HTC Desire Z review
- Improved Sense UI and new HTC apps
- Cunning engineering with good build quality
- QWERTY keyboard feels good
- Hinge problems could annoy some
- Poor night time camcorder performance
- HTCSense.com still buggy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).