Review: Dell Venue Pro With Mango

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The Dell ( DELL) Venue Pro may be the most interesting smartphone in the market today. Before you type that hate mail, note carefully that I said "most interesting" and not "best." It is far from the best smartphone, but nevertheless occupies a unique position in the smartphone world today, worthy of labeling it the most interesting.

Let's first establish the basics of this animal: The Dell Venue Pro was released one year ago, running the Microsoft Phone 7.0 operating system. This was upgraded one month ago to version 7.5, the so-called "Mango."

The Dell Venue Pro comes in two versions, one for T-Mobile USA and the other for AT&T ( T). The pricing is the most favorable in the market today -- $300 unlocked, and free on a 2-year contract at T-Mobile USA. From what I can gather, AT&T doesn't offer contract pricing. The $300 unlocked price is very favorable compared to anything remotely comparable in the market today.

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I actually conducted my testing on the unlocked AT&T version, with a T-Mobile USA SIM card, so the highest cellular speeds I got were perhaps 200 Kb/s. I obviously augmented this with WiFi, for very fast downloads in many conditions.

There are three things about the basic hardware configuration of this device that every potential buyer needs to understand:

1. This is the only Windows Phone in the market today with a portrait-style keyboard. The basic industrial design has only one parallel in the market today: The BlackBerry Torch 8510, which I reviewed Oct. 13.

The Dell Venue Pro is larger and heavier than the BlackBerry Torch 8510, mostly as a result of the bigger and better screen. As with all Windows Phones, it's 800x480, which bests the BlackBerry's 640x480. It is 4.1 inches, compared to the BlackBerry's 3.2 inches. Form

To my knowledge, there is no Android in the market in this particular form factor. The closest are the Motorola Pro ( Verizon) and XPRT ( Sprint), but those have inferior keyboards, and I found their overall performance -- battery and CPU alike -- to be among the worst Androids I have ever tested.

In recommending the Dell Venue Pro, this uniqueness in form factor is key. Non-keyboard smartphones now constitute the overwhelming majority of the market, and even the landscape-keyboards are relatively few. It is not possible to type on a landscape smartphone keyboard with one hand when you are carrying a briefcase or whatever in the other hand, and this is one key reason that made the BlackBerry so popular still today, with over 10 million sold every quarter.

For as much as people love the BlackBerry keyboard, some of them are frustrated with many parts of the BlackBerry software, including the quality and quantity of applications, and their installation procedure. As a result, one would think that if someone combined a BlackBerry-style keyboard with a better OS, such a device would be a hit. This is why it is so important that we examine the Dell Venue Pro in detail, because it occupies such a unique position in the smartphone world today.

2. The WiFi chip in the Dell Venue Pro is different than that in the other Windows Phones. This is critical because the other ones can, subject to carrier approval, be enabled with WiFi hotspot functionality. Sadly, this won't happen with the Dell Venue Pro. Some people may not care, but for others this is a very important point.

3. The Dell Venue Pro has no front-facing camera. This mimics the other Windows Phone devices that were also launched a year ago, but a new class of refreshed Windows Phone hardware from companies such as Samsung and HTC will soon have these front-facing cameras. Again, some people may not care about this, but for other people this is a serious omission that will be more important now that the Tango video chat app becomes available on these new Windows Phone devices in early November. Over time, same thing for Microsoft's own Skype.


With those things out of the way, I switch my commentary to the thing that is identical across all Windows Phone devices, as far as I can tell: The software.

Providing a verdict on Windows Phone 7.5 is especially difficult, because the outcome depends very much on who the user is. One key problem we have today is that many people are already living inside the three other major smartphone ecosystems: iOS by Apple, Android by Google and BlackBerry by RIM.

If you are already well-oiled inside any of those three other smartphone ecosystems, the hurdle to Windows Phone 7.5 is going to be much more significant than if you are getting it as your first smartphone. Let me give you some examples:

1. Google has an amazing set of cloud services, ranging from Reader to Plus to Voice to Talk to Docs to many more things. Very few, if any, of them are available on Microsoft Windows 7.5. I can only find Gmail (duh!) and search. That's bare-bones, and clearly not satisfactory for anyone contemplating a migration from Android.

Yes, I know, Microsoft has some equivalent services, such as its 25-gig SkyDrive and Office 365, but for anyone who has attempted to use them, they know what I mean when I say that they're not the same. If you are reasonably deep into using many of Google's services, the step into the Windows Phone world is probably going to be unacceptable for you right now.

2. Even BlackBerry integrates very well with Google's cloud services, including Voice, Talk, Docs, Reader and more. That broadens the population of those for whom a step into the Windows Phone world is too far.

3. The issues with Apple are different, but could be as important. Aside from the fact that Apple, too, integrates nicely with many of Google's services such as Reader and Docs, you also have the issue with iTunes. If you're anything like me, you subscribe to numerous video and audio podcasts and need them synchronized between your smartphone, TV, tablet and PC. I couldn't find any way to make this happen with Windows Phone, but then again I may have missed something.

The Windows Phone interface is different than the three other smartphone operating systems. I think the best way to describe it is to say that if you woke up from a five-year coma and knew about Apple, you would think Windows Phone was actually made by Apple. It's the most esthetically pleasing interface, including the fonts, colors and other contrasts.

More important, it's extremely stable and consistent. It hasn't crashed, frozen or hesitated on me a single time yet. When was the last time you found that Microsoft had the most stable OS in the market?

Here's another important plus: battery life. From what I can tell, it's as good or better than all the other competitors -- iOS, BlackBerry and -- of course -- Android. The comparison with Android is particularly stark. I got probably three times or more battery life out of the Dell Venue Pro than the best Android I have tested.


There are some negatives, when compared to a BlackBerry. Take notifications, for example. All I want in terms of a notification is to be able to look at the phone, perhaps as much as half a room away, and see whether there is a big red blinking light or not. If it's blinking, it means I have an email. If it's not, no need to touch or otherwise pick up the phone. How difficult is this?

Another totally crazy negative about Windows Phone is that I can't synchronize it with Outlook over a USB cable. Let's say that I have my address book in Outlook on a Windows PC, and that I use Outlook only for the address book -- no email or anything like that. I do so perhaps because I'm used to using the categories field in Outlook, or because I have more than 25,000 contacts, which is the limit in Gmail. Hotmail's limit is 5,000.

If I have a BlackBerry, I just hook up the USB cable, and it synchronizes all the fields, including the categories field, and it can do it with more than 25,000 contacts. None of this very basic stuff is possible with Windows Phone.

Speaking of the address book, you can't sort the entries based on company name, as you can in the BlackBerry. Seriously? I just want to automatically see my contacts based on company name first, then either first or last name. But no, the Windows Phone does not offer this obvious setting.

One way of describing the Dell Venue Pro is that it offers an interesting blend of the other three major smartphone operating systems:

1. The overall consistency and stability of the interface and operation is most similar to the iPhone.

2. Like Android, there is hardware choice in the market, and the charger is MicroUSB, just like ever single Android smartphone in the market.

3. Like BlackBerry, it has a portrait-style keyboard, and if you have a Microsoft Exchange server (most individuals do not), then you can take advantage of the categories field in contacts synchronizing, and it will do so over Gmail's 25,000 contacts limit -- obviously for the Windows 7 Outlook user.

The question is mostly about the Windows Phone operating system itself. This particular version in the form of the Dell Venue Pro picks several attractive attributes from the three major OS competitors, but is it really a stand-out anywhere, in a way that puts it on top? I don't think that case has been made yet.

So what do we make of Dell's position in the market with the Venue Pro? First of all, this device is not sold in retail, whether at T-Mobile USA or AT&T. The only place I find it is at I went to more T-Mobile USA and AT&T stores over the last year than I can count, and at best 10% of the staff there even knew of the existence of the device. This must obviously be a catastrophe from a Dell sales perspective.

Think about it: Dell has a truly unique and all in all a very, very good product, but essentially nobody knows about it. It reminds me a little of Google's laptops made by Samsung and Acer, the Chromebooks. Outstanding products, but zero awareness among the general population.

Critical Juncture

We are only one week away from the updated Windows Phone hardware being introduced and hitting the market, and at this point I see product only from HTC and Samsung. This makes me a little worried about Dell. Will there be a follow-on product to the Venue Pro, or is Dell offering the superb price of $300 SIM-unlocked just because it's selling out the remaining inventories? Is Dell getting out of the smartphone business? I have no idea.

Dell could have a total winner on its hand by updating the Venue Pro in four ways:

1. Make it thinner and lighter, but without sacrificing battery life.

2. Include a front-facing camera for use with Tango, Skype and others.

3. Include a better WiFi chip, capable of being a hotspot.

4. Offer a version with 64 gig storage, so that it could compete with iPhone 4S.

It is difficult to give the Dell Venue Pro a single grade. There are actually two main scenarios, and relatively few corner cases between them. For some people, it gets a score of 8 or 9 out of 10. Yet, for other people, it gets at best a lousy 4 out of 10.

Under the following conditions, it could be right for you:
  • You are relatively new to the smartphone world
  • You are not dependent on Google's various cloud services such as Voice or Reader
  • You are not an iTunes user
  • You have fewer than 25,000 contacts
  • You don't need to synchronize with USB cable to your Windows 7 PC
  • You don't use videoconferencing services such as Tango and Skype
  • You don't need your smartphone to serve as WiFi hotspot
  • You will be on AT&T or T-Mobile USA

If all of these conditions apply, the Dell Venue Pro gets as much as a 9 out of 10.

The good news for Dell here is that there are probably a lot of people in the world for whom the Venue Pro is a perfectly suitable device, right now. That is, if they were at least aware of its existence, which 99.999% are not. As for the other people, if Dell and Microsoft could fix only a few things, they would broaden their suitability and appeal.
At the time of submitting this article, the author was long AAPL, GOOG, QCOM, RIMM and NVDA. This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.

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