It feels like only yesterday that we attended Acer’s press event in London announcing groundbreaking news for the company. This was around the time that Acer ventured into the smartphone market, and back then it was all about Windows Mobile. So, how have times changed? The Acer Stream is a testament to Acer’s ability to adapt and listen to a market in which it is ultimately a very young contender. Acer now have a number of Android based devices that are exciting and even somewhat innovative. This review of the Acer Stream focuses on the core aspects of the device but considers them with respect to what else is available for the same price point.
What’s in the box?
Before we get started, it is worth noting that the Acer Stream is a huge step up on the beTouch E110. So much so, it’s almost not even worth drawing comparisons, in part because the Stream is wildly more expensive. With that said, it is cheaper than the HTC Desire, BlackBerry Torch and falls more in line with the Motorola Milestone in Europe. The Acer Stream will set you back around £330.00 from Expansys online, who are a fair assessment since they are rarely the cheapest option.
The box has a host of features and offers an enjoyable unpacking experience. Our box even came with a Sandisk 8gb microSD card and SD adapter. You can expect a microHDMI cable useful for connecting your Stream to your HDTV, along with a USB cable, manuals and screen protector. It was nice to see a basic carry pouch for the phone too.
The first thing to note about the design and physical aspects of the device is that the build quality is appealing. I used the Stream alongside my Samsung Galaxy S and actually found I preferred the build on the Stream without question. For those of you familiar with the Galaxy S, you will appreciate that the plastic feel of the back cover (in particular) leaves something to be desired. This was not the case with the Acer Stream. It was the ‘right’ weight, feeling sturdy in the hand and very satisfying to hold.
On the front of the phone you will find four hardware keys, along with three capacitive buttons. Three of the hardware keys make up the dedicated music buttons found at the very bottom. The majority of the pictures of the Stream make the ‘Home’ button appear like a capacitive one, but it is hardware. On the other hand, the search, back and menu buttons are capacitive. As we move to the right edge, we find a dedicated camera button and a cover that hides the USB and HDMI ports. The top edge provides your 3.5mm headphone jack, and nothing else. The left edge provides three buttons positioned towards the top including the power on-off button and the volume up-down joggers. Flipping the phone over we find a 5mp camera capable of recording at 720p high definition video. You can also see a logo for the Dolby Digital sound that the device provides.
Overall, it is clear to me that the Acer Stream, like many other touch-screen phones, is designed around the AMOLED 3.7-inch capacitive touch-screen display. This makes it a certain size, by definition, but it is certainly not too big. Our lasting impression from a physical aspect is that it is attractive enough and arguably one of the nicest looking devices that Acer have made. With that said, it is not going to win any modeling awards when compared to the Nokia N8 or the iPhone. It feels great, though, and users will probably be surprised at how much they like the feel of it in their hands.
Multimedia, Applications and UI
Acer have customized the UI (Touch 3D UI v4.0) of the Stream quite considerably in some regards, and fairly unnoticeably in others. At first, you will probably dislike it if you have become used to a ‘normal’ Android experience. Similarly, it fails to achieve what HTC accomplished with their Sense UI. However, with that said, I learned to like it. I liked it enough that I would certainly consider using this UI over the stock one if provided the option. For those that do not feel the same way as me, you can switch between the classic Android 2.1 and Acer’s own quite easily, although you’ll need to turn your phone on and off to do so.
Where did the widgets go?
The home screen of Acer’s UI does not appear to offer any widgets. Indeed, swiping from left to right or right to left does not reveal differing home screens. In order to access your widgets, you need to have the phone locked, or long hold the dedicated ‘Home’ button when in use. There are then five ‘locked screens’ available for your widgets that act somewhat like the traditional home screens on a normal Android device. The benefits afforded by this design are such that they enable you to access some of the most vital pieces of information straight from your pocket without having to unlock the device. Unfortunately, if you are using your phone and want to gain access to them, it is less intuitive and might take you a little longer. I could be biased by the fact that I am used to the stock Android experience, however. Finally, it is worth nothing that you cannot put short-cuts or folders here. Bummer.
So, given that there is only one home screen, what happens when you swipe to find the ones you were expecting? You are presented with a neat little idea from Acer involving your history on the device, or a selection of your most recent music, videos and photos. Indeed, swiping form left to right will bring up an overall application history, including what menus and settings you might have just changed, along with what web pages you just visited. It is all organised chronologically. I did not get to use this very much during my time with the phone. Nonetheless, I can see how this might be a feature of which a power-user begins to take full advantage once they have spent some significant time using the device. Again, if you’re not sold on this addition, you can hide these features.
The home screen itself provides a tray positioned at the bottom of the screen containing two rows of icons that comprise four columns. When you swipe the tray upwards it reveals a bunch of other icons that you can swipe right to left. The smart thing here is that your original two by four set of icons that were initially available in the tray do not move, and are ‘sticky’. The other icons do move, and by swiping them right to left you reveal all of the other applications installed on the phone. The result of this design enables you to retain access to the most important applications no matter how you leave your icon tray having swiped around looking for something in particular. The status icons such as battery life and signal strength are displayed in a small bar that provides the border to the top of the tray. You can tap on this bar and it will provide you with a selection of quick settings where you can turn off things like GPS and Bluetooth, as well as set an alarm.
The Acer Stream comes with an application called nemoPlayer. I mention this in particular because it is vital to the phone’s feature set. For example, the HDMI port that I mentioned is certainly something that sets the Stream apart from its competitors. However, it is pretty limited in its function and the port only works in conjunction with the nemoPlayer provided by Acer. When you are done watching a video or photo-slideshow on your HDTV through the HDMI port, our experience suggests that the TV cannot even display the nemoPlayer menu options, let alone any other application. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the phone’s display will stop working when you are using an additional HDTV display.
The music player has had some alterations, but not many. The only thing of note is the Dolby Digital Mobile technology included in the device, whereby the phone’s equalizer settings for listening to music via headphones are now empowered by Dolby. I used the Stream to listen to a lot of music, but I am no audiophile (although I like to think I am) and if I’m honest I have to admit that I did not hear any significant benefits. The dedicated music keys, however, came in a treat, and I found that when I sent the Stream back to the powers that be, I really missed these hardware features.
The storage on the phone measures in at 2GB but with the included 8GB microSD card, we’re looking at 10GB overall. If you’re really into big files, you could always upgrade the microSD card to 32GB, which would really give you some serious space for movies or video recording.
Having been plagued with the ‘lag’ issue on the Samsung Galaxy S, I found the Acer Stream lighting fast. This is because it runs a 1GHz Snapdragon processor with 512MB of RAM making it feel fast and responsive. You can tell that Acer have spent some time optimizing the UI too, since all the transitions were rendered smoothly and seemed very responsive. As previously mentioned, the screen is a beautiful 3.7-inch AMOLED capacitive touch-screen offering up 800 × 480 pixel resolution. The capacitive nature of the display means you can use pinch to zoom in applications that support it such as the web browser.
Of course, there is Wi-Fi (b/g/n) and Bluetooth (2.1 with A2DP), along with HSDPA radio connectivity. I found accessing the internet within buildings very easy even outside of the London area, although the GPS lock was average, even with the aGPS feature turned on. Not bad, but average. Voice quality was great, too. When considering the battery life, it is important to keep a relative perspective. I used the device fairly heavily (music, GPS, HSDPA with a lot of Google Maps) and found the battery lasted a full day with some spare for the next day. However, on average I was clocking a day and a half of consistent use. On the other hand, my Galaxy S only pulls in a day if I am brutally honest. I haven’t done any proper bench marking so this is mainly keying off my intuition and experience, but I would say the Stream is pretty standard for a smartphone, perhaps even on the better side.
The camera on the Stream is also decent, but nothing special. This is a particular core feature that I think a lot of people rate on a smartphone, even if they do not take advantage of what a great camera can offer. Indeed, even I do not take that many photos on my smartphone. In terms of ease of use, the camera application scores well. In terms of quality, the still photos were actually quite average compared to other devices boasting the 5-megapixel label. Furthermore, the HD video recording uses 3GP as the file format of choice, which highlights a lot of annoying visual artefacts. Overall, it was a little disappointing and in reality was not of 720p quality.
I could sit here and say that Acer deserve a cookie for trying really hard to make a top notch smartphone. But this is business, and what Acer have created is a good, but not a leading device. In some things it competes well with the market leaders (such as battery life and connectivity options), but in others it falls down (camera and video). The problem with the Stream is that it clearly tries hard to be a top-end phone. This means it is probably one of Acer’s flagships of which the company is meant to be proud. Think Motorola Droid/Miliestone, HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy S. Alas, I believe that because it squares itself cleanly in this arena, it is a complement to the Stream and Acer, but when compared to the older and newer devices released around a similar time, it isn’t turning any heads.
Sure, it is good looking enough, and it works well. However, when you sit and show it to a friend who is thinking about getting one of the aforementioned smartphones, no one would consider the Stream as a genuine contender. Acer have tried all the right things, such as creating their own UI and adding in unexpected hardware features such as the HDMI-out port. The problem is the execution is just not there. The HDMI port does not offer enough and leaves the user annoyed rather than pleased primarily because anyone but Acer can see the potential here, but this is just frustrating because Acer do not deliver. Similarly, the UI is actually very practical and easy to use, but it just doesn’t look very sexy. When compared to HTCs efforts, it’s just a bit boring.
We hope that Acer continue along this path and hit the execution of their feature set in a more successful way. They haven’t yet seen the success HTC, Motorola and Samsung have with their high-end phones, so they are due a big one soon.