- Big display is a good match for this OS
- Touchscreen keyboard makes typing painless
- Build quality is almost perfect
- Brilliant camera for both stills and video
- Usable storage maxes out at 12.6GB
- WP 7.5 still has a few bugs and a shortage of apps
This phone is not for the faint-hearted, but its build quality, screen size and camera make it the best Windows Phone on the market -- at least for now.
The Titan's build quality still gives us a buzz every time we pick it up. If dwarves carved a smartphone out of an alien meteorite, this is precisely how it'd look. Detach the aluminum unibody case and it's all black and gold underneath, with exquisite molding and perfect rigidity. How far things have come since the plasticky flab of the TyTN and TyTN II, when HTC smartphones couldn't even spell out their mythical names while keeping a straight face.
The 131.5mm (5.2-inch) height and 70.7mm (2.8-inch) width might sound intimidating, but only until you realize that the Titan is a mere 5mm (0.2 inches) taller and wider than a familiar 4.3-inch smartphone like the Sensation XE. Moreover, the 160g (5.6-ounce) weight is only nine grams (0.35 ounces) heavier than the XE -- a barely noticeable difference. What's more, the Titan's slim 9.9mm (0.39-inch) waistline puts the XE's 11.6mm girth to shame and goes a long way in canceling out its other excesses.
So, is the Titan's size really that big of an issue in everyday use? Only occasionally. We found that it was generally easy to forget about when tucked away in the pocket of our straight-cut jeans. On the other hand, don't count on putting your car key or credit card wallet or anything else in there -- the lack of maneuverability increases the chances of a scratch, and in fact we managed to get a nasty nick after just a couple of days by making precisely this mistake, despite the Gorilla Glass screen. Aside from all this, as you'll see below, we believe the Titan's mass is justified by the fact that it has major pay-offs in terms of how enjoyable it is to use for everyday tasks.
For the sake of thoroughness, we'd better mention a minor issue with the build quality, which shouldn't put you off unless you're really fussy: the way the core of the phone slots into the aluminum case is not quite perfect -- if you squeeze the phone through its z-axis you get a slight movement. However, this flex is silent rather than creaky and hence easily forgotten.
The headset that comes with the Titan is predictably cheap and awful. HTC might be banging the Beats Audio drum with its latest Android handsets, but you'll find no Dre-approved headphones here. On the other hand, for the sake of experimentation, we switched out the standard headset for the YourBeats headphones that came with our Sensation XE and everything sounded great, especially when we turned on the 'Loudness' EQ in Windows Phone settings. Moral of the story? Don't worry about the lack of Beats Audio branding on this phone, just buy yourself some decent headphones if you haven't already. Artists like Kanye and Jennifer don't bust a gut for a pittance just so you can destroy their art with out-of-the-box cans.
Now for the downer: the Titan's musical abilities are severely hobbled by its lack of storage. It was disconcerting to transfer across a small sample of albums to test the music playback and discover that we'd already used up 1.5GB out of our 12.6GB allowance. Wasn't cheap and plentiful storage meant to be one of the main benefits of avoiding an iPhone? Of course, we'll one day store everything in the cloud, but that day is not yet here. Ask a ticket inspector on the London Underground whether we'll ever be able to stream Spotify tracks in the tunnels and she'll probably fine you for being obnoxious. Depending on your listening habits and music collection, the lack of a microSD card could well be a deal-breaker.
Performance and battery life
The Titan's 1.5GHz second-gen Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255 may only be single-core, but it destroys HTC's older WP handsets like the 1GHz Trophy. WP Bench gave our Titan an overall score of around 96, versus just 50 for the Trophy. This superiority extended through every part of the system: the CPU completed tasks in half the time, data transfer rates were almost doubled and the GPU also delivered double the frame rates.
Is it a problem that this phone is only single-core? Nope, not unless you're really going to miss 1080p video recording. For most other tasks, the processor will serve you just fine: sites like Engadget and the BBC rendered quickly, apps opened and closed without delay, and the voice recognition feature of Bing processed our mutterings efficiently. Nope, if you're held back by the behavior of the Titan it won't be due to the hardware so much as to Mango. The young OS still doesn't handle multitasking very well, and the browser often shows glitches in the way it lays out a website: the main BBC News page often nudged the lead picture out of its column, for example, which is something we haven't witnessed on Android, iOS or even BlackBerry devices. Incidentally, the Sun Spider browsing benchmark gave the Titan a poor 6,500ms result, but we're not sure what to make of it because there's not much to compare it against: the latest Sensation XE scored around 3,500ms, but the WP7 HTC Trophy scored took an unbelievable 45,000ms -- so we're not sure this benchmark can handle cross-platform comparisons.
One area that definitely benefits from having just a single core is battery life, and we have no complaints about the Titan in this regard -- despite the extra demands that will inevitably be made by the larger display. We put it to use all day and the 1,600mAh battery still had plenty left in reserve by the time we hit the sack. In fact, one day we forgot to plug it in for an overnight charge so we left the house with battery already at 60 percent and yet we still made it to bedtime with room to spare. We'd stop just shy of claiming two full days of low-to-moderate use -- it's more like a day and a half. For the record, the WP Bench battery test gave us three hours at medium brightness, which was virtually identical to the HTC Trophy, with its meager three-inch screen and 1GHz processor.
Network performance seemed average on the UK's Three network, with 3G reception and data speeds matching other handsets we carried around. Calls sounded crisp, although we can't say we noticed much of an impact from the Titan's secondary noise-cancelling mic. Usually our environment was quiet enough for it not to be necessary, or so loud that any beneficial effect was drowned out -- but we can believe it'd make a difference in certain situations.
The Titan's WVGA resolution equates to just 198 pixels per inch. No matter how much HTC tries to gloss over this issue, the fact remains that those pixels are visible on text and vector graphics (although not so much on photos), and they do nothing to add to the otherwise delightful aesthetics of the OS. Zooming out on a webpage quickly causes the text to become blocky and unreadable, which partially cancels out the large panel's ability to display vast swathes of a page in one go.
Arguably, this isn't HTC's fault, because 480x800 happens to be the resolution currently required by Windows Phone. Microsoft clearly just wants to keep things simple at this stage, and in any case it's looking at Windows 8 for the tablet form factor, so it's made no room for diverse screen sizes with WP 7.5. But does the end user really care who's fault it is? We've come to expect effective resolutions greater than 300dpi, which is the point at which we can truly forget that we're even looking at pixels, and the Titan falls well short of that.
On the other hand, resolution isn't everything and the Titan's Super LCD display actually has a lot going for it. For a start, it's a higher quality panel than the one used in some HTC handsets like the Sensation and Trophy. Whereas those handsets would look slightly washed out when viewed at anything than head-on, the Titan's brightness and color rendition remains consistent even from extreme angles. At the optimum angle, the blacks look deep, the colors look rich and saturated in keeping with the WP style, and photos and video come across absolutely fine. It's not Super AMOLED, but should satisfy the majority of users.
Just like the display, the camera unit in the Titan is also significantly better than some of HTC's other recent models. Everything about it is faster, smoother and more intelligent in how it deals with automatic focus and exposure. The dedicated camera button is tactile and responsive, the software gets into gear fast, and settings are readily accessed and altered. We love the fact that you can actually hear the whir of the autofocus shifting the lens inside the camera -- it tells us it's a big unit.
The f/2.2 maximum aperture really does make a difference with low-light performance. We took a shot in our kitchen, which was poorly lit with a single main energy-saving bulb, and we were blown away by the quality of the skin tones and the lack of noise. Overall image quality was also aided by sensible jpeg compression, which generally reduced our eight megapixel images to somewhere between 1MB and 1.3MB. We'd still rather have control over the level of compression, rather than HTC deciding for us, but at least this camera doesn't ruin images by pulping them into a 600KB mess -- like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo does, for example.
The same applies to the 720p video: a one-minute clip was generally compressed to around 80MB, which preserves just about enough information to make it watchable on a TV or desktop, even during fast pans and wobbles. In comparison, a one-minute 1080p clip from the HTC Sensation XE is compressed down to a mere 65MB, which looks terrible and goes to show just how irrelevant video resolution is unless you get a higher bit-rate to match. Another key upside to the Titan's video recording: it adjusts auto-exposure smoothly and relatively slowly, as opposed to the sudden switches we saw in the Sensation XE, which means videos are less jarring when the light changes.
The camera software lives up to the promise of the hardware, with a whole range of clever touches from Microsoft and HTC. For example, when you're scrolling through photos and you reach the end of the camera roll, it automatically switches to camera mode, as if to say "go on, take another one." Plus, you'll find HTC's Panorama feature in there, which is incredibly fun and easy to use and gets some decent results too. The only problem we had was that sometimes OS X failed to recognize the proper orientation of shots we'd taken on the Titan -- but then it's perhaps too much to expect complete harmony between rivals. (Incidentally, the Windows Phone Connector icon on the OS X dock is indisputably ugly.)
Unlike HTC's pre-Mango Windows Phone handsets, the Titan also has a front-facing camera. It has typically poor resolution and dynamic range but its good to have it -- even though there's still none of our promised Skype action. Sure, there's Tango, but we had no one to test it with and frankly, who's got the energy? We'd rather just wait for the app that everyone already uses.
The Windows Phone OS is an amazing experience at this screen size. Sure, we don't have the resolution needed to cram loads of shrunken live tiles into our home screen, but that's not what this OS is about. The overall aesthetic is one of minimalism, boldness and space to breathe, and spreading those tiles and apps over 4.7 inches takes this to another level. We have never felt so calm and relaxed when using a smartphone. Whether we're searching for media, loading up Bing to recognize a music track, or bashing out an email, the experience is serene.
The huge keyboard might look like a series of simple rectangular blocks, each with a single character in the middle, but it's actually triumph of design -- and just about the exact opposite of the busy mess that handles text entry in HTC's proprietary Sense UI on its Android devices. As soon as you start entering your login details to connect up to your email accounts, Twitter and so on, you notice something totally unexpected: you're no longer hitting backspace all the time. The button press somehow always ends up being precisely the button you want to press, and it's a breath of fresh air. We're not going to start writing full-length feature articles on the Titan, but in an emergency we probably could.
Now, there are many times when the serenity breaks down due to bugs in the software. We've been over the key weaknesses of Mango in our full review of the updated OS, but we can't resist mentioning a few more minor issues here too. You'll be surfing the net and suddenly realize that the 'back' button takes you back to the home screen rather than to the previous page. You'll be typing in a 'Name' field to register an email account when you realize that it doesn't capitalize the first letter, and the 'Email' field doesn't present you with the @ symbol. You'll try to connect to the Marketplace only to get some random error number, even though you have a strong WiFi signal and you connected fine just a few minutes ago. When you finally gain access, you'll discover that the Search button is no longer context sensitive and instead of searching the Marketplace it always transports you to Bing. You'll finally get over the general dearth of good apps and decide to purchase one, only to discover that you can't add credit card details because a few decades ago you registered your first ever Hotmail account in a different country. (If this happens to you, you'll have to reset the phone and create a fresh Windows Live account with your current home country, and then add your main account back in as a secondary account --
even though this will lose your Xbox Live avatar and achievements.) (We've just been alerted to an Xbox tool specifically for switching your gamertag to a different profile -- it's here.) It's obvious that this OS is still having teething problems, and they can be infuriating -- but they could all be rectified in future updates, and we're optimistic that they will.
We don't want to go out on a sour note, because it just wouldn't be fair. The fact is, we've used Windows Phone on a range of handsets by now, but the big and bold Titan is the first that's really allowed to us to tune in to what the software designers at Microsoft have been trying to achieve, and how they want to differentiate themselves from the others. Aesthetically speaking, we sometimes think of Android as a house that you build yourself: the base materials are relatively neutral, but there's plenty of scope for personalization in the way you fit them together. Meanwhile, iOS is like somebody else's house, built by a super-creative person with strong opinions who really doesn't care if you love it or hate it. So what about Windows Phone? Well, on the Titan's glorious display, it too feels like a house built by somebody else -- but this time it's the handiwork of someone who's primary goal is to make you happy. You'll notice neat little features that you might have missed on a smaller screen, like that fact that you can read all your notes on the Notes app's corkboard without squinting or having to open them up, because the text is just about large enough even despite the poor resolution. Animated tiles remain animated even while you're scrolling down the home screen -- subtle but delicious.
Not all the surprises are positive, though. The WVGA panel delivers poor pixel density, the 16GB of flash storage is inexplicably non-expandable and the lack of apps and occasional bugginess of the OS may all be bothersome, depending on your priorities and temperament. Perhaps there's an argument for waiting to see what Nokia has in store for us -- those guys also know a thing or two about design, and Nokia World is just ten days away. However, if you're ready to make room in your pocket for a phone this big, and room in your heart for a fledgling OS that occasionally requires some patience, then you will love the Titan.
Update: Thanks to Dev, n4blue and others who pointed that you can switch gamertags to a new Windows Live account if you're forced to create one, and also that the back button was deliberately made non-context sensitive in the Mango update.
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Microsoft Windows Phone 7.5