Rogers HTC Dream review

So by now you’ve probably seen that our Rogers HTC Dream demo unit recently arrived in a locked safe and are wondering why such a fuss has been made over a device that has been for sale in the US from T-Mobile since October of 2008. While the device is physically the same of course, there are quite a few differences compared to the stock Android OS and it really took us by surprise. Want to know more? Grab a coffee, slip on your spectacles and a hit the jump for the review.

First things first. Yes, the Rogers Dream does come loaded with Android OS 1.5 aka Cupcake. But, and this is a huge but (think J Lo circa 1999 here), it does not come with all of the awesome features that T-Mobile G1 users are enjoying / will be enjoying with Cupcake. You see, the Dream has been loaded with custom firmware that more or less kills off a bunch of the cool new features of the update, the most notable being the lack of the soft keyboard. Why is this? Well, take a look at the back of the device:

There isn’t any physical branding of the Google trademark on the device. This means that Rogers likely said no thanks to Google and asked HTC to make custom modified firmware build that includes the typical, ugly and permanent links to a few of Rogers’ mobile content shops and its website. On top of that, one of the most basic things we have come to expect in a smartphone — a note taking application — is nowhere to be found.

So what do you get in exchange? Well, you get Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync support. It might not be the most desirable trade-off if you don’t make use of an Exchange server, but it’s not as if the soft keypad on Cupcake G1s is something to write home about when compared to other capacitive touchscreen devices anyway. Besides, it’s not overly difficult to run and get some custom firmware up and running for those who absolutely hate the physical keypad and forgot the Magic is also about to drop.

Android OS 1.5 is rather nice and features some much needed cosmetic changes here and there in addition to some new features. At the same time, it’s still more or less the same as Android OS 1.0 which you can read about in more detail in our G1 review. Since this is our first review of an OS 1.5 device, we think it’s time we mention the things that haven’t yet made it to Android that we think should have been included from day one. For example, it couldn’t be more annoying to have to touch and hold on a message screen for two seconds to be prompted to reply, forward or delete it. Surely Google of all companies could whip up a simper way to get stuff done without always having to rely on the keypad or menu keys to get stuff done quickly. After all, isn’t simplicity and ease of use one of the main reasons touchscreen devices are now coming out left, right and center?

The guts of the Rogers Dream include a 528MHz processor, 192MB RAM/256MB ROM, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, GPS, quad-band EDGE and dual-band UMTS/HSPA (850/1900MHz) at 7.2Mbps down and 2Mbps up. This gives the Dream more than enough power to keep it running without much lag even when running apps that are extremely resource heavy. And heaven help us if the Dream is not one of the fastest devices that we’ve ever used. Even in a busy area we were easily able to get 2Mbps down while breaking 3.5Mbps and beyond here and there. GPS signals are insanely easy to lock on to and seems to work in buildings where other devices struggle to keep a lock on a signal. As for the Wi-Fi part, well, it’s Wi-Fi so it’s quite a bit faster than HSPA. But like we said, the Dream is a champ when it comes to cellular data speeds. The best part? We were able to get a full day out of the Dream before the battery died at around 2am. Just be careful with that Wi-Fi connection because it seems to have an insatiable thirst for juice.

We have to hand it to HTC because they really know how to make a touchscreen display and the Dreams is no exception. It’s respectable at 3.2″ with a resolution of 320×480; the display is crisp, bright and has a really nice feel to it despite the fact that it’s made out of some sort of hard plastic as opposed to the glass of most capacitive panels. Still, it’s extremely accurate and responds very well to the slightest touch. In terms of the overall picture quality, we would definitely rank it among the better displays currently on the market.

One of the things that makes HTC’s Android devices stand out as touchscreen devices is their inclusion of a trackball — the very same as seen on a certain line of smartphones that hails from the Northern Lands. Bluntly put, we never really use it because 1) it’s been programmed with a very low level of sensitivity, and 2) the sensitivity level cannot be changed. Why this is we’re not sure, but we highly doubt we’d use it even it we were able to crank it up to a comfortable 80 or 90 like we do on our BlackBerrys.

We’ve already covered two methods of input so now we move on to the full-QWERTY keypad of course. Accessible by moving the screen away via a sliding mechanism (which is solid and should survive a couple of years with power users) that almost instantantly converts the screen from portrait to landscape mode, the keypad takes a bit of getting used to and might feel a bit foreign to type on as the keys that are raised 1mm above the body of the device. It only takes about five minutes to adjust to however, but after five minutes of typing on the Dream you’re likely to want to take a chisel to the hump that contains all of the navigation keys because, damn, does that thing ever make for some seriously sore and cramped hands. Basically what we’re trying to say is that if you have small hands or short fingers, stay away from this phone because it’s just not gonna work out for you unless you have access to Prof. Farnsworth’s Fing-Longer. If you have the hands for it though, it’s not all that bad and we’d go so far as to say that despite its shortcomings we’d gladly take the Dream’s keypad over 95% of whatever else you can think of. Oh, one thing that we’d kill for Android to get is some sort of spell check. Seriously, what smartphone doesn’t have this?

The Dream features a flashless 3.2 megapixel camera with auto-focus and a dedicated camera button. It takes decent pictures, but even if we were to take a photo with the light cast by an atomic bomb going off behind us, the end result would still end up being pretty grainy. C’mon, no flash? It’s 2009 and the phone is a massive 17.1mm thick — you’d think they’d cram a flash in there. Here’s a sample pic.

It’s pretty funny that one of the least talked about features of any phone these days is how it handles calls. Okay, it’s a sign of the times we live in, but we like to make a phone call now and again which is why we are so pleased that making a call couldn’t be more simple than it is on the Dream. You can either punch in a number or contact name on the QWERTY keypad, or dial the number straight up on the touchscreen. As for call quality, the Dream really delivers from both the earpiece and the speakerphone. That said, things did start to sound thin and tinny when the volume was cranked above 75%, but this can be attributed to the fact that the volume can be set so loud that you’ll be crying for earplugs. As for calling features, swapping, merging and adding additional people to a call could not be more simple. The only negative we can find with the voice aspect of this device hasn’t a thing to do with call quality or connectivity but rather a lack of a proximity sensor. Would it really be too much to ask that all high-end touchscreen phones come with proximity sensors? It seriously sucks to have to tap a key to wake up the display.

So overall, we like the phone — hardware and the software — yet there are a few things that we just can’t understand like the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack and the proprietary charging / data cable port (which is quite ironic considering the Dream runs on an open source software platform). Still, these flaws aren’t exactly uncommon for HTC devices but we sincerely hope that this changes soon.

In closing, there are a lot of things we like about the Dream and there are some things that we dislike. Maybe we’re way too picky, but we still really like the HTC Dream; it’s just not the greatest. Bottom line: take it for a spin before you buy it. 50% of you will love it and 50% of you won’t, but there is no doubt you will at least enjoy the experience.

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