Most Windows Phone 7 devices are almost identical when it comes to software, but there certainly isn't a lack of hardware variety. So far we've seen an ultra-light slab phone (Samsung Focus), one with a slide-out speaker (HTC Surround), a big-screen monster with a kickstand (HTC HD7), and a Motorola Droid-style slider (LG Quantum). The Dell Venue Pro ($99 on contract with T-Mobile) adds yet another variation to the mix: a vertical slider design that's easily one of the most beautiful gadgets the company has made. With its ultra-bright AMOLED screen and plump backlit keyboard, the Venue Pro gives Microsoft's slick and highly customizable OS an executive-class sheen. Keep on reading to find out if this hardware-software combo has what it takes to stand out.
After picking up the Dell Venue Pro we could immediately tell that its design is a cut above most smart phones. From the rubberized top and bottom to the chrome accents on the sides to the subtly curved Gorilla Glass display, this device screams luxury. We especially like the attention to detail, such as the textured diamond pattern on the black back cover. This pattern changes to silver on the top half of the phone when slid up.
The top half of the Venue Pro houses a headphone jack on the left and the power button on the right, which is not only recessed but positioned on a downward slope. This makes waking the phone unnecessarily difficult. Two large silver volume buttons and a camera button line the right side, and on the bottom you'll find stereo speakers and the microUSB port.
While the Venue Pro's heft is a telltale sign of its high quality, its presence was felt in our pocket. Measuring 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.6 inches and weighing 6.8 ounces, this smart phone has the same thickness but weighs much more than the LG Quantum (6.2 ounces), which also has a slide-out keyboard. The HTC HD7, which has a larger but inferior 4.3-inch display, weighs 5.7 ounces. The Samsung Focus, which has a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen but no keyboard, only weighs 4.1 ounces.
Another major selling point of the Venue Pro is its gorgeous 4.1-inch AMOLED display (800 x 480 pixels). As with the Samsung Focus, colors are quite rich and contrast is sky high, which makes everything from photos and videos to the tiled interface really pop. The curved display limits viewing angles somewhat, but they're still better than the HD7.
The Venue Pro smoothly slides open to reveal the keyboard, which ends with a satisfying click. As far as sliders go, this is one of the better layouts we've laid our thumbs on. While packed tightly together, the evenly backlit keys are plump enough to provide satisfying tactile feedback, beating out the BlackBerry Torch. We appreciate the dedicated .com key, but we'd also prefer a dedicated @ key instead of having to press FN first. This could easily replace the marginally useful emoticon shortcut key.
In our testing we banged out e-mail replies fairly quickly and accurately using the physical QWERTY, but Windows Phone 7 benefits from one of the best touch keyboards around. We typed faster when using just the display, even though we made a few more errors. You'll have to really like physical keys to justify carrying around the Venue Pro's extra weight.
While Windows Phone 7 still feels incomplete in many ways--no multitasking with third-party apps, no cut and paste, limited landscape support, etc.--Microsoft's OS is certainly inviting on the Venue Pro. It all starts with the Live Tiles on the main home screen, which you can easily move around or delete to make room for more shortcuts. For example, we axed the T-Mobile Family Room app and "pinned" a favorite contact to the top of the start screen. This tile alternated between a photo of the person and her latest social networking update. You can also pin other apps to the start screen, as well as websites, videos, and more.
The personalized feel of Windows Phone 7 extends to apps such as Pictures, which displays a wallpaper of a photo you took in the background within the app. Another example: The People app ties into Facebook and displays the latest status updates of your friends. Another welcome touch is that the Lock Screen displays your next calendar entry and number of new messages at a glance. The overall interface is clean and polished, and the hubs for various activities (Music + Videos, People, Pictures) use a panoramic motif that invites the user to scroll from left and right to discover more options.
To get the full scoop on what we like--and what we don't--about Windows Phone 7, read our full review.
E-mail and Messaging
As with other Windows Phone 7 devices, using Outlook Mobile is a pleasure on the Dell Venue Pro. The interface is nice and clean, and it's a cinch to select multiple messages (just click on the very left side of the screen). Attachment support is excellent, although you need to download a PDF reader from the Marketplace. You can easily swipe through flagged, urgent, and unread messages. What you don't get is a unified inbox for multiple accounts. You also can't switch accounts when you're in Outlook Mobile; we had to jump out of Google Mail to main screen, then select the Yahoo Mail tile. Lame.
The text messaging app has sleek visual appeal with conversation bubbles, complete with an easily identifiable icon for attaching photos. However, you can't share videos via MMS. Windows Phone 7 also doesn't have a native instant messaging app like Google Talk for Android.
The Venue Pro's Explorer browser loaded pages fairly quickly given its 3G connection. It took the phone 20 seconds to render the full version of NYTimes.com, and 6 seconds and 9 seconds respectively for the mobile versions of CNN.com and ESPN.com. We also found zooming via pinch gestures to be quite smooth. Still, you can't take full advantage of T-Mobile's HSPA+ network because this handset doesn't support the carrier's 4G technology. You'll just get enhanced speeds in those areas where coverage is available. In addition, the Venue Pro--and all Windows Phone 7 devices--lack a mobile hotspot feature.
How fast the Venue Pro's 1-GHz processor feels depends on what you're doing. Exiting apps and jumping into new ones from the home screen was fairly fast. Scrolling around the browser and panning around maps was also smooth. On the other hand, any app that needs to load data at launch, such as the Marketplace, could take between 5 and 11 seconds to refresh when opening. More jarring were the two system-wide freezes we experienced during testing. Hitting the home button didn't work; we had to reset the Venue Pro to get back up and running.
Marketplace and Games
If you think Microsoft's marketplace is wimpy compared to the competition, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you can find a lot of big-name apps in the Windows Phone 7 catalog. Amazon Kindle, eBay, Facebook, Foursquare, Netflix, Slacker, Twitter, The Weather Channel; there's a lot here, and we like how the apps mirror the look and feel of WP7's side-scrolling UI. Right now 6,500 apps are available, which pales in comparison to Android (200,000+) and iOS (300,000+), but Microsoft says 100 new apps are being added per day.
Although it's not sold directly by T-Mobile, the Venue Pro is pre-loaded with some of the carrier's own apps in addition to a few others. These include Family Room (for sharing notes and calendars with family members),T-Mobile TV (rebranded MobiTV), and TeleNav GPS Nav ($9.99 per month for spoken turn-by-turn directions). You also get Pageonce Personal Finance, and the useful Newsroom app (News, Weather, Stocks powered by MSN).
Despite having the Xbox Live brand, Windows Phone 7's game selection doesn't have as many compelling titles as iOS yet. However, we had a blast playing Assasin's Creed, which has plenty of side-scrolling action and cool 3D graphics, as well as the more casual Fruit Ninja. Plus, you can try games before you buy.
Music and Video
Whoa. That's what we said to ourselves when we fired up music player on the Dell Venue Pro. This smart phone's stereo speakers, located on the bottom of the device, pump out loud audio--enough to fill a medium-size office. You can drag and drop music from your collection to the phone via the Zune desktop software or download tracks ($1.29) or albums ($9.99) right from the phone using Zune Marketplace.
To get premium TV shows and Movies from Microsoft, you'll have to use desktop software. Frustratingly, Microsoft insists on continuing to use its confusing points system for buying video content. A rental of Dinner for Schmucks cost 320 points, but blocks of points start at $4.99 for 400 points. Simple, right? The good news is that videos look fantastic on the Super AMOLED screen.
Camera and Camcorder
One of the best features of Windows Phone 7 is that you can launch the camera even when the phone is asleep and the screen is off. And, sure enough, the Venue Pro sprang to live within 5 seconds of us pressing the button. Unfortunately, the 5-megapixel camera took slightly blurry shots most of the time. Not only is the shutter speed too slow, the image on screen shook nearly every time we pressed the shutter. That's a waste of a beautiful Super AMOLED screen, nevermind clever features such as automatic uploading to SkyDrive and sharing on Facebook.
The 720p HD video the Venue Pro captured looked much better. Footage we shot on a snowy day looked pretty sharp on our 22-inch monitor, once we imported the clip using Zune software. No, you can't use Windows 7 to drag and drop photos, videos, or any other files; Zune is required.
Call Quality and Battery Life
During our tests the Dell Venue Pro delivered above-average call quality. When we dialed a landline, the other caller said we sounded good, but we noticed some fuzziness between words on our end of the line. Thanks to the twin speakers, you'll have no problem hearing others in the car or across a room.
Although the Super AMOLED screen on the Venue Pro impacts battery life, the 1400 mAh battery in this handset held up fairly well. After using the phone for most of the day, we had about a quarter of the charge left by 6:00 p.m. That's decent endurance, but you might want to tweak the sync settings for e-mail for every 30 minutes instead of as items arrive if you want to squeeze out the most juice.
It's safe to say that the $99 Dell Venue Pro is the company's best smart phone yet from a design standpoint. While hefty, the solid and luxuriously built hardware--and especially the AMOLED screen--nicely complements the highly polished (but still somewhat shallow) Windows Phone 7 OS. Our favorite Windows Phone 7 device remains the Samsung Focus because it packs an equally impressive Super AMOLED display into a much lighter design, but if you want a physical keyboard the Dell Venue Pro is your best bet for this platform.
Microsoft's portrait-oriented platform just makes more sense on this device than on the landscape-style LG Quantum slider. We just wish the camera were faster and that the device didn't freeze, weaknesses we're assuming Dell will address.