When the HTC Shift UMPC was first announced so long ago several innovations really got the tech world buzzing. First was the form factor as the Shift was so thin and light in its closed state. The device was barely bigger than the 7-inch screen and less than an inch thick which makes it one of the smallest UMPCs with that size screen. Then there was the unique sliding function that exposed a nice QWERTY keyboard when you slid the screen up. The screen could then be tilted up and forward turning the Shift into a small laptop form factor and the tech world ate that up. Then, and maybe the coolest innovation of all, HTC added SnapVUE, a subset of Windows Mobile that allowed the Shift to get push email even when the device is turned off so the mobile professional can stay in touch with the office no matter where they might be.
All of these innovations got everyone understandably excited and that excitement only began dimming as the Shift began encountering one delay after another. Finally a few weeks ago HTC was able to release the GSM version of the Shift outside the US and excitement built up again. I was contacted by HTC over a week ago and informed that the US version of the Shift would be released on March 24th and asked if I would like a review unit to play with under NDA. Of course I said yes and you can imagine my surprise when it showed up at Mobile Tech Manor sporting not GSM 3G but EVDO under the Sprint network. This was never hinted at by HTC and since I loves me some EVDO I was very eager to try it out. I usually do a "first impressions’ article on new devices that is typically written shortly after receiving a device but due to the embargo I have been using the Shift for over a week so this one is based a lot on actual experience using the device. Read on to find out if the Shift excitement is justified.
Out of the Box Experience
The Shift arrived very nicely packaged in a slim box that foretold of the thin nature of the device. When I saw how small the power brick is I was very impressed, although later I would determine that it had better be small since it would likely be carried at all times. I was surprised to see a very nice brown leather case that is reminiscent of the nice case that HTC includes with the Advantage and I thought that was a nice touch. As it turns out there’s a story behind the case that is a bit bizarre to say the least. While that case is very nice I always want to try devices "bareback" so I can fully appreciate the size (or lack of it) that a given device brings to the table. I set out trying to remove the Shift from said case and found it incredibly difficult to do so. The Shift is attached to the case via three posts that insert into the bottom of the device and to say it was hard to remove is an understatement. I eventually succeeded in detaching the Shift from the case and only then did I realize that the device had actually been attached to the case via 3 screws in those posts. I had removed the Shift from the case only to realize that I wouldn’t be able to get the device back in the case when I wanted. I can pop it back onto the posts but since the screws are no longer attached it won’t sit securely anymore.
Needless to say I was confused why HTC would in effect attach the Shift permanently to the case so I asked them about it. The explanation I was given was a bit bizarre to say the least. It seems that the FCC required HTC to only allow the US version of the Shift to be operated while in the case. The Shift is different from other UMPCs due to the CDMA radio in combination with the SnapVUE which means that the device is always on even when it’s off and the FCC wanted the user protected from the radio and hence the attached case. I told you it was bizarre and trust me when I tell you the Shift can easily be operated sans case but if you take yours out like I did you likely won’t be able to attach it again. Buyer beware.
The hardware specs of the Shift show us nothing really surprising aside from the three innovations I’ve mentioned. Here are the specs at a glance:
* Intel Stealey A110 800 MHz processor + Little River (945GMS) + ICH7U
* 1GB DDR2 microDIMM RAM, 64MB for SnapVUE
* 128 MB ROM for SnapVUE
* 1.8 inch 40GB 4200rpm hard drive with G-Sensor shock protection
* Windows Vista Business
* 7 inch tilt touch screen, 800×480 resolution
* CDMA2000 1xRTT/1xEVDO (Rev 0)
* Bluetooth 2.0
* 802.11 b/g WiFi
* 2700 mAh battery
* VGA (640×480) web camera
* SD slot
* 1 USB 2.0 port
* VGA out port
* 3.5 mm stereo headset jack with microphone
* Fingerprint scanner
* Stereo speakers
The processor is certainly stout enough to run Windows XP but since the Shift has Vista Business pre-installed I was curious to see how well it could handle it with just 1 GB of memory. More on that later. HTC realized the one USB port wasn’t enough and included in the box a dongle that added three USB ports, ethernet and a mini-USB connector.
Taking a stroll around the device if we start at the front screen we find on the left side of the screen from top to bottom the web cam, left and right mouse buttons, tiny speaker, and the SnapVUE/ Vista toggle button. Below the screen we find no fewer than 7 indicator LEDs- power, battery, caps lock, HDD activity, Bluetooth/ WiFi activity, CDMA activity, Info. The indicators work as expected and the info indicator tells you when the SnapVUE side has unread email waiting for you. Moving to the right of the screen from top to bottom we find the Comm Mgr. buttom, screen resolution toggle button, tiny touch pad, second speaker and the fingerprint reader. That’s it for the screen bezel.
On the left side of the keyboard part of the Shift we find the headset jack (3.5 mm) and the stylus silo. The stylus is removed by pushing in the head of the stylus which pops it out for use. The stylus is a typical telescoping metal stylus like found in PDAs and is hard to remove and replace in the silo, especially when the Shift is in the case. The telescoping part of the stylus is loose fitting and keeps collapsing during use which is annoying. The stylus has to be put back in the silo a certain way to sit flush but in fact you can easily pop it in upside down. Once you do that it’s very hard to get the stylus back out of the silo as it sticks. This is a poor design in my opinion as it is easy to put the stylus in upside down due to the case and my stylus is now sitting in the silo and I can’t get it out. I’ll have to get some pliers to get it out later.
There is nothing on the bottom front of the Shift but moving to the right side of the keyboard unit we find the power jack, USB 2.0 port, power slider switch (which doubles as a hold button) and the SD slot. The only thing on the back of the keyboard unit is the VGA out port. On the very bottom of the Shift there are three ventilation grills and the battery compartment. That’s it, the device is very sleek and well constructed as I have come to expect from HTC equipment.
I have to give kudos to HTC for keeping the crapware to a bare minimum which is always a good thing. The only program they installed that users might not want is a trial version for Trend Micro antivirus which is not set up by default so you can easily use your own solution. Windows Vista is installed and everything was pre-configured intelligently on this front with everything working out of the box as expected. The one program that is unique to the Shift as this is the first device to ship with it is the latest version of the Origami Experience, 2.0. OE is a fully touch-optimized shell that makes it cool to use the Shift with your fingers and it looks pretty nice. I do find the interface a bit inconsistent though from screen to screen and I don’t use it as a rule, preferring the standard Vista interface for getting around the device. Some will no doubt like OE so YMMV.
HTC has also installed the Comm Manager which is a one screen method for handling all of the various radios, EV-DO, WiFi and Bluetooth, in an easy to use format. You can turn individual radios on and off and more importantly tell the status of same. You also can set screen brightness and volume here and it’s all designed to be operated by the fingertip which is nice.
SnapVUE- what’s it do?
HTC included the SnapVUE side of the Shift to turn the device into an "always-on" email device. It is designed to provide maximum utility if you use an Exchange Server and since I do I am the target user for SnapVUE. I must say that it is far more useful in this communication role than I thought it would be and I find myself in SnapVUE even more than in Vista. The Windows Mobile kernel that comprises SnapVUE is not a full implementation of Windows Mobile and doesn’t include big pieces of WM like Office Mobile. It concentrates instead on the email and messaging portion of WM and while some have railed that they wish it had a full WM installation, in fact Modaco has published a way to "jailbreak" WM on the Shift, I understand why HTC only installed the portion of WM that they did. I agree with their decision to do it this way, after all if I want to surf the web or open Office documents on the Shift I prefer to do that in Vista and not SnapVUE.
I set up my Exchange Server very easily in SnapVUE and shortly was interacting with my PIM data and email just like on any WM device in no time. It is extremely handy to have the Shift getting my email via WM push email even when the device is off. My email is right there and waiting for me when I turn on the Shift in SnapVUE. Toggling between Vista and SnapVUE is instantaneous and as simple as pressing the button on the bezel of the screen and that is very cool. When you pop into Vista you are wherever you were when you jumped into the SnapVUE side and vice versa. If Vista was powered off you will find the Vista side to be off when you toggle, allowing you to save battery power if you’re just going to use SnapVU. I use Outlook on the Vista side and unfortunately the WM stuff doesn’t communicate nor sync with the Vista side so as long as you use an Exchange Server you are OK. If you don’t then it’s a bummer as the WM side will not talk to the Vista side and you’ll have to make sure you stay updated on both sides of the Shift.
The home screen of the SnapVUE side is the nice HTC home screen and it’s pretty functional. It gives you at a glance the time and date, your schedule, email and the like. You have a one tap interface into the WM PIM applications from the home screen which work just like their "real" counterparts. Like I said I use this all the time and find it pretty useful, and while in SnapVUE the Shift can run for many hours in standby yet still get your email. That battery life becomes pretty significant when you start working in Vista as you will see.
It is important to note that WiFi is not available in SnapVUE, you’ll need the Sprint 3G to use it at all. It is also not possible to use the phone in SnapVUE so you won’t be using the Shift as the world’s largest cell phone.
Vista- how well does it run?
I know that many are wondering how well the Shift runs under Vista Business since that is the only OS option that HTC provides. My answer to that question would have to be "as well as expected". I don’t find Vista runs particularly well on devices with less than 2 GB of RAM and the Shift performance doesn’t change that opinion. Doing my normal work, running Office 2007, Outlook 2007, web surfing and the like, I find the Shift to be a bit sluggish. It’s functional, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no screamer that’s for sure. One thing that does bother me though are the frequent lags where the Shift is doing something in the background and the device becomes unresponsive for what feels like a good while. The HDD indicator shows that Vista is doing something but I can’t tell what that might be and the Shift is unusable until that finishes. This happens all too frequently and it interferes with my way of working where I often want to fire up the device and get something done quickly and then put it back to sleep. I am continually finding the Shift has other thoughts and it interrupts my ability to do this. My overall impression of Vista on the Shift can be summed up in one word- frustrating.
There are good things about Vista on the Shift however, like how good the stereo speakers sound. Playing music on the Shift is pretty cool and sounds nice considering how tiny the speakers are. Video plays OK too although it can be choppy at times. Web browsing is nice on the Shift since it’s easy to hit the zoom button and quickly switch from the native 800×480 resolution, which is way to small for a 7-inch screen, into the higher 1024×600 resolution. This makes it easier to see web pages and the like although some users will find it too fuzzy for extended use at that resolution. This low resolution is typical for first generation UMPCs and it would have been nice to see HTC go up to a native resolution of at least 1024×600 on the Shift since we’re now in the 2nd generation of the UMPC. Screen resolution is a very personal thing so YMMV.
One major flaw in the screen design is the inability to rotate it into portrait orientation. The 7-inch screen calls out for rotating and using in the hands as a slate but it’s not offered as an option. Some enterprising user may get this to work though as the Intel chipset used in the Shift certainly supports rotation of the screen so we’ll see how long that takes. Using it as a portrait Tablet PC might not be something that is needed given how light the touch screen is to touch. Inking without vectoring is downright impossible and I’ve given up trying. Even when I tried to be very careful it is impossible to avoid the lightest touch by some part of the hand and that’s all it takes to generate vectoring. That’s a shame as inking is about the only real reason to go with Vista over XP which is not offered for the Shift. It is easy to control the interface via the fingertips but even that can get out of control as the digitizer is so light touch. I find the track pad on the right of the screen to be too small for my big fingers to control accurately but others may like it.
I have not been able to get Skype to work very well on the Shift, even audio calls are choppy. Trying to add video to the mix really bollixes it up with Skype getting all unresponsive and crashing frequently. The Shift has a nice web cam but it’s not very usable out of the box. I’ll have to play with it to see if I can tweak the configuration better.
HTC is claiming two hours of battery life under Vista and I am sad to report this is accurate. I am able to get two hours with judicious use of power management but not much more, if any. Keeping the device in SnapVUE mode however can keep running for hours and hours, I haven’t benchmarked it thoroughly. You will be able to buy an additional battery for about $50 to carry with you but given the design of the device I don’t think they’ll be able to offer an extended battery as it won’t fit in the device.
HTC has produced an interesting device with several innovations like the sliding screen that exposes the full QWERTY keyboard. That keyboard is too small for my liking but that is objective so YMMV. The inclusion of SnapVUE to provide push email functionality is the first in any device and it works well with the integrated EV-DO connectivity via Sprint. The Shift has not shaken my impressions on running Vista on insufficient hardware in fact it’s fortified them, and the lackluster performance is quite frustrating for me. The Shift is too expensive at the list price of $1,499 and I don’t think HTC will move many of them so expect the price to drop pretty soon. Since the Shift is the first UMPC to be sold via a US phone carrier, Sprint, it will be very interesting to see if they subsidize the price of the device with new data service like they do handsets. We’ll have to watch this to see what they do. Overall I find using the Shift to be frustrating for all the reasons I’ve covered in this review and I certainly will not be buying one. Not even at half price.