Acer has recently augmented its handheld lineup with the Windows Mobile 5.0-based n300 series. There are two models in the range, the £200 n310 and the £300 n311, reviewed here. The n310 lacks Wi-Fi, has less user-accessible memory, a slower processor and is supplied without a docking cradle. The remaining features mentioned below are identical in both devices.
Acer's n311 has a functional silver and black case that's distinctive without challenging the design conventions of the handheld format. Measuring 70mm by 110mm by 14mm, it's pretty average in size, but the weight, at 135g, is on the light side.
The 94mm (3.7-inch) screen accommodates 480x640 pixels, which is the highest resolution supported by Windows Mobile 5.0. This resolution is something of a rarity, and the extra pixels add hugely to the clarity of the display. Physically, the screen dominates the device -- there's very little spare space on any of its four edges. The small area it does not occupy at the bottom of the casing is taken up by four shortcut buttons and a navigation key in the shape of a mini joystick.
The shortcut buttons take you to the Today screen, Calendar, Messages and Contacts. We have mixed feelings about joystick-style navigation keys, but the one used here is large and responsive. It offers four-directional movement with a press-to-select feature. One drawback with the n311 is the fact that the application shortcut buttons are very close to the bottom edge, making it difficult to use the device one-handed. It's hard to see how Acer could have done better, though, given the large size of the screen.
There is a software-based device-locking feature that's supplemented by a hold button on the left edge of the device. This disables the screen, but allows some functions to continue -- music playback, for example.
The left edge also houses the only other side button, the power switch. Unusually, there's no button for launching the built-in voice notes software. On the top edge is a 3.5mm headset jack and a slot for an SD card, while the bottom edge houses the reset hole and mains power/PC connection jack. The latter has a proprietary format, and Acer has not included a converter to enable you to charge or dock the n311 without its cradle. This could prove inconvenient for mobile professionals. On the other hand, the cradle does include a USB connector for using the USB Host features on the device, and a slot for charging a spare battery.
The cradle comes with a snap-on Perspex section that separates the n311 from the battery charging section. It also doubles as a stand, enabling you to have the n311 screen in landscape format when docked. This might sound gimmicky, but in fact this orientation is ideal for viewing diary or spreadsheet information, and may prove useful.
The stylus, which lives in a housing on the upper right edge, is long enough but fairly lightweight. In addition to the cradle and mains power cable, the n311 comes with a USB PC connection cable and a soft, drawstring slipcase. This provides minimal protection, and you will probably want to invest in a more substantial case.
The printed documentation comprises a minimal quick-start guide, with exceptionally small print. A user guide is hidden on the provided CD ROM. We say 'hidden' because its presence is not flagged on any printed material in the box, although one sheet of paper does advise you to visit Acer's Web site for the user manual.
The Samsung S3C2440 processor runs at 400MHz, and during our tests it lent a good turn of speed to the Acer n311. There is 64MB of RAM and 128MB of flash ROM, some of which is available for your own applications and data. After a hard reset, we found that 81.66MB of this was free. Both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (802.11b) are integrated, but there's no infrared, which some users may miss.
Acer provides little in the way of extra software. The Today screen offers separate tappable control icons for the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, as well as an icon that, when tapped, cycles the screen through portrait and landscape modes.
A Backup and Restore tool is pre-installed, but this provides the minimum functionality required. You can opt to back up only your PIM data, or all data, and you can password-protect backups and can send them to an SD card (but not to the internal memory). Backups have to be done manually -- you can't schedule them or set them to run automatically when power reaches a certain threshold. You also get PocketTV Pro, a player for MPEG movie files.
Acer claims a battery life of eight hours with the screen turned off. As usual, we forced the screen to stay on and looped MP3 music, and achieved 4 hours 26 minutes of battery life. We found the volume a little low.
Overall, the Acer n311 is a solid, no-frills handheld. The processor kicks things along nicely, and there's a decent amount of built-in memory. Both of these features will appeal to those looking for a handheld primarily as a mobile data store. The large, high-resolution screen is another plus point. On the downside, the n311 lacks infrared and a printed manual.
Edited by Charles McLellan
Additional editing by Nick Hide