When Microsoft finally launched Windows Mobile 6.5 earlier this year, there may have been lots of fanfare, but there was little honest excitement. After a tepid showing at MWC in Barcelona followed by the proper launch this October, no one was exactly up in arms over the OS, though support from the big M's partners was characteristically plentiful. Still, there was nary a ray of light to be seen in the otherwise bleak and basic landscape of handset offerings... until the HD2 came along. In August of this year, HTC showed off what seemed to be one of the few Windows Mobile devices capable of generating honest enthusiasm. The massive, full touchscreen device boasts impressive specs: a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, a generous 4.3-inch, 800 x 480 capacitive WVGA touchscreen display, a 5 megapixel camera, GPS, and lots of other bells and whistles. But the centerpiece here isn't the hardware, it's HTC's totally revamped user interface, Sense, which doesn't just hide Windows Mobile 6.5 -- it all but zaps it out of existence. Sadly for Microsoft, that's the most enticing part of this equation. So, is the HD2's new face enough to quell the bad vibes of Windows Mobile and make the platform seem viable again, or is that a challenge which takes more than just a coat of paint? We've taken a hard look at the phone... so read on to find out.
Gallery | 25 Photos

HD2 hands-on



Hardware


The HD2 is a magnificent monster. It is a hulking, intimidating, massive slab of a gadget. If you think the device looks big in photos, it's nothing compared to how it seems up close. Yes, the HD2 is large -- some might say too large -- almost less a phone and more a tablet. We don't happen to fall into the camp that has complaints about a device of this size (the whole thing measures 4.74-inches up and down by 2.64-inches across), in fact, we love the bulk and surface area of the HD2. Of course, not everyone will feel as affectionate about the size as we do, and even though the phone is a svelte 11mm (0.43-inches) thick, the sheer vastness of the handset might be a turnoff to some; to be fair, small-handed folks might have trouble getting comfortable with their grip. The industrial design of the device itself is perfectly at home with its contemporaries in the smartphone space, and the metal and glass unit comes off feeling like a kind of large, first-gen iPhone (minus the gaudy bezel). It strikes just the right middle ground between sophisticated and ostentatious -- and we think it's a winning mix.

The basic layout of the HD2 is uncluttered and uncomplicated, providing only a few hardware buttons, and leaving the rest of the navigation up to that beautiful screen. On the front of the device are a set of standard hard keys: phone, home, a Windows key, back, and end. Around the left side is a thin volume rocker, along the bottom is the micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack, and the backside reveals an oddly protruding camera -- it really stands off the rest of the phone. In all it's a handsome and useful mix, but given all this real estate, a ringer on / off switch and dedicated camera button would have been welcome inclusions.

Internals

Much fuss has been made about the guts of the HD2 -- mostly due to the inclusion of the heavily hyped 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, a first for HTC. We won't lie; this thing blazes. For a WinMo device (or any device, for that matter), the HD2 is one of the most fluid and snappy that we've tested. Applications open up like whip cracks, scrolling through menus in the graphically intense Sense UI is buttery smooth, and the overall speed of the phone feels accelerated compared to its competitors -- especially in the Windows Mobile space (including HTC's other offerings). Aside from the 'dragon, the device sports 512MB of ROM, 448MB of RAM, WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, an auto-focusing 5-megapixel camera with dual LED flash, a microSD slot (supporting up to 32GB cards), a 3.5mm headphone jack, plus an accelerometer, proximity sensor, and light sensor on-board. To say it's stacked is an understatement; hardware-wise, the HD2 joins the ranks of devices like the Droid, N900, and Liquid in the new class of high-end smartphone.

Display


As we said before, the display is really the centerpiece of the HD2. The combination of the size and resolution makes a significant impression when you first reach for the phone, and that feeling doesn't wear off quickly. The display is thankfully capacitive and multitouch (a hand-rolled concoction from HTC, not available in Microsoft's stock WinMo 6.5 build), and looks tremendous whether under low light or in sunnier conditions. We wouldn't say the outdoor performance was mind blowing, but it's certainly easier on the eyes than lots of its rivals, and the size of the display helps with general clarity in less than ideal situations. In terms of color and contrast, the HD2's screen is a champion. Images and video looked saturated but not drenched, and blacks seemed superbly deep to us. On the touch front, the HD2's display seemed ultra-responsive to us when zooming through pages. What was particularly nice was using HTC's impressive on-screen keyboard in portrait mode on the phone. Right out of the gate we had no problems entering text quickly and accurately, and the girth of the phone coupled with the super-smart predictive text input made tapping out messages a breeze. With a UI as heavy on the visuals and touch interaction as the Sense Experience, you expect a lot from a screen, and the HD2 certainly delivers.

Camera


The HD2's 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and dual LED flash is only part of the cameraphone experience; software factors in heavily, too, and HTC has loaded up the device with its own special blend of camera / photo management apps. At the outset, we felt that the device was capable of really solid picture-taking, offering more than adequate standard shots and decent macro with excellent focal lengths for the small lens. We ended up with a handful of nice images -- the focus time was

The experience was a quick and painful reminder that no matter how pretty the window dressing is here, HTC has staged its fashion show in a building that should be scheduled for demolition.

sufficient, and while the color balance seemed a bit mismatched to our subjects, it wasn't a show stopper by any means. In general, the camera performed dutifully, and seemed on par with many of the HD2's contemporaries. We can't say that's a consistent feeling we have about this camera, however, due to the incredibly buggy experience the software provided when trying to capture video. Switching to video mode caused the device to stutter into the secondary functionality with a not-so assuring hiccup and jump. Once we were able to actually shoot, what we saw on-screen was a laggy, jerky mess. The refresh rate was abysmal -- perhaps 5 FPS. We experienced similar problems when going from dark to light settings with the still mode, but nothing like what we saw when shooting video. The real insult happened once we completed shooting; when trying to play back the video, not only did it never load, but it crashed out the app and forced us into a nice Windows Mobile error screen. The experience was a quick and painful reminder that no matter how pretty the window dressing is here, HTC has staged its fashion show in a building that should be scheduled for demolition.

Coincidentally, some HD2s in the field are afflicted with a strange issue causing images to come out with strong pink casts, and admittedly, our unit did have an odd hue in some shots; HTC has yet to determine whether this'll require a hardware or software fix, but for the sake of current owners, we're hoping it's the latter.
Gallery | 5 Photos

HTC HD2 camera shots


Speaker / earpiece

The sound on the HD2 was certainly more than passable. We wouldn't say it was Droid-level clarity, but HTC has done an admirable job of equipping the phone with a solid, loud speaker, and a decently clear earpiece. We mainly tested the unlocked device on T-Mobile, which handled calls well, and there was little-to-no distortion or noise for both sending and receiving. The speaker had no trouble handling our conference calls (of which there have many lately... hello redesign), and all callers reported clear signals from our end. Generally there was little to report of note, suffice to say that the HD2 held up well in tests, and certainly can't be knocked on sound quality.

Software
Ultimately -- as most avid readers of the site are probably thinking -- the HD2 questions aren't really about the hardware (impressive though it may be). No, the questions you likely have about the HD2 concern the software side... more specifically, HTC's Sense Experience UI and its marriage to the newly (kinda) minted Windows Mobile 6.5. This is where the phone ultimately shows its true colors, and where we think the meat of this review lies.

If you don't know (and honestly, you don't?), HTC has moved on from its TouchFLO interfaces into decidedly more mature and sophisticated territory with Sense. Instead of simply skinning some of the elements of Windows Mobile, the company has eradicated major parts of the OS, created a handful of really dense and useful applications and utilities, and added functionality like multitouch pretty much throughout the OS. The Sense Experience is based on a simple use paradigm; the lower part of the display is lined with small icons -- shortcuts to applications and widgets -- on a potentially endless, scrollable list, while the majority of your view up top is used to display the application or widget itself. The widgets are either self-contained programs, or hook into more in-depth apps, usually activated by a single tap on the main content of that particular view. Because the Sense UI is shared by both Windows Mobile and Android now, not all of these applications will seem completely fresh. For instance, the company has bundled its Twitter client, Peep, with the HD2 (as on the Hero / Eris), as well as the geotagging photo program Footprints, and has skinned the mail, message, and homescreen views with Sense's polished style and functionality. The home view is of particular note; HTC has created a combo clock, weather report, calendar notification, and application launcher which is not only really useful, but incredibly attractive. One of the really jaw-dropping points of the phone is its animated weather displays in this view, which take over the entire display with rainstorms, lens flares, and banks of clouds moving in from the screen edges. It's a delightful -- if totally useless -- example of just what this platform can do.


But it's not just the surface stuff that's gotten an upending here -- HTC has gone to the trouble of fully revamping or removing basic components of Microsoft's OS too. To begin with, the on-screen keyboard has been replaced with HTC's variation, a multitouch, word-guessing whiz that makes most other virtual keyboards look like bad punchlines by comparison. We'd say that HTC's QWERTY is probably the nearest competitor to Apple's iPhone / iPod touch variation at this point, especially on the HD2, which allows for a wide, comfortable typing experience whether you're in landscape or portrait. Not only is the keyboard responsive and smart with corrections, but the Snapdragon CPU (and we assume solid code) helps keep lagging down to a minimum... though we did see some lag at points (more on that in a bit). Generally -- it's an impressive and easy-to-use touchscreen keyboard, and probably one of the best and most essential improvements to Windows Mobile.


The company has also totally replaced the dated and depressing Windows Media Player with its own solution -- a robust, visually enticing app that not only handles media about a thousand times better than Microsoft's version, but could be said to compete with (or best) Apple's mobile media tools. The music player includes its own variation of Coverflow (again, a welcome parlor trick), and allows navigation of your library through a system nearly identical to the main and contact screens. On the photo and video side, HTC provides a flipbook in the widget view, and a browser almost identical to the iPhone's slide and view functionality... replete with multitouch gestures like pinch to zoom. We dare you to try that on a Pure or Imagio.

Another area where HTC has radically changed Microsoft's default experience is in the phone / dialer / contact component; here the company provides a much more thoughtful and attractive alternative, integrating contact lists, messaging, the dialpad, and search functionality with the common slider navigation found in the UI at large. The phonemaker has also fully replaced Microsoft's calendar with a version of its own that's been rolled, and retooled all manner of odds and ends on the device, including the task manager (an old habit for HTC) and wireless networking -- in fact, most of the settings on the phone have been restyled for Sense.

In addition to all the basic improvements and tweaks, HTC also swaps out Internet Explorer for its own customized version of Opera Mobile. In our experience, the browser performs far, far better than the stock option, but still isn't quite up to snuff in comparison to Mobile Safari, Maemo 5's Mozilla-based browser, or the Pre / Pixi WebKit variations. In fact, while Opera seemed really solid, we'd say that even the Android browser outclasses it in basic rendering and smoothness. On the flip side, if you don't mind Internet Explorer 6, the included native browser offers Flash support out of the box, but the experience was a bit of a mixed bag for us. Honestly, we don't know what the fuss about Flash on smartphones is right now -- none of them (not even this one) seem really powerful enough to handle it in a comfortable way. Between the two options here, we'd pick Opera over IE every time -- Flash or not.

All of these improvements are really handsome and obviously quite welcome, but when push comes to shove, what really matters is the phone's performance. So, does Sense make Windows Mobile 6.5 a great OS? Does it circumvent or fix some of the obvious shortcomings of the aging platform? In a word... no. While there are many cases on the phone where Sense corrects issues that Microsoft's mobile operating system has right now, there are also many places where plain-jane Windows Mobile rears its head -- and that thing ain't pretty. Obviously HTC couldn't go about rewriting every app out there to play nice with its UI, but once you dig down into certain areas of the phone, you get that creeping feeling that you're not in Kansas anymore. Not anywhere close. Look, we're not asking for much, but when you're using Excel, it would be nice to be able to use the accelerometer functionality to get a landscape view -- instead, that kind of natural, familiar movement isn't present at all. In other areas, it's just the plain clunkiness of WM that ruins the experience; sure, the new homescreen and its staggered icon arrangement are fine, but take a look at the file browser, or even Outlook, which is what HTC's nice (though not very functional) mail widget dives down into. It reminded us most of looking at the Palm OS at the end of its lifecycle. And that's not good.


Another issue -- one we encountered more than we would have liked while working on this review -- is that the phone itself actually can be quite unresponsive and sluggish at times, both within the Sense interface, and while using straight-up Windows Mobile apps. To be honest, that was quite a surprise to us, as we figured that regardless of the underlying OS's age, throwing the kind of horsepower the HD2 has at it would solve most issues. Instead what we found is that despite the power, Windows Mobile (and HTC's UI) still exhibit the kind of major slowdown, stuttery screens, and outright freezes that would drive many users up a wall.

In particular, we experienced lots of starts and stops when waking the phone up from sleep -- even the slide-to-unlock function didn't work sometimes -- and when jumping into and out of apps when we had already loaded a few up. HTC claims that the device will auto-kill background processes when memory is getting too full, but it really didn't seem to be putting anything away while we were working. We also saw lots of lag when trying to get Peep to update, loading up emails, and (gasp) quite a bit during those fancy weather transitions; we would blame it on the network, but we were on WiFi the majority of the time, and c'mon -- a slow data connection shouldn't freeze your phone anyhow. We had issues while browsing and listening to music at the same time; the track playing would actually cut out sometimes and the browser would hang during a page load. And you know that awesome keyboard we mentioned earlier? It is really great, except when it starts to lock up for no reason at all. We had some frustrating moments trying to tap out a message as the phone went into ice mode, struggling to finish sentences as the keyboard response was far behind our actual taps. Now we're not saying this was the norm -- it definitely was not -- but it happened enough to make us pause at the thought of making something like the HD2 our full-time device.

To be clear, the phone was perfectly snappy and usable the vast majority of the time, but some of the slowdown and lagginess we saw was upsetting, and a little too commonplace for our liking. It's obvious that HTC has a beast of a UI here (we mean that in a good way), but sometimes it can feel downright beastly.

Battery life

As with most smartphones we test these days, the HD2's battery life was sufficient, though not by any means breathtaking. On an average day of use, we could power through till evening without need a recharge, though if we were on the phone a lot, we found the drain to be fairly noticeable. We got the overwhelming impression that WM 6.5 isn't perfectly optimized for data-heavy devices like the HD2 -- phones getting constant emails, IMs, Twitter updates, and pulling down robust webpages. Still, the device held up decently in our tests (it didn't strike us as terribly distinct from something like the iPhone 3GSs battery performance), and given the gigantic screen and 1GHz CPU, that's pretty heartening.

Wrap-up

In the auto industry, there's a concept known as coachbuilding by world-renowned firms like Bertone, Zagato, Karmann, and Fisker (yes, of Karma fame) -- a nearly century-old boutique industry of brilliant designers and craftsmen taking existing vehicles from big manufacturers and turning them into beautiful, customized works of art. The end results are almost always more stunning than the starting point (take Pininfarina's Enzo-bodied P4/5, for instance), a testament to the spectacular creativity, talent, and flexibility of both the coachbuilder and the stock car's components.

What does any of this have to do with the HD2, you ask? Well, in the world of coachbuilding, the designer always starts with a great car -- always. No exceptions. You need a great canvas to make a great painting, so to speak, which is why cars from manufacturers like Ferrari are frequent targets for the business. That's where HTC continues to go wrong: they've proven time and time again that they are the Pininfarina of the phone world, but they're building their masterful works of art around the technological equivalent of an '84 Caprice. You can only hide so much, only conceal the phone's true underpinnings so well.

The HD2 pulls this smoke-and-mirrors magic trick more convincingly than any WinMo-based HTC before it. That's not up for debate -- it's a fact -- and for folks who want to stay on the platform but want to run as far away from the stock experience as possible, the HD2 is the answer. Actually, you could say it's "the answer" for Windows Mobile 6.5, period -- this is easily the best WinMo device ever made, with world-beating hardware and a spec sheet that'd make any geek drool. Ultimately, though, it's going to take a thorough revamping of the core to make even the best "coachbuilt" WinMo-based HTC phone an easy recommendation, and that requires a commitment on Microsoft's part that we haven't yet seen. Will we get there before competing platforms -- like HTC's Android stable, for instance -- take over? Only time will tell.

Special thanks to Chris Ziegler for additional work on this review.
HTC

HD2

Pros

  • Huge, gorgeous display
  • HTC Sense UI
  • Slick industrial design

Cons

  • Outdated Windows Mobile OS
  • Lack of compelling applications
  • Could be too big for some users
Summary