(Pocket-lint) - The sub-£250 end of the smartphone market is a like a big apple pie that every manufacturer wants a slice of. But you can only carve that pie up so many ways.
The Motorola Moto G has been the model most greedily consumed for a while but there are forkfuls of new handsets spilling into this category and at an ever-faster rate. Acer's latest introduction, the Liquid Jade, has some serious potential.
It is by far Acer's best looking smartphone to date, but does it offer enough to knock the custard out of the Moto G? We've been living with the Acer Liquid Jade for a couple of weeks to find out.
Slim & light design
The Acer Liquid Jade is a smaller and more manageable handset than the Liquid Z5 that we reviewed earlier on in the year. It has a footprint of 140.5 x 69mm and it weighs just 110g, delivering a lovely lightweight device that delivers a 5-inch display without feeling too big to handle.
It is wonderfully slim at just 7.5mm and although that is a little fatter than the likes of the (far pricier) iPhone 6, the way Acer has designed its phone makes it look slimmer than its actual measurement. There is a curved gloss-finished rear that features the Acer logo in silver in the middle and it is a true delight to hold.
The Liquid Jade fits beautifully in the hand and the faux gunmetal trim gives it a premium look from afar, but up close it is very much a plastic handset and it feels a little on the cheap side.
A dual-SIM tray sits flush with the edge of the device, as does the volume rocker on the opposite side, both of which are tucked away neatly to give a fuss-free finish, except for a slight raised bump.
The power button is at the top, which we found a little hard to reach at times and feel it would have been better situated at the side - but it's something you get used to. The headphone jack also sits at the top of the device, on the opposite side to the power button, while the micro USB charging port is placed on the bottom, but unusually to the right side rather than centralised.
A small circular indented speaker can be found at the top of the handset, finished in the same gunmetal material as the trim around the edge, while a larger protruding circular speaker is placed on the rear at the bottom. The sound is pretty average and it's not as loud as we would have liked at full volume. However, it is clear and the DTS HD Premium Sound feature means you can adjust the treble and bass to suit your preferences.
At the rear of the device is a protruding camera lens, which is the one main design element of the Liquid Jade we aren't convinced about. Protruding camera lenses seems to be a smartphone thing for 2014, but we'd rather it wasn't. On the Jade it's too big and draws a lot of attention, which we didn't feel fitted with the rest of the otherwise subtle design.
The glossy finish on the rear is also a big fan of fingerprints. It collected them like they were going out of fashion and we found ourselves constantly pulling a jumper sleeve down to wipe it clean.
Overall, however, the Liquid Jade is a good looking device that is slim and light. It might not offer the wow factor in the design department, but you wouldn't be ashamed of it either and despite it's plasticky feel, it's hard to find fault.
The Liquid Jade comes with a 5-inch IPS LCD display, which although is nice and big, it's also one of the areas that Acer has chosen to cut a corner with. The display offers a 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, delivering a pixel density of 294ppi, putting it in the Moto G 2014's territory. It's no flagship display, just as the newest Moto G's isn't, and while it isn't the sharpest in its class it still provides an ample enough offering.
Viewing angles are ok and the colours nice and vibrant - but the whites on the Liquid Jade aren't quite as clean white as we wanted, which is only really noticeable when sat next to a device with cleaner whites.
When we put the Liquid Jade next to the iPhone 6 on our desk, the difference was very apparent. Granted the iPhone 6 is three times the price, but it would have been nice to see a little more from the Acer here.
Watching movies and playing games on the 5-inch screen is a benefit at this scale, plus the slim bezel around the screen's edge looks great. The capacitive on-screen buttons do eat into the display, however, taking out just under a centimetre of the display. That's a bit of a shame given there seems to be a lot of extra bezel above and below the screen that could have perhaps served a better purpose.
It's good to see another affordable smartphone with a big display but a push in resolution or overall quality could have helped the Liquid Jade stand out from the crowd. Both Sony and Motorola offer 1280 x 720 displays on their cheaper mid-range handsets - the Acer is £79 more than the Moto G 2014, which is questionable.
Hardware and performance
Under the hood of the Liquid Jade has a pretty average 1.3GHz quad-core Mediatek MT6582 chipset supported by 1GB of RAM, which is more than the Liquid Z5 had on board and more in line with the Moto G 2014 model, but we found the Acer to be a little sluggish in places.
It handled everyday tasks well enough and if you aren't downgrading from a flagship device then the Liquid Jade's performance will be adequate.
However, during testing we noticed slight pauses in some instances, especially when loading images, and telling the Jade to do something wouldn't always result in immediate action. The pauses weren't long hangs but evident nonetheless - and once we noticed it, we found it difficult to ignore.
When switching between tasks we again experienced a little bit of lag, mainly when we went through the recent apps button to launch another game or service. The button took over a second to respond, for example, which some may not be fussed about - but if you are used to a speedy phone, then you might find this a little frustrating.
The Liquid Jade comes with 8GB of internal storage, which is expandable via the microSD port, although if you are using the dual-SIM function then the second tray is out of action. You either have the storage and one SIM, or you have two SIM cards on the go and use the phone's storage memory alone. Dual-SIM is useful for merging a business and separate personal number - a feature that lacks in many UK handsets and has been well executed here.
The 13-megapixel rear camera on the Liquid Jade is one of the phone's best features, delivering images full of detail and vibrant colours. The saturation wasn't over the top in many shots we took, especially ones taken in sunshine, leaving us impressed with the images we managed to get from the Liquid Jade.
Like with the overall performance, however, it sometimes took a little time to take the shot. And as is the case in many smartphones shots taken in low-light conditions aren't the best due to visible image noise. But we still managed to get a few good shots even when the light wasn't perfect.
The Jade doesn't have the best smartphone camera out there by any means, but it does a good job in its playing field and if you spend some time fiddling with the settings then it will serve you well.
Flip the phone around and there's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera that's more than adequate for video calling. Like many other smartphones on the market you won't get outstanding selfies, but it's more about ticking the box than producing pro-spec shots.
The Acer camera app features a number of settings including 1080p video capture, set via the settings in the top left hand corner when in portrait orientation, or with one click of the video symbol on the right of the capture button. The settings allow you to adjust a number of factors including changing the resolution between 13-megapixels and 5-megapixels, turning location information on, and adjusting the ISO sensitivity between 100 and 1600. But higher ISO settings are best avoided.
HDR (high dynamic range) is also accessible via one click on the left hand side for balancing out shadow and highlight detail in one shot. We found it took a lot longer to take the shot than in the normal mode, and you'll need a steady hand as it captures multiple frames to blend into one final image - if not held completely still then expect soft, blurry shots.
Additionally, the Acer camera app has an arrow in the bottom right hand corner that provides all sorts of automated modes. Some are whacky, like beautification in capture mode settings, while others are more practical, such as colour effects and scene modes.
There is a time-lapse option for video recordings, and Acer also offers the means to adjust the white balance, contrast levels and set a timer so you certainly get a more feature-rich app than stock Android - even if it is a little more clunky to operate and get to the settings you need to.
What we liked most about the Liquid Jade's camera is that even without you changing any settings, assuming decent light, you'll get a decent shot.
The Acer Liquid Jade runs on the Android 4.4 operating system but - and as with all Acer smartphones - you'll find the company's own Float interface layered over the top. This means you'll get Acer's own take on certain apps such as the camera, as outlined above, but also contacts, cloud storage, and a quick mode launcher for different users.
You can opt to download your own apps and move away from the bloatware if you so wish, but it isn't all bad and it's worth spending some time with a couple of Acer's own before you disregard them for the sake of standard Google apps.
The contacts app isn't particularly pleasant on the eye but the quick mode launcher is useful for those that want a simplified interface, although we found the modes to be a little slow and complicated to get out of once in them.
There is a Formal mode, Convenient mode and a Fundamental mode, the last of which is as basic as basic gets. Ideal, then, for an non-tech-savvy user who just wants certain functions, or perhaps kids who you want to limit access. Each mode is customisable so you can choose what you want to be able to access and although the average user might not appreciate them, they have specific usage scenarios.
When it comes to recent apps, rather than the list you get in stock Android, Acer opts for a grid formation (much like Huawei - it seems to be the eastern style format) so you don't need to scroll as much to see the last apps you used.
There are also five "Float apps" that appear at the bottom of the screen to enable easy multi-tasking - a feature we really liked in the earlier Liquid Z5 model. The interface allows you to multi-task and easily switch between apps without having to go back to the home screen.
You can change which Float apps you want to appear but the selection is limited to eight options and only includes things such as Browser, Calculator, Camera and Maps rather than Candy Crush Saga or other apps you might have downloaded.
If you select a Float app while in another app, a smaller box will come up on top of the app you are in, which makes multi-tasking easier than on other devices. You could write a note of something to remember while doing your online shopping for example. Then there's the Float caller feature which means the entire display isn't consumed when someone rings you, with a small pop up appearing instead.
Stock Android is a little less fussy and cleaner looking than Acer's re-skin. But the Float interface keeps the bloatware to a minimum and the additions it does introduce are justified ones.
A 2100mAh battery powers the 5-inch Liquid Jade and while it will get you through a casual day's use at a push, you will often struggle to get that kind of longevity. If you use your phone a lot like we do then there's just not enough capacity to keep things ticking over. The Acer's battery life isn't as impressive as the Moto G.
There is a CPU power saving mode which limits maximum CPU performance to increase battery life and keep the temperature of the Liquid Jade lower. Acer goes one step further when it comes to battery saving with a dedicated Power Save app, meaning minimal use could see the phone survive for a couple of days - and it's these light-use users who will be best suited to this Acer.
The app allows you to choose Best Mode where the device will retain basic functions such as calls and messages, or you can select My Mode whereby you can select what you want to keep running and what you're happy for the phone to shut off to conserve battery.
My Mode enables you to set the display brightness and sleep timeout, as well as choose whether you disable GPS, WLAN, Bluetooth and mobile data or functions like the LED notification light. It's a handy feature as it gives you more control and is great for those who still want to receive WhatsApp messages on the last train home but are happy for Bluetooth to be shut off.
The Acer Liquid Jade is the best looking smartphone to come from the company so far. The design is lightweight and slim, while offering a display that might not sport the highest of resolutions, but at its large 5-inch scale that makes light work of video playback and the like.
Its 13-megapixel camera is one of its better features, with a dedicated app that offers more features than stock Android. Even without fiddling with the settings you'll get a decent shot with ease. The Acer Float interface is also a helpful addition for multi-tasking.
But just because the Jade shows progression from Acer doesn't mean it succeeds in making the cut. It's not that tempting slice of pie just yet. A lot of which comes down to price point. At £79 more expensive than the Moto G 2014 and even £49 more than the Asus Zenfone, at this mid-level point every pound counts.
Our other biggest complaint is that the Liquid Jade feels sluggish to use. We know it's not a flagship device at this price point, but we would have liked it to be a little faster and switch tasks a little better like the cheaper Moto G does.
Overall the Acer Liquid Jade has its strengths and lackings, making it a functional but not fantastic handset for the price. With some stiff competition in cheaper guises it's really the price that holds the Liquid Jade back from being the tastiest new treat in the mid-range section.