HTC HD7 review

Albert Einstein wrote that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. For what seemed like an eternity, Windows Mobile was the epitome of insanity and Microsoft was insane. The Redmond-based giant resisted change as long as it possibly could, forcing itself to believe that users would magically come back around and embrace the counter-intuitive mess that was Windows Mobile 5… and then 6… and then 6.5.

After years of some serious electroshock therapy courtesy of journalists, bloggers and enthusiasts, Microsoft is finally ready to check out of the asylum.

Microsoft’s new OS is not simply a major departure from Windows Mobile; it’s a full-on OSectomy. The company literally went back to the drawing board and built a new, modern operating system from the ground up. The result is “Windows Phone 7” — a 13-character name with one single focus: get Microsoft back in the game.

WP7 launched on November 8th in the U.S., and with it came a handful of devices. Microsoft’s strict hardware requirements reduce handsets to vessels for the OS in many respects, so I’ve decided to review the one launch handset that managed to impress me the most: the HTC HD7.

The Outside

HTC has carved itself a new niche with its oversized smartphones and to be honest, it surprises me a bit. It shouldn’t, of course. Here in the U.S. at least, we certainly subscribe to a bigger is better policy.

It all started with the massive EVO 4G — a phone that made Android handsets before it look like Oompa-Loompas. It wasn’t the first super-sized phone, but it was the first to be adopted by the masses. The EVO was tall, wide, thick and heavy; with a 4.3-inch display and nearly every wireless radio imaginable crammed inside. Each successive 4.3-inch offering has been slimmer and lighter, and now we have the HD7.

According to market research firm NPD Group, big-boned smartphones are quite popular right now. In fact, the EVO 4G found itself on NPD Group’s list of top-5 best selling Android smartphones in both the second and third quarters of 2010.

Of course it all boils down to taste and preference — and I’m still not sold. If the display on the HD7 was in the 3.8-inch to 4-inch range and the hardware was downsized proportionately, I would be in love. As it stands now, however, it’s too big. I can’t comfortably operate the HD7 with one hand and that can be a big deal at times. For example, holding the device in my right hand and reaching over to tap the back button is very, very uncomfortable. I even dropped the phone once or twice while attempting this typically simple maneuver. Going back a page with one hand is commonplace on a normal phone, but not on this king-sized beast.

The only other build-related items I take issue with are the battery cover and the side buttons.

The HD7’s battery cover is almost paper-thin and it basically peels off when you remove it. I took it off once to have a look at the battery and now the top corners of the cover won’t sit flush with the back of the phone. I’ve tried bending them back into place and even squishing the phone and battery cover together with frustration-driven brute force. Still no luck. Perhaps the battery cover should be made out of a stronger material or perhaps the clips that hold it in place need to be retooled. Whatever the case, I shouldn’t be having fitting issues on a brand new phone.

Regarding the side buttons, it just boils down to poor execution. There are three buttons situated along the outer sides of the HD7. A dedicated camera button and a volume rocker are found on the right side, and a power/sleep/wake button is located on the top. The camera button is fine — the other two are not. With the volume rocker, the issue is poor fit; the button is so loose that is rattles around as you use the phone. The power button on top is fit perfectly, on the other hand, but it has almost no tactile response whatsoever. I can’t tell whether or not I’ve pressed it until the screen comes on.

My issue with the power button is relatively trivial, of course, but the volume rocker is a pretty big annoyance. Hopefully the problem lies with a small number of units and not an entire run.

Aforementioned qualms aside, the HD7 really is a great phone. Battery life is average for a smartphone — most people will get about a day’s worth of usage per charge, but very heavy power users might have trouble making it to the end of a long day.The design is also awesome, I think. I love the matching metal mesh covering the ear speaker above the display and the microphone below it. Both the speaker and the mic work wonderfully during voice calls, by the way, and calls come through loud and clear over T-Mobile’s network.

It’s also very well built and sturdy. The back has a smooth rubbery texture to it that feels great in the palm, and the sides are thick hard plastic that supports the phone’s massive frame quite well. There’s also an aluminum kickstand on the back that could come in handy for those who intend to watch videos on the device while stationary. I’ve yet to use it a single time and I doubt I ever will.

The Inside

The HTC HD7 is powered by Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 OS, which means its internals are nearly the same as any other WP7 handset. Because the OS is so new, it also means it would be easy to get carried away and cover every nook and cranny of the OS. I’m going to try to keep things general, however, and cover some of the broader concepts rather than every last intricate detail.

The first thing to note is that Windows Phone 7, in its current state, is anything but a traditional smartphone OS. Think of it more along the lines of iPhone version 1 than iOS version 4.

Like the first version of the iPhone platform, Windows Phone 7 shows signs of greatness right off the starting line. Also like version 1 of Apple’s mobile OS, Windows Phone 7 is very incomplete. Core functionality is missing; integral apps and services are nowhere to be found; key features are absent. I’ll come back to this in my conclusion…

Microsoft’s new interface is wonderfully minimal, consisting mainly of just two simple screens. The first is an endless string of tiles, two columns wide, that each represents an app, a shortcut, a contact or a “hub”. This is the home screen. Swipe to the left, and you find a single column comprised of each app on the device. That’s it.

A defining concept found throughout the OS is simplicity. On the home screen, for example, the only information shown at the top of the display is the time. Signal strength, network connection information, battery life and other standard details are all hidden — and I love it. Why does the user need any of this info unless it becomes important? I don’t need to know how good my signal is unless it’s low. I don’t need to know I’m connected to Wi-Fi or 3G unless there are connectivity issues. I don’t need to know how much battery I have left unless I’m going to run out of juice soon.

The only place this philosophy falls short is with message indicators. If I have an unread SMS for example, there is an icon on my lock screen to let me know. Once the HD7 is unlocked, however, the only indication I have that there is an unread SMS is an indicator on the Messaging tile. I would prefer to have a reminder that is visible on every screen.

In terms of HTC-specific customizations, there isn’t much to speak of. In an effort to keep the WP7 experience uniform and optimal, Microsoft limits manufacturers a great deal. The company has essentially created a scenario where it is more Apple (control everything) than Google (give manufacturers near-complete freedom), but it has the luxury of variety and help with marketing because partner companies build the hardware. Some might say it’s the best of both worlds.

Beyond a few available apps including a photo effects tool, a flashlight and a stock-monitoring app, there is little evidence of HTC in the software on the HD7. In fact, the “HTC Hub” is the only real reminder that HTC did, in fact, build this phone. The HTC Hub is the company’s attempt to bring a Sense-like experience to Windows Phone in a self-contained app. So basically, the user opens the hub and is presented an alternate home screen reminiscent of the Sense UI found on Android devices. Within the hub, users can browse alternate menus and launch other apps as well.

While the concept is relatively intriguing, don’t bother with the HTC Hub for the time being. It drains the battery, it doesn’t give you access to email and other important apps, and it negates several of Windows Phone 7’s most compelling features. Some future version of HTC’s custom hub might be useful, but this first version is a dud.

The Upside

The UI, simply put, is gorgeous. It might not suit everyone’s tastes — nothing ever does — but to me it’s absolutely stunning and wonderfully unique. And on the massive HD7 display, it’s great. The font is gorgeous, the transition animations are perfect and the overall experience is responsive and spry.

In my eyes, Microsoft has moved the smartphone interface into its next evolutionary phase.

Recent history looks like this: The smartphone interface was a convoluted mess in popular operating systems like BlackBerry OS, Windows Mobile and S60 (Symbian). The iPhone then came along and turned everything on its head. An overcomplicated web of home screens, menus and settings became one single focus… apps. Everything you need on your device is just a swipe and a poke away. Let’s call it the rebirth of the smartphone interface.

Now, Microsoft has brought about the re-rebirth of the smartphone interface. Just like the iPhone, everything you need is a swipe and a poke away. But there is a single, subtle difference that amounts to a major change as far as usability is concerned.

With only one exception, app icons in iOS are merely tiny images that let us open each app. They are doors. In Windows Phone 7, tiles are often living widgets that update constantly and give us information from various apps at a glance. They are windows.

Windows are better than doors. On the iPhone I can look at my display, see an icon for a weather app, tap the icon, wait for the app to open, wait for the data to refresh, and then see the current temperature and weather conditions. On the HD7, I can look at my display and see the current temperature and weather conditions. Six steps become one.

Microsoft is hardly the first company to use a widget system, but its implementation by far the best to date. Developers have the tools with which to create wonderfully useful and creative living tiles that deliver information in a variety of ways. For example, right now my WeatherBug tile is displaying my location (New York, NY) and the current temperature (44 degrees) along with a nice big sun icon because it’s sunny outside. The tile is also bright blue. Over the course of the day, the sun will become a moon, the temperature reading will drop and the light blue coloring on the tile will fade to dark blue to represent nighttime. I’ll also see a little badge appear on the tile, accompanied by a push notification, if a weather alert is issued during the day.

It’s awesome.

Windows Phone 7 also shines where text input is concerned. The HD7 specifically plays a big role here as well. The keyboard on the HD7 is the probably my favorite among smartphones to date. It’s huge, it’s responsive, it’s well organized and the accompanying auto-correct/word recommendation system is outstanding. Barring a few tiny quibbles, I love it.

The last big plus I’ll cover for the time being is hugely important — the ability for interested parties to develop for the Windows Phone 7 platform. This appears to be a primary focus for Microsoft. We’re sill in the early stages, obviously, but I can see Windows Phone 7 becoming a huge draw for creative developers looking to build novel solutions.

Microsoft’s new OS grants developers access to more core components than the current biggest developer draw, iOS, and more access means better app integration. Much better. For example a Google Voice app can use the native WP7 dialer to make calls from within the app, instead of just using a secondary dialer that then opens the native phone app as with iOS. Or, apps like HTC’s Photo Enhancer can integrate with the WP7 pictures hub, so I can tap a menu beneath photo I’ve taken and begin editing it in Photo Enhancer instantly.

These are just two examples in a practically endless list of possibilities. I’m very excited to see how talented developers use the WP7 developer tools and resources at their disposal.

The Downside

The display on the HD7 is nice and bright (when brightness is set to full from within the phone’s settings) but the resolution isn’t great. A new breed of displays is upon us and consumers will quickly get accustomed to the dense dpi counts they afford. The HD7 goes in the opposite direction however, using the same pixel count as its smaller WP7-toting counterparts and spreading it across a bigger display. The result is fine for screens with minimal graphics such as the Windows Phone 7 home screen, but small fonts and other intricate details take a hit in some areas.

Another flaw is the search function. All Windows Phones are now required by Microsoft to have a dedicated search button, which is great. Tapping that button from a home screen, however, pulls up Bing and allows you to perform a Web search. Every other major smartphone operating system has a universal search function that brings up apps, games, contacts and more, along with an option to search the Web. There’s a reason for this — universal makes a smartphone more usable.

When I want to call BGR President Jonathan Geller, for example, I don’t want to have to open up the Phone application and dial his number. I can’t remember his number. I also don’t want to have to dig his name out of an address book; that involves way too much effort. Windows Phone 7 does give you an option to pin contacts to the home screen for easy access, but pinning too many contacts would defeat the purpose.

I just want to tap a search button, type J – O – N, and tap on Jonathan Geller.

I covered most of my gripes regarding hardware above, but there is one more I wanted to discuss: the camera.

HTC does a lot of things right, but there are some areas where the company continuously falls short. The camera is a perfect example. As cell phone cameras inch closer and closer to becoming viable point-and-shoot replacements, image quality becomes increasingly important. The 5-megapixel camera on the HD7 takes terrible, terrible pictures. Colors are muted, edges are fuzzy and definition is muddy. The camera on the HD7 couldn’t replace a Polaroid from the 80s, let alone a modern point-and-shoot.

The Bottom Line

The Windows Phone 7 OS on HTC’s HD7 is absolutely wonderful in many respects, and yet in other areas, it is an OS filled with almosts. The email app is almost fantastic, but there are tiny issues that hinder it, such as its inability to download images by default. The new mobile version of Internet Explorer is almost great, but the abundance of wasted space above and below webpages negates the super-sized display on the HD7. The Windows Marketplace is almost a terrific tool for app distribution and discovery, but the fact that artists, albums and songs from Microsoft’s Zune service are returned as search results is bizarre and annoying. And so on.

In the end, the current version of Windows Phone 7 feels rushed. Actually, it doesn’t feel rushed — it is rushed. The OS looks refined and it functions quite well, but there are glaring omissions that are obviously the result of a need to get Windows Phone 7 out to market with haste.

Copy/paste support is non-existent. Microsoft’s third-party multitasking solution is nowhere to be found. There’s no support for Flash or Silverlight. There isn’t even support for Windows Live Messenger out of the box. And list goes on.

If Microsoft had burnt some serious midnight oil and determined the omissions above would result in the best possible user experience, then so be it. At least we would be able to defend Microsoft’s choices with some sort of logic. Instead, Microsoft has addressed related criticism by stating, we know, it’s coming. Microsoft knew a lot of this functionality needed to be in the OS, but it launched without it.

The fatal flaw in all this is that adding much needed functionality at some point down the road means it will not be a part of consumer’s initial experience with the OS and the devices on which it resides.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

My sincere hope, however, is that people do give Windows Phone 7 a second chance once the functionality is flushed out a bit. Looking back on the first version of the iPhone OS, it was missing tons of features as we can all recall. Over time, however, iOS grew to become the great platform it is today.

Microsoft is not a newcomer to the game as Apple was, so these omissions are even less excusable than they were for the iPhone. But there was a huge amount of pressure for Microsoft to deliver, so it did the best it could.

Whether or not the OS will improve quickly is not a question. It will. I think by the second half of next year, we’ll have something special on our hands. Is the OS usable in the meantime? Absolutely — but when purchasing a great phone like the HTC HD7 for the time being, prepare to deal with the same frustrations many of us dealt with when the iPhone platform was in its infancy.

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