Hands on with Acer's F900 and M900 smartphones

Global PC vendor Acer made its first move into the smartphone market at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and I had a chance to sit down and try out a few of the new devices in Taipei.

The Acer M900 smartphone.

The Acer M900 smartphone.

Global PC vendor Acer made its first move into the smartphone market at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and I had a chance to sit down and try out a few of the new devices in Taipei.

The handsets are all courtesy of a company called E-Ten Information Systems that Acer bought last year. The company originally designed GPS devices, which you'll find on nearly all of their smartphones, and expanded into smartphones a few years ago with Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS.

I opted to try out the two coolest smartphones of the Acer Tempo family, the F900 and M900.

Both of these devices are complete 3G touchscreen smartphones with built in cameras, computing and more that run on Windows Mobile 6.1 software. And they both differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack almost immediately with their 3.8-inch touchscreens, among the biggest I've handled.

The F900 is the more stylish of the two, thinner and meant for just about anyone. The M900 is armed with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard that makes it a little bulkier. It's aimed at business users.

The F900 is 12.85 millimeters thick, slightly bigger than the iPhone 3G's 12.3mm, and measures 117.5mm tall by 63.5mm wide. Some reports have said looks a lot like Samsung Electronics' Omnia. There is a resemblance, but the fact is many smartphones with large screens on the front look similar, and almost all are compared to the smartphone that initiated the touchscreen fad, the iPhone.

The nice thing about the 3.8-inch screens on both the F900 and M900 is the sharp picture quality. The resolution on the screens is 800x480, which is the same as High Tech Computer (HTC)'s Touch Diamond2 and Touch Pro2, and better than the 480x320 resolution on the iPhone 3G.

That's a good thing, too, because you need a big screen with good picture quality for the Acer Shell user interface (UI).

I spent most of my time with the F900 simply because the UI was so fun to try out. The M900 has the same software.

Most mobile phone makers that use Microsoft Windows Mobile software develop a UI for easier touchscreen navigation. Windows Mobile still requires too many steps to get your songs, contacts and whatnot.

Acer Shell simplifies navigation by making the home screen a room with a desk and window inside, and each of the objects in the room, a total of nine, will take you directly to content when tapped.

A calendar hanging on the wall, for example, displays the date and time, and will take you to your appointment book. A rolodex icon will convey you to contacts. One nifty aspect of the software is that the picture of the last contact you called will be displayed on the rolodex icon on your home screen. A picture frame icon in the room will take you to the camera and your pictures, and it too will display the last picture you viewed.

A window in the back of the home screen room shows the day's weather. The sun was shining in the little window on the day I tested the handset. Nice.

Tap the window and you're transported to a view of the earth, which rotates when you tap on icons of five different places you've pre-set for weather information. The same globe is used for time. You can pre-set five different cities and the phone will keep track of the time. The globe on the screen rotates to the location of the city you've tapped, too.

There are other icons.

An icon of a mobile phone on the desk goes to the phone function of the handset, and missed calls will be shown as a number on its face. Similarly, a letter icon is for e-mail and a number on the face of the letter lets you know how many e-mails are waiting for you to read. A message on the desk is for SMSs.

The color of the home screen is mostly shades of blue, from very light to very dark. Other colors pop in when photos are in the picture frame or on the rolodex, or a CD cover is on the music player.

I had a lot of fun playing with the UI and the touchscreen worked fast. The only drawback was once I got into Windows Mobile, the tasks became more tedious.

For people who already use and like the Windows Mobile 6.1 UI, the phone can be switched to that instead, or a quick menu that resembles the iPhone's home screen.

Overall the F900 is a very nice smartphone and certainly a good first effort for Acer.

The M900 differs from the F900 in a few key ways, but much of its make-up is similar, including the screen and software.

The biggest difference is the QWERTY keypad, which slides out from under the screen. It's large, with keys that are raised enough to feel easily for thumb-typing. Each time you tap them they click to let you know you've entered a letter.

Overall, the typing experience on the smartphone was good and I encountered few errors or problems that can be caused by keyboards with buttons that are too small or not easy to identify without looking. It's a nice keypad, but still not as good as the keypad on HTC's Touch Pro2.

The M900 did surpass the Touch Pro2 in security.

Below the screen on the face of the M900 is a small fingerprint identification tab, the principal way you sign into the phone and access information. Cool. Even better is that same tab can be used for navigation on the handset if you get tired of the touchscreen.

The M900 also has a 5-megapixel camera onboard, with a built-in flash. It's better than the 3.2-megapixel camera on the F900, but I didn't get to try either of them out to see how pictures looked.

The above are the highlights of the phones as I tried them in Acer offices in Taipei. They both have a lot of other features, including connectivity through Wi-Fi or HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) and more that you can find on Acer's Web site.

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Dan Nystedt

IDG News Service
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