Dell's Aero Smartphone: An Embarrassment to Android

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Often times, the announcement of a new Android phone is cause for excitement. Occasionally, though, a phone's arrival inspires little more than a sigh.

Dell Aero Smartphone Android
Today's revelation of the Dell Aero is one of those sigh-inducing sorts of occasions. The Aero, officially announced this morning, is Dell's first stab at the smartphone market (by Dell's definitions, at least -- the company released the Streak earlier this month, but it insists the 5-inch call-making device is a tablet and not a phone). Billed as "one of the lightest Android smartphones in the U.S.," the Aero is now available for $99.99 with a two-year contract from AT&T.

So why the harsh words? It's not because of the Aero's unremarkable hardware -- the phone runs on a 624MHz processor, a significant step down from the 1GHz chip used in most top-notch Android offerings these days -- but rather because of the software Dell has chosen to load onto the device.

The Aero, you see, runs on Android 1.5 -- an early version of Google's mobile operating system that's 16 months out of date and a lifetime behind in functionality and performance. For a brand new phone to be shipping with a year-old version of Android is simply embarrassing, both to Dell and to the image of the Android brand.

Dell's Aero Smartphone: An Outdated Android

Dell Aero Android 1.5
Android 1.5 -- or "Cupcake," as it's nicknamed -- debuted in April of 2009, just six months after Google's first Android phone entered the world. Android has made leaps and bounds in growth and development since then, with four significant upgrades to the core operating system.

We're not talking about small stuff here: Android's user interface has been revamped, countless features have been added in, and the overall system speed has been boosted numerous times in the releases since 1.5. Dell may have given the Aero some bells and whistles of its own -- a handwriting recognition utility, for example, and a "Flash Lite-enhanced" version of the Android browser -- but it can't make up for the months of innovation and improvement it's shutting out.

No matter how you look at it, a phone with Android 1.5 is going to be slower and significantly less advanced than a device with a recent version of the OS. And it's going to be crippled when it comes to third-party applications, too, as plenty of apps require Android 2.0 or higher to operate. Some, such as Google's new Voice Actions voice-command system, won't run on anything less than Android 2.2.

And while the high-end Android phones may cost closer to $200, price is no excuse: For $49.99, half the price of the Aero, you could get Verizon's LG Ally phone. It ships with Android 2.1 and is already confirmed to be in line for the Android 2.2 upgrade. Even within AT&T, known for its less-than-wholehearted embrace of Android, you could snag the HTC Aria with Android 2.1 for an extra 30 bucks.

Dell's Aero and the Bigger Android Picture

Dell Aero Android
The Aero actually isn't Dell's first Android-related offense. The Streak, Dell's 5-inch-gadget-that-makes-calls-but-isn't-a-phone, launched with Android 1.6 about a week and a half ago. That isn't much better.

This trend is precisely why I've argued that it's time for the baked-in Android UI to die. Companies like Dell (and also Sony Ericsson, with its recent Xperia 10 AT&T Android phone) spend so much time working on their modifications to the Android software that their devices are outdated by the time they debut. And even manufacturers that manage to do better with the release cycle tend to be extra slow on rolling out upgrades, thanks to the extensive software adjustments required with each release. The phone-makers may be trying to put their own marks on Android, but the manner in which they're going about it ultimately does a disservice to their users. (And yes, there is a better way.)

Trying to sell a new phone with Android 1.5 is like trying to sell a new PC with Windows Me. Even if you're selling it for slightly less than the top-of-the-line models down the aisle, it's ridiculous, it's silly -- and it's completely inexcusable.

Come on, Dell. You can do better than that.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

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