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 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
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.
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.
A few words are merited on the general performance and responsiveness of the Mini. Firstly, WiFi connectivity was strong and fast throughout, though we didn't have an opportunity to test out its 3G receptiveness properly. We'll assume it's on par with the competition and move on with our lives. Battery life was also about what you'd expect -- the 1,200mAh cell gives you more staying power than something like the Nexus One, and with judicious use of the phone's capabilities, you might even squeeze two days' use out of it. Performance is obviously not Hummingbird-fast, but it never gave us cause to grumble about its speed, which is quite the feat. Perhaps, as with the Hero before it, once the Mini gets encumbered with more contacts, Twitter update-tracking and emails, it'll feel more sluggish, but for now it did its job with relative ease. It exhibits a small, barely perceptible lag, which is consistent throughout the user experience, allowing you to grow accustomed to it.
To conclude, if you take the time to train up your non-techy friends on how to use this phone, they'll most definitely thank you for it. This is because the Mini truly is a smartphone and it truly advances functionality and utility beyond the feature handset division, but for the love of all that's holy in tech -- don't let them see the real HD2. Or a Dell Streak. Or HTC's own Desire. Just keep them away from those top-tier devices and their ludicrous speed and size, and you'll have a very satisfied friend / customer / parent on your hands.
The Mini sets out to offer us a more compact experience of the HD2, but the HD2 is all about its massive screen, and the translation of the UI to a smaller footprint also comes with concordant tradeoffs. All the same, we like what HTC's brought to the table and certainly wouldn't begrudge someone giving us one of these to use as our day-to-day handset. Would we spend the money to buy one or get hooked onto a contract for it? Probably not. The HD Mini is presently priced far too close to the Legend and we still say it's worth pushing the boat out that little bit further and getting yourself up into the 3.7-inch and above weight class. Trust us, you'll thank yourself that you did.