Review: HTC Touch HD

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 17 Jul 2009
A few weeks ago I got hold of a review unit of the HTC Touch HD – one of HTC’s new top of the range Windows Mobile phones. Now before I start the review I should mention that I have used Windows Mobile a few years ago in its iPaq heydays. After using Palm OS I used quite a few Windows Mobile devices – and after many frustrations, I vowed to never use Windows Mobile again. From there I switched to Symbian devices for the long run. That is until the iPhone came along. I thought it might be time to revisit Windows Mobile, and see if the WM haters out there still had any valid points.

While I was busy with the review it became apparent that Windows Mobile is actually the Smartphone OS for the crowd who likes to tinker with their phones. While some phones like the iPhone is meant to work out of the box, with not a lot of room for customization (unless you jailbreak it), the Windows Mobile OS is a different animal. The slow development cycle of WM has lead to a large community of developers who have improved the OS in ways Microsoft should have actually had the decency to step up. Seeing as I used a review unit of the HTC Touch HD (and could not risk tweaking it too much), I called in the help of
Henre Rossouw, who could bring us up to speed on the customization and tweaking front. As a long time user of Windows Mobile, Henre has some insights on certain interface “oddities” which might not be as apparent to someone like me who tests a lot of different phone operating systems.

One of my pet peeves are fanboys and haters of certain phones on forums and review sites who do not use a variety of devices. In most cases it is the people with least experience who are the most vocal. It is for this very reason I decided to try to do this review from two sides – one, a reviewer who regularly reviews different devices, and two, someone who has considerable experience with regard to Windows Mobile. Henre’s comments on my review is in italics. So here we go:


Windows Mobile is currently the third most popular Smartphone OS behind Symbian and RIM, and with good reason. Windows Mobile is still the compulsory smartphone OS in many companies, due to the (poorly informed) belief that is offers the best Exchange and Outlook integration in an enterprise. One thing that struck me as very odd is that the WM user interface has not
changed much in all these years – now that can obviously be a good thing to people unwilling to learn new interfaces, but also highlights the fact that development on the UI side of WM is stagnant. In fact, many WM smartphone makers have taken it upon themselves to create their own “skins” to make the devices more touch friendly, seeing as WM itself is currently not ideal (read: terrible) for use without a stylus.

Yes and no. Microsoft has been slow...terribly slow to get rid of the ridiculously antiquated Windows Mobile 6.1. But we need to keep in mind that Windows Mobile devices range mostly from non-touch enabled phones to the latest touch optimized ones. It simply cannot compare to the Apple iPhone, because Apple only has one device in the market.

To predict how Apple would handle such a situation is unfathomable, simply because they entered the market at such an advanced stage. However, if we look at the Samsung Omnia device, which I have, you will see that Samsung has attempted a touch UI to “cover up” the Windows Mobile 6.1 OS. Again, mostly only a skin, and an absolutely terrible one at that. So much so that
many Omnia users have turned to some pretty awesome developers on the net, and on a video I’ve shot a couple of months back, you will witness a “hacked” version of the HTC TouchFlo 3D on my phone. What HTC has done (very well in my opinion) is to develop its “skin” that they stick right on top of the touch unfavourable Windows Mobile OS. Previous HTC devices, while looking very slick with the TouchFlo 3D “skin”, was still highly critiqued simply because the same self “untouchable” Windows Mobile OS graced users after entering the second layer of the OS. On the new HTC devices however, this model included, HTC has gone and built upon the first layer, or the “skin” so to speak, and have built touch oriented functionality deeper into the OS. And I must say, of what I’ve seen from the new TouchFlo 3D, it is pretty remarkable.

Hardware:
But enough about the OS, lets get to the phone. The phone comes packaged in a box which is more a display case than a way to box it up. The box is quite large and has a magnetized lid which does give you quite a good unboxing experience – something which is a prerequisite for a phone on this price level. It comes packaged with a charger, a 1350 mAh battery, a USB cable and a set of earphones. Pretty standard stuff. But it also gives a nice sleeve pouch (not that it will protect the phone in a fall), a 8GB micro SD card, a spare stylus and a screen protector. The large battery leads to excellent battery life. On average it lasted more than two days with a few calls, all radios turned on and mild multimedia usage.

Holding the device in your hand you do not feel short-changed – it is built very solid, from high quality steel and plastic components. In fact, I would go as far as saying this might be the most solid feeling handset I have used in quite some time. The rear has a nice rubberized texture, the screen is surrounded by darkened steel, the camera is surrounded by brushed steel and the stylus get clicked into place by a nice magnetic feel. The screen is big at 3.8 inches and bright. Below the screen is four touch sensitive buttons for answering the phone, home and back. There is no directional pad which is a bit of a bummer. Scrolling on Windows Mobile is nowhere near as elegant as on the iPhone or Android handsets, but I suppose you might get used to it over time.

You don’t...really. The scrolling effect of
Windows Mobile is atrocious. They’ve attempted to remedy that and you’ll find those attempts on cooked Windows Mobile 6.5 ROMS (more about this later), but it’s still very unfavourable.

At the top of the device is a 3,5mm earphone adaptor (thank you HTC, please do this on ALL your handsets).
Very smart move. I simply don’t understand why device manufacturers still opt for proprietary headphone jacks. A sleep wake button is also on the top right of the device, so iPhone users wont feel too out of place. It has a fast 500MHz + processor, GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi and accelerometer. The accelerometer has a nice little feature on this phone – when a call is incoming, you simply turn the device face down to silence it. Clever... Stolen from the Omnia.

The device is quite heavy for its size, but I always appreciate a bit of heft in a premium handset. Not that it is big – in fact it not much different from an iPhone. But because it has square corners, it does feel a bit more bulky in your hand, unlike the tapered edges of other phones. Overall in build quality I could not find too much fault with it, except with screen covering, which does not inspire a lot confidence in everyday use. Unlike the HTC Magic or Apple iPhone, the screen covering feels to plastic and flexible, and my chief concern is whether it will become scratched over time. Good thing HTC supplies a screen film, but I wonder how many busy business users actually bother putting it on.

Interface:

HTC has decided to put the TouchFlo interface on this device as well and with good reason. Out of the box, Windows Mobile is not suited to finger touch operation, but rather stylus only. This is a huge disadvantage, especially now that many devices are starting to use capacitative screens. Resistive screens require force onto the screen in order for the device to react, which in operation can be difficult to use once you have used a capacitative device. It is for this reason that the HTC developed the TouchFlo interface – it makes it much easier to operate the device with only your finger. Even though the Touch HD has a resistive screen, the reactivity within the TouchFlo interface was good, but not great. If you wanted to get work done, you will have to slide out the stylus. I mention this because the TouchFlo interface only reachers up to a certain point. You can scroll around, but the moment you go into a application (like say Calendar) its hello Mr Windows Mobile.

Yes, that is the point I tried to make at the top. Although, they have added some touch functionality, it’s not nearly perfect. But, if you head over to xda-developers, you will find vast improvements to TouchFlo 3D (called Rhodium I think) which will simply blow your mind. If you’er a Windows Mobile device owner, you NEVER have to be satisfied with what comes straight from the box...so please...experiment.

While TouchFlo home screen is handy and very classy in its appearance (the weather tab is particularly cool), it is still only skin deep. There are some custom adaptations to traditional Windows Mobile settings, such as the HTC Communication Manager, which gives you on/off switches for all the radio on the device. One of the tabs on the home screen is a programs tab which you can use to customize your list of favourite applications. This prevents you from having to use the ridiculous Start Menu to start an app.

In terms of standard Windows Mobile apps, HTC has done its best to improve them somewhat – for example, the Contacts application gains a new scrolling method – while in no way better than the “rolling” scroll method of the Android and iPhone, it does work. While it does “roll” it is not very reactive to your touch – requiring quite bit more pressure to “flick” the screen.


These can be remedied to a certain degree if you’re willing to tamper inside the Registry Settings of the device...something many warn against, but which I find strange to this day. I’ve never managed to break my phone and I’m no “registry guru”. Just follow instructions and you’ll be able to increase the “touch sensitivity” so you won’t have to press as hard...and also what they call the “down up” setting, for a more sensitive keystroke. Again, not close to the quality of the iPhone, but much better nonetheless.


T
he phone application itself is without fault, and it also includes smart dialling – something which I appreciate. Instead of typing out a person’s name, you simply click the numbers which include the letter you are looking for. For example, if you want to phone dave, you simply press 3 – 2 – 8 – 3, and it will narrow down your search to dave. Small things that count...

Yes, it does make a world of difference. Even if the phone doesn’t have that built in, people should realize that there are pretty spectacular applications available that has this functionality. This is the beauty of Windows Mobile. The options are endless. I use Iconsoft’s Phonex for outgoing call handling, while I discuss a 2nd app, VITO’s Fun-Contact contact management, a bit further down. (Crazy enough, I use a 3rd application for incoming call handling. Show me a phone other than Windows driven that can do this) Customized exactly to my liking.

Which brings me to my first big aggrevation – when calling someone, and bringing the phone up to your ear, the display switches off, just like many touch screen phones. But to switch the display on again, you have to use the sleep/wake button to wake the screen again. With other phones, the screen switches on again once it senses it is not close to your face. I just cant seem to understand why HTC would choose this method. After all, their HTC magic does it automatically, why not the Touch HD? It does however switch on the screen if you remove the stylus during a call and automatically open
s the Notes app, which is well designed. I reckon HTC might fix this in a ROM update. Otherwise the call sound quality is excellent, and yes, better than the iPhone. The speakerphone is also really good. In fact, it is loud enough to use in your car.

That is petty things quite frankly which HTC could well have left out. Trying to be smart has never earned anyone wholesale fame. Keep it simple and open it up for the user to customize to their liking.


In terms of productivity, being a WM device, the device comes out of the box with the ability to view and edit MS Office files such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint, provided they are not too complicated. The high resolution screen is also great for presentations and PDF’s which is handled by Adobe Reader.

Web Browsing
:

The Touch HD has Wifi as you would expect, so you can immediately give its browser a workout. The device is preinstalled thankfully with Opera Mobile, which is actually quite good. No, not quite good. If you can find an honest iPhone user somewhere, they’ll acknowledge that Opera Mobile is quite frankly, brilliant. The HD probably doesn’t come bundled with Opera Mobile 9.7 (which is still in beta I think), but I’d urge an upgrade. Simply brilliant. Again, the excellent screen resolution is great for web browsing. In fact, zooming out on many screen still renders text readable, provided you have good eyes. The browser also has Java support (which is nice for some older generation web applications) and Flash, which in my opinion is only there for ads. Still, its good to know its there. I do also appreciate the full screen viewing, and wish all other devices (ahem: iPhone....) would also give this ability.

Messaging:

The device has a perfectly acceptable messaging and email abilities. Right out of the box I used Exchange (to sync my contacts and calendar at first) and worked without a hitch. The WM interface for Messages and emails looks seriously dated, in fact it looks like it might be a copy of Windows 95. Even though the conversations can be threaded like on the iPhone, it looks terrible. Seriously, it looks like a IRC app from the 90’s. At least HTC has sharpened its usability up with scrolling. The on screen keyboards are a great improvement over the standard Windows Mobile input methods, and they work fine provided you are willing to work with a stylus. While it is possible to work with your fingers, it is terribly frustrating. The user can use a T9 type keyboard, a qwerty or a Blackberry “suretype” keyboard. There is no landscape option, so you have to be very patient with these. If this is a problem, I recommend you look at the Touch Pro 2.

Their keyboards do look nice, don’t they? Messaging on Windows Mobile 6.1...even the cooked 6.5 ROMS, are terrible. And this is probably my cue to come in with what makes Windows Mobile different, and more pleasing: Apps. Yes, yes...the iPhone is the epitome of apps, but then you’d be surprised at the array of apps available for Windows Mobile devices. Touch optimized at that.
For messaging, I use VITO Technology’s SMS-Chat. The interface is great and VITO has aced the flick scrolling effect. Simply brilliant. I’m pretty sure VITO based this app on the iPhone though, because MMS is notably absent. I’ve grown pretty fond of VITO’s applications, sporting their Fun Contact application for contact management and their Winterface application which lends my phone a similar iPhone programme launcher feel, which I must say is very handy. It can get quite an expensive addition to the phone, because Windows Mobile apps are famously expensive. But again, I did not choose a Windows Mobile device because it was more cost effective (quite contrary to iPhone users’ beliefs). The first generation Omnia still outshines most phones in hardware spec.

Multimedia:

Seeing as this phone is equipped with a large, excellent screen, it is only natural to expect some multimedia prowess. Playing music is easy enough. The interface is easy to use, and the library functionality is lightyears ahead of Windows Media Player adaptations that has plagued some other WM phones. Unlike the HTC Magic, the Touch HD thankfully includes a 3,5mm adaptor, so you can listen to your music with whichever earphones you choose. A FM radio application is also included, which I think is very handy, despite Apple’s blind ignorance of it. The Camera is a 5 MP unit with autofocus. Overall I am quite impressed with its quality, although the interface is very laggy and requires same patience to get going, and there is noticeable shutter lag. Still it is much better than the iPhone or iPhone 3G. The camera also includes a touch to focus feature similiar to the iPhone 3GS, but I have not really noticed that it really improves photos. Video recording is not very good – in fact I expected much more. The resolution is only 352x288. In this HD era, that is not going to cut it.

It took Apple three versions of the iPhone to get their camera up to a pretty ordinary 3.2MP while the 1st Gen Omnia boasted with probably the best mobile phone camera ever, not only in quality, but settings and functionality to boot...only to be put to shame by...yet another Omnia with an 8MP version.

There is unfortunately no flash, but I found low light performance to be quite good. The image viewer is also good. Images look brilliant on the screen, and you really do see the difference of the high resolution screen compared to other phones. The image viewer is orientation aware, and you can zoom and pan by holding down your thumb. While in no way as innovative as the “pinch” patent on the Apple, it works.
In terms of video playing, I had high hopes for the Touch HD – it does afterall have a lovely screen. Unfortunately, HTC dropped the ball by not including decent video playing software. After looking around the web I realized I would have to use Core player in order to do the device justice. All in all video looks incredible, and yes it does look better than on the iPhone or iPod Touch. Colours pop more and the high resolution does help. Especially on darker (in colour) movies like say Fight Club, there is noticeable improvements.

All in all, I think this to be a great device...Windows Mobile and all. I’d still be more inclined to go with the Omnia HD (I may be biased though) with better specs still...although it runs the Symbian S60 OS. I think it’s important to note that personally, I’m not consciously pro Windows Mobile, although it might seem that way. I’m simply pro specifications...and I’m willing to hack my way to a better Windows Mobile experience if that’s what it takes. My “old” Samsung Omnia is a workhorse...and made better continuously with updated cooked Windows Mobile 6.5 ROMS and 3rd party applications. I hope to see a future where device owners will have the freedom of choice though over which OS they’d like to run on their device...or dual boot systems even.

Conclusion:

As a straight comparison to similiar devices, I have to look at the device as a stock standard out of box phone. Its hardware is excellent, in many ways almost perfect. The battery lasts long, the build quality and call quality is excellent, and the device definitely looks good. So as a phone it is great. But alas again, the Achilles heal of the device is once again Windows Mobile. While I realize there is a sizable group of users who prefer Windows Mobile for many reasons, it is hard to recommend this device above other similiar phones in its price range. If you consider its chief rivals – the HTC Magic, the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Omnia HD, you do realize that the HTC Touch HD is a bit of a tough sell.

As I mentioned earlier with the HTC Magic, we are currently in the era where phone cannot simply get by by having the best featureset. It is all good and well that a phone is a mulitimedia powerhouse, but it is all about how it is to use that device. Is it easy to use? Is it easy to expand its cababilities? Does it have a lot of applications available? It is here where Windows Mobile drops the ball - while it is very customizable and highly capable, it is a bit difficult to use in everyday scenarios, and there is still no appstore available. Symbian, Android, iPhone and Blackberry (and soon, Palm) all have their Appstore available. WM appstore is only expected to go live in the Q4 and it is still not clear which versions of WM will be supported. We are past the point of going through a multi-step process just to get a app installed.

What I must say is that I did expect WM to be much worse - in fact, HTC has done an excellent job to improve the quirks of Windows Mobile. Seriously, I would really recommend to Microsoft to maybe get some of the HTC interface designers over to their mobile division. Where Windows Mobile was an absolute disaster on older devices, HTC has managed to make the interface a whole lot more bearable. In fact, some adaptations of HTC’s apps are brilliant.
If it was my money I would rather recommend the HTC Magic or the iPhone 3GS. Once again, I can really see HTC shifting its efforts instead to Android phones. While it cant happen entirely, there is just clear evidence that HTC might have reached its limit in how much they can "fix" Windows Mobile. Lets see how WM 7 goes...

Pros:
  • Screen and build quality is without peer
  • HTC TouchFlo is better than ever
  • Decent Camera
  • Call quality is great
Cons:
  • Windows Mobile cannot be rescued
  • Inconsistent interface
  • On screen keyboard not landscape capable except in Opera.
Rating:

If you are new to Windows Mobile: 6 / 10


If you are an Windows Mobile old timer: 8 / 10

Thanks to Henre Rossouw for his input- contact him @henre on Twitter or at his website.
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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.