Friday, July 20, 2007

HTC Touch multimedia smartphone

With a touch screen and gesture controls, the HTC Touch has some obvious similarities to other recent phones. Is it a Windows Mobile phone worth getting your hands on?

For many recent phone releases, comparisons to the Apple iPhone seem irresistible, even when misplaced. The HTC Touch, however, was launched in the build-up to the iPhone release, and features a touch sensitive interface, complete with gestures, laid on top of Windows Mobile 6. Besides iPhone comparisons, the Touch is a strange beast in the Windows Mobile world, as versions of the OS exist for phones with no touch screen, or touch screens with no phone, but not for a phone with a touch screen but no keyboard. Of course, everything works, thanks to the stylus and pop-up onscreen keyboard. Still, it was hard to tell when problems with the touch were due to design problems from HTC, or just the general weakness of Windows Mobile 6 in dealing with a keyboard-free phone experience.

Design – Good

It is a cute phone. Openly codenamed the "Elf," before its recent touch overhaul, the phone is smaller than either the Apple iPhone, or the LG KE850 Prada phone. The 2.8-inch QVGA display looks very sharp, though fonts can appear a bit jagged. The phone has a five-way button centered below the screen, and to tiny green and red "send" and "end" buttons. The red also acts as a Windows "OK" button. The screen has a very resistant glass cover that stretches well past the lit pixels. In fact, the gesture to activate TouchFlo, HTC's touch-sensitive Today screen, relies on dragging your finger from below the LCD, which took us quite a few tries to figure out.

Which brings us to the touch screen. Though it looks great, it seriously lacks in sensitivity, especially compared to the iPhone. Whether this is due to the screen's hardware, the phone's processor, or Windows Mobile 6 is beyond us. We just found the screen to lack sensitivity in every area, from activating TouchFlo to navigating windows to working with programs. Occasionally, there was a delay in responding to our presses, and often we had to press firmly to get a response. TouchFlo, which is supposed to jump to life at an upwards swipe, and switch between screens with sideways gestures, almost never worked properly. We usually had to swipe sideways seven or eight times to get the screen to rotate and change. Downward swiping to close TouchFlo never once worked.

And then, beneath every slick icon and menu on TouchFlo's surface, you find Windows Mobile 6, which is a functional OS, but a graphical letdown. The onscreen keyboard is the standard pop-up from Windows Mobile, which requires you to break out the stylus, a very un-touch-like procedure. Navigating the phone without a stylus, except for the few functions available on TouchFlo, was impossible. Thankfully, HTC has ported their activity monitor drop down menu to the Touch. We first saw this feature on the T-Mobile Wing, and immediately found it indispensable on Windows Mobile. Basically, it lets you close active programs from the Today screen, which is nice because WM6 lets open software pile up, and the Touch lacks the RAM to deal with a heavy workload.

Calling – Very good

Calls on the HTC Touch sounded very good on AT&T's network in central New Jersey. The Touch loses nothing from Windows Mobile 6's calling features, and speaker-independent voice dialing, Bluetooth, conference calling and a speakerphone are all included. There was no dedicated button for voice dialing, but HTC's Today screen allows you to assign programs top-level icons, which solved the problem. Unfortunately, one of the best Windows Mobile 6 features, live search, is hobbled by the Touch's keyboard-less design. Live search allows you to begin typing in many programs and returns search results as you type. From the Today screen, this usually means you can start typing a name and get the number quickly. The Touch doesn't offer a keyboard on the Today screen, so the feature is lost. On the TouchFlo screens, the contact list is easily the coolest looking feature. Basically a "Hollywood Squares" grid of your favorite faces, the contacts screen offers a great, fun alternative to speed dial, and is a feature that takes advantage of the touch sensitive screen in a cool way.

Messaging – Mediocre

There are simply better choices for phones if you want to type. Typing on the Touch, however, is miserable. The phone does an excellent job displaying messages, and thanks to Windows Mobile 6, you get threaded SMS conversations and HTML e-mails, both of which were long-awaited. Still, if you have to reply to an e-mail in more than a few words, you're going to want to wait until you're back in front of the desktop, as tapping out letters on the Touch's tiny, boxy keyboard gets tiresome quickly. Windows Live brings MSN messenger support, but other IM protocols are lacking. Probably for the best, as we can't stress enough that the Touch should be a read-only affair.

Productivity – Mediocre

The HTC Touch isn't lacking any of Windows Mobile 6's excellent productivity tools, they simply aren't as usable on the device without a keyboard. You get the full Office Mobile suite, but we can't see using the device for creating, or even seriously editing, a document, though reading worked very well. For scheduling, you get the standard Outlook calendars, which pack robust features, but again, you probably won't find yourself creating too many appointments on the Touch, thanks to its lack of keys.

Multimedia – Very good

To improve on Windows Media Player, HTC has added the Audio Manager app, which basically acts as a music player with large buttons, to facilitate using it on the touch screen. Otherwise, the phone has all the synchronization options you'd expect on a standard WM6 device, and can play all the usual file formats. The touch screen isn't really sensitive enough for good shuttle controls, and of course the Windows Mobile software lacks the visual flourish of numerous competitors. Still, it gets the job done.

The same can be said of the Web browsing experience. Though Internet Explorer is just as capable as we've seen on any WM6 phone, scrolling through pages on the touch screen was not smooth. Occasionally, we'd get a grab-and-throw sort of action like we saw on the iPhone. Some times, though, only the scroll bars worked properly, and these were small enough that our fingers had trouble tapping them accurately. Also, we wish HTC would have tied zooming into the touch features, as Apple did.

Getting one

The Touch is available unlocked, and will work with local EDGE networks. Even better, the phone uses Wi-Fi, so internet access won't be hard to find. We found our review unit through Dynamism, at Mobile Phone Shop. At the moment, Dynamism can get one for you for $530, with a lead time of less than a week. We've had no technical problems with our review unit, but Dynamism stresses their lifetime customer service if you have any problems with your device.

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