HTC HD2 review

25 02 2010

What: HTC HD2

How much: around £500 (unlocked, SIM-free) at various online retailers.

The good: Amazing 4.3 inch (800×480) screen, very fast Snapdragon chipset and generally high hardware specifications, excellent implementation of HTC Sense UI; the greatest weather widget ever seen.

The bad: Windows Mobile 6.5 shows its ugly side every now and again; it’s a big beast and not exactly pocket-friendly; lack of developer momentum behind WinMo means it lacks the quirky apps from iPhone and Android; firmware version on the test unit was a bit buggy, required daily resets and crashed occasionally.

Buy it if: You want the best Windows Mobile handset available; you need the business functions of Windows Mobile but want a multimedia and web browsing powerhouse; you want a huge screen.

Don’t buy it if: You can’t tolerate Windows Mobile; you wear skinny jeans; you’re skint; you want to wait for this hardware to run Android.

Summary: This was the best piece of mobile phone hardware I’d seen until HTC announced its new handsets at MWC 2010. It has an enormous high resolution touchscreen and a blazing fast processor in a slim, minimalist body. HTC has done an excellent job of hiding Windows Mobile’s flaws behind its own Sense UI (a slightly different implementation than on the Hero, and I actually prefer it) and using the phone day to day is fairly pleasant, with the interface controlled by plenty of sweeping touch gestures. The screen is a great asset to usability, the sheer amount of space available means the onscreen keyboard is accurate and easy to use, Google Maps looks fantastic, viewing photos and videos is excellent, and the extra grunt from the Snapdragon chipset means the phone runs smoothly even while displaying some lovely graphical effects and transitions. The software on the unit I tested got a big laggy after a day or so in use, requiring a reset, and it’s not without its bugs. Nevertheless, I really like the HD2 despite its flaws.

Software

Generally, I’m not a fan of Windows Mobile. Admittedly powerful for office workers, it’s now looking bloated and clunky. Version 6.5 is a mild improvement, but it still lags behind the leading smartphone OSes in terms of looks, usability and fun factor, and the Windows Marketplace app cupboard looks depressingly bare. Luckily, HTC has put in the hard yards and designed its own Sense user interface, which does a surprisingly good job of hiding the WinMo bits  – most of the time. Sense looks and feels great, with a graphically rich, customisable home screen, it puts all of the most important functions within easy reach. It also offers plenty of customisation, so you can add your most-used apps and people to shortcuts on the home screen.

Now, I have to mention the weather widget first: it’s insane. It shows a huge and awesome animation of your current location’s weather across the whole home screen, and you can easily flick to other favourite cities and check out the weather there. It’s amazing. I can’t believe I’m this excited about a weather widget, but it’s freaking awesome.

The HD2 comes with both Internet Explorer and Opera 9.7 installed, with Opera as the default. I think it’s an excellent choice, and it does a very good job of rendering web pages, resizing the text columns to fit the width of the screen. It also supports multitouch pinch-to-zoom, which is useful. Let’s face it, having a huge screen makes mobile browsing significantly easier, and the HD2 does a very good job of it.

The built-in Twitter app is very good and has most of the functionality of third-party Twitter clients on other platforms. The Facebook app is less impressive. It works, but it looks suspiciously like a shortcut to a mobile web version of Facebook. Sense merges your Facebook contacts into your phone contacts, which I like, but it could still be smarter – it missed a few of my contacts.

Text entry is excellent. Having a screen the size of the Great Sandy Desert makes entering text ridiculously easy because the virtual keys are enormous. I even found myself using it in portrait orientation rather than doing my usual trick of rotating it into landscape mode. It’s perfectly usable in portrait, in fact better than most handsets can manage in landscape. I’m becoming a convert to this huge screen thing!

The YouTube app on the HD2 also deserves a mention, as it uses the whole screen and plays videos perfectly with no stuttering (over WiFi at least). This thing is made to watch video on, but it’s a shame the default video player doesn’t have fantastic codec support, and is limited to the formats that the built in Media Player supports. Nevertheless there are several good third-party alternatives for Windows Mobile that should cover the gaps for fans of Divx/Xvid/H.264.

The email app didn’t seem to collect my mail consistently, but I have a feeling that my BlackBerry was snaffling it before it ever got a chance to reach the HD2, so I won’t assume the worst.

All in all, I was surprised how much I didn’t hate the software. It did get a bit laggy and require a restart every day or so, but apart from that there were very few moments where I wanted to throw the HD2 at the wall.

Hardware

The first time I ever saw the HD2 it was in the hands of HTC’s CEO Peter Chou, at an analyst briefing in London. He was clearly proud of what HTC has achieved with the HD2, and rightly so. It’s a lovely bit of hardware, in fact I think it’s the best mobile phone hardware I’ve seen.

The screen. It’s amazing. Massive area, high resolution, great brightness and colour, and very responsive. Best screen I’ve seen on a handset, and it had everyone in the office gawping and rubbing it. Top marks.

The processor. Probably the equal fastest currently available in a phone (there are other Snapdragon handsets out there, but most are underclocked well below the HD2’s 1GHz). The latest generation of cutting-edge Android devices from HTC (Desire, Nexus One) use the same hardware platform. It makes the notoriously sluggish Windows Mobile run like melted butter on Teflon-coated silk, and everything is very responsive. Top marks.

The body. The huge screen means this is a big phone, but the bezel around the screen adds hardly any extra bulk, and it’s slim. I found it fitted in my pockets without too much hassle. The build quality is mostly excellent, and I really like the metal shell. There’s a bit of wobble in the keys at the base of the screen on the review unit I was lent, but it didn’t seem to affect performance.

The camera. Five megapixels, with a dual LED “flash” which makes it more useful than the Hero’s camera. Images are mediocre in this class, despite the relatively plentiful camera controls. Meh.

The ports. HTC has finally ditched the annoying ext-USB port from the Magic, and swapped in a standard micro-USB port which means you can use the same charger with other handsets (it’s coming in as a standard across the industry) and syncing data requires a standard micro-USB cable. They’ve also added a 3.5mm headphone jack, which pumps out good quality sound. With a good-sized microSD card, the HD2 could be a decent music player.

Storage. It doesn’t have much on-board, so you’ll need to bring your own microSD card.

HSDPA, WiFi, GPS. Yes to all, and all good.

Battery life. You would think the price of a massive screen and huge engine would be high power consumption and poor battery life. And you’d be absolutely correct. I was charging the HD2 more than once a day. I’m sure you could wring a fair bit more out of it with 3G, WiFi and GPS turned off, but this thing is more Usain Bolt than Haile Gebrselassie.

Anyway, I suppose I’ve written enough, lest I sound like HTC has paid me to write this (they definitely haven’t). But it is a very nice piece of kit, and it shows what the people at HTC can do. I do wish it wasn’t running Windows Mobile, but it’s pretty much as good as Windows Mobile gets. If you’re forced to use a WinMo phone to fit into a corporate network (or maybe you just love Windows Mobile) you really can’t do better.