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Acer Liquid Metal

March 12th, 2011
Acer makes its second shot at Android with new hardware and software.

Acer is still a relative newcomer to smartphones, but it's shown signs of evolving quickly. The Liquid Metal (also known as the Liquid MT) is an example of that with better build quality, 14.4Mbps 3G and a radically revamped software suite. We'll find out if it's genuinely better, or if a solid formula has been spoiled, in our Liquid Metal review. Design

With a casual look, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Liquid Metal was last year's Liquid E. In some senses, that's not far off the mark. The shape is still the familiar, rounded candybar with four touch-sensitive navigation buttons. Where it improves is simply build quality; as the name suggests, the plastic has mostly been replaced with metal. It feels noticeably better in the hand than the Liquid E, and less like it might eventually break. The construction isn't quite as jewel-like as an iPhone 4, but it's good.

The display is roughly the same, too, at 3.6 inches and the same 480x800 resolution. Color accuracy is reasonably good, and we didn't have a problem with washed out viewing angles like on some cheaper displays. Visibility, however, was another matter. Acer uses a slightly curved glass layer over the display, and it's a particularly reflective variety; we had a hard time making out anything on the display even compared to a glossy screen like that on the iPhone 4.

Thankfully, there have been some more functional additions in the space of the past year. There's now a flash along with the five-megapixel camera on the back. We also liked the mail notifier on the top. Rather than the somewhat intrusive blinking lights of RIM's BlackBerry or some HTC Android phones, it's a pulsing white envelope icon. Small touches matter.

The navigation buttons are intuitive enough, although we had some issues with the volume rocker. It's a shallow design near the top right corner, and we found ourselves having to gingerly grab the phone out of a pocket or the (thankfully bundled) carrying case to avoid accidentally raising the volume. The camera button is convenient enough but, oddly, doesn't trigger the camera app like on some Android devices. Acer has made the microSDHC card slot slightly difficult to access: you need to remove the battery to slide in a new card (ours came with a 2GB card). Charging up is easy, though, as there's a micro USB port clearly exposed on the bottom center.

What's lacking is frills. There's no HDMI video output, no front camera, no NFC (near field communications) wireless or other features that are increasingly common. We wouldn't consider their absence fatal setbacks. All the same, it's not hard to spend somewhat more to get one or more of these features, or at least a larger screen if that's what you like.

Android and Acer's custom UI

The Liquid Metal runs Android 2.2, but unlike last time, the interface is no longer Google's stock interface with a handful of widgets on top. It's now Acer's own customized interface, nicknamed Breeze, and it permeates virtually the entire OS, from the lock screen to individual sub-menus and apps.

The practical application is, to put it mildly, mixed. We liked that we could see all our widgets on the lock screen and could get to our app history from the home screen, but much of the interface seemed like it was both a step forward and at least one step back. On that lock screen, you can't add widgets with Android's usual press-and-hold; you have to go into an app once you've unlocked it. The home screen moves the notification bar closer to your thumbs along with showing the history, but you can't have multiple home screens there or have more than eight apps without switching to the (also customized) app launch bar. Even the contextual menu didn't work at the home screen.

With the exception of the shortcuts to toggling features like Bluetooth or the Wi-Fi hotspot (more on this later), much of Breeze feels like it was designed more to be different than to be better. In some cases, they feel like attempts to bring back Windows Mobile -- Acer's first choice of smartphone OS -- rather than to understand what worked. If we were honest, we'd rather have the stock Android build, since it's at least largely consistent.

Android 2.2 itself works well enough, although we were slightly disappointed with the speed. There's a second-generation 800MHz Snapdragon processor inside, and the OS is generally responsive. However, many transitions are still less than fluid, and the web browser has a very choppy frame rate when trying to pinch-to-zoom or scroll. Flash 10.1 is built-in, but as is often the case, it's not the uniform positive that Adobe (or some Android fans) make it out to be. We loved having the option of watching video on the BBC or Newgrounds using the same plugin as on the desktop; however, certain sites were bogged down by Flash or didn't work properly, such as Flash ads that blocked web content we wanted to see. Some of the performance should be addressed by Flash 10.2's hardware acceleration; however, that still won't address the lack of touch-native support for some Flash content or the longer load times from banner ads that would have had to turn to a faster-loading image instead.

The Liquid Metal does have a way to counteract this with its 14.4Mbps 3G. On the web, it did make the Flash-heavy sites more tolerable; we didn't see instantaneous loading, though, and we suspect that a faster processor would have been more useful. It came more in handy for the personal hotspot feature, which was quick to set up (in unprotected form). We still noticed the performance drop versus Wi-Fi in the same area but were happy with the speed on a single notebook.

Like so many companies offering non-stock Android installs, Acer felt compelled to preload a slew of apps both from itself and others. These felt mostly superfluous and, again, attempts to make the phone different without making it better. SocialJogger aggregates Facebook and Twitter into a rotating carousel, but just like Timescape on Sony Ericsson phones, it's near-useless if you have a large number of users on either service: it can't show more than four updates at a time and isn't as good as using Facebook or Twitter apps separately. NemoPlayer just aggregates music and video into a single location without doing anything truly better, and News & Weather is easy to use but is somewhat redundant with home screen widgets and separate apps. We'd add that two of the eight apps in the home screen shortcut area were Rogers account and music store apps that didn't need to have such high prominence. The local network media sharing app was the most useful.

We still like Android, and if you're a genuine fan, you'll find that there's enough here to be enjoyable. But if you're coming from a stock Android phone or one with a lighter touch, you'll wonder why there were so many changes that were either redundant or made things worse. Not to mention that we haven't heard of any plans for an official Android 2.3 upgrade. Even with capable hardware, it could be months or longer before the phone catches up to what the Nexus S had in December 2010 and other phones are already carrying. Stock Android wouldn't just have ensured speedy upgrades, it might have even been better.

Camera app and camera quality

One area where Acer's customizations have done some good is in photography. There are considerably more options and more visually appealing capture and preview apps. We liked having fine-grained control over settings without an overly elaborate interface; most of the features follow typical Android interface methods or, if they don't, are easy to use. And, as always, one of Android's best feature is its ability to easily upload photos or videos to multiple different services, including apps you install later.

Image quality isn't quite so certain. The five-megapixel camera is fairly good at capturing color accurately and is a pleasure to use outdoors. Similarly, it's fairly good at autofocusing quickly and can handle macros without needing a special mode. Still image quality indoors or in low light, however, quickly falls apart. Acer's ISO-based stabilization creates what feels like a lose-lose situation. Images get unacceptably noisy or blown out if you turn stabilization on and need it, but if you leave it off, images blur fairly quickly, even in situations where you'd think you would get a sharp image. You'll likely need to invoke the flash considerably more than you'd like, as long as the subject is reasonably close.

In an era where many phones are getting back-illuminated CMOS sensors or otherwise compete with dedicated point-and-shoot cameras, the Liquid Metal's camera is strictly mediocre. If Acer chose the camera to cut costs, it's in evidence here.

Video quality does fare better. While we saw some evidence of a less-than-ideal bitrate with minor block artifacts, it didn't produce streaking or other evidence of a sensor that can't keep up with video. It auto-adjusted to changes in exposure quickly, too. Video captures at up to 720p and will upload that way to YouTube or other sites that support HD, so if you're primarily looking to record moving footage, you'll be happy.

Call quality and battery life

As a phone, the Liquid Metal feels like a step back; the call quality is acceptable, but it has a slightly muffled tone for incoming calls where the Liquid E was one of the best phones we'd tested. Outbound, there wasn't as much muffling in evidence, but it wasn't spectacular, either. We imagine Acer may have once again trimmed some costs in this area, although we didn't have a detailed teardown to learn whether or not it was the chipset or the software.

Battery life is fairly good. We got through the equivalent of an entire workday with a small amount of battery life to spare while using the phone in moderately demanding ways, including lots of 3G web browsing with Flash, photography (including using third-party apps like Picplz), some movie capture, a small amount of mobile hotspot use and a light amount of calling. As with most smartphones, you'll still need to plug in at the end of the day to have a full charge for tomorrow. We're nonetheless glad that it can survive real use.

Wrapping up

In many ways, the Liquid Metal now represents the way Acer builds a budget PC. It's built with better materials than in the past and has impressive specifications for the price. However, on digging deep, it's also clear that both the PC and the phone made some sacrifices to get to that price, and the big numbers that trigger a sale in the store don't tell the real story. We like the physical design; we just wish that it been improved more on the inside.

More importantly, it's also a textbook example of the group-think that has led to many Android phones losing their potential. In an attempt to stand out with its own interface, Acer has become like every other Android manufacturer in having not terribly special improvements. And just like everyone else, some of its changes can be liabilities, especially if you know how Android is supposed to behave. Customizing the interface so heavily is similarly a guarantee that owners won't get the latest features in a timely fashion and may not be getting new features at all soon enough. Owners of Samsung-made Android phones, the Nexus S excepted, will be very familiar with the experience of having a device supported for only a few months.

So, as much as we like Android itself, it's hard to recommend the Liquid Metal, even with the low prices we've seen for the phone on contract. For as much or a bit more, there are phones using Android that will be faster, shoot with a better camera, and run either a more official version of Android or else customize it in a more elegant way. Also, if you're not as tied to Android, there are iPhones, webOS devices, and Windows Phone 7 devices that could also serve more effectively, either due to better hardware, better software or both. The Liquid Metal is better than a basic feature phone, but it needs to be more than that in such a competitive environment.

- Better build quality; good in the hand.

- Low price.

- Info on the lock screen.

- 720p video and good outdoor photography.

- Good battery life.

- Top-mounted e-mail notifier.

- Hotspot on some carriers.

- Breeze UI hurts as much as it helps.

- Bundled apps are often redundant or poor.

- Poor photography in any less than ideal conditions.

- Call quality a step down from the Liquid E.