Originally known as the Photon and announced at MWC this year, the HD Mini got an inauspicious and some might say undeservedly muted launch. Billed as a HD2 lite, the handset was overshadowed by the concurrent debuts of the aluminum-shelled Legend and Nexus One-aping Desire -- all while its own OS was busy receiving its last rites at the show, which marked the first official unveiling of Windows Phone 7. So it's a HD2 without its biggest attraction, lumbered with a dead-end operating environment, and lacking anything unique to make it stand out? True on all counts, but not one of those factors precludes the Mini from being a really good handset in its own right.
Hardware and Construction
The first thing to be said here is that HTC did itself a disservice by calling this the HD Mini. Sure, the company's trying to capitalize on the parallels with its brawny WinMo flagship, but the fact is that this handset has the looks and construction to easily withstand one of HTC's more flamboyant names -- we'd have few qualms about calling it the HTC Spectacular.
The plastic back cover -- which offers a pleasing, grip-friendly surface -- envelops most of the body, with the only seam being where it meets the front end's glass screen. This leads to a smooth and sophisticated appearance, garnished by the exposure of the internal screws. It's a nice aesthetic touch, which doesn't actually affect the cover itself -- it slips off
around them. Aside from such minimalist design flourishes, the phone's body looks about as tapered as can be. Its back is as flat as the front, thanks to the camera and speaker module being perfectly filed down, and aside from the fact we'd prefer more screen and less bezel (a longstanding bugbear of ours), there's really very little cause for complaint. If we have to pick some niggles, the cover is a pain to remove and having to take out the battery to replace SIM cards isn't ideal, but those shouldn't be things that will trouble you on a daily basis.
The touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom worked surprisingly well. We'd still prefer physical keys which can be pressed without needing to look for them, but kudos to HTC for making its chosen input method work the way it should. In terms of day-to-day ergonomics, the Mini is a real winner in our eyes -- it's one of the smallest devices of its class and is almost the exact same size as a well padded London Oyster card wallet (the Mini's a little narrower, in fact). If this handset's design brief was to make the HD2 easier to carry around, it's succeeded with flying colors.
A couple of shortcomings do exist, with the major one being the lack of a dedicated camera button, which prevents self-portraits and forced us to use a second hand to steady the phone before taking a shot. That rather bummed us out, as we really enjoyed using the Mini's camera (more on that later). The second imperfection, and this really is a tiny one, is that while the speaker at the top of the phone looks really snazzy, it is not ideally positioned for carrying on conversations -- it's simply too high on the phone's surface. We enjoyed our voice calls just fine as it was, they were clear and crisp, but we can see how over time this can start to agitate users who'll naturally place the speaker above, rather than alongside, their ear. We had this complaint with the Legend as well, which exhibits a similar design.
Speaking of the Legend, the Mini also shares its 3.2-inch screen and 320 x 480 resolution, but we'd say it goes even further than that. Although the HD Mini doesn't offer an AMOLED display like its Android-wearing sibling, it does its best to emulate one -- both the good and bad points thereof. We found the Mini's display a vibrant beauty to behold while indoors, but stepping out into the sun left us with an entirely unusable device
. Saying it's like night and day really is the most succinct way we can put it. Browsing through pictures on this phone is a veritable pleasure, with satisfyingly wide viewing angles and rich, saturated color, but allow the most innocent of sunrays to make contact with it, and you start losing all that good stuff and replacing it with a visage of your own fingerprints. We suspect this is due to the extra glossy surface HTC has included on this device -- the company seems to have made the conscious decision to simulate AMOLED's behavior with some in-house trickery. Whether that's a tradeoff worth making, we leave up to you.
Software and Performance
We are today nearly a year removed from the launch of HTC's Hero -- a phone that at the time rode the wave of modernity with a 3.2-inch HVGA LCD touchscreen and a 528MHz CPU. We bring this up because back then we had no complaints about the real estate on offer, but now -- in a world populated by Droids, EVOs and Nexuses -- we feel that sort of hardware provision undernourishes our mobile needs. Mind you, this wasn't so much the fault of the 600MHz Qualcomm MS7227 processor, which acquitted itself very well in the vast majority of tasks, as it was down to the display's size -- always a little bit too little for us to do our thing in comfort.
The soft keyboard doesn't provide big enough keys in portrait mode, leaving us to peck away at the buttons with the sort of care and attention that we're supposed to lavish on our loved ones. That'll be one of your major downgrades if you're considering the Mini over the original gangster HD2. Another is that the HD2 can fit an extra line of three quick links on its homescreen, which the Mini dispenses with due to its lesser dimensions. It's important to stress at this point that where the Mini feels underwhelming most of the blame can be levied at all these grunting behemoths that we've mentioned buzzing about in the market. Should you isolate yourself from those pricier and bigger models and just assess the Mini on its own merits, you'll find an eminently usable device. It's just that we found a marked gap in usability between itself and the top-tier offerings available today -- something that we suppose was to be expected.
As far as the Sense skin goes, there are no shocks or surprises to be found -- it's a thoroughgoing overhaul of Microsoft's dated OS and really does a good job of convincing you that this is a phone worthy of a release in 2010. All the same, this is an operating system with a pretty steep learning curve. Faced with the homescreen for the first time, you don't instantly know that a leftward swipe will take you to your People tab or that a downward swipe will take you to your quick links, and there is absolutely no way of knowing that swiping right will take you to Settings, because there's zero in terms of visual clues pointing you that way. If learning how to use a phone requires trial and error investigation, you're either building a phone for geeks or you just didn't do a very good job of it.
The problem is best illustrated by handing this Windows Mobile to someone who isn't a technology initiate. An Engadget friend with a tech-free background found the Mini a very handsome device, being immediately impressed with the aesthetics of the handset and bold Sense UI design, but as soon as she tried to do
something with it, things went downhill in a hurry. Unlocking the Mini was hard enough, with the "slide to unlock" text appearing only after you've touched the screen, but then her first real action with the device was to nearly change her time zone to Taipei, Taiwan, thanks to the outsized Sense clock. This is something we've already discussed in our Windows Phone 7 editorial
: a feature ain't a feature if "normal" people either can't use it or give up before they find out how to use it. Which is a damn shame, because this phone is loaded with utility, so long as someone has the patience to unlock it.
The Twitter app is plenty useful, Facebook is neatly integrated, including direct uploads from your photo albums, and we still love the email client that skins your messages into an attractive paper pile. Frankly, if it had been more accessible to newbies, this would be the ideal entry level phone, as pretty much all the important stuff comes preloaded. Hell, even mobile versions of Word and Excel are here, to justify splashing the cash on a Windows Mobile phone. Populating your People tab with your most-used contacts makes communicating a breeze, and you're also able to pull contact details in off Facebook, where we're noticing most of our friends have listed their mobile numbers nowadays. The animated weather updates are still as resplendent as ever and integrate into Sense's jumbo clock for at a glance utility, while the lock screen will update you on voicemails, missed calls, messages and emails. Altogether, a very robust software package.
We were both surprised and impressed with how easy it was to set up an email account with the HD Mini. Just punch in your web alias and password and you're away. No further fiddling is required. This ties in very nicely with the phone's media management suite, which allows you to upload single or multiple photos or videos to friends via email, Facebook or YouTube. The implementation here is really nicely done and we'd count it as a legitimate feather in this phone's cap.
We should contrast that well done job with another, decidedly less so. Whether using the preloaded (and default) Opera or Internet Explorer as the browser, the Mini had consistent issues with rendering web content. Text loses its alignment, so that line spacing and spaces between words get chewed up and disappear, and things get just plain ugly when you zoom out on a rich media page like Engadget's full-bodied homepage.
Moving back to the positive side of the coin, we turn our attention to the Mini's camera, which as we've already noted was quite a delight to use. The camera app loads up relatively quickly after selection, and picture-taking is a wonderfully fast affair -- tapping that aperture image grabs a picture almost instantly, and the delay you do experience is mostly down to processing. Image quality, as you can see below, looks above average for mobile phones, but do yourself a favor and don't look at the pictures at anything above our gallery's 800 x 533 resolution: both noise and noise-canceling blurring are readily apparent. Looking at the images on the Mini's screen -- while we were indoors, obviously -- we found them crisp, punchy and sometimes even beautiful. Video, on the other hand, was your typical middle of the road affair, nothing to get excited about.