The Dell Aero, which was announced back at the Spring CTIA 2010 show, is the company's first smartphone for the U.S. market. To be honest, with each passing month we were beginning to have our doubts that the Aero would even see the light of day, and now that it has, we're wondering what were Dell and AT&T thinking when they released the phone in its current state? Running on an outdated operating system, the Aero simply can't compete with today's smartphones. Its feature set is limited; it's slow; and Dell's custom user interface makes the phone unintuitive and frustrating to use. The $100 price tag (with contract) might be alluring, but if you can afford shelling out $30 more, you're going to get much more from the HTC Aria or if you want to stick to the $100 range, the Palm Pre Plus and iPhone 3GS are better alternatives.
At 4.8 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and 3.7 ounces, the Dell Aero is one of the sleekest and lightest Android devices we've seen to date. The handset is comfortable to hold and though its construction is mostly plastic, it feels quite solid.
Overall, the phone is quite eye-catching with its black-and-charcoal-gray coloring and chrome accents. The front of the phone features a 3.5-inch, 640x360-pixel capacitive touch screen and is void of any buttons, which gives it a very clean look. However, in the end, it also makes the phone unattractive. Let us explain.
Unlike other Android phones, you don't get the full set of navigation controls--home, menu, back, and search--below the display, and the ones that you do get are now on the sides of the phone. For example, on the left side below the power button, there is a key that acts as the back button and doubles as the home shortcut when you do a long press. The right side features another single button that performs the function of the menu key and also activates voice commands with a long press.
This setup takes some getting used to and even after a few days, we're still not completely comfortable with it. It's unintuitive and we miss the convenience of easy, one-touch access to the controls. More than anything, we missed having a dedicated search button. The Aero offers universal search, and it'd be nice if we could search from anywhere on the phone rather than having to return to the screen with the dedicated search bar.
The display itself is on the smaller side but still functional and relatively sharp. We didn't have any problems reading text or viewing pictures and video, and the phone offers a built-in accelerometer and pinch-to-zoom support, though it's not quite as fast or as smooth as some competing models.
Other design features on the Aero include a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button on right side, and a Mini-USB port on the left. There's no headphone jack, so you'll need to use an audio adapter--which fortunately comes in the box--if you want to plug in your own earbuds. On back, you'll find the camera and flash, and the microSD expansion slot is located behind the battery door.
AT&T ships the Dell Aero with the aforementioned 3.5mm audio adapter, an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 2GB microSD card, a wired stereo headset, and reference material.
The user interface on the Aero is Dell's own, and the company took the customization to the extreme. It all looks simple enough at first. The main home screen offers your most basic information, such as time, date, and weather, and also features a large notification box at the bottom. You can then swipe to the right to access additional panels, and at the top of each screen there is a stagnant toolbar that provides shortcuts to the phone app, browser, messaging, and e-mail. In all, you can have up to 10 panels, but you're pretty limited in what you can add to these panels.
If you press the menu key on the right side, you'll get the option to add applications, shortcuts, native tools, and remote widgets. However, the only native tool is the search bar and the only widgets available are those from third-party applications. You don't get any of the standard Android widgets like the one for the clock or calendar.
Finally, Dell's onscreen keyboard is pretty awful. It's somewhat usable in landscape mode, but in portrait mode, you have to peck at these incredibly small keys, which isn't good news if you don't have child-size hands. Even with predictive text, our messages were still filled with errors. One other quirk is when you go to enter a password, the keyboard automatically switches to an alphanumeric keypad, which is great if your password only contains numbers, but annoying if you have a mix of both.
We know that custom UIs are a hot topic of debate: some people are absolutely against it, yet others are fine with it. Though offering a stock Android UI makes for easier updates, we don't mind custom skins when they're helpful or enhance the functionality of the phone, but this just isn't the case here.