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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.
We hate to continue to be the bearer of bad news, but the picture doesn't get any brighter when it comes to the Dell Aero's feature set. This is mostly because the Aero ships running an outdated Android 1.5 operating system. We can't even remember how long it's been since we reviewed an Android 1.5 device, and in a time when devices are running Android 2.2, it's mind-boggling that AT&T and Dell would still think to release the Aero as is. Sure, Dell adds a few extras like one-click photo uploads, a handwriting recognition program, a Flash Lite-capable browser, and a video editor, but you're still missing out on a lot of functionality and even some basic features like a dedicated Gmail app (you have to use the general e-mail app instead). When asked about future Android updates, Dell said it has not announced any plans yet.
As a phone, the Dell Aero is quad-band world phone with a speakerphone, speed dial, smart dialing, voice commands, conference calling, and text and multimedia messaging. Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), 3G, and GPS are all onboard. The address book is only limited by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts), and each contact card can hold multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, postal addresses, birthdays, and so forth. You can also add a custom ringtone, photo, and group ID.
That said, contact synchronization is another area where the Aero's capabilities are limited, as the Aero can only sync contact information over the air from your Exchange account. We had our Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts all hooked to the Aero and none of those contacts transferred over to the phone. This is pretty basic functionality nowadays; we're not asking for the moon here.
The Aero supports multiple e-mail accounts--Exchange, POP3, and IMAP4--with separate in-boxes for each, but the e-mail app doesn't display images inline or support HTML-formatted messages. There's push delivery for Exchange mail but synchronization for all other accounts happens at user-defined intervals: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, or manually. Folders can be accessed using the options key on the right side or the onscreen submenu in the upper-right-hand corner of the in-box.
Other apps and personal information management tools preloaded on the Dell Aero include Quickoffice, a task list, a calculator, an alarm clock, and a number of AT&T services, such as AT&T Video, AT&T Maps, and Yellow Pages Mobile--all of which can't be removed.
The built-in media player supports AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, MP3, WMA, MPEG, MPE4, and 3GPP music and video codecs. The music player has basic features like repeat, shuffle mode, and on-the-go playlist creation. It also supports album art and has a Cover Flow-like interface when used in landscape mode, but swiping through the art doesn't advance tracks. There's also no easy way to control the media player when you're working in other apps. You must use the pull-down notifications tray at the top of the screen and then relaunch the music player to do so. The Aero offers 2GB of memory via the microSD card but can be expanded up to 32GB.
The Aero features a 5-megapixel camera with flash, 8x digital zoom, and autofocus. It can also record video at 30 frames per second. You get a number of editing options and tools, such as white balance, color tone, geotagging, and contrast, and the camera's interface is pretty decent, offering one-touch access to most of the settings. Picture quality, however, was drab. We could make out the objects in the photos just fine, but there was a grayish tone and slight softness to the picture.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Dell Aero in New York using AT&T service, and call quality was a bit mixed. On our side of the conversation, the sound quality was muffled, so at times we had difficulties hearing our callers and had to ask them to repeat themselves. We were able to use an airline's voice-automated system without any problem, however. Friends were quite impressed with the clarity and richness of calls.
Speakerphone quality was a little tinny but without any background distractions. Volume was also loud enough that we could carry on conversations in a louder environment. We had no problems pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones. Of course without Android 2.2, there's no support for voice dialing over Bluetooth.
We didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period, and AT&T's 3G data speeds were decent. CNET's full site came up 22 seconds; the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN loaded in 15 seconds and 10 seconds, respectively. However, on more than one occasion, we got a network connection error message when trying to access YouTube and the Android market. Once connected, YouTube videos took a few seconds to load and played back without interruption, but more often than not, audio and picture were not synchronized.
The Aero is armed with a 624MHz Marvell processor, and it struggled to keep up with even the simplest of tasks like launching apps and switching between screens, particularly compared with the latest smartphones, which are rocking 1GHz processors. Though the phone never crashed on us, there were a couple of occasions were the lag was significant enough that we thought we'd need to reboot, but eventually, the Aero came back to life.
The Dell Aero ships with a 1,000mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 4 hours and up to 14.5 days of standby time. The Aero was able to beat its rated talk time by half an hour in our battery drain tests, but compared with other smartphones out there, 4.5 hours isn't much. Anecdotally, we barely got a day's worth of use from the phone before needing to recharge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Aero has a digital SAR rating of 1.09 watts per kilogram