HTC's come a long way since its first ever portrait QWERTY slider phone Blue Angel (O2 xda IIs, Vodafone v1620, Sprint PPC6600, etc.) circa 2004, the legacy of which is carried by the TyTN, Touch Pro, G1, myTouch 3G Slide, and many more sliders albeit in landscape form. The cumulative phone-building expertise leads us to the Desire Z, which is probably better known as the European alter ego of the T-Mobile G2 (which we've already reviewed). The difference? As far as hardware goes, the two Androids are practically identical twins; but for software, the AWS-free Desire Z comes tattooed with HTC's Sense UI, and packs a handful of extra goodies. So will this phone trump its American cousin? Read on to find out.
Gallery | 62 Photos

HTC Desire Z review

HTC

Desire Z

Pros

  • Improved Sense UI and new HTC apps
  • Cunning engineering with good build quality
  • QWERTY keyboard feels good

Cons

  • Hinge problems could annoy some
  • Poor night time camcorder performance
  • HTCSense.com still buggy
Summary


Hardware

If you've already read our G2 review, then you should be adequately familiar with the Desire Z's hardware -- it's the same ID, just with different branding below the earpiece and on the backside, along with some minor tweaks with the keyboard's layout. Compared to the Desire and the 7 Mozart which also pack the same 3.7-inch 480 x 800 SLCD, they all have a similar footprint on the front, although the Desire Z looks more intimidating with its larger optical trackpad, straighter sides, sharper edges, and brushed aluminum bezel. Similarly, the screens on these phones are equally as sharp and vibrant with decent viewing angles, although obviously not as vivid as AMOLED screens. The capacitive touch buttons below the screen could be a turn-off for some users -- aside from the fact that they'll never be as assuring as physical buttons, it also took some getting used to due to the smaller headroom for our fingers, especially when compared to the Nexus One's. The remaining three buttons are all physical: an easily accessible power button at the top right corner (near the 3.5mm headphone jack), a volume rocker on the left, and a camera shutter button towards the bottom on the right side. If we must make a quibble here, we'd like to have the volume rocker shifted slightly further up to better accommodate our left thumb -- HTC got it just right with the Desire and Nexus One, whereas the 7 Mozart's lower rocker certainly isn't left-hand friendly, as we pointed out in our review.

With the extra keyboard and the necessary mechanisms, it's no surprise that the Desire Z is a tad thicker and heavier than its slate cousins -- at 6.35 ounces, it beats the Desire by about 0.09 inches and 1.59 ounces. Despite the small numbers, we found that the extra thickness was more noticeable than the extra weight; on the other hand, users who are familiar with HTC's older QWERTY sliders -- namely as the Touch Pro2 -- will appreciate the improved slimness. On the back, the plentiful amount of gray rubber coating around the aluminum battery door -- also of a brushed metal effect -- provides a secure and comfortable grip, and not to mention the extra visual appeal when compared to the Desire's full rubber back. You'll also find the 5 megapixel camera (which we'll cover later), LED flash, loudspeaker and a latch for the battery door -- a rare feature amongst the latest HTC devices -- on the backside of the phone. Upon pulling the latch, the left side of the battery door pops up, letting you remove the entire piece to access the 1300mAH battery, SIM card and microSD card (the phone's shipped with an 8GB card like the G2).


Moving on to the highlight of the phone: the "z-hinge." Again, we've already covered a lot about this cunning mechanism in our G2 review, so we'll keep this as brief as possible: it's surprisingly rigid during transition and when the screen's fully open, but there are a few shortcomings that makes the slider flagship feel cheap. First of all, we don't like how little effort is required to push the screen open, thus giving the illusion that the hinge is loose and insecure. In an ideal world, we'd like to have some sort of tiny strong magnets holding the screen down when closed. Similarly, this idea could also be useful for keeping the screen from dropping down when we have the phone facing downward while we lie in bed (yes, some of us do use phones like that -- good for our backs, not so good for our arms). That said, you can easily overcome this minor problem by resting your index fingers on either or both sides of the opened screen, while the rest of your hands are wrapped around the main body as usual. Alas, we still have one more niggle here: after some further usage, we've noticed that when we close the screen with just our left hand, sometimes the phone would gently pinch two or three of our fingers on the right, but this is pretty minor.

On a more positive note, we'd like to echo our earlier praise for the G2's keyboard here -- the spacing, sizing and tactility of the backlit keys are just right, plus the lowered screen really helps us get to the top row of keys. The only differences here are that the handy "www / .com" key is sadly now a "tab" key, but the furthest left quick key has become a more useful dedicated symbol key.

It's time to have a quick look at the internals. In general, the Desire Z has the same guts as the G2: 800MHz Qualcomm MSM7230 chipset, 512MB of RAM, 1.5GB of ROM, WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. As usual, FM radio is enabled by HTC here, which again begs the old question as to why this is missing on the G2 and other Google-branded phones. As for battery life, we found that the 1300mAh cell is adequate for a full day use -- our usual testing routine (a mixture of web browsing, Twitter with notification, photo and video shooting, and music playback) squeezed out about nine hours of usage, whereas the same routine got us somewhere between six to eight hours on the Desire.

Of course, we haven't forgotten that this is a phone that we're testing here, but there's little to complain here in terms of call quality. Like the G2, the earpiece worked well for us, and our callers were happy with what they were hearing even with us talking on a noisy street. On the other hand, the tinny loudspeaker on the back isn't ideal for important phone calls or pleasuring yourself with music, so it's best to stick with external speakers or headphones.

Software

Despite the Desire Z running on a lower clock speed than its 1GHz Froyo cousins, it didn't feel much slower. Thanks to the new 800MHz MSM7230 chipset and optimized OS, we got a chart-topping Quadrant score averaging between 1400 and 1600 (yes, higher than the 1GHz devices sporting shipped ROMs), and about 33 MFLOPS on Linpack. As for the phone's OS, while it's superficially identical to the Desire's on most part -- especially with the usual Froyo specialties like live wallpapers, WiFi hotspot, Flash support, Google backup, etc. -- it's actually been given some nice tweaks. For example, the status tray now shows you a list of recently opened apps, as well as providing a pause button for the music box. Another subtle change is that the right button on the homescreen's bottom tray has been boosted by a few new personalization options like scene, wallpaper, sound and ringtone. And lastly, if you're a big fan of HTC Leap, you'll be please to know that not only can you pinch any homescreen to see all seven panels as before, but you can now also hold down on any panel thumbnail and then drag it around to rearrange the order.

HTC's also thrown in a few new widgets -- only five at the time of writing this review -- by means of HTC Hub (not to be mistaken with the one on Windows Phone 7), and we particularly like the "Call Mom" which tracks the number of days since your last call to your designated contact, plus "Fake Call" which lets you set up a, wait for it, fake call from a chosen contact (think celebrities!). While we're here, hardcore phone customizers should note that the Hub also offers extra wallpapers, scenes, skins, and sounds -- and the assumption is that HTC will add more freebies to the portfolio over time.

We also noticed that what used to be the Footprints widget is now called Locations, which is essentially Footprints enhanced with map and navigation functionalities. Well, at least that's what it's supposed to do -- most of the time the widget complained about not being about to download or find map data. Likewise, the full navigation app Car Panel also struggled to load any data for "Destination" and "Nearby" tools, but the car navigation app itself -- powered by Route 66 and TomTom's TeleAtlas -- appears to work well. Alas, we didn't have a car to give the satnav suite a thorough pat-down, but you can give its 30-day trial a spin before deciding whether it's worth the money for its offline maps, or that you have the data bandwidth for Android's free built-in Google Maps Navigation.

Other useful apps included on the phone are the self-explanatory Blocked Callers, SoundHound for identifying music (like Shazam), QuickOffice for editing Microsoft Office documents, and HTC Likes which harnesses the power of social networking -- via your "HTC friends" and "like" buttons á la Facebook -- to recommend apps. That said, we haven't found much value in adding the few existing contacts to our HTC friend list, as the good old unified contacts book is pretty sufficient, plus there's always the more mature Foursquare or Gowalla as opposed to Footprints if we wish to stalk people. Speaking of keeping in touch, the good old HTC Peep app is still here to provide basic Twitter functionality, although we've been struggling to disable its auto syncing in settings -- the damn thing keeps coming back to haunt us after each reboot.

Finally, we thought we'd give HTCSense.com a second chance after its mixed performance last time. Sadly, things haven't improved much since then. Here's a quick recap before we start ranting: said website was launched last month as a cloud backup solution -- catering your contacts, text messages, and footprints -- for the latest HTC Android handsets, as well as letting you locate, remote lock and wipe the phone in case something goes wrong. We didn't have much problem with the features on the dashboard, although the phone tracker was still a hit and miss like last time, occasionally putting us somewhere around the Gulf of Guinea on the map. We've also had to reload the address book several times before the error message stopped pestering us, but even after that, it took us at least ten seconds before seeing the first bunch of contacts, only to be stopped by another error message when we attempted to search for a particular person. On a less annoying but equally hilarious issue, the HTC Hub on the website serves the same purpose as the one on the phone, except none of the "likes" and comments show up. Looks like HTC's still got a fair amount of work to do here.

Camera

You may recall that we weren't totally sold on the Desire's 5 megapixel camera last time, and knowing that HTC's struggled with its photographic features in recent handsets, we didn't have high hopes for the Desire Z's similar 5 megapixel imager. Well, we were wrong - overall we see some improvements over color accuracy, even in dark conditions. Still, focusing in the dark proved to be a real challenge, so you'll have to find a good spot to stabilize the phone. If you don't mind a bit of noise, you can also boost the ISO up to 800 in the camera app for critical shots, or try fiddling with the various settings in the image adjustments menu (for sharpness, saturation, contrast and brightness). These features were all in the Desire's camera app, but now arranged in a new and improved layout. Likewise, you can still tap on the screen to focus on a specific area and then click on the virtual shutter button, or just do the usual auto-focussing and capturing using the two-stage shutter button -- the latter of which can also be used to trigger the camera app directly. To put the Desire Z in comparison with its sibling device, we find that the Desire HD's 8 megapixel sensor churns out slightly more vibrant pictures -- not surprising given the physically larger lens -- but the Desire Z isn't too far off.
Gallery | 53 Photos

HTC Desire Z sample camera shots and camera app screenshots


As for video recording, while 720p is written in the specs, we almost got caught out by the odd default 800 x 480 resolution, so be sure to change that soon after you take the phone out of the box or after each reset. Once we got the ball rolling, our 3GP clips filmed during the day actually looked pretty good and smooth, although we did notice the odd freeze in two or three spots in our video below -- it could very well be something to do with the storage media, but we haven't seen similar issues on this same Class 4 card when used on our other devices. Sadly, night time performance is disappointing -- it appears that HTC still hasn't gone around to fixing the video bug which significantly reduces the frame rate to compensate for exposure. Perhaps Peter Chou and co. just hate partying at night (although we do know Chou loves ping pong).


Wrap-up

We've already given the hardware plenty of love in our G2 review, but let us reiterate here that HTC's yet again done a very good job with crafting the Desire Z into a solid and professional piece of kit. Even after days of playing with the device, we're still impressed by the cunningness of the z-hinge -- despite its minor flaws -- that significantly improves the typing experience. Given the choice, we'd probably choose the Sense-laden Desire Z over the G2 for the added value without sacrificing much performance and battery life, although HTC will need to have a look at some of the aforementioned software bugs. Otherwise, this is pretty much the best landscape QWERTY Android phone you can get right now.

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