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Dell Venue Android Smartphone Review
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Date: Apr 07, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction & Specifications
Just a few years ago, it would have been a stretch to think Dell would venture into the smartphone business. With the exception of a few stand-outs, Dell has always been fairly conservative with their products and had never really strayed too far from the PC and its associated peripherals and accessories, although they did make a few slick PDAs back in their heyday. Dell's been mobile for years, however, and the Adamo XPS showed that the company's design squad is certainly capable of producing some world-class, ultra-mobile hardware. But Dell smartphone? As strange as it may have sounded just a few years ago, the company has launched a full-on assault into the handset market, and not a minute too soon.
The competition in the smartphone space is intense. It's shocking to think of how far we have come since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and virtually transformed the business. Now, four years later, we've seen Android leapfrog iOS as a mobile platform in a number of ways, and the fierce competition between Google and Apple for mobile user marketshare is benefiting us all. Whatever one company does, the other tries to outdo and that helps drive innovation.


Dell's initial smartphones weren't record breakers. The Aero didn't quite catch on, but things really started to look up when news of the Venue started swirling. Two models were eventually revealed, and while they both carry the Venue brand, they're decidedly different. The Venue Pro is a Windows Phone 7-based device with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The Venue, which we're reviewing here today, is a slate-styled device with no slide-out keyboard and it has Android 2.2 as the operating system.


Dell Venue smartphone (unlocked; AT&T 3G)
Specifications & Features
Processor and memory
1 GHz QSD 8250  processor
1GB internal ROM, 512MB internal RAM
16 GB memory card included (expandable to 32 GB)
Operating System
Android 2.2 (Froyo)
Connectivity
GSM: 850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz
WCDMA 850/1900/2100 or 900/AWS/2100
HSDPA 7.2 Mbps / HSUPA 5.76 Mbps
Bluetooth
Wi-Fi & mobile calling
Wi-Fi sharing (Wi-Fi hotspot for up to 5 other devices)
GPS with navigation capability
microUSB
Display
4.1-inch AMOLED Screen (480x800)
Size and weight
121 x 64 x 12.9mm
 5.8 ounces
Cameras and multimedia
8 megapixel rear-facing camera with HD camcorder
No front-facing camera
Full Web browsing with Adobe Flash Player 10.1 support
3.5mm headset jack
Battery
1400mAh
Availability
Unlocked; available for T-Mobile and AT&T ($499.99 direct from Dell)
In-Box Content
Battery
Charger
USB Cable
Stereo Headset

The Venue is unique in a number of ways. For one, it's a Dell, and Dell only makes a handful of phones. But it's also an unlocked 3G phone with support for AT&T's 3G frequencies. The only other major Android AT&T phone that was ever sold unlocked in the US was the HTC-built Nexus One, a phone that Google has since stopped selling. In other words, this is pretty much your only option at the moment if you need a phone that is both unlocked and capable of working with AT&T's 3G network.

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Design
At a glance, you may assume that the Venue is similar to the Venue Pro, the latter of which has a slide-out keyboard. But the Venue "non-Pro" is a slimmer phone, although it is still pretty sizable. The 4.1" display is very spacious, but it relies on the same screen resolution as the smaller Nexus One. Honestly, we wish Dell would've cranked up the resolution a bit given that we're being asked to carry such a large phone.


The chrome edges contrast nicely with the glossy black front and matte black, textured rear casing, but one of the things we noticed right away was just how slippery the handset is. The entire front and both sides are glossy, which means the phone slips easily from your grip. We'd recommend a case for any phone for protection, but in the case of the Venue, also for handling reasons. At 5.8 ounces, this phone is over an ounce heavier than the Galaxy S 4G, and it's one of the weightier phones we've held. The upside is that the device is extremely solid and rigid, but there's no question that it doesn't fall into the "lightweight" category.


The front of the device is primarily covered with a 4.1" AMOLED display, with three touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom (back, menu, home). The right edge contains a dedicated camera shutter button as well as volume up/down rockers, while the left side just has a volume/mute toggle switch. Along the top edge, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power button (which is way too small). The bottom is home to two speakers and a microUSB port.


The back cover easily slides off, unveiling the 1400mAh battery, SIM card slot and microSD slot. The good news here is that you can access the microSD card without first removing the battery, and there's an 8MP (with flash!) camera front-and-center along the top. The front of the phone is remarkably glossy, so get ready for a fingerprint battle (one you'll probably lose). The touch-sensitive buttons are far more responsive than those on the Nexus One, but we weren't fans of the tiny power/screen unlock button and the slippery rocker switches along the edges.


There's no question that the phone feels very sturdy; whereas the Aero felt a bit flimsy, Dell really stepped it up with the quality on the Venue. It's certainly a business-ready phone, and you can tell it's a serious piece of hardware just as soon as you touch it. Sure, it's a little on the heavy side, but we'll take heavier if it equates to better rigidity.
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Software & User Interface
When it comes to smartphones, it's arguable that the software is more important than the hardware--within reason. That's to say, good software can somewhat make up for lackluster hardware, but it rarely works the other way around. The most powerful device in the world won't offer much if it's stuck on Android 1.6. Dell ships the Venue with a customized form of Android 2.2 (Froyo). Obviously, Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) is already on select phones, and Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) is already on select tablets. In other words, technically this phone ships with an "outdated" version of Android, but the good news for most users is that they're not likely to notice a difference between Froyo and Gingerbread. The major Android 2.x features are here for the Venue: tethering, increased panels, Adobe Flash support, etc.


Those familiar with stock Android phones like the Nexus One will probably need a minute or two to acclimate to Dell's Stage UI. We were not fans of Dell's Stage user interface on their tablets and netbooks, but we have to confess that the Stage UI over Android really does work well. It's a fresh way of looking at the OS, and it reminds us a bit of HTC's Sense. The Stage UI sets up the six main panes with six different categories: Home, Social, Music, Contacts, Email, and one open pane.

       

The phone is not loaded up with lots of unwanted software, and that's a good thing. We've shown our hatred for bloatware in the past, and Dell did a good job of not going overboard here. There's TuneIn Radio, Quickoffice (actually useful!), Zinio Reader, a Dell Welcome app, Assistant Free, AccuWeather, Kindle, Dell Video Stage, CoPilot Live, Backup & Restore and Dell Sync. Other than that, it's pretty much the standard fare: Gmail, Latitude, Maps, Clock, Gallery, Google Search, Camera, Calculator, Browser, Contacts, etc.

       

All in all, we appreciate the common-sense nature to the Stage UI. The mail pane is great for a quick glance at the top of your inbox, and the Social pane is great for keeping up with the latest in social networking. Basically, Dell has figured out how to provide useful, "glanceable" information on these panes without cluttering things up. Also, these panes are fairly customizable, so that's a major plus. We'll touch on the performance in the pages to come, but we would like to point out that Dell's Stage UI feels no slower than our stock Nexus One when navigating. That's impressive. Usually, added layers of software hinder performance, but everything felt smooth, snappy and well-integrated in use.


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Performance: Display, Camera and Battery Life
Dell's Venue display is imposing. At 4.1", it's one of the larger screens on the smartphone market. There are a couple of phones out there with 4.3" panels, but this is definitely amongst the most sizable. We weren't too fond of the 800 x 480 screen resolution, particularly since the Atrix 4G and iPhone 4 both manage to cram more pixels on smaller screens. We'd prefer to have added pixel density in order to squeeze more of the web, and more of maps, etc. onto our panel.

   

However, the panel quality is excellent. The AMOLED display is just gorgeous to look at. Colors are stunning, and viewing angles are outstanding. It even performs well outdoors, taking direct sunlight to actually wash things out. If you're up for watching movies, this is the phone to do it on. Colors just seem to "pop," and beyond that, the capacitive screen is highly responsive. We never had any missed presses or swipes, and the screen felt as smooth as ever in use. A terrific overall display, but we can't help but long for a few extra pixels given the size.


The 8MP (with AutoFocus + flash) rear camera is decent. In our estimation, no cameraphone is truly great, but this one functioned quickly and quietly, and definitely captured the moment. Things could be made to look a little better using Photoshop afterwards, but these samples here are raw exports from the sensor. The macro mode worked fairly well, but took a bit of extra time to focus. If you're buying the Venue for its camera, that's probably not the smartest move. It's about average -- nothing to write home about, but enough to capture memories you'd otherwise miss without a "real" camera slung around your neck.

       
Click To Enlarge

As for battery life, that's a tougher one to judge. To put things in perspective, the iPhone 4 has a 1420mAh battery, while the Venue falls just short of that with a 1400mAh pack. We tested battery life a couple of ways; we simply used the phone as we normally would -- talking a couple of hours, surfing a bit, and keeping Wi-Fi on at all times -- and we managed a full working day without issue. That's around 14 hours, if you're wondering. Lighter users can easily squeeze more. We also placed a video on loop with the screen brightness at 70%, and managed just over 3 hours, but again, this was with Wi-Fi enabled and new emails popping up every so often. To be on the safe side, we'd say the average user could expect between 10 and 16 hours, and if you're a heavy user, Dell's battery is replaceable; just carry a spare and you'll be good to go.
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Performance: Web Browsing
Browsing the Web is certainly a key feature of any smartphone, so we also conducted some formal speed tests to see how well the Dell Venue compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.

Throughout our gauntlet of speed tests, you'll notice that the Dell Venue hovered right around the middle of the pack. A little lower on the final test, a little higher in the middle test. That being said, real-world performance felt extremely zippy, and so long as your browsing is contained to the phone, the speeds we were seeing are plenty fast. Tethering is an entirely different topic, but of course requires a solid 3G connection. The good news here is that the phone isn't cramped when it comes to handling data, and we were duly satisfied with load times in our use. 
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Testing & Benchmarking
In addition to using the Venue in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the handset compares to other smartphones.

 

CPU testing
Android CPU testing

Graphics testing
Android graphics testing

JavaScript testing
JavaScript Android and iPhone testing

 

In the Linpack test, the Venue outpaced all of our other benchmarked phones but one, again proving our feelings that Dell's Stage UI didn't do much to bog down performance (if at all). In the 3D test, the phone landed right in the middle of the pack; of course, if you're a hardcore Android gamer, waiting for the Xperia Play seems like the logical choice, but this phone is plenty capable of handling multi-media playback. The SunSpider JavaScript benchmark found the Venue at the top of the heap, just barely edging out the Evo 4G for the crown. Not a bad showing at all.

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Summary & Conclusion
The smartphone market is as crowded as it has ever been, and it's becoming increasingly more so by the week. Dell wasn't even in this market a few years ago, and now, they're making a major play to take on folks like LG, Samsung, HTC and Apple. The Venue provides an excellent alternative for those needing an unlocked smartphone in the U.S., particularly one on AT&T. In a sense, the Venue has this market cornered. With the Nexus One going EOL months ago, this is effectively your only option if you need an unlocked phone (one that'll accept international SIMs for traveling) with AT&T 3G support back home. For whatever reason, finding this is hard in America; it's likely due to our reliance on hardware subsidies to afford smartphones, but either way, it's good to see the Venue breaking that mold.


Shipping with Android 2.2 may be seen as a liability to some, but honestly, Android 2.3 is nothing to clamor over. You can still install apps from outside of the market on the Venue, and still tether with the Venue. And yes, there's Flash support. Those are the heavy hitters, and it's all here. The 1GHz CPU is also an industry standard at this point, and while the LG Optimus 2X and Motoral Atrix have us craving dual-cores, there's no performance issues here. The phone felt zippy and smooth in use, and while we were skeptical about the Stage UI at first, we eventually came to like it well enough. It's well organized and easy to tweak, without being a burden.


The hardware is a mixed bag, but its mostly positive. The phone is heavy, but solid. It's also rather slippery, and while the 4.1" AMOLED screen is gorgeous to look at, we wish the pixel density was higher. The touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom of the display, however, were great, and the touch performance was second to none. We also felt that the battery life was a bit short, but at least Dell gives you the option of carrying a second battery and popping it in whenever you'd like.


All in all, it's hard to find much fault with the Venue. If you need a phone with a physical keyboard, you'll obviously want to skip over this one. Those in the market for a slate-style phone though, unlocked on AT&T, and capable of moving briskly through multi-tasking, the Dell Venue is a safe bet. We'd highly recommend putting it in a case because of the slippery gloss coating, and we can't say that the 8MP camera is a real point-and-shoot replacement, but it's definitely not bad. At $499.99 without a contract (and again, able to use SIMs from anywhere), it's priced right in line with other higher-end unlocked phones too.

     
  • Fast 1 GHz processor
  • Gorgeous 4.1-inch AMOLED touchscreen
  • Unlocked on AT&T
  • microSD expansion slot
  • A bit on the heavy side
  • Pixel density is a little low
  • Stuck on Android 2.2 for now


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