The Acer Liquid Metal isn't liquid and isn't metal, but it is a serviceable smart phone that runs Google's Android operating system, which gives it plenty of power. Its odd custom user interface didn't float our boats, but it's easy to turn off, and the end result is a perfectly decent, if unexciting, phone.
The Liquid Metal isn't on any networks yet, but we tracked down SIM-free prices of around £300.
Android in disguise
Acer seems to have spent plenty of time coming up with a complicated skin for Android, an operating system that we've become very familiar with due to it running on a myriad of smart phones.
Acer's user interface takes an upside down, backwards approach, reminiscent of rap tweens Kris Kross, who were famous for wearing their clothes the wrong way round, the cheeky scamps. On the Liquid Metal, the notification bar runs along the bottom of the screen, rather than taking its usual position along the top, and widgets have been relegated from the home screen to an epically complicated lock screen.
The lock screen, which is shown when the phone's display is on but locked, comprises five panels that you can move between by swiping left and right. Each panel can be filled up with widgets showing everything from the time of day to a music player. If you want to open the corresponding app -- the calendar, for example -- you can tap the widget and slide up a little unlock animation, which unlocks the phone and launches the app.
We're open-minded about innovation, but Acer's approach left us confused. We're huge fans of having some info on the lock screen, such as our missed calls and a good old clock. But we can't see the point of moving one of Android's most fun, flexible features -- its widgets -- off the home screen and onto the lock screen.
It means that you can only use the widgets that Acer provides, and you can only see them when the phone is locked. To enjoy your social-networking widget, for example, you have to press the power button, which turns off the screen and locks the phone, and then press it again to turn on the screen in locked mode.
We just don't get it. We're not as bothered about having the notification bar, which shows new messages and updates while you're using the phone, on the bottom of the screen rather than the top. And we're willing to have a go with the two rows of app shortcuts that sit at the foot of the home screen, like a preview of the full menu that lurks beneath. But the lack of widgets on the home screen chops Android off at the knees.
But there's good news: you can turn off Acer's custom user interface by going into the phone's settings and switching to the default Android UI. The option is tucked at the bottom of the applications settings menu. Boom. You can thank us later.
If you do decide to switch, you'll see the standard user interface of Android 2.2 Froyo. It's not quite the latest version of Android, and it's not as pretty as HTC's Sense UI or as easy to use as the iPhone's software, but it's still very usable and powerful.
Up and running
Whether you stick with Acer's skin or run into the welcome arms of stock Android, you still get a heap of useful features on the Liquid Metal. Most of the best ones come with Android by default. For example, the Google Maps app now has so many features that it makes sat-navs feel as old-fashioned as a rotary dial telephone.
Acer has also thrown in a handful of bonus apps, pre-installed on the phone. Barcode Scanner is a must-have for getting to grips with QR codes, the little pixellated squares that can fire up a link on your phone. QR codes are often used to share apps in the Android Market.
You'll also find a media server app that lets you take advantage of the phone's DNLA support, so you can connect wirelessly to your DNLA-capable telly and other gear. That's very handy.
We're not as sure about RoadSync. That app had its heyday when Android didn't natively support Microsoft Exchange, which powers many a work email account. Now that you can set up Outlook email in Android's standard email app, we don't think you'll need RoadSync cluttering up your phone, unless you particularly like it already.
Let's talk about specs
The Liquid Metal's hardware specs are impressive. Everything you'll need to stay connected is provided, including HSPA for fast surfing over 3G, and support for the latest 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. The phone's 800MHz processor had no trouble running the apps that we tested. They ran smoothly and looked decent on the 3.6-inch screen.
The Web browser also rendered pages accurately and quickly, and didn't hesitate when we were watching Flash videos until way past bedtime. The 480x800-pixel screen doesn't have the resolution to take on some of its more expensive competition, such as the iPhone 4's display, but it's clear and easy on the eyes.
Behind the lens
The screen suffers from the phone's rounded case, though. Curved screens are officially a trend this year, but usually they curve inwards, not outwards. Unlike the Google Nexus S, which sucks in its screen like it's having its first day out on the beach after a well-fed winter, the Liquid Metal puffs out in a convex curve. Not only does that make the phone too wobbly to use when it's lying on a desk, it also makes the image feel like it's sitting far below the surface of the screen, since there's a wodge of plastic in between.
We like a phone where the image floats as close as possible to the surface of the display. It makes for a more natural connection between the finger and the screen, and it also looks way cooler, dude. Throw in the quirky reflections on the curved surface, and we think the Liquid Metal's contours make it feel chunkier than it has to be.
Test your mettle
"So the Liquid Metal is thick," we hear you cry, "but surely its solid metal case makes the phone feel as solid as the hammer of Thor?" Sadly, no.
Despite its name, the Liquid Metal is one of the less metallic phones we've used. Only a slice of its back cover is brushed metal, although there's a chrome trim along the sides, top and bottom. At 135g, the Liquid Metal is on the heavy side but it feels like dense plastic, rather than a weighty metal beast, such as the HTC Desire HD.
Overall, the Liquid Metal isn't bad-looking, but it's not the sexiest handset to ever flaunt its curves, either. The rounded case is the culprit, in our opinion, although you may prefer holding the Liquid Metal to a phone with harder edges.
We also found the power button rather hard to get to grips with, because it sits almost flush with the top of the case. Since you have to use that button regularly to lock and revive the phone, its position becomes a tad annoying.
The Acer Liquid Metal has plenty going for it, thanks to its responsive, zippy feel and powerful Android 2.2 Froyo operating system. But its plasticky body, thick screen and odd user interface mean it's not as slick as some of its competitors.
We're sure you'll save some money on the Liquid Metal compared to the sweetest Android phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S, but cheap Android phones are now firing out for less than £150. That leaves the Liquid Metal floundering around in the middle ground, where we'd be happy to abandon it.
Edited by Charles Kloet