Review The introduction of the smart phone may be slowly killing off the PDA, but there are times when you need the larger screen of the handheld. The Acer n311, part of the n300 series, offers plenty of other interesting features too, but are they enough to make you want to splash your cash?
The n311's stand-out feature is its large, 3.7in TFT display, which is very bright and easy to read, a feature helped by its 480 x 640, VGA resolution and the ability to display up to 65,536 colours. This makes it a rather wide device, but at least Acer has managed to keep the thickness down. Overall measurements are 11 x 7 x 1.4cm - any wider and it wouldn't be comfortable for most people to hold. It weighs in at 135g, slightly more than your average mobile phone.
Although the screen is the dominant feature, there are plenty more on offer. Let’s start with the design, which is actually rather good. The silver and black colour scheme works well. The battery has an aluminium lid, but it's a shame that the silver details appear to be plastic. Rather than a four-way navigation pad with a button in the middle, Acer has fitted a small joystick. It works quite well, but having recently reviewed the Orange SPV M600, which has the additional buttons under the screen alongside the Start and OK buttons, navigating around the n311 with one hand feels awkward.
There are four buttons on the front - two on each side of the joystick - which are short cuts to the Today screen, the calendar, Outlook and your contacts. Oddly enough, Acer decided to have soft buttons for the calendar and the contacts on the Today screen, which is really pointless. The left side is home to the power button and a hold switch. On the top of the device is a 3.5mm audio jack for headphones, a slot that accepts SD, SDIO and MMC cards and, on the far right side, the stylus. At the bottom is a proprietary docking connector and a reset button.
The n311 is powered by a Samsung S3C2440 processor clocked at 400 MHz – series-mate the n310 is based on a 300MHz version of the same chip. There’s a massive 128MB of Flash memory – although only about 80MB of this is available to the user – and 64MB of system memory. There’s also built in 802.11b wireless networking. Our early review sample at times wouldn't stay connected, but this is meant to have been resolved in retail versions, Acer claimed. It’s a shame that Acer didn’t managed to squeeze in 802.11g support as well, since this offers far greater compatibility and faster transfer speeds. Finally there’s Bluetooth 1.2 on board, but there doesn’t appear to be any support for stereo headsets.
The supplied docking cradle can charge a second battery, which might be a good thing to invest in if you’re going to spend some time away from the cradle, as you can’t connect the supplied charger to the n311 directly. There's an optional adaptor you can buy that allows you to use the charger without the cradle, but this is something that really should’ve been supplied in the box.
There are two USB ports on the cradle, one mini USB port that's used for connecting the PDA to a PC for syncing – this won’t charge the PDA – and a standard USB port. The neat trick here is USB host functionality, which means that you can use a USB keyboard or a USB flash drive – I had problems with a 4GB USB key, but a 1GB model worked fine.
The cradle can be used vertically and, rather unusually, in horizontal mode as well - just use WIndows Mobile 5.0's screen orientation control on the Today screen. Oddly enough, Windows Media Player displays video the opposite way around, so you’d end up watching it upside-down if you kept the PDA in the cradle. WMV video content played back smoothly on the n311, but I can’t say that DivX content did. I tried several different DivX files, but all of them ended up with jerky video playback and the sound out of sync. This is rather disappointing considering the fairly fast processor.
At least Acer provides a fairly generous warranty. It runs for two years with the first year being world-wide, though you have to send the PDA back to Acer if something goes wrong. The price is also a rather attractive £235, but you can still get a subsidised smart phone for less than half the price of the n311.
Verdict The Acer n311 is a feature-rich PDA with a large, high-resolution screen which is easy to work with and easy to read. The review sample had some minor issues that Acer has hopefully resolved in the retail product. The price is rather good for a PDA, but expensive compared to what you can buy a very good smart phone for these days.