Imagine if you could make your own phone. Plug in component X, camera Y and a whacking great battery and you’d have the best phone ever, right?
The Acer Liquid Jade Z sounds like someone’s idea of a dream phone on paper. It's available for around £150 if you shop around, has a 5in 720p screen, 13-megapixel camera and a body much, much slimmer than the Motorola Moto G’s.
But the Liquid Jade Z is proof once more that the specs don't make the phone.
Sometimes looking like a phone made from bits taken from someone’s mental toy box doesn’t quite work, either. Acer has done its best to avoid the Acer Liquid Jade Z looking like just another identikit budget phone, but the thing is I just don’t like many of the bits it has changed.
The little silvery earpiece grille, the circular speaker on the back and the odd fabric plastic finish: none of them look all that good. You’re left wondering what they were going for exactly. None of it hangs together well enough.
So to these eyes the Liquid Jade Z is not a pretty phone, but in truth it could pass for an ugly £250 phone, rather than a £150 one. Phones this cheap rarely try this hard.
It’s plastic, but it has a unibody design, and is way slimmer than most phones in this class. How come? This is actually a more affordable take on the Acer Jade S, a £200-odd phone that’s a good bit more powerful.
At 8mm thick the Acer Liquid Jade Z has none of the chunk factor of the Motorola Moto G, which is still pretty much the top name in this ‘low price, nice screen’ category. I find the Jade Z much easier to both use and jam in a pocket than the 5in Moto G.
The unibody style doesn’t get you much in the way of a fancy feel, and I can actually bend the whole phone in my hands with a bit of pressure. But aside from not having easy access to the battery there’s no major downside.
For one, there’s expandable storage: the microSD slot and nano SIM sit in a single tray on the side. Again, this kind of tray something you usually get in slightly more expensive phones.
The Acer Liquid Jade Z sits in a tricky spot. Yes, you could convince friends you paid a bit more than you did. But the lack of any real coherent design makes it a bit of an ugly duckling, not something to show off.
All the Ps
The Acer Liquid Jade Z doesn’t have to rely on design too much, though. It’s really much more concerned with the screen-quality-to-price ratio. And here the phone does just fine.
It has a 5in 1280 x 720 pixel screen. That’s big enough to watch the odd film on, but not big enough to really make the lack of Full HD visuals really ‘poke your eyeballs with a toothpick’ apparent.
Viewing angles are pretty great too, even for an IPS LCD screen. You can turn it any which way you please. However, the tone of the Acer Liquid Jade Z screen is a little bit… off.
In a rather unusual twist, the screen’s white balance is a little greenish, which seems doubly weird because green is Acer’s signature colour, and the Acer Liquid Jade Z’s UI is full of the stuff. Is it deliberate? We hope not because it makes the display that bit less pleasant to look at. You do get used to it, though. Outdoors viewing is fine rather than great. But then this phone costs £150, not £400.
Android via Acer
Even after the green screen haze has lifted, you’re still bombarded by green. The Acer Liquid Jade Z runs the old-ish Android 4.4.4 software with Acer’s custom interface, and it’s pretty green- drenched.
Maybe my tastes are just totally different from those of Acer’s design folk, but it’s pretty easy to OD on green, right? While the interface has moved with the times a little bit, we do think that, like the hardware, it’s not the prettiest.
It’s also jam-packed with bloat. So much that my eyes glazed over and I had an urge to pretend the first four pages of apps didn’t exist. An urge to start fresh with a (preferably non-green) field free of apps somewhere else.
There’s a bunch of Acer apps, including a whole new media suite, and Acer seems to have done a deal with Gameloft, letting the publisher litter new Acer phones with its games.
Granted, some of the stuff is useful, but you need so ‘sign in’ to Acer’s music and video apps, which is always a turn-off, and you can’t get rid of much of the bonus apps. I like to keep a phone as simple as possible, at least at the start. When you know your phone is going to be filled with junk within six months, you don’t want to have an almost-80-app head start.
There’s no way to ‘hide’ apps or put them into folders in the apps menu, and you can’t delete most of the preinstalled gumpf either. So, yeah, I think we do have the right to complain a little bit.
The 45bpm phone
I could live with that, though. Just manage your homescreens a bit and you can get around bloat. Sometimes a bargain phone makes it worth the effort.
However, there’s another issue. The Acer Liquid Jade Z’s performance cycles between perfectly fine and absolutely dire. After using the phone for a few days it slowed to a bit of a crawl.
Tapping a Whatsapp notification would be met with a five second pause as the Acer Liquid Jade Z flicked through its rolodex trying to find out the postal address of the Whatsapp app. And several times I missed a neat photo opportunity because the phone look so long just to boot up the camera.
Just making app icons appear on a home screen can take a couple of seconds, and at times the keyboard lags behind your taps: it gets very frustrating.
So why is it so slow? It’s not down to the raw power of the processor. The Acer Liquid Jade Z has a MediaTek MT6732 CPU, a quad-core processor with bang up-to-date Cortex-A53 64-bit cores. It has 1GB RAM too, and in the Geekbench 3 benchmarks it scores 2061 points, decimating the Snapdragon 410, which is becoming the go-to budget phone CPU for 2015.
Something isn’t right, though. Maybe it’s memory management. Maybe it’s poor software optimisation. Maybe this MediaTek CPU is just a dud. But it’s what really sinks the Acer Liquid Jade Z’s chances of being one of this year’s better budget phones.
Camera spec fast
It had so much going for it too. The Acer Liquid Jade Z has a 13-megapixel camera with an f/1.8 lens, which is a ridiculous spec for a phone of this price. That lens is just as fast as the Samsung Galaxy S6’s.
Does the camera at least stack up? Well, the actual experience of using it is hampered by performance once more. As we said earlier, just loading the camera can take several seconds, and that alone sucks a lot of the fun out.
Shooting HDR photos is very slow too, and will result in double-exposed images if you don’t stay very still. I thought we’d waved goodbye to this kind of HDR a couple of years ago.
The Acer Liquid Jade Z also doesn’t use much in the way of advanced noise reduction. While it can handle low-light shots reasonably well thanks to its f/1.8 lens, any photos you take at night will look pretty noisy up-close.
In daylight the Acer Liquid Jade Z also tends to smush detail into shadow areas, giving an impression of rubbish dynamic range. And when it works the dynamic range-boosting HDR mode doesn’t have anything like the subtlety it needs, resulting in shots that look massively over- sharpened and over-processed. In an unusual turn these days, the best shots we got out of the phone were ‘standard’ ones, not HDRs.
As with other areas of the phone, it's the execution of the hardware, not the hardware itself, that lets the Acer Liquid Jade Z down. You can take some great shots with it, given the right lighting. That said, the phone’s lens doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as sharp as the Galaxy S6’s seemingly-similar f/1.8 lens.
Still, there are some neat extra modes if that’s what you like. As well as HDR, there’s voice command, panorama, beautification, dual shot and a bunch of other modes and creative filters.
So-so staying power
After bags of promise on paper, the Acer Liquid Jade Z doesn’t quite manage to really nail any of its core elements. And that’s true of battery life as well.
It has a 2300mAh battery, which is a good 10 per cent or so bigger than the 5in Motorola Moto G’s 2070Ah unit. However, in general use stamina is nothing to get excited about.
I’ve been using the phone as my main and only phone for a good few days now, and each day it’ll be skirting around battery alert territory (15 per cent) by 7-8pm. That’s without spending any time idly watching Netflix either, just Whatapp messaging and using the camera, for the most part. If you’re a heavy use you’re definitely looking at having to make an early-evening top up with the Acer Liquid Jade Z.
In other words, don’t buy this thinking its battery spec is slightly above-average. It won’t pay off. The speaker is not much cop either, despite being surrounded by a flare-y grille on the back and the DTS logo.
Like most budget phones, the Acer Liquid Jade Z has a fairly thin, not-that-loud speaker. It’s not terrible, just the norm for a £150 phone, and the DTS mode just adds basic EQ DSP, nothing special.
At least the phone has 4G, though. It may be standard in phones above £100 or so these days, but as of May 2015 the 5in Moto G still doesn’t have it.
Acer Liquid Jade Z verdict
Look at the Acer Liquid Jade Z’s spec list against its price and it starts to look like the bargain of the year. Top specs and a slim, light body make it seem like one of the best budget phones around.
However, the reality is a little different. Its performance is all over the place despite having a pretty peppy CPU, making it a pain to use at time.
With a meaty software upgrade the Jade Z could make a solid budget pick for those who want a 720p screen on the cheap. But it’s just not there yet.