It's been a while since we last took a look at a smartphone from Acer. Today's offering -- the S500 CloudMobile -- however, might not be all that unfamiliar, having first met our eyes way back at MWC in spring. This time around Acer presents us with a leaner, slicker, much more design-conscious handset, one that isn't just about the pretty looks, either.
With a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor, 1GB of RAM, an 8-megapixel camera and a 720p display, all for £289 SIM-free, it's pitched against similarly specced phones like the HTC One S. In short, it's yet another alternative for people seeking a full-featured smartphone, except it comes without the pocket-draining price tag. More importantly for Acer, however, is the chance to get back onto people's smartphone radars. So, now that the CloudMobile has gently drifted over our shores, does it have us looking to the sky, or putting on our raincoats of indifference? Read on to find out.
"This is clearly a handsome phone -- one that won't suffer a case of mistaken identity"
The CloudMobile has already enjoyed a rare Engadget accolade: we were so intrigued by it in Barcelona that we felt compelled to take a second look. The phone, which won an iF Product Design award, has a memorable look and feel, with Acer opting for a combination of sharp corners, curved sides and a dimpled matte back that contrasts nicely with the flat, glossy front face. Materials-wise, it's made of plastic but still manages to feel solid -- the kind of build quality we're used to seeing in Samsung's handsets. In fact, when this editor placed it in the same pocket as a Galaxy Nexus, the similar texture on the two phones made the two indistinguishable by feel. The dimpled battery cover not only provides some much-needed personality, it also makes it easier to grip. The metallic accents around the mic and top speaker grille add some visual interest as well. Regardless of whether you think this deserved the iF Product Design award, this is clearly is a handsome phone -- one that won't suffer a case of mistaken identity.
The display measures in at 4.3 inches, which should make the CloudMobile easy for most people to grip. In a world where phone screens are getting larger and larger it seems Acer has opted to make its product fit in as many hands (and pockets) as possible. It's lightweight and comfortable to hold, and yet we never felt we were making concessions on screen size. This might -- in theory -- lend itself to easy use with one hand, but the placement of the power / standby button on the upper-left edge requires a modicum of dexterity for right-handers. It's only your index finger you'll need to train to reach that far, though, as the volume rocker sits more comfortably on the right-hand side, with the rest of the input happening onscreen. That leaves the USB port, mic and headphone jack as the only other openings along the edges. (Note: there's no dedicated camera button, but the volume rocker will perform this role in camera mode.) Those edges also create a slight lip around the display, no doubt making it a bit more scratch-resistant when you place it face-down.
"The display is bright, clear and wonderful to look at."
The overall design is eye-catching enough, but that screen is what's bound to capture your attention. Acer describes it as an HD720 IPS LCD, which means, of course, that it has 1,280 x 720 pixels. We, on the other hand, would describe it as a bit of a corker. It really is bright, clear and wonderful to look at. Colors are crisp and the whole image just pops. This isn't surprising given that its screen density of 342 ppi bests other current flagships like the iPhone 5 and Nexus 4. Some of this "pop" has to do with the manufacturing technique used: Acer presses the glass up against the digitizer, eliminating any air. The screen is viewable from a broad range of viewing angles, even in direct sunlight. Images and photos are reproduced faithfully with dark blacks and no hint of saturation.
Look past that exterior, and you'll find some respectable innards. It might not be the quad-core monster you were hoping for, but the 1.5GHz dual-core chip keeps itself busy without causing any apparent problems -- that is to say, we were never caught cursing its performance. All told, it should be more than adequate for most people, but we'll elaborate on that later once we throw the phone to the benchmark lions. As for the 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, these are fairly pedestrian specs these days, but the option to augment the storage capacity using a microSD card should come as a relief to many people. To get at the SD slot, you'll need to pop off the back cover, where you'll also find the micro-SIM slot and 1,460mAh battery. The rest of the non-radio hardware is made up of a front "HD" (0.9-megapixel) camera and that rear 8-megapixel shooter, along with Dolby Mobile 3 sound enhancement and DLNA. The unit we've been testing supports quad-band GSM / GPRS /EDGE and UMTS / HSPA+, as well as 802.11b/g/n, GPS, NFC and Bluetooth 4.0.
It's true that the Acer walks among an increasing number of quad-core competitors, but as we all know, it's not what you got, it's what you do with it that counts. Under the hood, the CloudMobile packs a perfectly adequate dual-core Qualcomm 8260A Snapdragon S4, clocked at 1.5GHz. Not once did we feel we were using a phone that wasn't capable of doing what we wanted it to. Bear in mind, this packs the same processors as ASUS's Padfone, Sony's Xperia T and the HTC One S -- not a slothful crowd by any stretch of the imagination. Also, thanks to that light, unobtrusive skin atop Android 4.0.4, there's little getting in its way. We also put it through some long bouts of casual gaming as we went about our day, and we're pleased to say that those angry birds flew with nary a glitch, Hill Climb Rally was as smooth a ride as possible, and Cut the Rope never looked better. When not gaming, we jumped back and forth between apps equally unabated. Of course, talk is cheap, so we've prepared some quantitative comparisons to help put the performance in context.
Acer CloudMobileSony Xperia TLHTC One X (AT&T)GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)SunSpider: lower scores are better
You can see right away that the CloudMobile gives HTC's One X a good chase on most of our regular tests -- in fact, it bests it on several of them, including Quadrant. There's not a lot of bragging rights left over for Xperia TL owners with Acer's plucky upstart holding its ground against Sony's flagship. Ah, you say, but with only a 1,460mAh battery to keep the CloudMobile on the road, it probably dies halfway through the day. As it happens, that's not the case. In our regular test (video looping, WiFi and 3G on, display brightness fixed, etc.) it managed a little over six hours. While this isn't exactly marathon territory, it's not a poor showing. With more casual use, the CloudMobile can hang in for almost two days, and that includes being kept on overnight. We know for our readers, though, light use is a rarity. We hear ya, but even then you'll be getting some average runtime to cover a regular day's use.
As for data and downloading, based on the UK's O2 network, the CloudMobile regularly got faster speeds than the Galaxy Nexus when we performed side-by-side tests. The CloudMobile tended to get between 4 Mbps and 5 Mbps on our speed tests, while the Nexus peaked at 4 Mbps in the same areas. Voice calls on the other hand were crisp and clear. Audio in general is boosted by the Dolby support. When enjoying music with the phone, this feature really makes a difference. It's hard to gauge whether it's mainly down to the increase in volume it provides, but it's definitely a step up from the meeker sound without it. The small metal Dolby plate isn't just for branding, it also covers the loudspeaker. How does that speaker perform (when used for something busier than voice)? Well, if you're a fan of listening to music this way, you'll like the CloudMobile more than most. Sound is louder than on the Galaxy Nexus, but it's still just a tiny speaker, so don't expect much. The best thing about the audio is that you have more control over it than just a standard Android install. But the same inevitable limitations (e.g., where to put a better speaker?) are still ultimately there.
If it's numbers you're after, then for this section, the one you'll care about is eight. That's how many megapixels are crammed inside the camera sensor. But as you likely know, the number of pixels isn't the only measure of a camera's capabilities. In fact, sometimes, it can be a downright rotten one. In any case, what can it do with them? Well, before we get to that part, it's worth noting that even though the CloudMobile's software is fairly close to stock Android, there are some notable additions in the camera department. The main difference is the inclusion of some extra photo modes, with a choice of Panorama, HDR, Low Light and Continuous.
"Even though the CloudMobile's software is fairly close to stock Android, there are some notable additions in the camera department."
Panorama mode works surprisingly well, with a very simple and clear on-screen display that has you leading a blue ball along a horizontal line, into a central circle. Once you guide it there, it automatically takes the next photo until you tell it to stop. HDR and Low Light modes work as you might expect (i.e., all the magic happens behind the scenes), remaining active for just one photo before defaulting back to normal mode. This is helpful because it keeps you from leaving these modes on accidentally. Still, it's also a chore to activate every time if you happen to be taking a series of similar shots in the same place. Lastly, Continuous mode shoots 10 pictures in a row. There's no way to configure the interval, but it's handy for the occasional action shot, or if you want to be use a scatter-gun approach, and go back to choose the best one. It's worth mentioning that you can tap to focus, if the phone's own autofocus isn't homing in on what you want it to. In general, our sample shots were pleasing so long as light conditions were favorable -- we thankfully didn't notice any compression. When lighting conditions weren't so great, though, quality drifted to the fringes of acceptable.
As we've mentioned, Acer decided to mostly keep its sticky fingers out of the Android experience, which will please many users. While we're not against manufacturers adding a dash of spice and flair to the phone's software, it's much better when it's just a light dusting of features, rather than a heavy-handed attempt at making over the software. Fortunately, the team at Acer liberally sprinkled in a few unobtrusive treats that largely enhance -- or, at least, don't detract from -- the overall experience.
As far as the bread-and-butter features go, it's all Android (4.0.4, in this case). The on-screen buttons, WiFi, battery and signal icons remain unchanged. The same is true for the app tray, home screens and core app icons (camera, browser and so on). In fact, you might not even spot the differences immediately. But when you do, the first will likely be the pull-down notification list. Unlike stock Android's slide-to-dismiss notifications, the CloudMobile has its own list, which can be discarded with "X" buttons. When in this screen, you might also notice that there are some quick access controls at the top. These allow you to dive right into the music player, notifier, quick settings (WiFi on / off, Mobile data, etc.) and the alarm clock.
Another welcome addition are shortcuts on the lock screen. Press the stand-by button to wake the phone up, and you can either swipe to unlock, or press, then swipe, one of four icons along the bottom to be dropped straight into that app. These can be configured to applications of your choice by long pressing an empty location on the home screen. You might also be pleasantly surprised to find that Swype is installed out of the box, so if you're an ace with that, then you are good to go. If not, you can always turn it off, or install your own preferred keyboard.
The last software function we're going to mention is the cloud piece -- you know, the set of features hinted at in the phone's name. Though the handset was clearly named after its cloud-connected services, this functionality actually has a rather low-profile place in the phone's software. Once opened, a pre-installed AcerCloud app will prompt you to register for an account. After you do that, you can set your phone to automatically sync photos, videos, music and documents across any other devices with the app installed. Currently, this is limited to Windows PCs and Android devices.
The service works as expected: take a photo, and then it'll appear in your synced folder on other devices. From what we can tell, however, there's no way to view these files online via the browser, which seems like a key feature to be missing. It seems, therefore, that the feature is more about helping you sync your media across different devices. That's nice, but this functionality is already available in several different popular incarnations like Google Drive, SkyDrive and Dropbox, among others -- none of which require a hardware buy-in. It's a shame that this feature wasn't more fleshed-out, but perhaps this is something Acer intends to build on with later releases.
If it feels like we've kept the the lid on our enthusiasm throughout this review, well, we have. It's no surprise that a phone we first saw back in February isn't offering swoon-inducing specifications in November. However, there are a few occasions where excitement levels touch the red. That screen, for example, is a delight to look at, and some of the tweaks to Android are good enough that we'll miss them when we go back to our daily drivers. All told, it's a phone that just keeps calm and carries on.
Most importantly, Acer has created a device that stands its ground against some pretty big competition. It's just that with Google's Nexus 4 newly on sale for about £50 less SIM-free, it's hard to find a reason to pick this over the other. If there's any consolation Acer can take from this, it's that it's a challenge other Android handset manufacturers are likely to face over the coming months. The big takeaway here is that Acer can deliver Android handsets worthy of your time -- it just needs to speed up the release cycle.
Special thanks to Expansys for providing us with a review unit.