HTC’s first Windows Phone 7 handset to hit the reviews trail is the HTC HD7, the successor to the HTC HD2, the last Windows Mobile handset from the Taiwanese company. What it shares in looks with its fore-runner, it makes up for in the updated OS. It’s clear that Microsoft has put some serious, sensible thought into it’s new attempt at mobile success; has it paid off? And has HTC created a handset that maximises the OS? Let’s find out.
[Please note: this review is based on a handset running software that may not be the final retail version; we’ll amend our review as and when we receive a handset with the final Windows Phone 7 install.]
What we like
We never thought we’d say this, but Microsoft has created a mobile OS that isn’t awful. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that Windows Phone 7 OS is very nice. It’s polished, smooth, attractive and, in many cases, incredibly intuitive.This is the first handset we’ve fully reviewed with Windows Phone 7 installed, so this review will reflect that too.
The Start tiles make a nice change from the identi-kit icon based menus, and the fact that they are constantly updating with relevant information does give you the opportunity to ‘glance and go’. The design is intended to be very calming and its panoramic layout and large, simple fonts certainly do make the software very pleasing on the eye.
There won’t be much to differentiate between the various Windows Phone 7 handsets in terms of software, however, so let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of the HD7. The first thing that strikes you is the massive 4.3inch screen. It’s not Super AMOLED like the Samsung Omnia 7, but it’s plenty big and plenty bright. The large screen makes web browsing very pleasurable and lends itself to that panoramic layout and video playback.
Speaking of video, the HTC HD7 has a built-in kickstand on the rear of the handset. It’s a really nice touch and saves you propping the phone up against nearby walls or shelling out for a dedicated stand. This reviewer likes it a lot and had no issues with it, although some colleagues at Recombu were less enamoured of it and found it quite stiff and squeaky. The stand is made of metal and the hinge is quite sturdy so we’re not too worried about it snapping off.
The HTC Windows Phone 7 handsets all come with the HTC Hub on board, which gives you a little taste of Sense on your Win Pho phone. The weather animations we so love on HTC’s Android handsets are present and correct, and you can even zoom through multiple city’s weather if you want. It’s nice, but it doesn’t do much more than this at the moment so we pretty much just used it as a weather app.
The handset’s call quality is acceptable – it’s not as clear as a bell but we didn’t experience any interference nor dreaded robot voice syndrome. As an exclusive to O2, the HTC HD7 should offer good signal and not-bad data speeds, but this will obviously vary given your location. When calling, we like that the extraneous functions like mute, hold, speakerphone etc are hidden one click away – that way you don’t have to worry about proximity sensor mishaps and accidentally hitting mute with your cheek (not like some handsets, coughcough iPhone 4 coughcough).
The 5-megapixel camera is also fairly average – the pictures don’t stir a firey passion in us but they aren’t bad. The Windows Phone 7 gallery layout lends itself to beautiful display and the ‘Pictures’ button on the start screen is double-size so you get a nice, attractive thumbnail (depending on your subject matter, of course).
The integration with Facebook means that sharing photos on the social network is very easy and quick; however, you’ll have to wait for dedicated Flickr and Twitter apps to upload to these services without using the browser. We also think it’s ace that you can access the camera from the lock screen by holding the camera button down for a couple of seconds – the rest of the handset stays locked if you have a PIN number, but anyone can pick up your handset and take a couple of snaps.
The music player, though, is genuinely lovely. All the background images and swoopy sweepy actions are very intuitive. The HD7’s internal speaker is placed along the bottom edge of the front panel, so you get ok-ish playback out of it too, especially when using the kick stand. Anyone who really cares about sound fidelity will want to opt for speaker output or headphones though – happily, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack for that.
Being able to pin specific artists or albums to the start screen is a nice touch too – maybe not as a permanent thing but when you get that new album and you love it so much you have to listen to it eighty-three times a day, then you may well appreciate it.
Text input is also nice and intuitive, with spell-check offering you that familiar squiggly red line under mis-spelt words and the ability to go back and get suggestions by simply clicking the offending word. It’s not quite as good at auto-correcting us as the iPhone 4, for example, but we imagine that both we and the input tool would adjust over longer periods of use. The HTC HD7’s super-responsive touchscreen lent itself to the onscreen keyboard too.
What we don’t like
As much as we like the start screen and appreciated what Microsoft is trying to do with customisation, it’s not quite perfect. For a start, when moving pinned items around the homescreen, the software doesn’t automatically realign icons – so you often end up with an orphan sitting there looking rubbish. And it’s great that some of the icons pull in photos and bits of useful information so you can see them at a glance, but this makes the icons that don’t have any customisation look rubbish, like big empty blocks that aren’t finished. Plus you can’t have the start screen in landscape – what’s that about?
In traditional Windows style, installing drivers and software was a real chore. It took a fair old amount of time to download and install the drivers (including a restart), followed by a tedious few minutes downloading and installing the Zune software so we could actually move music and video files across to the handset. Obviously you only have to do this once, but it kind of destroyed the cool, calm aura of the handset for a little while.
Don’t even get us started on what it’s like trying to sync with a Mac. Well, basically, at the moment: you can’t. Microsoft is releasing a Windows Phone Connector for Mac, but that’s not going to be available until October 24th, and even then it’s in beta so it could be an unqualified bug-fest. Until then, no dice Mac users. You can’t even use Windows LiveSpace to transfer music files to the handset nor access it as an external mass storage device. Not cool.
The camera button is quite flush with the edge of the handset and because the handset is so large it makes it quite difficult to press with small hands. Also you have to press down lightly to autofocus then hard to take a picture – which takes a bit of getting used to based on the button’s position.
As much as the Facebook and Windows Live integration has been well thought out, sometimes we do just want to go into Facebook, you know? Because it’s all snazzily integrated, there isn’t likely to be a standalone Facebook app for all those times we want to randomly search out celebrities or stalk our friends’ brother’s friend who we saw in a photo and quite fancy.
Again on the subject of Facebook, and we’ll freely admit that this is a minor niggle, Windows Phone 7 on the HTC HD7 puts your facebook albums into your image gallery in alphabetical order. Sounds ok, doesn’t it? But no! On Facebook it’s all about the chronological order, which would make infinitely more sense. We can’t be expected to remember what hilarious names we gave those albums of Disneyland 2007, but we’d know how far back to look for them.
Aside from that, we’re also missing integration with all our other social networks – we want quick and easy access to Twitter updates, uploading to Flickr, Foursquare and all that jazz. Obviously a lot of this will be making its way to Win Pho 7 in the form of apps, but it’d be nice to see them make an appearance in the actual menu options in the gallery too. It’s early days though, all this could be on its way.
That’s something that kind of irks us about Windows Phone 7 in general, actually. Microsoft hasn’t really taken into account that some people really love playing with their phones. By taking out extra steps, the OS seems a little limited. You don’t feel like you can do a great deal with it and you get kind of bored. The menus are so short and sweet – which is a good thing in many ways – that you can’t help but feel that something is missing.
Perhaps apps are what is missing. The Marketplace is sparsely populated for now, but we know that will change on launch. It’s also a little bit on the slow side – which is silly because there’s hardly anything there. The worry on the apps front is that the handsets have no external storage – it’s one of Microsoft’s specifications – so you can’t increase the memory size. The HTC HD7 comes with 8GB which will certainly keep you going for a while – but if you’re stuck on a 2-year contract and want to store videos, music, photos and apps on there, it’ll soon be gobbled up. Then again, however many million iPhone owners seem to get by so maybe external storage isn’t that big a deal.
Because of Microsoft’s stringent minimum specifications for OEMs and ‘standardisation’ of the platform, each Windows Phone 7 handset is going to offer a very similar OS experience. That said, the HD7 is the biggest screen around at launch which is a real boon when it comes to media playback and web browsing.
The responsive touchscreen and fair-quality camera make this a solid choice, but it’s going to come down to personal preference – if you want a big screen and HTC’s native app, or you’re happy sticking with O2, then the HTC HD7 is the Windows Phone 7 handset for you.