HTC HD7 Review: Windows Phone 7 Shows Potential

HD7-featured

One look at the $199 (with contract) HTC HD7 for T-Mobile evokes memories of the HD2, a popular Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 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. 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. 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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdDAeyy1H0A]

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 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 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 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 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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