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 Torch 9800, 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.