features that come with Android 4.4 KitKat but you will get the Acer Float user interface.
While native Android on the Moto G is brilliant, we think the Acer Float interface on the Liquid Z5 is one of the device's stronger features as it allows you to multi-task and easily switch between apps without having to go back to the home screen.
If you are in messages, for example, you can hold down on the recent apps button and a translucent box will appear with a grid of eight apps, allowing you to launch another app such as the camera. The eight apps can be customised so if you like to switch back to Candy Crush Saga after sending a message then you can do without having to go back to your home page and find your games folder.
While Android as standard offers a breakdown of already open apps, the Acer Float Interface doesn't need these eight selected apps to be open or scrolled through - it's like a neat and tidy quick-access folder.
There are also four fixed apps that can be launched on top of an app you already have open within this Float box: camera, maps, calculator and notes. You can't customise these, but they're handy presets. The same kind of principal applies if you switch on Float Caller, allowing you to accept a call or send a message to reject it without stopping what you are doing.
It seems like a small thing, but we think the Acer Float interface works well and gives the Liquid Z5 added personality. It reacts quickly, is easy to use and it makes multi-tasking and moving from one app to another a breeze.
Quick Mode profiles
There are also Quick Mode profiles that switch the operating system into more basic, streamlined format. While they might not be useful for everyone, they take a similar approach to Windows Phone tiles in terms of design and the resulting presets make using the device even more simple - supposedly for the older or younger generation.
Basic Mode is designed for youngsters (or parents wanting to limit functions for their kids) and offers fixed call and text functions, while keypad mode is aimed at users who primarily use voice and need their keypad instantly.
It was the Senior Mode that really caught our attention though. Even if the name is somewhat presumptuous, those with visual impairments or dexterity issues may find the larger tile displays and colour choices easier to access and use than the fiddly small-icon nature of default Android.
We tested it out on our lovely Nan who it suited perfectly. The phone's already large display makes everything a little easier to read and navigate through, but the instant and easy access to messages, radio, weather, magnify, clock and quick call contacts made her experience much less frustrating.
As we said, the profiles are not for everyone and some may find them frustrating seeing as you have to type in a passcode anytime you want to change from one profile into another, but if you have children you don't want accessing the internet, or grandparents who need using a smartphone simplified, the Z5 is a potential winner here.
The Acer Liquid Z5 comes with a front speaker that is boosted by DTS Sound technology and while the sound it produces is clear, we didn't get the same volume from it than other devices we compared it to. The Moto G delivered more volume from its smaller body than the Z5 could muster.
The Liquid Z5 makes up for many of its downfalls in the battery department. We managed to get through the day or even longer without any problems thanks to the 2000mAh battery capacity.
We were using the device for a couple of days purely for taking photos - as there's next to no signal in the Outer Hebrides - which is normally a battery killer, but saw us push through a whole days without a charge at night. We were impressed with its stamina.
As with any device, when you turn the display brightness up, use maps and GPS to get you from A to B or stream music constantly throughout the day, you are going to see a deterioration in the battery life but for general day to day use the Liquid Z5 does well. There's no 4G connectivity, however, with 3G the best on offer.