Livin' La Vica-riously
By Luke Tan
Ever heard of the term "living vicariously"? It's what parents do when they send their kids to elite schools they themselves wish they had attended. With only the n-series PDAs to its name, Acer's previous dabblings in the handheld market were minimal.
Now, through its adopted child E-TEN, the Taiwanese laptop giant hopes to obtain bragging rights against incumbents like HTC in the Windows Mobile device space. Let's take a First Look at one of Acer's new fruits - the M900 QWERTY touchscreen slider.
Smart but Creaky
Really large touchscreens and QWERTY sliders have both made inroads, but with the M900, Acer has kitted out a QWERTY slider with the largest touchscreen to date: a 3.8 inch WVGA monster the same size as the HTC Touch HD. The display however isn't bright enough to be read in direct sunlight and could use a more powerful backlight.
The face of the device is made completely of glossy plastic, which when the screen is off helps it look larger than life. Virtually everything else is either dark brown or matte gold-plated plastic. The effect is reasonably stylish but only lasts as long as you don't look at the thick sides and especially the rear, which sports a large camera surround that mars the overall appearance.
Build quality is also far from best-of-breed, with a creaky slider and obtrusive panel gaps and joints. When we first slid the phone open, a small piece of plastic fell out from the guide rails; we're willing to put that down to previous heavy use of this review unit, but it's hardly inspires confidence.
Not the Fastest
The M900 uses a Samsung S3C processor, clocked at 533MHz, which works with just 128MB of RAM. This is the first critical flaw of the M900: with about 40MB or less free memory at startup, multitasking proved somewhat limited, especially with newer and more memory hungry applications such as the Flash-capable Iris Browser.
As far as Home screens for Windows Mobile are concerned, Acer's UI 2.0 is an innovation in the right direction. The main screen is set in a room with a desk, on which various items serve as links to different functions when tapped. For example, a wall calendar obviously takes you to the organizer, while a Rolodex-like contact holder leads you to the favorite contacts menu.
This logical layout works very well for business users, barring a few inconsistent fonts and a rather cartoonish overall appearance (the animated lightning outside the window when the weather forecast calls for a thunderstorm is particularly hilarious).
The biggest conundrum about the M900 has to be its keyboard. While it managed to impress us at the Acer launch event, the M900 we received had a noticeably stiffer keyboard, with far too much force required to activate keys near the corners.
In any case, the keys are a tad too closely spaced for fat-fingered folks. SMS is fine, but the prospect of note-taking and emails on the M900 is not at all appealing. We're not saying the M900's keyboard is a deal-breaker, but please try it out for yourself before you put down your money.
When it comes to multimedia, the M900 has a weak hand to play. The 5-megapixel camera lacks fine detail and contrast, making it useful for only casual snaps or business card scanning. There's no 3.5 mm stereo jack, which detracts from the potential usefulness of the large screen for watching movies.
The M900 does distance itself from recent similar devices with its much-vaunted SiRFStar III GPS chipset and the fingerprint reader. The latter works well for locking the phone and also doubles as a navigation pad, but tapping is a hit-and-miss affair.
Acer must surely hope that its first ever phone offerings will catapult it from mobile unknown into a shining star in mobile devices, but the M900 will have to work very hard to make its parents proud. Acer's UI 2.0 is a good effort, but it's packed into a device with a build quality and a keyboard that don't quite convince. Our opinion: exercise due diligence (i.e., a trip down to the shops) before you trust the Acer M900 to take care of your affairs.