The decision of whether to buy a budget phone like Acer's Liquid Jade Z ($250) comes down to choosing which compromises you can live with and which ones you can't. In many areas, the Jade Z proves to be just good enough, producing decent pictures and exhibiting acceptable, if subpar, performance. But in one critical area — battery life — the Jade Z just can't measure up to similarly priced smartphones.
Design: Cheap, Plastic Feel
At 5.65 x 2.7 x 0.31 inches, the Liquid Jade Z is roughly the same size as other 5-inch phones. It's 0.15 inches taller and marginally thicker than the Motorola Moto G and the Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3. But in terms of size, there's little to distinguish the Jade Z from its competition.
That is, until you pick up the 3.88-ounce phone and realize how light it is. While other phones don't outweigh the Jade Z by that much — Alcatel's Onetouch Idol 3 comes the closest, at 4.3 ounces, while the Moto G weighs in at a comparatively light 5.45 ounces — Acer's phone feels nearly weightless in your hand and sits almost unnoticed in your pocket.
Credit the phone's plastic case for that light feel. Unfortunately, it also lends the Jade Z a pretty cheap aesthetic that makes it feel almost like a toy phone. Stack it alongside the stylish glass Onetouch Idol X (also $249), and there's no question as to which phone has the more striking look. (Hint: It's not the Jade Z.)
The phone's tapered edges make it feel as if it might squirt out of my hands at any moment. Fortunately, the plastic back has a threaded texture that offers some degree of grip, so that's one advantage of the phone's plasticky appearance.
Display and Audio: Better Than You'd Expect
Even Acer wouldn't argue that the 5-inch display's 1280 x 720 resolution offers a feast for the eyes, but the screen is good enough for users who don't demand visually stunning looks. From watching trailers on YouTube to streaming movies on Netflix, I never had a hard time making out details or viewing the action unfolding on the Jade Z's screen.
That said, the Jade Z can't match either the brightness or the colors produced by rival phones. Using a light meter, we measured the Jade Z's screen at 328 nits — brighter than the OnePlus X (295 nits), but noticeably dimmer than the average smartphone (408.5 nits) and badly outshone by the comparably priced Onetouch Idol 3 (736 nits).
The Jade Z can reproduce only 89.4 percent of the sRGB color spectrum. That number should be closer to 100 percent, and indeed, the average smartphone scores 115.4 percent in our tests. The colors the Jade Z does produce are accurate, at least: It tallied a Delta-E error reading of 1.11. That's not as good as the Moto G's color accuracy (0.85), but it's certainly better than the average smartphone's score of 3.26.
And that testing bears out in my experience with the Jade Z. Though it's not the brightest screen, colors looked like they were supposed to when I watched movies and trailers on the device. The Jade Z's panel handles greens like those in Scarlett Johansson's swimsuit in the Hail, Caesar! trailer and reds like those in an Imperial banner in Star Wars: The Force Awakens with aplomb. It's less adept with yellows, as the sands of a desert planet in The Force Awakens looked washed out, almost jaundiced.
Acer put the speaker on the back of the Jade Z — an approach I appreciated when watching movies in landscape orientation. On phones with the speaker on the bottom, I have to take care not to muffle the sound when holding the phone horizontally. In contrast, the sound of punches from Kung Fu Hustle came out loud and clear from the back of the Jade Z. I just wish the speaker's sound were a little less tinny. Van Halen's "Jump" sounded like it was coming out of a transistor radio from my youth, not from a smartphone built in the 21st century.
Performance: Phone Feels the Heat
A quad-core 1.5-GHz MediaTek processor powers the Liquid Jade Z, and Acer claims that will be more than enough to handle whatever streaming you want to throw at it. It's true that I was able to stream from Netflix and play a little Modern Combat 5: Blackout without experiencing any noticeable hiccups. But at the same time, other phones in the Jade Z's price range deliver more performance oomph.
On the Geekbench 3 test to measure general performance, the Jade Z scored 2,086, which is behind the smartphone category average of 2,664. But that placed Acer's phone ahead of both the Idol 3 and the Moto G. However, the Acer trailed the OnePlus X in this test.
In terms of graphics, the Jade Z's score of 7,490 on our 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Test fell well behind the category average of 14,886. Still, that was good enough to top the Idol 3 and the Moto G, even if the OnePlus X's 16,705 score reigns supreme among budget phones.
You may or may not notice the difference in performance between a Liquid Jade Z and any other smartphone. What you will most certainly notice is how warm the back of the phone near the built-in camera gets the more you use the Jade Z. After I spent just a few minutes blasting enemy forces in Mortal Combat 5, the Jade Z's back became noticeably toasty; the same thing happened after just 15 minutes of video streaming via Netflix and YouTube.
Acer's phone comes with 16GB of storage, though you can add up to 32GB via a microSD card. The same slot that hosts extra storage can also store a nano-SIM card.
Cameras: Bright Images When the Light's Right
You'll find a 13-megapixel camera on the back of the Liquid Jade Z, just as you will in the OnePlus X. And like that rival phone, the Jade Z produces bright pictures that sometimes lack a little sharpness around the edges.
I got my best results with the Jade Z's camera outside when there was a lot of natural light. A photo of a flag flying at the aft of a commuter ferry captured the vivid red, white and blue colors, as well as the smooth blue of the San Francisco Bay and the faint outline of San Francisco's skyline in the background. You can even pick out the rusty sides of some nearby container ships.
Likewise, a photo of my lemon tree highlighted the bumpy surface of the lemon and also picked up little details like the beads of water that had formed after a morning cloud burst. I got that picture after tapping on the Jade Z's screen to highlight where I wanted to focus. Left to its devices, the camera focused on the tree's leaves, leaving the fruit noticeably blurry.
When testing the camera indoors, I managed to get some colorful shots of a Christmas tree display, though that was when I was in a room with a lot of natural lighting.
Acer says the phone's camera has a wider aperture and the Acer Bright Magic feature for capturing bright photos even in low light. However, I found that images taken in low light sometimes needed some help. A shot of my lunch — yes, I'm one of those monsters who photographs his food — appeared pretty dark and muted when I relied on ambient lighting.
Only when I used the flashdid I get brighter colors and more details, like the wrinkles of a lettuce leaf and the char on my pita bread.
Likewise, a photo I shot outside at night of my daughter admiring some holiday decorations captured most of the image's details. But her skin looked fuzzy, as did her coat. And that coat is turquoise in real life, not the shade of purple it appeared to be in the photo.
The 5-MP camera should satisfy most of your selfie needs, and it has a big enough field of view to comfortably capture three people in a shot.
An indoor selfie shot at night had a few sharp features — you can pick out the stubble on my chin and cheek. But my skin and my shirt looked a little fuzzy, and the parts of the photo not bathed in ambient light appeared dark and indistinct.
The rear camera captures HD video. A holiday window display turned out all right, even though I was shooting through a glass window.
You could still follow a motorized Snoopy figure skating across the faux ice while holiday shoppers bustled in the background.
Software: An Outdated Android
The Liquid Jade Z I tested runs the KitKat version of Android, an aging version of the OS that will make you feel like it's 2013 all over again. Worse, the phone comes with dozens of preinstalled apps offering varying degrees of quality and utility. Acer has put a bunch of its own apps on the phone that duplicate features already built into Android, and includes icons for things like 50+ Free Games, which is really just a glorified Web link. It made me pine for the relatively uncluttered look of iOS.
Battery Life: Stick Close to a Charger
The phrase "good enough" pops up a lot when discussing the Liquid Jade Z's less-than-inspiring specs. That can't be said of the phone's battery life, which is simply inadequate, especially when compared to other low-cost smartphones.
In our battery test, in which we surf the Web over LTE with the phone's screen brightness set to 150 nits, the Jade Z lasted for 6 hours and 40 minutes. That's about 90 minutes less than the average smartphone. Even the OnePlus X, which we dinged for its short battery life, outlasted the Jade Z by 41 minutes.
If you put the Jade Z through even a reasonable amount of activity, you'll be hard-pressed to make it through a workday on a single charge. I took a fully charged Jade Z and spent about 5 hours streaming videos, taking pictures and poking around the interface before the phone began to warn me that it was running out of juice.
Casting your lot with the Liquid Jade Z means accepting an awful lot of sacrifices in exchange for a $250 price tag, including compromised battery life and a 720p display.
If you don't mind angling for an invite, the OnePlus X delivers a better design and a full-HD display. The Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 is another better option than the Acer, because of its longer endurance.
The Liquid Jade Z wants to get by with features that are just good enough. The problem is, "good enough" adds up to a budget phone that simply isn't worth it.