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PDA Acer n311 price revolution

Standard kit:

  • PDA;
  • Cradle (for Acer n311);
  • Sync cable (for Acer n310);
  • Charger;
  • Cloth bag;
  • Software;
  • Manual.

The PDA market resembles a kind of sleepy kingdom. Ever less players are left to make an illusion of competition. There is almost nothing innovative in the models, the manufacturers keep on releasing modifications of old PDAs, and the most interesting things happen on the adjacent market, the communicator market. The offer of budget and hi-end handhelds has dropped sharply, at the same time the mid-range segment stays active (mainly due to integrated satellite navigation receiver GPS). It seemed nothing could change the sluggish process, the PDA market is gradually coming to its end.

Early info on Acer n300 series sounded relatively calm for the users. Both models were officially announced last September. Many PDA users paid attention to the series then and began watching its fate. Whats that attractive about it? Many PDA users wanted and still want to get the model with the utmost functionality: a VGA-screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules. However with the maximum functionality we get a high-end PDA, which is relatively heavy, bulky, mainly due to the dual slot (even Asus A730W). Some users put up with inevitably heavy weight and big size, but for some users this became an obstacle and they didnt change the old handheld expecting a tinier offer. At this very moment Acer enters the scene, nobody expected anything surprising from the company. In addition to all necessary hi-end features (VGA-screen, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB-host) the Acer handheld has tiny size, and the price tag for Acer n311 seems to be the most interesting offer of the year. Other players have to think now about price correction. This is one of the latest worthy products on the PDA market. It greatly strengthens the position of Acer, which had never been the leader before. We have completely new model, other than a clone of X model with Y function added.

Does it mean we have an ideal model? Alas, there is nothing ideal in the world, like other devices this handheld has its weak points. In this review we are to tell you which pluses it has and whether its minuses are serious.

Id like to say some words about the product line of Acer and its time development. Initially the company supported both platforms Palm and Pocket PC. However later it rejected Palm and focused on Pocket PC. Having released handhelds with integrated GPS-receiver and a successful Acer n50 the company strengthened its position on the world market and secured its place in the top 5 of classic handheld makers. During the previous year we witnessed a surge of Acer sales. The model we review today headed the Acer lineup. Surprisingly, almost all flaws of previous models were fixed up in Acer n311 (for example, the standard headphones jack, extended capacity battery among extra accessories). The company has a real chance to be ranked the third PDA maker in 2006.

Unlike the rival models (we do not consider FS pocket LOOX C550/N560) Acer n311 is equipped with a single slot for SD/MMC cards, CF (Compact Flash) slot is absent. On the one hand, an additional slot automatically adds something to size and weight, on the other hand we have extra expansion opportunities. When SD memory was expensive (per 1MB) and its maximum capacity was 1 GB, the existence of a CF slot was a crucial factor. Now its possible to buy a 4GB SD card for $200 or less (in some places for $130), thats cheaper compared to its CF analog. The most users are satisfied with this capacity, and if you need larger memory, you can plug an external drive via USB. The lack of the CF slot might be a shortcoming, if you have a digital camera supporting CF format. At last the CF slot is useful to plug peripherals. With built-in wireless adapters there is no need in external Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules. And the simplest way to plug a GPS-receiver is via Bluetooth or a cable. Other accessories are rarely used. Well, we see that currently we can do without the CF slot in most cases (many years ago it was essential, but now the situation has completely changed). We cant call the absence of the second slot a drawback, as Acer n311 got minimal size.

Acer n311 measures 110x70x13.7 mm and weighs 135 g. This is the tiniest VGA PDA at the moment. It size can be compared to the legendary HP iPaq 1910/1940, which enjoyed great popularity due to its design and tiny size. I can recall two models with smaller size Palm Z22 and HTC Galaxy, however they belong to another class, so we can compare Acer n311 with them. Given the light weight of the PDA it can be carried comfortably anywhere in pockets, on the belt or belt case. Lets compare it with other models:

  • Acer n311: 110x70x13.7 mm, 135 g, VGA screen;
  • MiTAC Mio339: 112.18x69.6x13.3 mm, 118 g, QVGA screen;
  • HP iPaq 4150: 113.6x70.6x13.5 mm, 133 g, QVGA screen;
  • Toshiba e800/e830: 134.6x76.2x15.2 mm, 192 g, VGA screen;
  • HP iPaq 4700: 131x77x14.9 mm, 186.7 g, VGA screen;
  • FS Pocket LOOX 720: 122x72x15.2 mm, 170 g, VGA screen;
  • Asus A730: 117.5x72.8x16.9 mm, 170 g, VGA screen;
  • Dell X50v: 119x73x16.9 mm, 175 g, VGA screen.

Almost the whole front panel is occupied with the LCD. The ratio of LCD surface to the front panel surface is maximum among all Pocket PC.

The assembly quality of Acer n311 is good. The shell is made of expensive plastic, which is nice to touch, only battery cover is metallic. Youll hardly notice joints of details (they are in color passages). The insertions are made of black uneven plastic and the buttons of glossy plastic (they do not keep fingerprints, the size of buttons is relatively small). You feel it nice to hold the device in hand: no backlash, high assembly quality, comfortable size, almost ideal proportions for a PDA. However there are some users, who do not care about the size and want to have a longer screen diagonal. Id add, Acer makes the model on its own facilities, not on HTC, which produces the main competing models.

The model is available in Black Silver solution. The mixture of different colors and materials makes a harmony. In its design the device doesnt resemble any handheld on the market or a model in the Acer lineup. The designers had a task to create a handheld, so that the maximum number of would-be users would like it (this is logical given the limited model line). We think they succeeded. The model doesnt look too strict and straight, but smooth. It fits to a business suit or a ladys bag. We held a small survey, we asked those who use PDA or just interested to share their impression on the design of Acer n311. We got the positive answers from the majority of respondents except for two cases (10% of sampling), when design was called a failure or made a negative impression. Its god we didnt get neutral marks. To my mind, the success of this design can be explained not only by the brilliant work of developers (its really brilliant), but also by the fact, PDA users are tired of non-stopping clones and long for something fresh. It seems logical that the company scheduled the release of Acer n311 Ferrari Edition in the mid of 2006 (this will encourage the sales). I keep on saying there cant be an objective advice on design, its only up to you to make the final decision. Now lets pass over to control elements.

There is Acer sign placed on the narrow line above the screen, at the sides of it are two LED indicators. The first shows battery charge progress, missed reminder; there are just 3 colors. The second is in charge of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking.

The right side is empty, there are no control elements on it. At the right side are power button and Hold slider. The Hold slider allows to block PDA to avoid accidental button press in the bag or pocket. Often this function turns to be very useful. Unfortunately, there are no scroll or voice recorder buttons at sides. This is a flaw in ergonomics, so youll have to browse e-pages with the joystick.

On the top we see an SD/MMC slot and 3.5 mm headphones jack. Acer n50 had a non-standard 2.5 mm jack, which was uncomfortable. There are no problems with the new model you can easily plug your favorite headphones. We accessed the sound quality in Koss The Plug headphones, it turned to be high (we used equalizer of the exterior player Pocket Player). We can recommend the PDA as an MP3-player. Here is also a stylus. You can easily eject the stylus from the silo, however it is firmly fixed in the latter, so the stylus wont fall out accidentally. The stylus features an average size neither a needle like for Sony or HTC Wizard PDAs or that big and comfortable stylus for Palm handhelds. There is nothing special about its size, you just use it and thats all.

There is a sync connector at the bottom (for the cradle, sync cable, charger or other devices). Here we also find a soft reset button, activate it with the stylus pen.

At last we pass to the main block of control elements placed under the LCD. As the major part of the front panel is occupied with the LCD, there is little room left for the main buttons. The lower line of buttons is actually at the level with the bottom end, the navigation pad is replaced with the joystick. The buttons are comfortable and have short firm stroke and exact feedback. I havent found any problems in navigating ordinary applications, only up and down buttons do not always work at a weak stroke. In all, this PDA is good for most games adjusted for Pocket PC, but if you look for a device to play games, youd better have a look at Dell X51v or Sony PSP.

Screen

The screen features a 640x480 pixel resolution and 65K colors. A 3.7 diagonal is claimed, but in reality the diagonal of the active zone makes up 3.67. The company applied a SG Silicon matrix by Sharp (like in Toshiba e800, Dell Axim X50v, Asus A730), which is slightly yields to HP iPaq hx4700, FS Pocket LOOX 720 with Sony VGA matrixes. Subjectively, Sony matrixes provide more contrast image and have excellent viewing angles. You can see the image even at the zero angle, the colors are almost not inverted, if you look at the screen from sides or from above. When you look at the Acer screen at 45 degrees, the image gets pale, colors get inverted, however the info remains readable under the sun. This screen gives way to the etalon of HP iPaq hx4700, however the main advantage remains VGA-resolution. In addition there are 20 backlight levels. The minimum backlight level is still comfortable to read books on the PDA in the dark, it might have been twice as less.

Some users, whove seen the device, find the screen vague due to the touchscreen impact, however the impact is minimum, so you can neglect it. We advise you to have a look at the screen when you buy the device (it should be ok, as the only real competitor is the screen of HP iPaq hx4700).

Battery

The PDA is equipped with a Li-Ion battery capacious of 1200 mAh for the senior modification, this is an average figure for Pocket PC batteries. Out tests revealed that under the maximum load (the maximum backlight level, video playback) the device lasted for 2 hours 40 minutes. In the MP3-player mode (the screen is off, playback from the storage card) the handheld was good for 11 hours 40 minutes. In the reading mode (Haali Reader, auto scrolling, the minimum backlight level) the battery life reached 11 hours 15 minutes. This is an average result among all PDAs and a good one among other VGA Pocket PC.

The accessories package includes an extended battery for 2600 mAh, so you can double the abovementioned results.

Interface

Given the plenty of wireless adapters the model lacks an IrDA port, the makers counted this interface the vestige of the past. Id note, this is not the first Pocket PC without the IrDA port, remember E-Ten M600/G500. This is a shortcoming, however not a serious one. As a matter of fact, taking into account the popularity of Bluetooth, the need for IrDA is getting weaker step by step.

Being o hi-end Pocket PC the n311 has two wireless adapters, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This has become the standard for Pocket PC platform. Naturally, the can work simultaneously. There are special utilities in charge of the adapter control, you can launch them by tapping the icons in right bottom of Today screen or from Menu.

Bluetooth 1.2. The device is equipped with Bluetooth drivers from Broadcom (ex WIDCOMM). This is good news given the frequent application of Microsoft drivers, which feature restricted functionality. All necessary profiles are available including A2DP (stereo sound). Bluetooth interface proved to work well: access to the Internet via the phone, sync with desktop PC, transfer of files and contacts, Bluetooth-keyboard connection and so on. The drivers version is 1.7.1 Build 1429.

Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b). Remember Acer n50, we had reprimands to the work of Wi-Fi, which was unstable. Alas, these problems remained in the new PDA (Wi-Fi module by Samsung). The signal was regularly lost in the conditions, under which other handhelds keep on working steadily (we checked it with many hot spots listening to the online-radio at 128 kbps). The situation gets a little bit better with the Roaming trigger setting set at No Signal. As for the info protection, Acer n311 supports WEP, WPA, 802.1x. There is the support of point-to-point connection.

USB. USB connection can be used for the synchronization and charging. Its possible to plug other devices to the PDA using USB-host: a keyboard, a mouse, external drives. Some devices might require extra drivers (external HDD, mice). You should realize that there will be quite a limited list of devices compatible with Acer n311 (eventually these are keyboards and external drives), youll hardly make work a printer or a web-camera, the problem is rooted in lacking drivers for mobile operating system. Unfortunately, we failed to use Acer n311 as the card-reader with Card Export II, lets hope this opportunity will emerge in future versions of the program.

We think that unstable work of Wi-Fi is one of the main flaws of the Acer model, the quality can be guaranteed in conditions of direct visibility of a hot spot. However if you are not an active user of Wi-Fi (mainly for Web-surfing or e-mail), you might not notice this flaw at all. You can consider the absence of GPS-module as an indirect shortcoming. However a GPS-receiver is a good reason to release an updated version in the future.

Productivity, RAM

The PDA carries 64 MB RAM onboard. The company claimed 52.77 MB ROM available, in reality after the first launch youll find less ROM available. This is enough to cope with the most tasks. Flash-memory (Store) available makes up 84.39 MB an optimum size, you can store the bulk of programs on the memory card. At the strong discharge you wont lose your data, this is due to the memory organization in the new Windows Mobile version.

The PDA comes with Samsung S3C2440 400 MHz processor. The SPB Benchmark test doesnt provide a clear picture of VGA Pocket PC speed, especially if the handheld has built-in graphical accelerators. This isnt a most productive model among all VGA PDAs. In May well publish a comparative review of VGA Pocket PC running Windows Mobile 5.0, there well talk about productivity in details. Now see the test results by TCPMP program:

As you see, its somewhat difficult to watch video without a preliminary conversion. The model is equipped with a built-in nVidia GoForce 4000 accelerator, which is relatively old (GoForce 4500 has been already replaced and GoForce 5500 has been announced) and meant for video decoding at a CIF (352x288 pixels) resolution. Of cause, its possible to sharpen drivers for this accelerator, however you shouldnt expect wonders and surge of video productivity.

There is one more unpleasant moment here. It deals with the multi-task mode. If you listen to the music and at the same time roam the Internet, the music will freeze for some seconds till the heavy page is fully downloaded.

Kit, modifications

The handheld is available in two modifications (n310 and n311), lets list their differences:

  • Clock rate: Acer n310 300 MHz (in future it will be possible to speed up the processor with Pocket Hack Master 2005, as for now the utility was installed, but failed to be launched), Acer n311 400 MHz;
  • Built-in flash-memory: Acer n310 64 MB, Acer n311 128 MB;
  • Acer n310 lacks Wi-Fi;
  • The Acer n310 kit contains the sync cable instead of the cradle.

At the same time the price difference is $100.

We have a fully equipped cradle, it deserves some words of praise, lets have a closed look at it. On the face of it the cradle surprises us with its asymmetry, but then you realize the reason for it its possible to put it horizontally and vertically. The cradle has a rubberized bottom, so it wont slide on the table or leave scratches. There is a connector to charge an additional battery, and respective color indicators. At the back we find 3 connectors for the charger, the standard miniUSB-in for the sync cable and the peripherals. The cradle in the Acer n311 package is an example for other manufacturers how to make high quality and functional docking stations.

In the sales package youll also find a cloth bag (for the first time, as far as I remember), it will suit you if you decide to carry the handheld in the pocket or the bag, but dont want it to be scratched, lose its appearance or damage the screen. This solution is good for its comfort, light weight and it adds almost nothing to the size of the PDA. Minuses are as follow you have to extract the PDA from the bag every time you need it, its not that safe to carry it on the neck. To my mind, this cloth bag in the kit is more preferable than faceless leatherette cases, usually included in the standard kits.

I should mention additional accessories you might need to buy for your Acer n311. In addition to small stuff as stylus pens and screen foil, these are an extended capacity battery (2600 mAh), USB-host cable, COM-cable, carrying cases. The list of accessories is quite impressive.

Software

The PDA is powered by Windows Mobile 5.0 for Pocket PC. Details about all the standard programs are available in a special review on our site. You shouldnt forget this is an ordinary PDA, thus there are no specific phone applications in it. Now lets pass over to non-standard preinstalled programs, the choice of them is quite poor.

Backup Restore. This utility for data backup migrated from the previous models. There is no urgent need in it in the new operating system. The program offers two options copy either everything or only PIM data, there is no fine tuning. Backup Restore features poor functionality compared to its analogs.

Pocket TV Pro. It plays video, I havent found evident advantages of this program. It loses greatly to a freeware TCPMP player.

Conclusion

As you see from this review the device has plenty of strong and weak points, we try to range them and start with pluses:

  • Minimum weight and size for a VGA PDA;
  • Attractive design;
  • VGA-screen;
  • Good battery life, extended battery available;
  • USB-host;
  • Rich kit, plenty of accessories.

Minuses:

  • Absence of the scroll and voice recorder button;
  • Unstable Wi-Fi work;
  • Weak productivity in video and games;
  • Not much extra software.

Why have we called the model revolutionary? Why do they say about dismay on the market? Lets recall something: a year ago the price tag for a VGA Pocket PC ranged between $500 and $600, and now see the Acer model. The recommended price for Acer n311 makes up $350, and for Acer n310 - $250 (!!). Just imagine how many mid-range PDAs will be killed by Acer models. Now I hope its clear why this device is to be a great success. Lets hope this isnt the last handheld by Acer.

Even if the price of Acer n311 was higher, at the level of its competitors, the model has no analogs among VGA Pocket PC in compact size and weight. As for its flaws, there is no problem to put up with them, they wont be crucial for many.

When you choose between Acer n311 and Acer n310, consider Wi-Fi. If you do not need this adapter, youd better not overpay $100 (almost one third of the price) for the senior model. However there might be another problem availability on the market. For example, the junior model is not yet available in Russia.

Description:

  • Class: Hi-End at Middle-End price;
  • Position in the line: above Acer n50;
  • Operating system: Windows Mobile 5.0 for Pocket PC;
  • Processor: Samsung S3C2440 400 MHz;
  • RAM: 64 MB (52.77 MB available to the user);
  • ROM: 128 MB (84.39 MB available to the user);
  • Connectivity: SD/MMC-slot (SDIO), Bluetooth 1.2, Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b), USB 1.1 host/client (charging, synchronization, connection with other devices), COM;
  • Screen: 3.7 (active zone: 56x74 mm), 640x480 pixels, 65K colors;
  • Battery: removable Li-Ion 1200 mAh;
  • Dimensions: 110x70x13.7 mm;
  • Weight: 135 g.

Anton Kotov (anton.kotov@mobile-review.com)

Translated by Anja Rytchkova (anja.rytchkova@mobile-review.com)

Published — 03 May 2006

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