6th Aug 2010 | 15:30
The Stream is Acer's best smartphone ever. But is it even in the same league as rest?
Acer Stream: Overview
We've seen a number of smartphones launched this year from Acer including beTouch models running Android and neoTouch models running Windows Mobile.
There has also been the Liquid E, an Android 2.1 upgrade of an earlier handset which we thought had potential but which failed to live up to its billing.
Acer keeps forging ahead with new launches, and the latest, the Stream, looks on paper to be a stunner.
Alongside the essentials of 3G, Wi-Fi and GPS, we have a nice large 3.7-inch AMOLED screen with an 800 x 480 pixel resolution, 1GHz processor, 720p video recording, HDMI out, a 5-megapixel camera and really nice-looking build quality.
And while Acer barely touched the Android user interface on the Liquid E, the Acer Stream is fully skinned. This is potentially a worry because Acer has not been wonderful at skinning operating systems in the past.
But we were hoping from the outset that the Stream might be able to rival HTC's super Sense user interface.
In the end the reality lies between the two. HTC Sense is still the one to beat, but Acer has made a pretty good job with skinning on the Stream.
As you'd expect from those specs, the Acer Stream doesn't come cheap. At £399 SIM free, it's actually a shade more expensive than the HTC Desire.
Of course, it's brand new, so its price may fall and come into line with the Desire over the next few weeks.
Even before getting to the software, there are things to like about the Acer Stream. The physical design is streets ahead of what we've seen on recent Acer smartphones.
There is a metal-look finish to the border of the front, with a black screen-surround that houses four touch buttons.
However, it's got a very 'industrial' feel to it - like the phone is bigger than it needs to be all round, with a very chunky chassis.
These buttons perform the usual Android functions – Home, Search, Back and Menu. The Home button, in a circular surround, glows red when the Stream is charging and green when the charge is complete.
All the buttons have a white backlight when one is pressed, and there's a teeny bit of haptic feedback at that point too.
Where the Acer Stream differs from other Android handsets is in the presence of three further, physical buttons at the very bottom of the front chassis. Marked with arrows these are media controls and provide previous/rewind, play/pause, and next/forward functions.
They work when you're listening to music, so you can control playback while in another app, which is very useful.
They also work while you're watching video over the HDMI output, but not when viewing still images.
The edges of the Acer Stream are only very lightly peppered with buttons. The bottom is completely clear, the top has a 3.5mm headset jack.
On the left, there's the main power button and a volume rocker, both of which are extremely thin.
The right edge houses an equally thin camera button and, under a rubber hinge with a central pivot, the micro-USB power/PC connect cable and mini-HDMI port.
One slight grumble about the side buttons it is that the micro-USB and HDMI ports are a little fiddly to get to, because the rubber cover gets in the way.
Acer Stream: Interface
Acer has given the Stream a skin that sits on top of Android, and it's done a pretty good job.
When you switch the handset on there's a main screen that offers you access to further home screens by horizontal sweeping. This is actually the lock screen, but it has five discrete screens onto which you can put the standard array of Android widgets.
However, you can't tap and hold on any of these screens to add widgets as you do with, say, the HTC Desire.
To add widgets, you have to move into the main screen by pulling at a tab in the bottom left corner of the display.
Then you can either hold down the Home button or tap the apps button and run the Widgets app.
With either method, you can then scroll through the Home screens and put whatever widgets you like onto whichever screens you like.
It's very convoluted and, frankly, a little unintuitive.
The main screen that you get to when you lift that aforementioned tab has an array of eight shortcuts on it.
Stroke upwards to reveal the full apps list and you'll find these eight shortcuts are the first two lines of the full apps list, and they remain static. The four rows below that scroll horizontally, giving access to the full array of apps.
Above these four shortcuts is a bar offering the time, signal strength and battery status.
Tapping this bar enables you to make changes to the settings and see more info. Depending on where you tap, you'll either see clock/alarm info or connection settings and battery status info. Sweep left or right to see what's missing, tap to change the settings.
And there's still more. Tap and hold on the portion of the main screen above these shortcuts and you can set wallpapers and sounds.
Sweep left and you can see a usage history enabling you to switch to apps you've recently used. Sweep right and you're into Acer's media widget, which gives access to photos, music and video.
It isn't as fast or intuitive as sweeping through just one set of home screens, and we think maybe Acer could have simply upped the number of Home screens from five to seven. That way, it could have forced its History and Media screens into two of them, rather than having two separate arrangements.
As you get further inside the Acer Stream you see more detail in terms of customisation. For example the Gallery app, which provides access to your photos and videos, has a rather nice visual menu that leads to a thumbnail display.
Acer Stream: Contacts, calls and messaging
The Acer Stream will pull contacts in from a range of different apps, but it can't do quite as much as other social networking handsets can.
It'll gather your Facebook friends, and any that you've got squirreled away in Google, as well as pulling in corporate contacts via Exchange.
But if you're a fan of Twitter or MySpace and have contacts there too, there's no simple tool for pulling those in.
Entering contacts manually is not too much of a pain since the look and feel of the user interface is quite friendly.
It's a shame you can't tap the photo icon and pop straight into the camera to take a picture of any new-found friends though.
Instead, tapping the icon takes you to the photo gallery, assuming you've already got a photo in stock.
There's nothing especially fancy about the dialler at first glance, though when you tap the menu button you see that you can get access to speed dials, although they are a couple of screen presses away.
Messaging is straightforward and the capacitive touchscreen means the keyboard works well in both portrait and landscape modes.
It switches between the two modes very quickly, and the predictive text system seems very good at second guessing what you want to type. However, despite being adequate at text entry, the keyboard isn't great - you'll be frequently reaching for the backspace key, especially in portrait mode..
But this is still light years ahead of the Acer Liquid E, which used the default Android keyboard, complete with irrational auto-correct choices – we're glad it's been upgraded.
What we really don't get, though, is the little icon that's to the left of the Space bar. Tap it and you can change the text entry language.
It seems a bit odd to have this accessible every time you type out a text. And, because it's next to the Space bar, it is easy to hit by accident. Do that, and it is eight taps (to get through all the languages) before you're back at English again. Grrrr!
Acer Stream: Internet
Even before we switched the Acer Stream on, it looked like web browsing was going to be a pleasure. A capacitive 800 x 480-pixel display is always begging for pinch to zoom support, and this was present and correct.
And the impressive performance doesn't stop there. The 1GHz processor, here to help primarily with things like video playback, works wonders at rendering even complex pages like the TechRadar home page quickly.
The pinch to zoom support is superb, with fast reactions to our fingers gliding over the page, so again we've no complaints there.
And text reflowing support is included, so whether you're in portrait or widescreen mode, you can read all the text on a page without needing to fiddle about scrolling too much, although it can take a while to re-jig the words into the smaller space.
When it comes to entering URLs, the bottom row of the keyboard reconfigures to offer you 'www.', '.com', dot and forward-slash buttons, so that getting these bits and pieces typed out is as fast as it can be.
That's good as far as it goes, but '.co.uk' is still a bit of a fiddle to enter, though.
There is no Flash support, so watching embedded video from the likes of the BBC website is out of bounds.
At least the YouTube client worked, with smooth rendering of video on the sharp and clear screen.
When it comes to other uses of the internet there's a Facebook client and TwiDroid app for your Tweeting needs already on board, although you'll probably want to upgrade them to the better versions as soon as possible.
The familiar Acer add-ons of urFooz and Spinlets are present, though. The former is a silly app that enables you to create custom avatars, while the latter is designed to stream media for free.
We've never really been too enamoured of Spinlets, and this latest experience was not a lot different, but it's something else to explore at the very least.
Acer Stream: Camera
Acer's paper specifications don't make the camera sound industry-leading, just quoting its 5MP stills resolution and the 720p video recording.
And, in truth, there aren't a huge number of tweaks and fiddles you can achieve with it. Having a side button for quick launch is handy, and the macro mode is capable of some stunning shots.
But when it comes to settings there's not a lot going on. There's no panorama shooting mode, and not even a flash to liven up indoor shots.
And there's one more gripe. Although the AMOLED screen is sharp and bright indoors, when you're outside and trying to frame photos it can be pretty difficult to see, especially if there's a lot of sunlight around.
There are HD (1280 x 720) and Full HD (1920 x 1080) still shooting modes to accompany the more usual 5MP, 3MP, 2MP, 1MP and 0.3MP modes, and there's also a mode to shoot at 800 x 480, which is called wallpaper mode and photographs at the native screen resolution.
This shot, taken in shade, looks okay at first glance, but check out the left-hand grassy area and the further away parts of the water. These are the areas with the brightest light and the camera doesn't cope well here. Also, the purple flowers are something of a blur.
In general, everyday photographs were a little bland as far as colour goes. On a fairly bright sunny day, the exposure on this photograph isn't quite what it could be. There's a lack of detail in the brickwork, for example.
The difference between using 5-megapixel and Full HD (1920 x 1080) shooting modes is clear here. Look at how much more foreground is in the HD shot, and also at how much thinner the photo is.
The macro mode produced some absolutely stunning shots. We'd be happy to get a print of this one – the colour reproduction and detailing is superb
The 720p video shoots at 24 frames per second. It had the same problems coping with available light as the stills camera did, so video looks a bit washed out.
And there's another, arguably more important, issue in that video is jerky. The jerkiness exists through the whole video, rather than coming in bursts as it did on the Motorola Milestone XT720, which also shoots 720p.
As we've already noted, any content shot on the handset can be sent directly to a device with HDMI support. There's a port on the Acer Stream, and a cable is provided. You can control video playback using the buttons on the front of the Acer Stream.
Quality is comparable to what you see on the screen – jerkiness present but not wholly unwatchable by any means.
Acer Stream: Media
Music and sounds are key features of the Acer Stream and there are several features to help you make the most of them. Of course, that large 3.7-inch, 800 x 480 screen is a good start.
The nemoPlayer brings together video, sounds and photos in one place through a pretty neat interface that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. It could come in most handy when streaming content to a larger screen via that HDMI port.
Watching video is quite an enjoyable experience as long as you're inside. Outdoors, we found the screen to be quite reflective and it became difficult to see in bright sunlight.
However it oddly had trouble synchronising the audio and video on the sample video on the 8GB microSD card, but was fine on movies we popped on there ourselves.
NemoPlayer also won't resize some Mp4 files from 4:3 to 16:9 (despite that being the native resolution) yet will in the standard Android video player. Odd.
There is an FM radio with RDS and the ability to record directly from broadcasts, which is a nice touch.
The Acer Stream will auto scan to fill 18 presets and you can even choose between three themes for the radio.
There's a link to the MusicA service, which finds the tune you are currently listening to and gives you album and artist info as well as linking in to YouTube videos.
It worked for us first time and was pretty quick too, which is impressive. It saves all results in a history file so you can go back and check on previous 'finds' whenever you want to.
The music player is fairly standard Android fare, except that Dolby Mobile is on hand to help enhance sound quality.
This gives you access to equaliser-style settings that really did enhance the quality of audio output through the average set of earphones provided by Acer.
As well as being able to tweak treble and bass settings, you have access to a number of settings for both music and video sounds.
Streaming is also sadly woeful - despite reports the Acer Stream packs DLNA to send and receive media to different devices in your home network, it seems this isn't the case - just UPnP, which very few of your everyday gadgets support.
For a phone so named, this is a real shame and very much an opportunity missed.
With all this media functionality on offer, plus the ability to record that 720p video, you are going to need some serious storage capacity on hand.
Well, the Acer Stream packs 2GB of internal memory and a microSD card slot for adding more. Our review sample came with an 8GB card to get things started – although 10GB isn't that much for something that's supposed to be a media marvel.
So there's plenty of storage for media right out of the box and if you really want to go to town you can currently add up to 32GB of storage with a microSD card.
Acer Stream: Battery life, maps and comparison
With all this going on, battery life is likely to be quite an issue. Acer supplies the Acer Stream with a fairly generous 1400mAh battery, and it really needs it.
We found that we went from 100 per cent charge to 92 per cent charge in 20 minutes of video and stills shooting – about average, and much better than the Acer Liquid E, which practically gave up the second you switched it on.
However, that's just one example. We drained the battery in half a day during a session of very heavy fiddling with GPS, HDMI output and 3G data.
Most of our time with the Acer Stream was spent being pretty heavy on its power resources and, in everyday life, the average user is very likely to be lighter on the phone.
But, as with every other smartphone we can think of, you're going to need to budget for a daily battery charge, and if you're going to be using this regularly for video, then a midday charge might not be out the question.
Like any smartphone worth its salt the Acer Stream has GPS, and like a good Android handset it has Google Maps installed.
That gives you the ability for point to point navigation with spoken instructions right out of the box, rather than having to download them the first time you use Google Maps Navigation.
We found the GPS took a very long time to get its first fix, but thereafter it maintained connections well.
The Desire lacks the rich multimedia capability of the Acer Stream, but it does have what we still consider to be the market-leading user interface, and the Android Market can fill any holes in the media performance.
The Motorola Milestone XT720 shares the Acer Stream's 720p video shooting. While results from both device are far from perfect, the more significant jerky bouts from the Motorola put it behind the Acer Stream in our view.
And we do like the Stream's integrated media player, nemoPlayer as well as the rather super MusicA service.
The Acer Stream is let down in respect of both its rivals by a screen which isn't as viewable in bright conditions, and that, for any serious video watching fan, could be a major disadvantage.
Acer Stream: Hands-on gallery
Acer Stream: Official gallery
Acer Stream: Verdict
The Acer Stream has a physical design which makes it look like a quality product.
With separate button controls for video playback, it shows that it's taking a no-nonsense approach to this aspect. And there's some good software on board that provides great added value to Android.
Everything isn't rosy in the garden, though. For example, we feel the user interface is a bit convoluted, and the screen suffers outdoors. The camera, too, though great on paper, did let us down a bit in the real world.
There is a superior quality to the hardware design of the Acer Stream which puts it very much in the same league as the HTC Desire and the iPhone 4. Acer has not always paid this much attention to hardware design, and the effort here really pays off, although it remains a little too chunky.
The high resolution screen is super when it's in the correct conditions, but in bright sunlight it just doesn't deliver the goods, which is a real pity.
The ability to send content to a larger screen via HDMI is a real plus. You won't use it a lot, but when you do it'll be a great boon.
There's plenty of internal storage at 2GB, and the 8GB microSD card provided gives this a boost.
The Dolby Mobile equaliser makes a real difference to sound output for both music and video.
The user interface feels a bit convoluted. We're sure that it wouldn't take too long to get used to, but we wonder whether its almost dual-layer approach isn't a bit more complicated than is really needed.
The camera isn't what it could be. We'd have liked more options, especially a panorama mode, and the 720p shooting was too jerky for our taste. And there's no flash, which is a cardinal sin for a high-end handset like this.
Battery life, as ever, could be better. There's no getting away from the fact that a high-end smartphone like the Acer Stream cries out for a lot of power, and if you use it to its full potential you're likely to need fairly regular access to mains power – although it's a country mile better than the Acer Liquid E.
The Stream is the best smartphone we've ever seen from Acer. The hardware is well-designed and there is a lot of good stuff under the hood. But there are also many negatives. No flash for the camera, jerky 720p video recording and no DLNA streaming, along with a disappointing screen that flails in bright sunlight.
None of these problems are insurmountable, and we can't wait to see what wonders Acer might produce if it concentrates on sorting out these niggles.
However, while a decent effort, we can't see why you'd take it over some other handsets on the market at a similar price, so make sure you have a really good play with this somehow before you fork out.