By May 4, 2011

Dell Venue Pro review

Venue-main Dell as a brand name is known by almost everyone for their value for money desktops and laptops. Some may have even heard of Dell’s ‘phonelet’, the Streak, though it’s sales figures weren’t a major success. But a mobile phone with a Dell logo slapped on isn’t something you see often in the UK.

The Venue Pro is Dell’s newer and more promising offering into the mobile market, one which has caught the eye of many thanks to it’s rather unique form factor. There is less than a handful of smartphones with a sliding portrait qwerty, none of which offer Windows Phone 7 like the Venue Pro. Despite being announced as one of the original launch phones of Windows Phone 7 last year, it has been subject to countless delays and only very recently has the long awaited Venue Pro been available.

So was the Venue Pro worth the delays and consequent heartache? Read on to find out.

 

The 10 second review:

  • Device: Dell Venue Pro 8GB (16GB version available)
  • Price: £420
  • Summary: A beast of a phone in (nearly) every sense of the word
  • Best of: Keyboard, build quality
  • Worst of: Software issues, display backlight leakage
  • Buy it now from: Clove Technology (sim free)
  • Also consider: HTC 7 Pro, BlackBerry Bold Touch

 

What’s in the box?

  • Dell Venue Pro
  • 1400mAh Li-Ion battery
  • AC charger with UK & EU pin adapters
  • USB to microUSB sync/charge cable
  • Wired headset
  • Warranty & safety information
  • Quick Start guide

For Matt’s unboxing of the Dell Venue Pro, click here.

 

Specification:

  • Operating System: Windows Phone 7
  • Processor: Speed 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250
  • Expansion Slot: NONE
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Internal Storage: Capacity 8 GB (16GB model also available)
  • Display/Screen: Touchscreen Size: 4.1 AMOLED Capacitive touch screen WVGA 480 x 800
  • GSM/GPRS: Frequencies 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
  • 3G/HSPA: Frequencies 900/1700/2100 MHz
  • Bluetooth: Version 2.1
  • WiFi: IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
  • GPS: A-GPS
  • Camera: 5 Megapixels with LED Flash
  • Sensors: G-Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Light Sensor
  • FM Radio: Yes
  • Battery: Capacity 1400 mAh
  • Dimensions: 2.5 x 4.8 x 0.6 inches
  • Weight: 6.8 oz (192.7 grams)

 

General

The top of the device houses a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left and a power/lock button on the other side. The position and the design of the button makes it identical and symmetrical with the headphone jack, a testament to the attention to detail Dell has put into the design.

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The left side has no buttons whatsoever, just clean chrome effect plastic that more than happily shows off the fingerprints it has collected. It might sound cheap and nasty, but together with other design elements on the phone it certainly looks sleek.

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The volume rocker and the two stage dedicated camera key live on the right side of the phone and blend in with the chrome effect sides. Both are perfectly usable buttons, but the volume rocker seems a little too high, especially considering how tall this device is – you’ll find yourself stretching your thumbs way up to adjust the volume.

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The bottom of the phone has the microUSB in the middle flanked by a metallic grille either side. They are identical and look as if they’re stereo speakers but they’re not. Only one is a speaker; the other one hides the microphone.

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Over on the rear side, there’s the 5MP camera and an LED flash. Beneath them is the familiar Dell logo and the Windows Phone name tattooed proudly on its backside. The entire rear cover has a subtly patterned chicken wire-like surface, which carries onto the back of the slide out screen. Whether the design is tasteful or not is down to personal taste but it definitely helps your grip, something that is even more important on such a large and heavy phone.

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Finally on the front, there’s the 4.1 inch screen that unsurprisingly dominates the whole surface. Below are the compulsory back, home and search keys, all three of which are capacitive buttons. Both the buttons and the screen sit behind slightly curved Gorilla Glass. The curve doesn’t seem to make much difference at all to real world usage, but it does give the illusion that the phone is (slightly) less porky than it really is.

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Review

There’s literally no way of hiding it, so we’ll get it out of the way first – the Dell Venue Pro is a very large and heavy phone. If you don’t like big phones then you may as well stop reading, as this is definitely one that will let you know it’s in your pocket. It may have a slightly smaller screen than the 4.3" HD7 or the Desire HD, but the added thickness and height more than makes up for it.

Despite being such a large phone, the overall design is very sleek and the end product is actually superb. The Venue Pro is the only portrait slider phone currently available with a touchscreen larger than 3.2" and that’s not surprising – creating a phone this large and not ending up with an unsightly brick is an engineering feat itself. That’s not to say it isn’t a brick (it definitely is one!) but it is one of the most well crafted bricks you’ll find. To start with, the edges are curved from the front all the way to the back, like a flattened cylinder, a shape that feels natural and ergonomic in the hand. Secondly, the textured back means that even with the 192g of weight, it is easy to grip the phone firmly and reduce the risk of dropping it. Speaking of that weight, let’s dwell on that for a bit. For comparison, the Galaxy S is 119g, iPhone 4 is 137g, and even the HTC 7 Pro is 185g. There’s no hiding that it is the heaviest phone around, but don’t let that seem like a completely bad thing. The weight makes the Venue Pro seem very well built and assures you that it’s built to last.

The display itself is a 4.1 inch AMOLED unit. In short, it’s very good. Many AMOLED displays tend to be oversaturated, but the Dell manages to stay natural looking and still have deep blacks and popping colours. Is it as good as Samsung’s Super-AMOLED technology? No it is not, but indoors, it will blow away any ordinary LCD. Outdoors, it’s a different story. AMOLED displays are known for having poor sunlight visibility, and sadly (though unsurprisingly) the Venue suffers the same fate at the hands of the sun. Barely anything can be seen on the screen under direct sunlight, and the curved glass on top makes it more difficult to angle it away from the light. Still, if you don’t spend all of your time outdoors, the Venue Pro more than makes up for it with it’s performance under normal lighting. Being capacitive, the screen is naturally very sensitive. Only a light touch is needed, but the curved screen does make the sensitivity vary – the left and right edges are more sensitive than the middle (probably due to being closer to the touch layer). While the sensitivity in the middle is certainly acceptable, the varying degree of it makes it just a little harder to get used to.

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As mentioned before, the Venue Pro is very well made. The combination of soft touch plastic on the top and bottom, textured gloss back, chrome sides, and a curved gorilla glass display makes it beautiful as well as imposing. There is one issue that, although minor, does make the Venue Pro feel a bit cheaper than it is. The standard Windows keys are backlit by a light that can be seen leaking around the entire glass front. The edges of the glass on all four edges and the hole for the earpiece have a miniscule gap where light leaks out – granted, you can only see it when you’re using the phone at night or in darkness, but it is very obvious when the glass is outlined by a naff looking halo of light every time you use one of the capacitive buttons. It seems like a small annoyance, and it is, but something like that on a high end device made by a company as large as Dell should really have been sorted out, especially with the months of delay. Another issue is the ergonomics; being such a large phone, not all the buttons are easy to reach if you don’t have huge hands. The volume rocker on the right for example, is at the very top, making it difficult to reach for my average sized hands. The power/lock button also sacrifices functionality for form – for the sake of being symmetrical with the headphone jack, it’s very small and not as easy to reach as it could otherwise be.

Since all the Windows Phone 7 devices have to adhere to a tight specification set (even down to the three facing buttons) there isn’t as much that a manufacturer can do to differentiate their device compared with other operating systems such as Android. Samsung put their Super AMOLED on the Omnia 7, HTC slapped a landscape slider on the 7 Pro, but Dell are the only ones who went for the portrait slider. From a hardware point of view, Dell really have pulled it out of the bag with the mechanism – the spring assisted slide is one of the most solid feeling sliders in recent memory. The level of assistance in the spring is just right, and the keyboard itself is brilliant too. When open, it doesn’t feel top-heavy either; the weight is evenly balanced. The benefit of such a large phone is that you can afford to have an equally large keyboard. The buttons are large, (much larger than a BlackBerry) domed, a sensible layout (no Nokia offset spacebar nonsense!) and have great tactile feedback; the ingredients to an awesome keyboard which is just as well if Dell want to grab business users. The keyboard is also large enough for some useful shortcut keys too – the dedicated emoticon, .com, and accent button are nice touches. The only issue I can see is that the layout on the physical ‘board, the virtual portrait, and the virtual landscape all slightly different placements of buttons. For example, the .com shortcut button is next to the backspace button on the right of the slide out keyboard. On the landscape on screen keyboard, it’s to the left of the spacebar, and on the portrait one there isn’t one at all. Although it is slightly counter-intuitive, I doubt these tiny details will bother people when typing is very comfortable and fast on both the virtual and physical keyboards.

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Don’t let the little niggles get to you however; they are exactly that – little niggles. Things like the varying screen sensitivity and even the light leakage shouldn’t detract you from the phone. It may not be totally precision made hardware, but it is built like a tank (though much better looking than one) and the curved sides just make it feel great. Before we get started on the software side, it’s worth knowing that the Venue Pro was delayed almost 6 months. The reasons why haven’t been totally clear, but there have been various reports of early units in the US having buggy software, WiFi issues, MMS issues, and even engineering sample batteries and prototypes. Needless to say, the launch of the Venue Pro was not as smooth as Dell would have liked. Now production has ramped up and shipping is well underway, we’d expect the issues to be cleared up. Our review unit was a retail one, but I did encounter a few software issues that I had not seen before on a WP7 device.

One of those issues was one that had plagued Venue Pros since the start – freezing and rebooting when connecting to or using a secure WiFi network. In the first few days with my Venue Pro, I had a handful of crashes when using WiFi. Another issue was with waking from sleep. Sliding the keyboard up wakes the screen, but every now and then it would wake the screen but not the touch layer. In other words, the screen is on and ready to be unlocked, but it would not respond to touches. At this point, I had to press the sleep button once to turn the screen off, then wake it again with the button. Then everything would carry on as normal. The touch layer ‘forgetting’ to activate only occurred when waking the phone by sliding up the keyboard; using the power button worked every time. Thankfully, these issues disappeared when the notification came along for the NoDo update. So from my experience, any software bugs that many have complained about should be fixed after the NoDo update.

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After the update, delving into the Windows Phone 7 software reveals a basically stock version of Windows Phone 7. There are no extra manufacturer-added applications like LG’s ScanSearch on the Optimus 7, just the bog standard WP7. The only extra application is the ‘Connection Settings’ where you can add APNs for MMS messaging – very boring! Some of the following on WP7 software has been borrowed from James’ review (Don’t worry James I’ll give it back at some point!) and is here for convenience sake. Plus, the software on the Venue Pro is exactly the same as any other WP7 at the moment!

 

As the operating system is made my Microsoft, it’s only natural that you’d find Microsoft Office preinstalled on each and every Windows Phone. The Venue Pro is no different, and it works a treat. It launches extremely fast and includes OneNote, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and SharePoint. OneNote, (a note taking application) simply presents you with a page where you can add a title and type notes below it. Saved notes are displayed as tiles within the app so you can quickly continue writing and editing when you exit and re-enter the application. For documents, only Word and Excel are there as options for a new document – PowerPoint is missing, but if you’re making your presentation on your phone you’ve probably left it too late already! You may not be able to create, but you can edit and make last minute changes to your presentation on the go with the app. Attaching a document as an email is also very quick and easy using the shortcuts at the bottom of the screen. SharePoint is useful for businesses that operate a SharePoint server, but as I don’t, I haven’t been able to test all of its sharing features. The experience of Office has always been top-notch on Windows Phones and I’d say it’s among one of the best implementations of any productivity suite on any mobile platform. There’s also the fact that you have the slide out keyboard, which gives you the full 4.1" screen to work with. This alone makes the Office experience on the Venue Pro better than touch only Windows Phone 7 devices such as the HTC HD7.

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A feature becoming more and more important, especially in large touchscreen phones is web browsing. Microsoft have clearly been working hard on improving that dreadful Internet Explorer on WM6 as it is now up to date with the best of the best in mobile browsers. It is miles faster than any browser was on previous versions of Windows Mobile, and just as easy to use as Android’s browser or mobile Safari. In very unscientific tests loading up tracyandmatt and BBC Sport, the Venue Pro did actually trump Safari on the iPhone 4 about half of the time, while using the same WiFi connection. There is the ability to have several tabs open, and pages can be made a favourite with one tap. The 800×480 display on the Venue Pro means that even small text is (just) readable when fully zoomed out, though it won’t be as crisp as a Retina display.

No smartphone operating system is complete without a built in web search, and Microsoft are making full use of their Bing search engine. To start using Bing all you need to do with a WP7 device is press the search key under the screen. This will launch Bing instantly and present you with a search box at the top of the screen. This box will be on top of a full screen picture that has a few small boxes. Give one a tap, and it will present you with information about that pictures. Not much use to me but it’s a fun feature!

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Another Windows Phone 7 feature is the voice recognition. Simply holding down the Windows key from any menu will bring up the voice commands where you can say anything from "Call mummy" to "Open Office" Many people’s experience with voice recognition has been a negative one, but I am happy to report that the commands with 9/10 times. I have tried out a lot of commands, and only once did I have to repeat.

 

The camera on all Windows Phone 7 devices must have a minimum of 5MP and 720p video recording. These specifications are pretty standard on today’s high end smartphones. The 5MP camera on the Dell Venue Pro is about as average as you can get – the shots themselves are not bad, but you can struggle to get a decent one. A lot of the time the focus isn’t quite there or the white balance is a little out. When you do get one that turns out alright though, the pictures are really what you’d expect from an average 5MP camera. The same can be said with the video – 720p is technically HD and sounds great, but in reality the quality of that HD video is mediocre. It’s not very smooth and it just doesn’t look that impressive. The camera settings also suffers from the same ‘feature’ as any other WP7 device. Every time you exit the app, all the camera settings revert to default, which includes video at 480p. You have to go and change it back to 720p each and every time you want to shoot a video. Microsoft say that this is a design feature, but in reality is is just annoying; there should at least be an option to choose if you want your settings saved or not. Maybe that will come in the Mango update.

Battery life is an area that varies quite a bit with phones, but here are my findings with my time with the Venue Pro. The 1400mAh battery is relatively generous, but the large screen does take its toll on the battery. Under heavy use (tinkering, phone calls, camera, 3G internet) it should last a full working day. By that, I mean 18 odd hours before you need to juice up again. With more moderate or even light use, the Venue Pro lasted two days on average. While there can still be some left for a third day, there won’t be enough to last the entirety of the third day. For hardcore business users, expect to have to charge every night, but for more conservative users, two full days is what you can expect from the Venue Pro’s stamina.

 

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Size comparison: HTC Desire, Dell Venue Pro, BlackBerry 9700

 

Conclusion

I’ve said it at the start, and I’ll say it again. The Dell Venue Pro is a very large and a very heavy device. This phone will definitely not appeal to everyone, but if it does, the Venue Pro is brilliant. The keyboard is excellent, the build quality, on the whole, is solid, and Windows Phone 7 is as smooth as butter. For business users who need a keyboard, the only other Windows Phone option is the HTC 7 Pro. If the added size doesn’t throw you, the Venue Pro is better as the screen is larger, and the portrait keyboard suits WP7 more than a landscape slider (there is no landscape support for the menus).

However, Windows Phone 7 is still young and bare. The relatively small number of apps on the Marketplace and the lack of basic features such as multi-tasking will hold some people back. However, a major update is apparently on it’s way this summer, which could make the Venue Pro a great phone. At the moment, the phone itself is awesome, but it is held back by the software. The amount of people with software issues and the limitations of Windows Phone 7 holds me back from whole-heartedly recommending the Venue Pro. Still, if you’re hell-bent on Windows Phone 7, and if you’re willing to wait for the Mango update (or you think you can live with the limitations) then the Venue Pro is probably the best Windows Phone at the moment.

 

Reviewed by: Vince

Posted in: Reviews

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