HTC Arrive review

HTC often likes to highlight “firsts” in its marketing messages. While the days leading up to the launch of HTC’s Arrive are noticeably devoid of any relevant advertising, Sprint and HTC could have easily kept the “first” theme alive had they chosen to raise awareness. The Arrive is Sprint’s first device to run Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system. In fact, it’s the first modern Windows Phone in the world compatible with a CDMA network. Finally, HTC’s Arrive is also the first phone to launch with Microsoft’s “NoDo” update for Windows Phone 7 — a prerequisite for CDMA compatibility. But do all these firsts add up to a first-class smartphone experience, or are Sprint customers better off waiting to see what’s announced next week at CTIA before making any buying decisions? Hit the break for our full review and find out.

The Inside

Beginning with software, I’ve said before that I’m a fan of the Windows Phone 7 operating system and that hasn’t changed. It still has a lot of growing to do and I maintain that Microsoft was forced to release a rushed product, but buried beneath the surface is an amazing OS struggling to emerge. Like Android, iOS, webOS and other great mobile platforms, we need to give Windows Phone time to mature.

Thanks to Microsoft’s coding wizardry and HTC’s hardware, Windows Phone 7 flies on the Arrive. I find that despite nearly identical guts resulting from Microsoft’s strict hardware requirements, some phones handle the OS better than others — and the Arrive is one of those phones. I have yet to experience any jitters or slowness when it comes to native OEM apps. Third-party apps, however, are a different story…

Since Windows Phone 7 affords roughly the same experience on all devices by design, I won’t bother getting into the basic functions of the OS. Instead, I’ll focus on a few big features introduced by Microsoft’s NoDo update.

My Arrive unit provided by Sprint came with version 7.0.7389.0 of the Windows Phone OS installed, which I presume will ship on the release hardware considering how close we are to launch. This build includes Microsoft’s highly anticipated NoDo update, though in my opinion the update is seriously lacking. I’ll cross that bridge in a different section below, however. For now, let’s look at some new functionality.

The most widely publicized feature introduced by NoDo is the ability to copy and paste text. Microsoft’s implementation is curious at best, though it is functional and should silence some of the chatter surrounding this missing feature.

A single tap within a text field will highlight the poked word, and the text selection can then be extended in either direction by tapping and holding on one end of the selection, then dragging. When a selection is made, a copy icon appears above the text. Once text is copied, a paste button appears above the virtual keyboard, or on the bottom of the screen when the device is slid open and the physical QWERTY is in use.

Because of the way Microsoft implemented the solution, however, not all text can be selected and copied. The areas of interest are covered for the most part, including emails, SMS, URLs in Internet Explorer, text on Web pages and so on. The issue we’ve seen brought up by numerous developers is that in order for read only text within third-party apps to be selectable, it must be contained within a textbox. As it turns out, many developers neglected to build their apps this way, and they will have to rework things in order to enable copy/paste. For example, users cannot copy text from a tweet in the official Twitter app, and they won’t be able to until Twitter reworks the app.

The other big addition to NoDo is “tombstoning” support for third-party apps. Tombstoning is Microsoft’s name for state saving, or the ability of Windows Phone 7 to “pause” an app sent to the background and then resume function at the exact same point when it is called to the foreground. Microsoft’s current implementation is less than ideal, however, and I’ll discuss it further below.

Beyond software, the HTC Arrive packs guts that fall in line with the rest of the Windows Phone 7 devices announced late last year. Highlights include the now-obligatory 1GHz processor, a WVGA display, 16GB of internal storage, a 5-megapixel camera with support for 720p HD video recording. It also packs a 1500 mAh battery said to deliver 6 hours of talk time per charge.

Finally, and in typical HTC fashion, the audio quality on voice calls is remarkable. The ear speaker is incredibly clear and it gets louder than most people will ever need it to get. Likewise, the “SRS WOW HD surround sound” speaker broadcasts callers on the other end with great clarity when speakerphone is enabled, and it does a surprisingly solid job with music and audio form movies and TV shows as well. Couple HTC’s solid speakers and circuitry with Sprint’s stellar network, and now you’re cooking with gas.

The Outside

Sprint’s HTC Arrive is a remarkably solid device. Other Windows Phones with landscape QWERTY keyboards currently on the market are — how can I put this nicely? — not nearly as solid. The display is covered with scratch-resistant glass, the plastics that surround it are nice and solid, the battery cover is sleek brushed aluminum and the rest of the back cover is rubberized to assist grip.

The 184-gram Arrive might be a bit on the hefty side for some users, but I love it. I can’t stand phones that feel cheap and plasticky, and the Arrive most certainly does not feel cheap or plasticky. It’s definitely on the thicker side, although it is thinner than older HTC devices with the same form factor. The slide-out QWERTY keypad adds the majority of the girth, of course, but it’s more than worth it; more on that later.

In terms of appearance, the Arrive looks like an HTC HD7 from the front, with stylish silver mesh above and below the WVGA touchscreen to cover the ear speaker and the microphone. It also has a similar darkened chrome bezel surrounding the front of the case. Thankfully, however, the Arrive feels nothing like the HD7. T-Mobile’s supersized phone is a great handset that we thoroughly enjoyed when we reviewed it, but it is far from HTC’s most solid device — thanks to a light plasticky feel and a flimsy, paper-thin battery cover.

Beyond that, you have the power/lock button on the top of the phone next to a 3.5-millimeter audio jack, a volume rocker and a microUSB port on the left side, and a dedicated camera button on the right side of the phone.

The slider mechanism on the Arrive is very solid, though it’s a bit odd until you get used to it. When the display is slid all the way open, the mechanics of the slider pivot and result in the viewing angle you see in the images, which is not adjustable. The simple fact of the matter is that some will like it and some won’t — and I don’t. I would far prefer to keep the display parallel with the keypad because it suits my typing style better. It’s a smartphone, not a laptop, and you type with your thumbs, not with all 10 fingers. With the screen pitched forward like it is, the display points down toward my chest when I type instead of pointing straight at my face. It’s odd, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker for me.

The Upside

First things first… the display. While it might not bear a sexy name like “Super AMOLED” or “Super LCD,” the display on the Arrive is fantastic. The screen is obviously one of the most important components of a cell phone, and it pains me that some otherwise terrific devices are ruined by less-than-stellar screens.

The display is not one of HTC’s larger offerings, and it’s a good thing. With the added bulk of a full QWERTY keypad, a case big enough to accommodate a screen over 4-inches would make the Arrive the untamable beast. With a 3.6-inch WVGA (800 x 480 pixels) display, the sizing is just right.

The Arrive display is vibrant and it renders colors quite nicely, though some deeper colors do appear a bit washed out at times. I leave the brightness cranked up to 11, though, and it looks fantastic. HTC also made use of a little trick Apple popularized with the iPhone 4, and it will soon become the standard display design among manufacturers — at least, it should. On most cell phones, the display panel sits beneath the outer-most glass surface and there is a bit of space between the two. On the Arrive, however, the LCD is glued to the back of the glass touchscreen with no space between the two. The result of this seemingly minute detail is a much, much better user experience; it feels as though you’re actually touching the images rendered on the screen rather than touching glass above the images.

My only real complaint regarding the display is the glass; if I had my way, touchscreen smartphones with displays that lack oleophobic (oil resistant) coatings would be banned.

The other thing I absolutely love about this phone is the keyboard. When it comes to Windows Phones, I typically toy with a Dell Venue Pro courtesy of T-Mobile. The Venue Pro is an outstanding device and its keyboard is terrific, but the Arrive has left it cowering in the corner. Sprint’s new Windows Phone probably packs the best physical keyboard I’ve used in recent history outside of a BlackBerry. Seriously… it’s that awesome.

Some might say equipping a Windows Phone with a physical keyboard is overkill since the software keyboard is fantastic. While I agree that Microsoft’s on-screen keys are great — in fact, I think Windows Phone’s virtual keypad is the best in the business — I love the keyboard on the Arrive far too much to entertain the notion that it might be redundant. The buttons are very flat but they have a slight convexity to them that can’t be seen with the eye. Your fingers will feel it, however, and they’ll like it. Tactile response is ideal as well, and the keys emit a nice “click” as they’re depressed to complete the physical QWERTY trifecta.

The keyboard layout on the Arrive is perfect, featuring five rows of staggered keys arranged as they should be, not in columns. The backlighting is wonderful as well, resulting in nice subtle illumination that is visible in any lighting. Finally, I love the added touch of two small LEDs on the left side of the board that illuminate when the Function and Shift keys are pressed, reminding you that the next key stroke will result in either a capital letter or a symbol, as desired.

The Downside

Put plainly, NoDo is a stopgap solution meant to tide users over until Microsoft finally makes its big update, “Mango,” available later this year or next year. That wait may be a bit painful for some.

The current implementation of tombstoning is not great. While it does serve its purpose and provide quicker resume times for compatible apps sent to the background, it is still slow. At times, it is painfully slow. Also, Microsoft’s solution works differently depending on how developers implement it and how users access apps.

If I am in an app with tombstoning support and I want to check my email, I have to press the Windows button, open my email and read whatever I want and then press the back button repeatedly until I am back in the tombstoned app. So, for example, if I’m in a Twitter app called Rowi and I want to read one email the sequence will look like this:

From Rowi press the Windows button > find email tile and open email > scroll to the message I want and open it > press back to get to main email screen > press back to get to home screen > press back to get to Rowi.

The process is a bit convoluted as it stands now, but the result is a restored app and a fairly respectable load time, as was intended. Logic and habits formed while using any other smartphone OS dictates a different workflow, however. If I “accidentally” just tap the app’s tile to open it instead of pressing back until I get to Rowi, I have to wait through a splash screen and the wait some more while the app refreshes. This may be partially the developer’s fault, though every tombstone-compatible app I’ve found behaves the same way. In either event, this shouldn’t be the case; regardless of how I open an app, it should enter the foreground in its saved state.

Users will eventually get used to this workflow and it will become less of a big deal, but here’s the problem: Mango. All the time spent reforming habits will be for naught because Microsoft’s next major software update will introduce a proper solution complete with an app switcher and background processes support for third-party apps. Once that happens, it’ll be time to reform all those habits yet again.

Beyond tombstoning, performance of third-party apps leaves much to be desired, as I alluded to above. Maybe developers are still learning the ropes, maybe Silverlight isn’t working out very well, or maybe something else entirely is at fault. Whatever the case, third-party apps are too slow. They’re slow to open and they’re slow to refresh. Data calls seem to take forever at times, and scrolling gets a bit wonky on occasion as well. Moving around within an app and flipping from screen to screen are fast as lightning, but something needs to be done to round out the experience with consistently smooth scrolling and better handling of data calls. Mango should take care of the rest thanks to more robust multitasking support.

Finally, and as was the case with the HD7, the 5 megapixel camera on the Arrive captures subpar images, which is unfortunately in line with my expectations. HTC does so many things well but imaging simply isn’t one of them. I won’t bother comparing the Arrive’s imaging capabilities to camera phone leaders like Nokia or even Apple; suffice it to say the Arrive will do a decent job of capturing memories in great lighting, and a not-so-decent job of snapping images in poor lighting. The camera is also capable of capturing lackluster 720p HD video that I found to be a bit jittery and jumpy.

The Bottom Line

With the arrival of the HTC Arrive, I have now handled each and every Windows Phone 7 device that has been announced to date. As a result, I can safely say that the Arrive is my favorite so far — by a fairly wide margin. It’s not the thinnest and it doesn’t pack the biggest display or the sexiest build, but for my money it offers a complete package that is unmatched by other Windows Phones at this point in time.

Is it perfect? Far from it. Microsoft’s mobile OS still has a lot of growing to do and the UX on Windows Phones will suffer until the bulk of the wrinkles are ironed out. I also would have liked to see 4G WiMAX support on the Arrive. Sprint’s 4G coverage is extensive enough now, and I’d like to see every $200 smartphone Sprint launches from here on out include support for its 4G network.

But the question is whether or not you should purchase the Arrive, which launches this Sunday, March 20th. With CTIA kicking off later in the week, I would obviously recommend sitting tight for two more days to see what new handsets are unveiled at the show. While new Microsoft-powered handsets will be announced, I believe the Arrive will still be one of the best available Windows Phones on the market for quite some time, even after the smoke from CTIA clears.

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