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HTC HD7 Review: Windows Phone 7 Shows Potential

One look at the $199 (with contract) HTC HD7 for T-Mobile evokes memories of the HD2, a popular Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 (s msft) device that debuted a year ago. Both use the same basic design: high-resolution 4.3-inch capacitive touch display, a 5-megapixel camera and a snappy processor from Qualcomm (s qcom). There’s one major difference: The new HD7 runs Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 operating system. After using the HD7 for a while, it’s safe to say that Microsoft has delivered on its promise. The new platform looks nothing like the old Windows Mobile, which is good, but in my experience with the HD7, it’s clear that Microsoft has work to do on its smartphone platform.

A new panoramic interface with widgets Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 back in February by showing a very different user interface and a number of iPhone-like features (s aapl). Instead of a computer-like menu interface, navigating the new operating system is done through an expanding panoramic interface, heavily borrowed from Microsoft’s ZuneHD digital music player.

The home screen on the thin HD7 shows various shortcuts and “tiles,” combining a simple software menu with informational widgets that are constantly updating. I “pinned” my wife’s contact record to a home screen tile, for example; tapping it shows her latest Facebook status, email addresses and phone numbers. This tile system is meant to “save us from our phones,” as Microsoft says in its Windows Phone 7 ad campaign, by providing information at a glance.

Unfortunately, my wife’s tile on the HD7 takes nearly 10 seconds to rotate from her picture to her name and then finally to her Facebook status — far too long to get to any useful information. The update speed is fixed, as are tile sizes. Other tiles do provide instant information — the email tiles always show the number of unread messages, for example. The approach is similar to widgets on Google Android (s goog) phones, but most Android widgets are configurable or show more data than Windows Phone 7 tiles.

Room for improvement

The home screen tiles aren’t the only problem with the interface. The only other home screen is an alphabetical list of all applications and utilities on the HD7. There’s no way to organize this list, which grows with each new software title you install. To get around this, I used the built-in voice recognition, a feature that works extremely well for opening apps, making hands-free calls and searching the web.

There’s no LED notification when emails are received, meaning you have to turn on and unlock the phone to see if any messages have arrived. The phone can show calendars from multiple accounts, but it can’t show multiple calendars in the same account: a problem for me and my numerous Gmail calendars.

The lack of a unified inbox forced me to create two separate email tiles, one for each of my accounts, and jump in and out of them. Since there’s no multitasking support, I had to go back to the home screen with each swap. There’s no cut-and-paste function (although Microsoft will reportedly bring it by way of a software update in the near future); third-party apps can’t run in the background; and at one point, I couldn’t get apps from the Windows Phone Marketplace. One app download hung for a day, so other apps in my download queue were completely held up.

There’s still much to like

Aside from these shortcomings, I found the HD7 to be a solid performer when compared to other high-end smartphones currently available. The device works great as a phone or speakerphone. Touch on the large display is extremely responsive and smooth, particularly with the web browser. Surfing the Internet on the HD7 was a treat on either Wi-Fi or T-Mobile’s network; the 3G radio in the HD7 is capable of 7.2 Mbps. The browser supports multi-touch zooming and renders pages quickly, although there’s no support for Flash (s adbe) yet. I also liked how you can specify a preference for either the desktop or mobile versions of websites, although it’s odd that you can’t enter a website address while surfing in landscape mode.

Third-party apps take advantage of the new interface’s panoramic menu system and are visually appealing, although I wish there were more software titles to choose from. Many of the larger, top-tier developers have created Windows Phone 7 versions of their software, however, and Microsoft recently announced their store already has more than 3,000 available applications. Some are still holdouts: The YouTube “app” for example, is currently nothing more than shortcut to YouTube’s mobile website on the HD7. Videos from YouTube, Netflix (s nflx) and those taken with the device’s 720p camera look fantastic and stutter-free on the large screen, however.

The HD7 also integrates with other Microsoft services. I connected the device to my Xbox Live account, which showed my Xbox avatar, online achievement points and friend requests. Smartphone versions of Xbox Live games are also available and can be used in a free trial mode. The phone is also capable of using Microsoft’s Zune service for digital music and videos, just like the Microsoft Zune digital media players. Enterprise users will welcome the Sharepoint integration that comes with Microsoft Office on the HD7, which includes capable versions of OneNote, Word, Excel and a PowerPoint viewer. Facebook has a welcome additional integration: Tapping the Pictures tile shows not only images captured with the HD7, but also displays Facebook photo albums as if they were local.

Among all the functions of the HD7, my favorite may actually be the software keyboard. I find that the larger the display, the better a virtual keyboard can be, but text input would likely be great on a Windows Phone 7 handset with a smaller screen. Based on my use and testing, I’m comfortable stating that the HD7 keyboard rivals that of Apple’s iPhone. The auto-correction is outstanding, as are the word completion suggestions. Although I miss having a single inbox, the native email app is among the best available on a mobile device, making it simple to see all mail, unread items or urgent messages with just a swipe.

Like a fine wine, expect the phone to get better with age

Looking at the HD7 with Windows Phone 7 reminds me of my old Palm Pre (s hpq) with webOS in June of last year. That too was a first-version handset and showed plenty of potential with its innovative user interface, but was still rough around some edges. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Microsoft has a promising mobile future with Windows Phone 7, but it’s going to take time and software upgrades for that future to be realized. For now, the HD7 is composed of stellar hardware combined with a fresh operating system that still needs work. Some consumers will be happy enough with the HD7 as is, and after Microsoft matures Windows Phone 7, the handset will only get better.

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23 Responses to “HTC HD7 Review: Windows Phone 7 Shows Potential”

  1. Diancarlo

    HTC HD7 windows phone does not support xboxlive, marketplace here in the philippines. you can’t purchase licensed games and applications. Disappointment for windows phone 7. I hope this thing can be solve by microsoft.

  2. Chrissteven81

    Where Microsoft (Excell)s is in support of their developers. It is us the developers who will make the Platform take off. one complaint above is the lack of data on the widget tiles. That data is totaly controled by us so expect it to get better the more we learn to use the SDK. The development life cycle of a WP7 app is half that of andriod or IOS because the extensive framework and the ability to take our existing apps and put them on the phone. The only inhibiting factor is the cost of making apps for the phone and the fact that students have to submit an app before they can create home brew apps. Expect Microsofts far superior developer network to be the legs that braces up platform. Just like we did to xbox 360 and now we are doing to Kinect.

  3. aque2001

    Are you guys blind?

    Consider the Xbox and Xbox 360. Both loss leaders and considered 2nd class products.

    MS pour gallons of $ into both consoles and now look what we have! The top selling game console hands down

    See windows phone 7 to follow suit

  4. Mike Reilly

    What Microsoft should have done: developed it’s special strengths.
    1) MS makes excellent handwriting recognition for Win 7, and they should have put it in WP7. At this size, N-Trig digitizers might be acceptable. WP7 should let me take good notes in meetings, with OneNote. Later they could come out with a 7″ or 9″ tablet.

    2) MS currently owns the Office market, but they may lose it if they’re not careful. Every major Office component should have a WP7 version that actually works. The WP7 versions don’t need all the creation whistles, but you need to be able to enter data and make minor design changes. The WP7 versions need total synchronization with the Windows versions, through computer connection and the Cloud. It’s the only way to fight Google docs.

    3) MS had an opportunity to create a WP7 version that would act as an overlay to their Tablet PC’s. You would be able to go back and forth between WP7 overlay and Windows UI, to use both WP7 apps and W7 programs. This would overcome the principle problem of Windows tablets, the Win7 UI that reguires a mouse or pen. Think of it; if you could use the WP7 to connect, via Logmein, to your laptop, tablet, or desktop, and used WP7 as the UI overlay, it would be like having a real computer in your WP7. MS could make a new program to use instead of Logmein.

    The potential for MS to create a scaleable, must-have invention with WM7 is staggering, but they couldn’t think outside the box enough to grasp it. I guess they would have needed to be Apple to think like that. Actually, I’m surprised Apple hasn’t come up with it.

    • Mike Reilly

      Sorry, I don’t know how to edit my comment.
      What I mean with Comment 3) above is that WP7 could have been developed as an overlay UI for Win7 smaller laptops & tablets. Also, the WP7 hand devices could have been developed to connect to and operate Win7 computers via the cloud, using the WP7 hand device as a UI overlay for the Win7 computer.

  5. Mobile Geek Squad

    All indications are that Window Phone was DOA based on assumed sales numbers (MS is hiding true numbers to avoid extreme embarrassment at their $5 Billion dollar ill-fated project). Some analyst estimate sales are only in the tens of thousands….TOTAL FAILURE.

    Ballmer MUST GO !

    Microsoft is a totally directionless company. No innovation whatsoever. Any sales gains are the direct result of bribery and kickback schemes via marketing folks.

    Repeat for those that are a little thick (aka dense) between the ears: WP7 === FAIL

  6. Katrina P

    Kevin, with respect, the comment that Windows Phone 7 shows potential is now dated.

    Every person and their dog can now see that Windows Phone 7 is not selling. We know it has bombed in the UK and Australia. I believe it has done worst of all in the USA.

    Speak to your contacts in the mobile carriers, or in retail, and they’ll tell you that Windows Phone 7 is not selling. Even ask the guy in the local phone store. Same answer.

    So what rabbit will Microsoft pull out of its hat to keep Windows Phone 7 afloat next year? Another half billion dollar promotional campaign? It already tried that.

    • Katrina, my comment about the potential of Windows Phone 7 comes from the context of reviewing it as an end user: as a usable platform, it shows potential. In terms of sales and potential for Microsoft to stay in the mobile game: that’s another discussion entirely. ;)

      I don’t think Microsoft can afford to fail with this effort. I expect them to spend whatever it takes in marketing, development and attracting 3rd party programmers to stay in the mobile game. We’ll have to see how it plays out, but based on my use of the OS, they have a shot – much work to do, yes, but they’re not out of it yet IMO, even if the sales figures are lower then expected.

      • Zack Lee Wright

        “…even if the sales figures are lower then expected.”

        Boy howdy is that an understatement.

        Analyst have their sales radar turned up to maximum gain, advanced over-the-horizon switch turn-on, back-scatter enabled and guess what….NO EVEN A BLIP ON THE RADAR SCREEN.

        Pathetic sales number, Katrina P comments are SPOT ON !!!

    • I was at the local T-Mobile store playing with the Samsung Tab yesterday. I was talking to one of the sales reps, when I turned the conversation to Windows Phone 7, he said that Windows Phone 7 is easier to sell than Win Mo, and that he’s already sold more HD7’s than HD2’s. More importantly, he mentioned that he’s only seen one HD7 returned, which is much better than the return rate on HD2. Of course this is just one store in a very busy mall, and only Microsoft knows what the real numbers are.

  7. Hmmm… I don’t need to unlock the phone to see if I’ve missed messages. I just turn it on and there is an icon for mail messages, missed phone calls, texts, etc. down at the bottom of the screen. There is smaller version of the tile as the icon, then the number of mails, missed calls, etc.

    • That’s true and I’ve seen the little notification icons – thanks for the reminder! But, the main point is still true: there’s no LED indicator for incoming messages, so you still have to press the power button and wake the phone, which is very inefficient.

      • You must not get many messages :).

        Just kidding.

        I really do prefer to look when I have time as opposed to feeling obligated to respond to yet another mail coming in.

        I have the Focus, which I’ve become really impressed with.

  8. I also see that WP7 is a good start, but like any new OS. It will need some improvements over time. I personally don’t like the squares that WP7 uses, I rather have some kind of widgets that perform the same function; maybe I’m wrong since I haven’t had a chance to actually try out a WP7 phone. I have both a iPhone 4 and a Samsung Captivate, and really like features from both devices. The Android OS does quite a bit more for me than does iOS.

    • HG, the WP7 interface is slick and well polished – moreso than Android and similar to webOS. But if you’re already using Android widgets, I think you’re likely getting more “glanceable” information, which sort of refutes the Microsoft marketing approach IMO. Still, I agree with you that WP7 is off to a good start!