After being thoroughly unimpressed with the sleek and sexy DROID Charge last week, and knowing that the Venue was next on my device-review checklist, I was prepared for yet more disappointment. Let's face it - Dell has been the butt of quality control, technical support, and advertising (Dude! you're...) jokes for years now. Whether or not it has at all been deserved is another matter entirely - after all, Dell is a hugely successful company (I happen to be writing this review on a Dell netbook, in fact).
The Venue, then, is a device I went in having some doubts about. After all, Dell's first Android phone, the Streak 5, shipped with Android 1.6, and generally didn't review all that well. It didn't sell too well, either - in fact, I'd say Dell seems content to let their Android products go by almost completely unnoticed by the general public. Unfortunately, the same was true for the Venue when it was released in the US back in early March.
We first saw the Venue last year, when it was still known by its internal prototype name - "Thunder." We loved the gorgeous convex glass AMOLED display, the sleek battery cover, and polished chrome-look siding. It really is a very clean looking piece of hardware, even in personam. But it's not perfect, and we'll get into why a bit later in the review.
Anyway, I've generally enjoyed using the Dell Venue over the last week, and I have to say, had this phone been available a year ago, I might have seriously considered purchasing it.
In A Nutshell
We'll start with the Dell Venue's spec sheet, which would be impressive - if we were looking at it back in mid-2010. Today, the phone's hardware is dated by a half-generation, and is plainly outmatched even by its more frugal competitors, like the $99 (or less) HTC Inspire 4G.
- 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250 processor (same one you'll find in the Nexus One and EVO 4G)
- 4" AMOLED WVGA display (yes, like the one you'd find on the Nexus One) - not to be confused with Super AMOLED or SAMOLED Plus
- 512MB RAM / 1GB ROM
- 1400 mAh battery
- Android 2.2 Froyo w/ Dell Stage UI overlay
- 16GB Micro SDHC card included
- 8MP rear camera
- Hardware mute and camera buttons
- AT&T 3G support (T-Mobile version is discontinued)
Here's a good / not-so-good breakdown of the Venue, for those of us who (justifiably) don't want to read the entire review:
- The convex (curved) glass display looks awesomely cool - though it is just a standard AMOLED screen.
- The phone feels solid, even if it is made out of plastic, it's sleek and sturdy (in theory - I didn't really abuse it).
- Dell's Stage UI looks polished, and is also almost totally removable - it's basically just stock Android with Dell widgets.
- The phone runs smooth and quick, and with Dell's widgets removed, homescreens really fly.
- The hardware mute switch and intelligent camera button are oh-so-convenient.
The Not So Good
- The hardware (processor, display) is old, old, old.
- Battery life is comparable to, if not worse than, a Nexus One (good luck getting a whole day out of it), probably owing to the older Snapdragon processor and juice-hungry 4" AMOLED display.
- The app drawer is unbelievably slow and laggy.
- The phone comes with Swype preinstalled, with a modified version of the stock Froyo keyboard you can switch to - I hated both of them.
- Who knows if this phone will ever see a Gingerbread update.
In A Sentence: The Dell Venue is a pretty good phone, it's just not worth $200 on contract (on AT&T), and one glance at the spec sheet makes it painfully obvious that it's a solid one year behind the hardware curve at this price point.
You Should Buy It If: You really want a phone with a big Dell logo on the back? Really, I don't see a reason for anyone to purchase this phone at this point - the Venue feels like a well-executed design exercise more than a consumer product, not to say it isn't a good phone in its own right. There are just endless superior, cheaper options on the market (like the super-sexy Incredible 2 or the almost-a-Thunderbolt Inspire 4G).
Even if the Venue is really neither here nor there in today's Android smartphone market, it's an omen of things to come with Dell handsets - and that omen is a good one.
Stage UI: Das Speed
The Venue is quick, especially considering the slightly dated processor and version of Android (2.2) powering it. Homescreen swiping with Dell's Stage widgets removed is comparable to my Nexus One, which runs Android 2.3 on CyanogenMod 7 with ADW Launcher. That's fast. Menu scrolling is lightning quick, too.
With Stage UI widgets enabled, the experience slows down, but it's by no means disappointing. In fact, even with the widgets, the Venue's homescreens still swipe more smoothly than the those on the Samsung DROID Charge with all of the out-of-the-box widgets enabled. That's saying something.
I also just sort of like Stage UI, and we here at Android Police really have always had a bit of a soft spot for it. It looks clean and polished, and it actually presents useful information! The contacts widget, shown below, is far and away my favorite. I dislike scrolling through my list of contacts when in reality, 95% of the time I'm calling or texting someone, it's one of five or so people. The contacts widget adds your starred contacts (up to eight) in a grid by alphabetical order. Hitting the "Contacts" text sends you directly to your contacts list - for those 5% of situations. Tapping one of the tiles brings up all your contact options (e-mail, text, call, contact sheet, Facebook, Twitter), and if you've linked a particular contact to Twitter, their latest tweet displays above the bubble-menu.
This blows away any other UI-overlay contact widget or list system I've used, and I really want to rip this widget in particular to my Nexus One. The Home widget isn't bad, either - it's basically a giant Recent Apps menu with a small weather graphic on top. There's also widgets for Music (displays your native Music app playlists), Web (search widget + bookmarked pages), Twitter and Facebook feeds, amongst others. If you have no use for these widgets, you can just trash 'em.
The rest of the Stage UI experience is basically just minor changes in Android's coloration and fonts - nothing groundbreaking, but unique enough that it's recognizably different from stock. I, personally, think Dell has created the most subtle and least invasive UI overlay of any manufacturer. It may not be as pretty (or frankly, as smooth) as HTC Sense, but it foregoes heavy branding for speed - and I can certainly live with that.
With all the praise I have for Stage UI and its configurability, it can be a bit unstable at times. The launcher process has crashed (there's seemingly no pattern to this behavior) a few times, and the Twitter social widget crashes the Twitter app if you use the shortcut from the Stage widget to get into the app. It's also worth noting that in the 3 months the Venue has been available in the US, it hasn't seen a single software update. And with the reputation Dell established for updates on the Streak (I think they missed their estimate by 3 months for Froyo), Gingerbread may come to the Venue, it's just anyone's guess as to when.
The Venue's display is one-of-a-kind. The glass covering it is curved outward (Dell's press information sheet says it gives the phone a purposefully-designed "elliptical" profile, whatever that's supposed to accomplish), and it looks truly unique among the flat-display world of smartphones. It also gives you enhanced privacy, in a sense, by obfuscating the display at extreme viewing angles. It's really quite striking.
As it's an AMOLED, the Venue's screen also gets quite bright - for extra battery-draining effect. It also has the drawback of all standard AMOLED and LCD screens - poor visibility in sunlight. In regard to the battery drain and sunlight visibility, it's here the Venue again shows its age. With an SAMOLED or SLCD display, the Venue could have avoided the power-sucking and sun-blindness pitfalls, but it was apparently too late for Dell to make the switch, which is really quite a shame.
Still, the Venue's screen isn't shabby - it's just outmatched, once again, by its competitors.
I'm going to start adding this section into all of my phone reviews from now on, as I've realized determining how happy or frustrated I am with a device is directly correlated to some degree with how often I make typos on the keyboard. The Venue gets a barely passing grade in this department (by comparison, I would have given the DROID Charge an F-, written in blood-red ink for the abomination that is X9 text prediction).
The Venue comes with Swype as its software keyboard by default. Fair enough - if you're the kind of person who likes Swype. I happen to know no such people, but apparently, they're out there. I think Swype has particular appeal to one group - those who like to text and drive, as its simple finger-dragging gesture system and word prediction are substantially easier to operate than a standard keyboard when you're only half-paying attention and going 80MPH down the freeway while simultaneously drinking a venti triple non-fat soy vanilla latte. I kid - it certainly has a devout following, but it's definitely not for me.
The other option is a semi-stock keyboard. The primary change from the standard Froyo keyboard is the addition of Dell's text-prediction library, which places predicted words in the text field after you press the spacebar upon completing the previous word. It has never once been right in predicting my next word - and I've sent hundreds of text messages and several dozen e-mails on the Venue. Turning off the text prediction also turns off the spelling check bar above the keyboard, too, which makes no sense.
I have yet to use a software keyboard (including any on the Market, and yes, I have used SwiftKey) that spellchecks or types better than the stock Gingerbread keyboard, and so I'd like to take this time to tell all manufacturers: please stop. Different keypress animations and skins are fair game, but when it comes to spelling and multi-touch, I have to say: Google knows best.
Battery Life, Phone Calls, And Sound
Battery life is mediocre - very mediocre. If I unplugged my phone at 7AM, I was looking for a charger by 3 or 4PM with moderate use. Remember, this phone has the same processor, a bigger AMOLED display, and a smaller battery than a Nexus One. The math works out accordingly. With heavy use (eg, gaming or browsing on high brightness), don't expect more than 3 or 4 hours on a single charge. I am absolutely vexed as to what kept Dell from fitting a bigger battery in this phone. Though it's hard to say how much longevity would be improved, as the Venue has a lot working against it in the battery life department to start with.
Phone calls on the Venue are decent, but not anything to write home about. Listening through the speaker bar at the top of the phone, voices sound muffled - though they are plenty loud. The microphone on the bottom of the phone has a very wide opening, and persons on the other end had no complaints about being able to hear or understand me. It's on AT&T's network, so that's always a consideration, as well. That said, I haven't had any dropped calls.
The Dell Venue also has the single most powerful speakerphone I've ever heard. It is unbelievably loud. I didn't miss a single notification, phone call, or text message while the phone was in my pocket - even in relatively loud environments. This is where Dell's experience as a computer manufacturer shines through, because it's always preferable to have speakers that can be turned up a little too loud as compared to not quite loud enough.
Build Quality and Hardware
The Dell Venue feels very solid in-hand, mostly because there's a lot of something heavy in the Dell Venue - I just don't know where that something is. The frame is made up of plastic, the battery cover is paper-thin, and the battery itself is pretty small.
My only guess is that the convex glass covering the display and capacitive touch is extra-thick, and thus extra-heavy - because the Venue weighs it in at a rather staggering 156 grams (5.5oz). That's about 20% heavier than the HTC Incredible 2, a phone which also has a 4" display. By comparison, it is roughly the same weight (8 grams lighter) as the 4.3", metal alloy-framed HTC Thunderbolt.
The Venue's outboard hardware set is quite unique - it sports 3 capacitive touch buttons (there is no search button), a dedicated double-action camera button, a hardware mute switch, 3.5mm headphone jack, and one-piece volume rocker. The Venue's power button is a small, circular affair, and it's very difficult to find when you're not actually looking at the device because of its tiny size, low profile, and the Venue's class-leading symmetry (you have no idea which end you're holding).
The volume rocker and camera buttons both feel dangerously cheap. The volume rocker already has plastic creak, and the camera button sits loosely on its mountings, and makes an audible (and annoying) loose-clicking noise whenever you walk with the phone in-hand, or otherwise shake the device. Let's just say it doesn't inspire confidence.
The Venue's hardware mute switch is possibly the greatest piece of kit to ever grace the chassis of an Android smartphone. I mean, really, what a brilliant idea. I constantly forget to silence my phone in quiet-time situations (class, library, dinner, movies - you name it), and having to take my phone out of my pocket, power up the display and swipe the mute option on the lock screen can be a little conspicuous. The Venue's mute switch turns your phone silent with one quick flip, and the phone emits a very light haptic response to indicate it has entered silent mode so that you don't accidentally switch it from silent to audible, reducing the chance of embarrassing facepalm scenarios.
As always, I'll let the pictures do the talking, unaltered:
I like to think of the Dell Venue as a preview of things to come from the company that has really been the Ford of consumer and business computing products. Sure, it's no Ferrari, but it's not like you're buying something that was slapped together with questionable care or without significant thought put into it from a practical engineering perspective.
The Venue is a (big) step in the right direction for Dell's smartphone brand, and that, I think, is a lot more important than how well it does in the marketplace. Not because it isn't something consumers won't like - I actually believe if you were to present someone with an ATRIX 4G, an Infuse 4G, and a Dell Venue in a sort of blind "taste test," that the Dell would run away with it. It has a great hand-feel, great looks, and generally runs a lot smoother than its overlay-burdened competitors (excluding the Inspire 4G, perhaps.) But at this point, I think Dell lacks the brand recognition (in the smartphone sector) to topple the leaders of the market. That's going to take some time to change.
And the total lack of advertising for the Venue isn't helping that situation, either. I'd bet 98% of Americans don't even know Dell makes a smartphone, let alone that it has already made three (including the Windows Phone 7 Venue Pro.)
I'm still confident that Dell is going to be a bigger player with their next Android phone (coming this winter, supposedly), and I look forward to it with great enthusiasm.
If you do want a Dell Venue, you can pick one up today from Dell's website with a new 2-year agreement or upgrade on AT&T for $199.