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Acer Stream review

Jonathan Morris
August 13, 2010

On paper the Android-enabled Acer Stream looks the business, with a powerful processor, HD functionality and stacks of impressive features. However looks can be deceptive…

Acer normally produces good phones. The problem is it still hasn’t quite got the design right. This is a company that excels at desktop and laptop computers, but when it comes to mobile, it’s still learning.

The Stream, which is available exclusively from eXpansys.com, is a case in point. At the front the phone looks slick, but once again there’s too much empty space around the screen and it makes the 3.75-inch screen look lost. Turn the phone to the side and the casing sports cheap volume and power buttons, plus an annoying cover over the power socket and mini-HDMI output. The back looks like the design team simply gave up, even though it’s the part of the handset people will see when in use.

Back to the front and there’s another concern. Most screens are set back to offer some protection from knocks and scrapes. On the Stream it sticks out and is just asking to get scratched. Acer must have realised this at the last minute, as it ships the phone with a screen protector film. Perhaps the designers may wish to consider all of these things for their next effort.

What a shame to start off on a bad footing when this phone is packed with powerful features: from the bright AM-OLED display and 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor to the HDMI output (that lets you enjoy HD-resolution pictures and video on a big-screen) and a 5-megapixel autofocus camera. On paper, this Android handset is right up there with the rest of the pack.

Interface off

If I’m critical of the designers then it’s nothing to what I think about the software engineers that came up with Acer’s front-end user interface.

Acer has previously offered a degree of customisation on its handsets, whether it was Android or Windows Mobile. This time, it has changed almost everything. You can understand why you might do that with an operating system which had a poor user interface (like older versions of Windows Mobile), but Android has got things mostly right. If you’re going to change things, you better be good at it like HTC. Acer isn’t.

It has ruined a perfectly good set-up with a homescreen design that presents you with an almost empty screen (bar for the clock) and eight icons to your chosen apps. If you slide the application icons up, you’ll see the rest and can scroll left and right though pages, Samsung TouchWiz style.

It’s a waste of the homescreen, which would normally be filled with icons anywhere you want, plus widgets. And where are the widgets? Well, they’re on the lock screen. This means you can access them without unlocking the phone, but it also becomes the only way you can see them. Meanwhile, your nice empty homescreen looks like the app drawer got stuck halfway up.

Home alone

Another feature is sliding the wallpaper to the right to view recently accessed applications. That’s fine, except there was already a proper and recognised way of doing it in Android OS. The procedure is to hold down the home key. Doing that here, incidentally, brings up the lock screen to give you access to those widgets instead.

It’s shocking to think that Acer has completely ruined the phone with its interface. However, it doesn’t end there. The status bar has been relocated to the bottom of the phone. Instead of dragging it up, as you might expect given it’s at the opposite end of the display, you just press on the icons to bring up ‘bubbles’ of information – such as new emails or messages. You can also press elsewhere for a clock or a load of settings that might as well have been the full settings menu.

The lock screen even has a unique unlocking process, where you ‘flick up’ the corner of a virtual bit of paper, which is nicely animated. However, the delay slows down the unlocking process and soon becomes another thing to moan about.

However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel: you can switch this awful Acer user interface off. Venture into the settings menu and go to applications, you’ll discover the ability to change the user interface from Acer UI to Android UI. Phew.

Once selected, with the phone allowed to reset, you will get the native Android 2.1 interface. This may seem rather more basic in comparison, but it totally transforms the phone.

You can now think of adding a third party homescreen replacement (like LauncherPro, ADW Launcher or Home++) and enjoy the home button that now functions as it would on any other Android phone (except, perhaps another Acer phone).

Until stumbling upon this option, I would have found it impossible to recommend the phone based on the user experience you’ll receive in ‘Acer UI’ mode, but there’s always a chance that you’ll love their setup. At least you have the choice.

Plus points

So having now changed things to make the phone look like a Nexus One, is it any good after all? Well, the ordinary applications work just fine and Acer has also added in some of its own – such as the ability to turn the phone into a media hub, or sync corporate email with RoadSync.

The 5-megapixel camera (which lacks a flash) can record HD video at 1280×720, while there’s also Dolby Mobile support to enhance audio quality. The phone ships with the HDMI cable too.

There are also three media keys below the screen, which is quite a good addition to improve the experience when playing multimedia, but does add to the overall size of the phone.

There’s even plenty of RAM (512MB), multi-touch support, 802.11n (aka Wireless-N) Wi-Fi and a chunky 1,400mAh battery to keep the phone going for a decent time before needing recharging.

In other words, the phone is a decent choice, and one that has been saved by allowing you to opt-out of what some programmers at Acer had in mind.

Acer will hopefully allow you to upgrade shortly to Android OS 2.2, giving you the ability to use the phone as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot and copy applications to your memory card (although with the generous amount of storage space, this isn’t as necessary as on other handsets).

The problem here is that the phone is very expensive, not widely available and doesn’t look very slick compared to the competition. And good specs aren’t everything at the end of the day.

Verdict

It’s hard to believe something so simple can ruin everything, which is what happened after Acer decided to install its own front-end user interface to try and emulate HTC’s Sense or Samsung’s TouchWiz UI. The company should have left things alone, and it’s fortunate you can  ditch the Acer stuff for the native Android interface. Once done, the Stream is a well-specified phone that performs well. However, the phone doesn’t really look like a worthy flagship and with so much choice in this segment of the market, the Stream is still quite low down on the list.


Ratings (out of 5)

Performance: 3 Features: 4 Usability: 4

OVERALL 3


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