Dell's Venue Pro, running Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, features a BlackBerry-style sliding keyboard. Can it win over business users?
Microsoft used to have a major presence in mobile devices
for business. But with the flood of Google Android and Apple iOS smartphones
into both the consumer and corporate spheres, it's become easy to forget how
many people once used Windows Mobile as their portal to e-mail and services
while on the move.
In a bid to counter all those rivals-not to mention Research
In Motion's BlackBerry franchise-Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 7 in 2010. In
place of a grid-like screen of individual apps, the company decided to take a
more creative approach, consolidating apps and Web content into a series of
subject-specific "Hubs." Like Android and iOS, there is considerable focus on
apps and games from third-party developers, and Microsoft has worked with its
manufacturing partners to ensure a consistent hardware standard across all the
Windows Phone 7 devices in the stable.
From the outset, Windows Phone 7 seemed aimed first and
foremost at consumers. It had an Xbox Live hub, for games, and easy integration
with services such as Facebook. Microsoft also tried appealing to businesses
with an Office hub, complete with OneNote, SharePoint, and mobile versions of
Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
That brings us to the Dell Venue Pro, a smartphone from a
company more well-known for its PCs. In that sense, at least, the device-along
with the Dell Streak 7, a 7-inch tablet-represents something of a bet for the
Texas manufacturer: can it establish a presence in the market for mobile
devices in the same way it did for traditional desktops and laptops?
Dell's vehicle for making that inroad is a 6.8-ounce
smartphone with a 4.1-inch capacitive touch-screen and a physical QWERTY
keyboard that slides out from underneath. Those familiar with smartphones could
be excused for making an instant comparison to RIM's BlackBerry
, which also featured a touch-screen and sliding keyboard.
Like the Torch, the Venue Pro feels hefty in the hand and
lengthy when the keyboard is extended. The hardware itself is solid, the
keyboard feeling very firmly seated in its track. Unlike the Torch, whose lack
of a thumb indentation or "grip" sometimes flustered the extending process-with
your thumb sliding over the screen, as opposed to freeing the keyboard-Dell's
decision to edge the screen assembly slightly forward of the keyboard makes the
sliding into an effortless, trouble-free action. The device feels slightly
top-heavy when fully extended.
That being said, the physical keyboard's vertical
orientation restricts those who like typing in landscape mode to using the
virtual keyboard. Although the keys are somewhat small, their slightly bumpy
shape and size meant I was able to type fairly rapidly, with relatively few
misspellings (following a short learning curve); the keys also feel "softer"
than the hard plastic ones offered on many smartphones. An extended keyboard
will freeze the screen in portrait mode.
The Venue Pro has been engineered to those aforementioned
hardware standards, including a 1GHz processor, meaning all its various
functions-from apps to camera-snaps-performed smoothly and without the device
becoming warm after an extended period of use. Call quality is fine, and
Microsoft's virtual keyboard (for those who prefer that particular input
method) is top-quality.
The Venue Pro tested by eWEEK featured Microsoft's latest
"NoDo" software update (7.0.7390.0). In addition to some bug fixes, other
update tweaks include speedier app-loading (and it did seem slightly faster, in
testing, than the original build) and copy-and-paste. In theory, copy-and-paste
is easy to use: tap on the text you want to copy and tap the little icon that
appears beneath, which preserves that text as a little symbol on your virtual
keyboard; tap that icon to paste the selection anywhere. In practice, it proved
a little frustrating to get text to highlight appropriately, although all
subsequent operations were smooth and simple.
Battery life for the Venue Pro seemed roughly in line with
that of other smartphones-hours' worth of moderate, on-and-off use translated
into roughly a day's worth of power without needing to recharge. Your own
mileage may vary, particularly if you're a heavy apps user or game player.
Like the Torch 9800, though, the Venue Pro feels sizable and
heavy-perhaps too much so, for those users who prefer a slim and sleek device.
It's a smartphone that makes its presence known in your pocket. The Venue Pro's
screen resolution and brightness surpass that of its BlackBerry opponent,
however, and Windows Phone 7's interface may appeal to some users more than
RIM's BlackBerry 6 operating system.
Microsoft's recent issues with smartphone software updates
aside, Windows Phone 7 users can expect a wide variety of applications,
including Angry Birds and Internet Explorer 9, to arrive on their devices
within the next few months. The software's next update, code-named "Mango," is
also scheduled to introduce multitasking and augmented reality features that
leverage the smartphones' cameras.
As part of its efforts to convince developers and users that
the Windows Phone 7 platform is viable in the face of substantial competition
from the likes of Apple and Google, Microsoft has taken to touting the
healthiness of its app ecosystem, which reportedly includes 11,500 apps.
What all that means, for business users considering the Dell
Venue Pro, is that Microsoft remains committed to improving the platform
through the next several quarters. That could make the smartphone a better
value proposition as time passes-although those wanting a slimmer phone, and
don't mind using a virtual keyboard-might find themselves gravitating toward
other Windows Phone 7 devices in the stable.