Smartphone Review: Dell Venu Pro

Hands-On with Dell’s Windows Phone 7 Smartphone

Dell’s much awaited Windows Phone 7 handset, the Venue Pro, got off to a pretty rocky start. While myriad HTC, LG, and Samsung handsets were available to buy upon-- or very shortly after-- Windows Phone 7’s November 8th launch, the Venue Pro was virtually impossible to come by until mid-to-late December, and  many of those that managed to get their hands on one of the few early units found that they suffered from technical issues including SIM card problems and inability to connect to secure Wi-Fi networks.

With those early kinks worked out and the phone now readily available for purchase, we take a hands-on look at the Venue Pro, which Dell has high hopes for an enterprise device-- the company recently announced plans to deploy it’s home-grown device as a replacement for its own employees’ BlackBerrys.   

Design  and Dimensions

No question about it-- the Venue Pro sports one of the slickest and most attractive designs of any smartphone, Windows Phone 7-based or otherwise. With subtly curved Gorilla Glass atop a 4.1-inch display, chromed sides, and soft-touch beveled top and bottom edges, this is probably the one phone whose aesthetics could make an iPhone owner envious.

On the underside of the Venue Pro, a plastic panel with a glossy black boilerplate-like texture covers the 5 MP camera with LED flash and removes easily to expose a 1400 mAh battery and SIM slot. Right-side volume rocker and camera buttons are well-defined and have a good feel, but that’s not quite the case with the top-mounted power/lock button— it’s nearly flush, so finding it and registering a press takes a bit more effort than it should. (There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack up top.) On the Venue Pro’s bottom edge, the micro-USB charging/sync port is flanked by a pair of small stereo speakers.

The Venue Pro may be stylish, but it’s far from svelte. It tips the scales at 6.7 ounces (191 g), which makes it the heftiest of all the current Windows Phone 7 devices. At 2.5 x 4.8 x 0.6, it’s also one of the thickest, mainly owing to its physical keyboard. Overall, the Venue Pro’s high quality materials, solid construction, and heft make it feel more substantial and durable than the typical smartphone, but not so much so that we’d want to test that hypothesis by treating the phone roughly.

Display and Keyboard

The Venue Pro’s 4.1-inch AMOLED display (not to be confused with the Super AMOLED found on the Samsung Focus), is second in size only to the 4.3-inch HD7 among Windows Phone 7 devices. (All of them offer the 480 x 800 resolution so you get the same amount of screen real estate regardless of screen size.) The Venue Pro’s display is sharp and bright and the colors are vibrant—the difference is stark when compared side-by-side with a standard TFT display like that on the aforementioned HD7. Despite AMOLED ‘s reputation for delivering inferior visibility in direct sunlight compared to TFTs,  we found the Venue Pro as readable as the HD7 when we took both phones out at high noon.

The Venue Pro’s most distinguishing feature is its portrait mode slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which is found in only a handful of other devices such as the Palm Pre 2 and BlackBerry Torch. The keyboard is predictably a bit cramped -- there’s no room for spacing between the keys in portrait mode-- but the keys have good travel and are rounded to make it easier to distinguish individual ones by feel.

The phone’s slider mechanism is weighted such that you need to overcome a fair amount of resistance to get to the keyboard, but it’s still reasonably easy to do so without having to apply too much pressure, even with only one hand. The on-screen keyboard’s still available when you opt not to open the slider and when using the phone in landscape mode.

Connectivity and Performance

The Venue Pro is a quad-band GSM phone that works on T-Mobile’s 3G data frequencies, but doesn’t support the carrier’s newer HSPA+ “4G” technology. There’s also 802.11n/g/b Wi-Fi on-board plus Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) support. (It’s worth noting that an AT&T 3G-compatible version of the Venue Pro recently passed FCC certification, so there’s a good chance it will appear on that carrier at some point in the future.)

The Venue Pro and all Windows Phone 7 devices use essentially the same CPU—a 1 GHz Qualcomm SnapDragon, which results in snappy performance when swiping and scrolling your way around Windows Phone 7, using apps, browsing the Web, switching from portrait to landscape mode, etc.( For an in-depth look at the operating system’s features, see here.)

The Venue Pro’s speakers provide good sound for both speakerphone and multimedia use, with some distortion creeping in only at the very top-end volume settings. Sound quality when using the earpiece is good.

Dell doesn’t quote battery life figures for the Venue Pro’s 1400 mAh Lithium Ion cell (which is fine since such figures aren’t necessarily helpful in predicting what a particular user might expect). We didn’t perform an exhaustive battery test, but can report that with moderate to heavy phone use—including   3G and Wi-Fi-- we generally encountered the battery life warning before the end of an 8-hour day. Therefore, you’ll want to keep the charger close at hand, and perhaps even a spare battery (though at the moment, Dell doesn’t sell extra batteries for this phone on its site).

Also on the subject of charging, the Venue Pro annoyingly lacks a functioning charging indicator light, so the only way to determine its status in that regard is via the on-screen battery icon. You can just make out the outline of what appear to be a pair of round LEDs atop the upper right corner of the display, but we can only conclude they’re missing or dormant since they stayed dark throughout our testing. Hopefully the lights are in fact present and can be activated via a future software update.

The Venue Pro’s 5 MP camera delivers decent image quality when outdoors, but indoor shots generally appeared grainy and blurry. The single LED Flash is of little help—it’s so weak that shots taken with and without it were almost indistinguishable unless the subject was only inches from the lens.

 

Conclusion

Venue Pro pricing is $99 for 8 GB or $149 for 16 GB (or $449 and $499, respectively, without a contract). The phone is sold via Dell’s site or from one of Microsoft’s few physical stores; unlike other WP7 phones, you won’t find it on T-Mobile’s Web site or Microsoft’s online store.

Among Windows Phone 7 devices, the Venue Pro stands out as much for its design cues as for specific features such as the AMOLED and portrait keyboard. Given that all current Windows Phone 7 devices have substantially the same capabilities, if you want a phone that offers the Windows Phone 7 experience without sacrificing style, the Dell Venue Pro should be at the top of your list.

 

TAGS:

Microsoft, mobile, Dell, smartphone, Windows Phone 7

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