We know that custom UIs are a hot topic of debate: some people are absolutely against it, yet others are fine with it. Though offering a stock Android UI makes for easier updates, we don't mind custom skins when they're helpful or enhance the functionality of the phone, but this just isn't the case here.
We hate to continue to be the bearer of bad news, but the picture doesn't get any brighter when it comes to the Dell Aero's feature set. This is mostly because the Aero ships running an outdated Android 1.5 operating system. We can't even remember how long it's been since we reviewed an Android 1.5 device, and in a time when devices are running Android 2.2, it's mind-boggling that AT&T and Dell would still think to release the Aero as is. Sure, Dell adds a few extras like one-click photo uploads, a handwriting recognition program, a Flash Lite-capable browser, and a video editor, but you're still missing out on a lot of functionality and even some basic features like a dedicated Gmail app (you have to use the general e-mail app instead). When asked about future Android updates, Dell said it has not announced any plans yet.
As a phone, the Dell Aero is quad-band world phone with a speakerphone, speed dial, smart dialing, voice commands, conference calling, and text and multimedia messaging. Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), 3G, and GPS are all onboard. The address book is only limited by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts), and each contact card can hold multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, postal addresses, birthdays, and so forth. You can also add a custom ringtone, photo, and group ID.
That said, contact synchronization is another area where the Aero's capabilities are limited, as the Aero can only sync contact information over the air from your Exchange account. We had our Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts all hooked to the Aero and none of those contacts transferred over to the phone. This is pretty basic functionality nowadays; we're not asking for the moon here.
The Aero supports multiple e-mail accounts--Exchange, POP3, and IMAP4--with separate in-boxes for each, but the e-mail app doesn't display images inline or support HTML-formatted messages. There's push delivery for Exchange mail but synchronization for all other accounts happens at user-defined intervals: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, or manually. Folders can be accessed using the options key on the right side or the onscreen submenu in the upper-right-hand corner of the in-box.
Other apps and personal information management tools preloaded on the Dell Aero include Quickoffice, a task list, a calculator, an alarm clock, and a number of AT&T services, such as AT&T Video, AT&T Maps, and Yellow Pages Mobile--all of which can't be removed.
The built-in media player supports AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, MP3, WMA, MPEG, MPE4, and 3GPP music and video codecs. The music player has basic features like repeat, shuffle mode, and on-the-go playlist creation. It also supports album art and has a Cover Flow-like interface when used in landscape mode, but swiping through the art doesn't advance tracks. There's also no easy way to control the media player when you're working in other apps. You must use the pull-down notifications tray at the top of the screen and then relaunch the music player to do so. The Aero offers 2GB of memory via the microSD card but can be expanded up to 32GB.
The Aero features a 5-megapixel camera with flash, 8x digital zoom, and autofocus. It can also record video at 30 frames per second. You get a number of editing options and tools, such as white balance, color tone, geotagging, and contrast, and the camera's interface is pretty decent, offering one-touch access to most of the settings. Picture quality, however, was drab. We could make out the objects in the photos just fine, but there was a grayish tone and slight softness to the picture.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Dell Aero in New York using AT&T service, and call quality was a bit mixed. On our side of the conversation, the sound quality was muffled, so at times we had difficulties hearing our callers and had to ask them to repeat themselves. We were able to use an airline's voice-automated system without any problem, however. Friends were quite impressed with the clarity and richness of calls.
Speakerphone quality was a little tinny but without any background distractions. Volume was also loud enough that we could carry on conversations in a louder environment. We had no problems pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones. Of course without Android 2.2, there's no support for voice dialing over Bluetooth.
We didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period, and AT&T's 3G data speeds were decent. CNET's full site came up 22 seconds; the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN loaded in 15 seconds and 10 seconds, respectively. However, on more than one occasion, we got a network connection error message when trying to access YouTube and the Android market. Once connected, YouTube videos took a few seconds to load and played back without interruption, but more often than not, audio and picture were not synchronized.
The Aero is armed with a 624MHz Marvell processor, and it struggled to keep up with even the simplest of tasks like launching apps and switching between screens, particularly compared with the latest smartphones, which are rocking 1GHz processors. Though the phone never crashed on us, there were a couple of occasions were the lag was significant enough that we thought we'd need to reboot, but eventually, the Aero came back to life.
The Dell Aero ships with a 1,000mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 4 hours and up to 14.5 days of standby time. The Aero was able to beat its rated talk time by half an hour in our battery drain tests, but compared with other smartphones out there, 4.5 hours isn't much. Anecdotally, we barely got a day's worth of use from the phone before needing to recharge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Aero has a digital SAR rating of 1.09 watts per kilogram