|Introduction & Specifications|
Not too long ago, we took a look at Dell's Venue smartphone. A slate-styled phone with Android 2.2 along with the company's own Stage UI. But it's arguable that the Venue is the quiet brother compared to the boisterous Venue Pro. Those who closely follow the smartphone space will likely remember Dell's early ambitions, and while the Aero never posed much of a threat to any other Android phone, the Venue Pro -- once known as the Lightning -- always seemed like a formidable competitor.
At a glance, the Venue Pro looks just like the Venue. And specifications-wise, they're largely the same as well. The Venue Pro has the same 4.1" AMOLED display (800 x 480 resolution), 1GHz QSD8250 Snapdragon processor, 5MP autofocus camera, 8GB of internal storage space, 512MB of RAM, 1GB of ROM, GPS, an FM radio tuner and no extra microSD card slot -- an unfortunate staple of numerous WP7 devices.
However, the Venue Pro's dimensions are somewhat different. The Venue Pro is 2mm thicker than the Venue, thanks to the slide-out QWERTY keyboard that is included here. There's a virtual keyboard for those who'd rather not use the physical buttons, but having a keyboard could be a major selling point for those who may be interested in trying WP7 but are coming from a BlackBerry world.
Also of interest is the fact that the Venue Pro has already received the first major WP7 update, known as "NoDo." This update adds enhanced Facebook integration, copy-and-paste and a slew of performance enhancements to make the system smoother overall. It's also worth pointing out that the Venue Pro is a T-Mobile USA phone, and that's your only option, for now. However, the Venue Pro has slipped into the FCC in recent months with AT&T bands, so there's some foreshadowing that it could be available for America's other GSM carrier in the coming months (update, 5/16: it's available now on AT&T and unlocked!). Our test unit, however, was a T-Mobile unit. Is the Venue Pro tough enough to take on today's major smartphones from HTC, LG, Samsung and Apple? Is Windows Phone 7 a mobile OS that's capable of really giving iOS and Android (and webOS 3.0, soon) a run for their money? Find out in the pages to come.
The Venue Pro's design is a lot like the Venue. As in, almost identical. Everything we said about the Venue applies here, but there are a few subtle tweaks worth mentioning. The dimensions are the same outside of the depth; the Venue Pro is 2mm thicker than the Venue, thanks to its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. It's also a few ounces heavier, but honestly, we think it makes the phone feel a bit more sturdy, rigid and solid. It's a larger phone, yes, but not a burdensome phone.
The mildly textured back is easy to grip, and the chrome accents combined with the glossy black motif really screams "business." It's hardly a BlackBerry, but it's a very classy design overall. The prominent touch-sensitive Windows button along the bottom leaves no guessing as to what operating system is onboard, and we found those to be remarkably sensitive and easy to use; very much unlike the Nexus One capacitive buttons, which require a careful touch to activate.
It's designed to be used with or without the keyboard. If you prefer, you could never slide the keyboard out, and just rely on the virtual on-screen keyboard. But if you prefer physical keyboards, this is one of the better ones out there. We have to commend Dell on the design of the sliding mechanism. It's totally smooth, spring-loaded, and really solid. It slides up with ease, and the feel of the gliding process is very slick and solid. This is minor, but just like the feeling of how a car door shuts, it says a lot about the overall quality of the piece.
Dell sneaks the standard micro-USB port along the bottom edge, uncovered but indented. That's flanked by two speakers. The left edge is blank, while the right has volume up/down buttons and a dedicated camera button. The camera button, if held for 2-3 seconds, will wake the phone and go directly into the camera app; that's useful for sure, and not frequently found amongst smartphones. The top edge is home to a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power/sleep button. The rear is where you'll find a 5MP autofocus camera and a LED flash.
A standard 1400mAh battery is found behind the rear lid, and where there's a non-user-accessible microSD slot here somewhere; it's definitely not meant for end users to tamper with. You get 8GB or 16GB of storage (depending on model), and that's it. Forget about expanding it. 8GB and 16GB feels spry to us. The iPhone is sold in 16GB and 32GB flavors, but those who will need more should probably select an Android phone with a user-serviceable slot.
The QWERTY keypad has raised keys, all of which are backlit and will light up as the ambient light sensor tells it to. It reminds us of typing on a BlackBerry, though the keys are a bit smoother. We made a few errors at first, but once you adjust, it becomes pretty quick to type on. We still prefer the virtual keyboard most of the time, largely because Microsoft has done such an incredible job nailing the execution of its on-screen keyboard.
The 4.1" WVGA AMOLED display is definitely glossy, but it's also gorgeous. Tremendously so, even. Colors are sharp, viewing angles are amazing, and the touch response is best-of-class. We haven't felt a phone this responsive to touch since the iPhone 4. Even the smallest touch gets recognized, and we instantly fell in love with how remarkable the display looked and reacted. We'll go deeper into the user experience in the pages to come.
|Software & User Interface|
|Windows Phone 7, despite launching in time for the holiday season last year, is still a fledgling mobile OS. It's young, it's somewhat inexperienced, and it still lacks some of the refinement that Android and iOS currently have. But here's what it does have: elegance. Windows Phone 7 is just gorgeous. It's easily one of the most beautiful mobile operating systems on the market, edging past webOS in our estimation. The panels are beautiful, the transitions are beautiful, and the entire experience feels as if it were designed by someone who is just a master of UI.
If you have never used a WP7 device, you'll understand within the first five minutes. It honestly makes Android look like a red-headed stepchild in the design department. Windows (the desktop OS) takes a lot of heat for not being as beautiful as OS X, but arguably perhaps, we think WP7 is even more beautiful than iOS. But as you well know, beauty is only skin deep.
The "skin" here is very attractive. Most casual smartphone users will fall head over heels for it, and probably won't care about the shortcomings. But there are a few. For one, there's no dedicated Gmail app. It'll sync with your Gmail account, and it supports push mail and syncing over the air (i.e. if you delete an email on your Venue Pro, it vanishes over at Gmail.com too), but there's no threaded messaging, no stars / labels and no easy way to archive things. On the upside, the UI is stunning, and there's an "unread" section that makes it easy to see what you have yet to open. We should also point out that each e-mail account you sync will produce a new panel; there's no unified inbox, which is a strong suit of iOS.
The other major Gmail problem is that it only syncs with your primary calendar. If you also have a spouse calendar, work calendars or other shared calendars for sports, holidays, etc., you'll never see those populate the Calendar app. Major oversight. The "People" tab is a place where you'll probably spend a lot of time. Aside from seeing your contacts there, you'll also see Facebook status updates. Microsoft spent a lot of time nailing the Facebook integration with WP7, but that's both a blessing and a curse. For one, it's a gorgeous way to look at Facebook (the "People" panel, that is). But it's not full-on Facebook -- thankfully, there's a dedicated app for that. Also, Facebook friends crowd your contact list, and there's no elegant way to pick and choose between who goes where.
And if Facebook is so well integrated, why isn't Twitter? You have to manually download a Twitter app (to date, Beezz, Seesmic and Twitter are your best options), and while the UI is (again) beautiful, there's really no option to integrate it. And this leads us to another major issue: there's really no "true" multitasking and background notification system. You'll get a brief alert when a new e-mail or text comes in, but there's no option to get an alert when someone DMs you on Twitter, or sends you a Facebook message. These things are common occurrences within Android, and it was difficult living without them in WP7.
We did love how the Photos application automatically pulled in our Facebook galleries, though, and the Calendar app worked perfectly outside of not pulling in our secondary Gcals. The Marketplace is also less robust than the Apple App Store and Android Market, but it's getting there. WP7 definitely has a ways to go before the app selection is anywhere near as good as those two platforms, but the basics, weather, social networking, sports, travel, etc. are here. Also, the Office integration is obviously top notch; if you're a busy professional who spends a lot of time looking over draft PowerPoints and Word documents, WP7 will definitely please you.
One of the differentiating factors of WP7 is the Xbox Live integration. If you're an avid Xboxer, avatar and all, there's no way to not consider Windows Phone 7. You can pull over statistics, invite players to game with you, and do just about everything outside of boot your Xbox 360. The Games Hub is also home to any other third-party game you may download in the Marketplace. As gamers, we loved this feature, but if you don't own an Xbox, you may wonder why Microsoft spent so much time integrating this, but not Twitter or background notifications.
Much like iOS using the iPod app, WP7 has a Zune app. Zune hardware seems to be on its way to the grave, but it may live on in terms of software. There's no question that Zune (as an app) is great, and it works way better than most other music management apps. There's also the ability to sync tracks with your Zune library on your home PC over the air, which totally crushes those painful tethered iTunes syncs on the iPod side. There's also a new app out for Mac syncing as well, so even those with OS X can enjoy the spoils of wireless syncing.
As for search? It's all powered by Bing, of course, but we found a few oddities. The touch-sensitive Search icon at the bottom occasionally takes you to a mobile Bing page, but not while you're in some applications. So sometimes, you need to hit the main panel screen before getting to Search. Also, there's no actual "phone search" like there is in iOS. In other words, you can't search Bing for "Jackie" and see a contact within your phone pop up; instead, you search the Web for "Jackie." That's a bit of a letdown.
The Maps feature, while stopping short of providing turn-by-turn guidance, is still quite useful, and seemed to load very quickly in our testing. In fact, we found that everything loaded quickly. That's partly a testament to WP7's elegance, and partly due to the phone's 1GHz CPU. We'll close with Web surfing; Internet Explorer is the bundled browser, and for as much heat as IE6 has taken over the years, the mobile IE is a real star. You can easily pinch-to-zoom, and results loaded quickly and fluidly. The only major issue is the lack of Flash support. Both iOS and WP7 lack it, so it's pretty much Android or bust if you need it.
Overall, the software experience on WP7 is truly refreshing. There are certainly holes to be filled, but this really feels like a blast of innovation on a number of fronts, and we just can't get over how fluidly everything runs on the Venue Pro. For casual users, the software here will be thrilling. For hardcore business users, having tight Office integration will also be appealing. For hardcore Gmail users, unfortunately, it misses the mark quite a bit, and for hardcore travelers, Google Maps Navigation is still the superior option. We have to say, we think WP7 could really appeal to the mass market who doesn't fit into one specific niche or the other. Finally, the overall Venue Pro package here is extremely slick, and not just easy to use, but pleasing to use.
|Performance: Display, Camera and Battery Life|
Fair warning -- our opinions here are effectively the same as the Venue. The display is the same size and resolution, and the camera is largely similar. Dell's Venue Pro display -- as with the identical 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 the screen.
However, the Venue Pro's display 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 5MP (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.
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 Pro 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.
We also utilized WP Bench's Battery test, which keeps the screen on and loops a CPU intensive task in the background. That resulted in four hours and seven minutes of life.
|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 Pro compares to some of today's hottest smartphones.
Due to the limitations of Internet Explorer within WP7, we weren't able to run our full gauntlet of mobile speed tests as we usually do with Android handsets. That said, the BA.net test says a lot about its position, and while the numbers are obviously important here, we want to make clear that the Web browsing experience was also quite good. We never felt as if things were lagging (on T-Mobile or Wi-Fi), and pages loaded smoothly throughout out testing.
In addition to using the Venue Pro in a variety of everyday usage scenarios, we also conducted some formal performance testing to see how well the handset compares to other smartphones. WP Bench is a performance-oriented benchmarking application within the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace. To date, it's one of the only effective ways to test the small-but-growing stable of WP7 handsets. We've compared CPU, Data and GPU benchmarks below with the Samsung Focus and HTC Arrive.
Overall, the Venue Pro ranks fairly well compared to the Focus and Arrive, falling only a bit behind in some tests. The upside is that the Venue Pro comes out slightly on top in a few. The real takeaway here is that none of the first-wave WP7 devices are drastically different than any of the others, particularly from a performance standpoint. This is primarily because so many WP7-based smartphones on the market currently employ the same 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon platform.
|Summary & Conclusion|
We feel like we end up repeating ourselves somewhere here, but the smartphone market is blossoming in a major way. Every other week or so, we're seeing yet another flagship phone ship from the major players, and while Dell wasn't even a part of this market a few years back, they should definitely be taken seriously now. The Aero was forgettable, and the Venue simply a lot of other Android phones competing with it. But in the relatively uncrowded Windows Phone 7 realm, the Venue Pro legitimately stands out. It's a beautifully built phone with a marvelous operation system, and it's already taking advantage of the NoDo update. There's the best of both worlds from a keyboard standpoint: QWERTY and virtual. All in all, this is a spectacular smartphone for the average consumer.
The 1GHz CPU and massive 4.1" display are great for pushing WP7, which is a tremendously well-designed mobile OS. We commend Microsoft for shaking off the troubles of Windows Mobile and forging ahead with something truly refreshing. For most casual users, we'd wager that WP7 will rank right up there with iOS for speed, simplicity and ease-of-use. It's truly that good. But those who need Flash in a browser, background notifications, a bona fide Gmail app and integrated tethering support will be let down.
While the hardware is awesome, Microsoft has seemingly overlooked and left out a few vital things in an effort to get WP7 onto the market. There's great Facebook integration, but no Twitter integration. There's no tethering support (Wi-Fi nor USB). The e-mail app, while beautiful, won't cut it for users who rely on Gmail. Office integration is nifty, but still lacks the refinement we were expecting. The whole OS feels like an amazing launching pad, but it's still a few updates out from being perfect. That said, we think those nitpicks will be easy to overlook for the casual user, and if you've been dodging WP7 due to Microsoft's prior smartphone operating system (Windows Mobile), it's time to give them another shot.
The overall package here is laudatory. However, you can't drop in additional storage to the device, and 16GB is largest storage option available from Dell. All told however, at $99.99 on contract for the 8GB model, the Dell Venue Pro is one of the better bargains out there. If you are willing to give WP7 a chance, we doubt you'll be let down by what's on offer here.