The HD7 isn't shy about proclaiming itself an entertainment machine and its design reflects these aspirations. Besides the kickstand inviting landscape operation, you have two speakers framing the large display, nestled in elegant little crevices at the bottom and top of the phone. Protecting them from harm's way is a metallic band spanning the HD7's entire circumference, which also houses a volume rocker, a two-stage camera button, and your standard-issue power/lock combo button.
On the whole, we like both the look and feel of this handset, but it's not without its flaws. Chief among them is the quality of its construction materials, with the back cover being made from a relatively flimsy plastic, which has a slight, albeit tangible, flex to it and is prone to creaking. It looks durable, mind you -- we don't expect its matte surface to degrade too badly over time -- but the phone's rigidity comes almost entirely from the metallic band around its sides and from the display itself. Not exactly ideal in our eyes. Then there's also the kickstand, which exhibits some lateral wiggling action we're not too fond of and does not sit flush with the phone when retracted. Beyond that, just to get all our bugbears off our chest, the pair of speaker recesses turned out to be absolute dust magnets and cleaning them out wasn't the easiest thing in the world either.
To flip things around and look at the positives, the biggest one for us was the HD7's basic feel in the hand. Its curved back is ergonomic heaven and we really couldn't find any disadvantage in using it as our daily workhorse versus our usual 3.5-inch device. This will of course depend on your own palms' dimensions, but we felt immediately at home with this oversized smartphone, and its pocketability was no less impressive. Additionally, while we may bemoan the battery's cover for being on the cheap side, we have to commend it for being easy to remove and replace, with HTC earning extra brownie points for the little insert it has underneath the battery to make extracting it even more foolproof.
The US (exclusive to T-Mobile on November 8) and UK (an O2 exclusive, available today) variants of the HD7 will pack 16GB of non-expandable storage whereas most other countries will have to settle for 8GB. You might consider that something of a limitation, and indeed if you have
to have every episode of every season of House
on your mobile device, maybe you'll feel the squeeze, but T-Mobile is coming to the rescue with Slacker Radio and Netflix apps preinstalled on the US HD7, while the Zune Pass all-you-can-listen music buffet service (coming to Western Europe
right around now) can turn the cloud into your music collection guardian.
What we're more concerned about, however, is the Qualcomm QSD8250 chip that resides within the HD7's confines. This was a celebrated 1GHz part back when it graced HTC's own HD2 this time last year, but today... not so much. And speaking of the HD2, it's pretty outrageous that HTC has gone and matched its spec almost entirely. Sure, the externals have been tweaked, the physical buttons have been dismissed in favor of capacitive keys and you've now got a slightly different frame around your jumbo display, but as far as the internal hardware is concerned, it's nearly the same phone
. We imagine this was probably out of HTC's hands since Microsoft insists on the particular trio of WP7 buttons and has also been the one to mandate the processor within, but it still leaves geeks like us feeling less than overjoyed. After all, if not for a bit of red tape, we could just as well be reviewing the HD2 right now.
Looking at the HD7 and its Windows Phone 7 OS in isolation, however, we have to commend the final product. Whether we like the route by which Microsoft has gotten here, what we're looking at with all these launch devices is one hell of a smooth user experience. So, in spite of its aged hardware, the HD7 is by no means a performance slouch. Basically, we'd have preferred something beefier inside, but that's just because we like numbers, and we like them to grow higher, but in actual use the HD7 is more than nippy enough.
There was one truly noticeable hardware drawback to this handset, however, and that was the size of its battery. At 1,230mAh, it's on the small side for most smartphones nowadays, but particularly so for one that has to power a backlight spanning a full 4.3-inch display. The LG Optimus 7 comes with a 1,500mAh cell and there's no reason (other than perhaps a budgetary one) for the HD7 not to do the same. We definitely felt this shortcoming during our time with the device, finding ourselves looking for the charger before a full day of intensive use was through, whereas even the lightest of use would necessitate you tethering up by the end of the second day. Not terribly impressive.
A final note is also merited regarding the HD7's front-mounted stereo speakers. Not that it should be any surprise given that this is a mere phone, but their quality was pretty nondescript in our testing. We weren't impressed either by the loudness or by the clarity of the output and would describe them as mildly disappointing, given the hype that HTC has flourished upon them.
Ah, the display. The HD7's meat and potatoes, its reason for being, the meaning to its life, the beating heart of its entire operation. If we haven't made it abundantly clear yet, the display is this phone's defining feature and also the thing that will most likely determine its commercial success. That's aside from the key
determinant, of course -- the Windows Phone 7 experience -- but given that the OS has been so tightly regimented by Microsoft, you'll be able to easily jump aboard abother WP7 ship should the HD7 not rock your boat quite how you'd like it to. The trouble with its 4.3-inch panel, however, is that it does indeed both make and
break the appeal of the HD7. Allow us to explain.
On the one hand, the enlarged panel really makes your daily smartphone tasks so much easier. Yes, in terms of pixel density it's no better off than the more diminutive phones it's vying against, but the magnification of those pixels was a definitely improvement for us, allowing us to read webpages without necessarily having to zoom in on them every time, and also making navigation and text input appreciably easier. It's worth reiterating, perhaps, that this was simply our experience and others may find the large screen overwhelming and its contents unnecessarily inflated. What we're saying is that this just felt like the ideal size to us, not too large (hello, Streak
!) and not too small (Motorola Flipout
In fact, on a couple of occasions we honestly got carried away reading on our commute and simply forgot we were using a phone. It felt more like browsing on our desktop with the added bonus of being able to scroll by flicking our fingers. It was a terrific sensation, even if it only lasted for brief moments, and of course it's not something we can confidently say you'll be able to experience on the smaller devices in the Windows Phone 7 stable. The Samsung Omnia 7 and Dell Venue Pro might come close to that, but the HD7 clearly sits at the top of the pile when it comes to taking your Windows experience on the move without resorting to a tablet or a laptop.
Alas, where HTC lets us down is in the quality of the panel it's chosen. We noticed viewing angles weren't all that hot in our first hands-on experience
with the phone and nothing's happened to make us think differently since. It's just not a high quality display by today's standards; it can reach high levels of brightness when you crank it up, but if you care about faithful color reproduction, we'd advise looking elsewhere. It's saddening to see, really, since HTC has a much better display installed in its own 7 Mozart, as you'll see in the video above, and the only conclusion we can reach is that the particular screen in the HD7 represents a conscious choice of quantity over quality. It's a bigger panel, which gives you all the benefits you might expect, but it's also a worse one than any other WP7 phone available today. The choice, as ever, is yours.
The camera on the HD7 was a weird one for us to get to grips with. On the one hand, focusing is pretty snappy and Windows Phone 7 does allow you to jump straight into the camera app from a locked screen (by holding down the shutter button). But our actual results were somewhat hit and miss. Sometimes, the HD7's camera would nail the white balance in situations where even a DSLR was struggling to guess correctly, but at other times it'd struggle to focus in relatively unchallenging circumstances. Aside from that, we have to take issue with WP7's inability to remember camera (or camcorder) settings. The HD7 defaults, weirdly enough, to shooting 480p video, which you have to switch up yourself... each and every time you use the video app
. Maybe we're unenlightened on how to make our settings stick, but sure enough, each time we turned on the camera and wanted to shoot at 720p, we had to manually turn it on. Which was annoying. As to the video output itself, it's quite presentable stuff, although the sensor does tend to search for focus even when we're keeping it steady on an unmoving landscape. All in all, the HD7's camera and video recording seem par for the (somewhat mediocre) smartphone course.
For our full thoughts on Windows Phone 7, you'd better head on over to our exhaustive (but hopefully not exhausting) review
or check out the video below -- both are awesome. We'll limit ourselves to discussing HTC's Hub additions here briefly. The first thing to note is that HTC adorns the bootup sequence for its Hub with an outrageously extravagant and almost instantly annoying animation that pummels you with oncoming cloud and sun symbols to remind you that yes, there's a weather app coming up in there. Once you get inside, you're faced with a stock updater, that climate-monitoring utility we just mentioned, and some other tidbits like Notes and a Photo Enhancer. HTC promises it'll keep adding more functionality as things go along and we've got no reason to doubt that. For now, we couldn't care less about stocks or the weather, so we decided to play with the other two apps.
Notes is a quirky, stylized take on your usual note-recording app. It gives you a board that you can "pin" little post-its to, which in turn age relative to their, erm, age. We could frankly take it or leave it, there's a character limit on each note so if you're a wordy sort of missive writer, it'll immediately discourage use, while its stylized elements feel somewhat forced and unnecessary. It's cute, and maybe some weird demographic that appreciates animated transitions more than rapid and easy data input will appreciate it more, but it wasn't for us.
Now the Photo Enhancer, that was another story. This image post-processing app doesn't really have any pretensions for the high office of actually enhancing
your photos. Oh, sure enough, it has one preset for auto-correcting and enhancing your pics, but it's real title might be something closer to Photo Fiddler. It comes with a bunch of different after-effects you can apply to generate particular artistic conceits atop your images -- from making them look like monochromatic classic, to intentionally over-exposing them, to giving them warm or cold color casts. Honestly, it was a lot more fun than we expected it to be and its basic but varied functionality seems a perfect fit for the device it's riding on. Top marks.
What can we say that we haven't expressed already? The HD7 is pretty much what you thought it would be. It's that same 4.3-inch blueprint that HTC has exploited to great success with the HD2 and EVO 4G, applied to the brand new Windows Phone 7 operating environment. The first question you'll truly have to answer for yourself is whether or not you want to be aboard the WP7 gravy train. We remain staunch believers that a smartphone is only as good (or as bad) as its software, so decide on your OS first and your particular handset second. If you're still with us, we'd recommend the HD7 as a solid WP7 device choice, but with a few caveats.
The build quality is a step below the finest we've seen, landing the HD7 in the "passable" category, while the display may achieve a high level of brightness, but it goes to waste thanks to its poor contrast and viewing angles. For a device aspiring to woo us with its multimedia features, this, along with middling sound output from its stereo speakers, renders the HD7 a failure if measured purely by the boasts of its promotional materials.
But we judge by our own standards here, and the reason we like the HD7 is that it seems to be just about the perfect size for us. It trades little in the way of added bulk for an awful lot in added real estate and general usability. We know we like to beat the drum about pixels on these pages, but sometimes inches matter just as much. And lets not forget that we're still living in a world where nobody has yet managed to deliver a truly impressive 4.3-inch display, never mind the fanciness of Super AMOLED, so HTC deserves commendation for at the very least trying, and we reckon we might be happy dealing with a less Super panel that just gives us more of what we want. Provided what we want is Windows Phone 7.