With Microsoft's latest mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, on the horizon, it seems like an odd time to launch a smart phone running Windows Mobile 6.5. But that hasn't deterred Acer from squeezing out the neoTouch P300, a handset aimed squarely at business users on a budget.
The P300 will set you back around £270 SIM-free and unlocked. Contract prices are currently unknown, but we don't expect they'll be very steep.
The name Acer isn't exactly synonymous with high-quality mobile phones, but the manufacturer has been making steady progress of late with its reasonably priced Windows Mobile and Android handsets. The problem is that, for every likeable beTouch E400, there's a lamentable neoTouch P400, and much of the company's good work is undone by uninspiring design choices or debilitating hardware shortcuts.
The P300, however, bucks the trend somewhat. It's a reassuringly solid device that feels weighty in the hand and doesn't creak or rattle during use. The slide-out keyboard boasts an eye-catching glossy finish and is generally a pleasure to use, although it's too easy to accidentally press several keys at once, due to their low profile. The lack of dedicated full-stop and comma buttons is also puzzling -- you access these symbols either by pressing the appropriate key for a while or pressing shift first.
Around the side of the P300, you'll find a couple of physical controls. One kick-starts the camera application and takes photos, while the other adjusts the volume. The latter has three positions. Sliding it up increases the volume and sliding it down does the opposite. Pushing it all the way down locks it into position and mutes the phone.
The only other buttons you'll find on the P300 are located below the screen, offering quick access to the Windows Start menu, the ability to accept or reject calls, and a way to move backwards through the menu system.
The rest of your interaction with the P300 is handled exclusively via the 81mm (3.2-inch) touchscreen. This has a lacklustre 240x400-pixel resolution and, sadly, is of the resistive persuasion. Such pressure-sensitive screens are commonplace on budget and mid-range phones. The P300's display offers a decent degree of accuracy and responsiveness, but it's still awkward to use due to the bumbling nature of the phone's operating system.
Having learnt its lesson with the P400, Acer has decided to include a stylus with the P300 (rather ironic when you consider the finger-friendly neoTouch branding). This improves the typing and Web surfing experience immeasurably, but removing the stylus from the dock on the rear of the phone is much harder than it should be. It's also worth noting that the resistive screen means multi-touch support -- one of Windows Mobile 6.5.3's most-trumpeted features -- is lacking.
3G, Wi-Fi and A-GPS support are all crammed inside the P300's chunky, 15mm-thick frame. Unfortunately, they're also joined by a hopelessly underpowered battery. You won't be able to take advantage of all the phone's functionality and expect to have anything left in the tank after a day of solid use. It's likely that your P300 will be attached to a wall socket whenever you find yourself in close proximity to one.
It's also worth mentioning the handy 3.5mm headphone jack. Its presence means you can use your own set of headphones instead of the abysmal bundled pair.
There's a 3.2-megapixel snapper as well. This produces shots of a reasonably good standard but the absence of a flash is bothersome and makes low-light photography impractical at best and impossible at worst.
Alas, Windows Mobile 6.5.3 is saddled with a counter-intuitive menu structure. Even the most basic of options seems to be buried deep within the interface, and operations that might only take a couple of touches on the iPhone or Android platforms seem to require twice as many here.
The speed of the interface is another concern. Moving between menus seems to take ages, which is something that's partly down to Windows Mobile 6.5's general sluggishness and the anaemic 528MHz processor sitting in the P300's underbelly.
Microsoft is addressing many of the operating system's issues with the much-hyped Windows Phone 7. But potential P300 purchasers should be aware that they won't be coming along for the ride, as an upgrade won't be offered to existing Windows Mobile phones.
Despite the P300's various shortcomings, it does offer some welcome features. The irksome Windows Mobile OS may not be particularly user-friendly but it's actually something of a boon for those who rely on a Microsoft Exchange network for business purposes. Using the preloaded ActiveSync application, it's possible to effortlessly connect and sync your contacts, calendar and email.
There's also a suite of Microsoft Office programs to help you work on the go. When you should be working but just can't be bothered, a selection of social-networking portals is available via the dedicated social-networking application, although, bizarrely, Twitter isn't included. It's also possible to download other apps from the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, although the shelves are rather bare compared to those of the iPhone App Store and Android Market.
The Acer neoTouch P300 will be among the last devices to run the Windows Mobile operating system, and it isn't a particularly impressive way to bid farewell to the much-maligned OS. There are some neat ideas here, but the resistive touchscreen, slow CPU and awkward software conspire to overshadow the few positives that exist.
If you're after a mid-range Windows phone and want a slide-out keyboard for bashing out lengthy emails, then the P300 is at least worth considering. But with Windows Phone 7 around the corner and more attractive options available, such as the HTC Touch Pro2, we'd advise you to think very hard before parting with your cash.
Edited by Charles Kloet