Review : Acer Liquid E

Acer produces both a fast and inexpensive Android phone.

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Product Manufacturer: Acer

Price: $50 (3 years, Rogers)

The Good

  • Great price for the features.
  • Excellent voice quality.
  • Fast; reference Android 2.1 with multi-touch.
  • Welcome and thankfully small custom widgets.
  • Camera with good color reproduction.

The Bad

  • Possible long-term build quality concerns.
  • Only 2GB of included storage. - Camera sometimes has "smeared stills;" VGA video.
Design, build quality and the display

From a cursory look, the Liquid E wouldn't do much to command attention; it's a minimalist candybar with an all-black surface when the display is powered off. It's not much different than the original Liquid A1, but that amounts to a slim, no-nonsense design. The touch-sensitive controls are easy to reach and well-placed.

Our main concern about the design, and indeed the phone, is just construction quality. Acer's phone feels solid, but the shell is made out of fairly cheap-feeling, glossy plastic. Aside from drawing fingerprints, it doesn't fare as well against either the soft-touch plastic or metal of its competitors. More importantly, there were were signs it might not hold up to significant abuse: the display cover had a handful of air pockets at the edges where it had been partly detached, and the larger back panel wasn't completely flush. These may be functions of our review unit, but we're suspicious that rough handling could see the Liquid E fall apart sooner than its rivals; thankfully, Acer does bundle in a carrying pouch.

That aside, the phone is comfortable to hold and to use, and shows some signs of intelligent design. We most liked the light-up notifiers on the top of the phone that tell you new e-mail has come in without having to remove it from the pouch or a pocket. The sleep/wake button is potentially too close to your index finger or thumb, depending on how you hold it, but we wouldn't consider it a significant setback. We'd like more than 2GB of bundled storage, though.

The display hasn't really changed from the A1, but in this price class that isn't a bad thing. It's a 3.5-inch, 800x480 display that comes across as sharp and surprisingly colorful. It's not quite as accurate as an iPhone's, but it's certainly capable, and it supports multi-touch Android commands.

Android 2.1, Acer customizations and speed

The Liquid E is proof that, even with similar versions, not all Android builds are created equal. Out of the box, Acer's phone comes with Android 2.1 already preinstalled, but it's considerably more faithful to the reference Google version even than on a "halo" phone like the Motorola Droid (Milestone outside of the US). It's virtually identical to the install on the Nexus One and has all the 3D effects and modified controls where the Droid is much more like an older model.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Apart from image quality in the photo gallery, Android 2.1 on the Liquid E gives it a polish that has been somewhat rare in the past. We can only hope that Acer keeps up to date in a relatively timely fashion. Aging OS builds have been Android phones' Achilles' heel, and pushing Android 2.2 or later would go a long way towards convincing buyers that Acer is committed to the long haul where Samsung, Sony Ericsson and others have been relatively slow to move.

A quick upgrade may be realistic, as Acer has thankfully had only a light touch on the user interface. The most conspicuous changes are a pair of carousel widgets on the home screen: one provides a quick preview or access to media like music and photos, and the other provides top-level shortcuts to favorite websites. There's also a handful of utilities like Acer Sync, though we simply didn't need them much of the time; their main edge is for those who want to post media online but don't want to use a service like Picasa or YouTube. Acer Sync is also Windows-only on the computer side, so it's of limited utility if you don't exist in a Microsoft universe.

Some controversy has stirred up over the choice of processor; Acer is still underclocking the Snapdragon chip to 768MHz from its usual 1GHz. Truth be told, though, it was hard to notice the difference between this and the full-speed chip. No doubt it would be noticeable in some games, and the multi-touch still lags in areas where the iPhone wouldn't, but there aren't any practical bottlenecks in day-to-day use -- certainly it's faster than the 1GHz Sony Ericsson Xperia X10. It's just as well, as the phone gets warm after intensive use. It doesn't need to get hotter.

Camera quality

As much as the phone can polarize opinions, image quality from the five-megapixel camera clouds things with decidedly mixed performance. Still images have surprisingly rich color and even produce a pleasing shallow depth of field in the right circumstances, but we've also noticed that the plastic lens surface creates the smeared effect common to some phone cameras. It doesn't handle high-contrast shadows very elegantly, either, and without a flash, photos in the dark or in low light just aren't realistic. The camera app is fairly quick to load, though, which can't be said even for many Android devices with fast processors.

Video output is middling, too. We were fairly happy with the actual quality, but Acer is still using VGA (640x480) recording; that was good enough in 2009, but it's sub-par in 2010 when the Motorola Droid snaps widescreen 480p and several more phones now ship with recording in 720p, including the iPhone 4. That may be fine for now, but even for YouTube it will be underwhelming before long.

Call quality and battery life

What may surprise the most about the Liquid E is its voice calling. Simply put, it's outstanding. On our end, calls were loud, and were clear without being shrill. The recipient agreed and said it was the best cellphone quality they'd heard, even with some mild-to-moderate background noise. A iPhone 4 or Nexus One owner could rightly point to their active noise cancellation providing an edge, but for straight-ahead audio quality, Acer is surprisingly out in front.

Battery life isn't quite so beyond expectations and is very much in line with Android phones. It should last for several hours of moderate use, and it tends to drain 10 to 20 percent of battery life if left overnight with a handful of background notifications active (Gmail and Twitter, for example). As competent as that is, we're concerned it might not be the best before long. Apple's iPhone 4 is about to get a bigger battery and better power management, so what seems adequate today may not be as great later on. Even so, you shouldn't be worried about longevity, especially as there's still a replaceable battery.

Wrapping up

In many ways, the Liquid E design fits Acer's PC philosophy to a tee. It's all about providing the most possible performance on the inside relative to a low price. As always, there are certain tradeoffs to be made for this to happen. Here, you get a quick, modern Android phone that excels at voice calls -- a rarity in an era where the Droid X and Evo 4G treat phoning as almost incidental -- but, like an entry-level Aspire notebook, the construction isn't reassuring. You may well miss HD video recording or the more advanced optics once you're one or two years into your contract.

All the same, it was hard not to keep returning back to a single, undeniable advantage: $50 Canadian ($49 US) on a contract. Even at its contract-free $425 ($416 US) price, there are few smartphones that both have fast, reasonably modern hardware and an OS to match. The last time a carrier like Rogers offered a $50 Android phone was the LG Eve, and it was frankly disappointing with an unwieldy, resistive touchscreen, a fair amount of bulk and UI customizations that mostly made things worse. With the Liquid E, Acer smartly realized that seemingly plain hardware and software design could actually be an advantage.

It's improbable that Acer will rock the smartphone industry to its foundations and give Apple, HTC or Motorola panic attacks, but it doesn't have to just yet. As long as you get an example without build quirks, the Liquid E is a very viable smartphone, especially when stacked against other phones with similar pricing.