Though it was teased late last year -- on the same day that HTC announced its very first Windows Phone 7 devices, in fact -- the company's QWERTY-packing 7 Pro has taken its sweet time to make it to American airwaves; in the process, it's gone through a name change and picked up the first big platform update from Microsoft. The phone we now know as the Arrive is finally available from Sprint, becoming the first Windows Phone 7 device available on a CDMA network. These days, it's pretty unusual for an HTC handset -- or a handset on any American carrier, really, regardless of manufacturer -- to take this long to make it to subscribers' hands after announcement, but in this case, Sprint's hands were tied: Microsoft simply didn't support CDMA initially, which explains why both AT&T and T-Mobile have been enjoying a selection of models from Samsung, LG, Dell, and HTC alike while Sprint and Verizon have been patiently twiddling their thumbs.
The CDMA dry spell's over, though; the Arrive marks just the first of what should be several Redmond-powered phones over the course of 2011. Is it a fitting first effort? And how does it fare against the GSM models that beat it to market? Read on.
The Arrive comes boxed in very standard, ordinary Sprint packaging -- nothing special here. Carriers generally seem to be saving the stand-out package designs for flagship models, which should give you an idea of how Sprint's viewing and positioning this model (had they been able to sell it five months ago alongside the first round of GSM devices, we suspect it could've been a different story). In the box you'll find a glossy black USB wall charger (the same one we've seen bundled with most recent HTCs), micro-USB cable, black stereo earbuds, and the usual bag of literature. Our review unit came with the battery already installed, but your mileage may vary.
Pulling the phone out for the first time is a refreshing experience, in a way, especially if you've handled any HTCs in the past year or so. Why? Well, in a word, it's... different. Sure, it shares many design elements with a variety of 2010 HTC models, but we get the vague sense that this one was designed by a team with a little bit of creative freedom. The most obvious example of that is the slide-tilt mechanism, which is totally unique in the company's hardware portfolio (more on it in a bit), despite the fact that it was likely designed and engineered around the same time as the Desire Z / G2 -- which has another utterly unique slide mechanism all its own. If anything, we suppose the Arrive's nearest design cousin might be the Surround, which makes sense -- we could imagine that HTC might be looking to visually differentiate its WP7 models from its Android ones.
Unlike some other QWERTY smartphones on the market, the Arrive feels solid whether it's closed or open. One complaint owners of the G2 have lodged is that the screen flops around a bit when the keyboard is stowed, but you won't have any of that here -- until you get to the end of the slide, the screen stays flat and tight in its track without any wiggle or slop (the G2's issues are partly due to the fact that you're working with a complex hinge mechanism -- there's actually no slide involved at all). The phone's heavy -- as QWERTY sliders tend to be -- but not annoyingly so; really, it's just heavy enough to unmistakably convey that all-important "substantial" feel.
The keyboard itself is really well-designed (and at this point, HTC's garnered enough experience with this form factor so that they don't have much excuse to put out a stinker). Compared to LG's Quantum -- the only other landscape QWERTY Windows Phone 7 slider currently offered in the US -- we definitely prefer the Arrive. Button size and clickiness ranges from "good" to "great" on both devices, but the Arrive takes the trophy for two big reasons: one, it lacks the Quantum's bizarre shift and function key placement; and two, it's a five-row setup (compared to the Quantum's four) with a dedicated numeric row. The keyboard's ventilated (though almost certainly non-functional) surround looks awesome, too -- it's a style we've really liked going all the way back to Verizon's Imagio.
Going back to the slide mechanism, it's very tight -- almost to the point of feeling like it could use a squirt of WD-40 -- and lacks any sort of spring loading to "pop" it open (which the Quantum has, by the way). When you extend the slide to the very end of its range, though, a spring-loaded swivel takes over, tilting the display about 30 degrees upwards -- perfect for typing, but perhaps a little shallow for watching videos. We're not complaining -- we wouldn't want it to tilt any further automatically -- but a second user-selectable detent might be nice. Interestingly, we found that you can reliably extend the slide just shy of the swivel point and leave it there because the slide's tight enough to keep the screen fixed in its position; this lets you use the keyboard with the screen flat like a traditional QWERTY slider. It's unclear if HTC intended to do this, but regardless, it works well.
The left edge of the phone features a thick, curved volume rocker that looks good and works well (a stark contrast to the dodgy one on HTC's Thunderbolt) -- it's easy to find without hunting or looking for it. Similarly, the position, shape, and tactile response of the power button on top (next to the 3.5mm headphone jack) are all near perfect. Around back, you've got a real brushed-metal battery cover -- a nice, premium touch -- but you might be stymied at first trying to get it open. Turns out the notch you can use for leverage in prying it off is only accessible when the screen is fully deployed and tilted, which causes a hinged bar along the right edge of the phone to swivel upwards (the notch is underneath). Of course, it's a little awkward to pry the cover off with the screen tilted like this, but you really shouldn't need to get in there too often; like most other Windows Phone 7 devices, the microSD card isn't user-accessible, and it's not a global phone so there's no SIM to worry about. In fact, the one and only thing in there is the 1500mAh battery.
Speaking of the battery, the Arrive seems to do a commendable job of holding up through a normal day. From 100 percent to the critical warning, we got 21 hours and 8 minutes of usage including a 40-minute voice call, two hours of I Love Katamari, and one hour of Slacker at full loudspeaker volume. Unlike some smartphones we've tested recently, we think we'd be comfortable leaving the house and working a long, hard day with the Arrive in our pocket and no access to a charger or a spare battery. For some road warriors, that alone could be a deciding factor.
One area while the Arrive falls short is the display: at 3.6 inches, it's a little cramped. It's not a problem, per se -- but when you put it alongside a Samsung Focus or an HTC HD7, the difference becomes noticeable. What bugged us more than the size, though, is the quality; in an age when IPS, SLCD, and Super AMOLED displays are dominating the mid- and high-end smartphone market, the Arrive's run-of-the-mill TFT LCD falls short. Contrast is noticeably worse than most 2011-spec handsets, and the colors immediately wash out when you tilt it to the side. It's on par with the Surround, HD7, and EVO 4G in this regard -- fine by last year's standards, not so fine this year, particularly considering that HTC's been using SLCD in almost everything lately from the Desire up through the Thunderbolt.
We had basically zero issues with the Arrive's sound quality, though we did have a rather unusual problem: it's pretty much the first phone we've ever used where there were situations we couldn't turn the earpiece volume low enough. We'd say it ranges from "normal" to "extremely loud" and bypasses "soft" altogether -- not a huge deal, but an interesting situation nonetheless. The loudspeaker -- located on the same metal bar around back as the camera lens -- performs admirably, though it does tend to muffle quite a bit when the phone is sat back-down on a surface because that metal bar is the furthest-protruding surface. Many phones make small design allowances for this -- either with a protrusion to get the speaker holes off the surface (as with the Galaxy S series) or by placing the holes along the edge or the front -- and we're actually a little surprised that HTC would've overlooked this in a business-oriented device where a quality speakerphone tends to be a higher priority. It's still totally usable, but it sounds a tad funny on occasion.
The camera on the HTC Arrive is disappointing. It exhibits a lot of the same flaws as its WP7 sibling, the HTC Surround: over-exposure and over-sharpening in bright scenes, random blurry spots that look like severe compression artifacts, plus lack of detail and excessive noise in low light. We know from using other phones like the Nexus One, G2, and myTouch 4G that HTC can produce a decent 5 megapixel shooter. Since it's unlikely HTC is using more than a couple different 5 megapixel camera modules across multiple devices, we think this is a software / firmware issue. The Arrive captures reasonably smooth HD video (720p), although the audio sounds a bit muffled. But what's really exciting about video recording is that it supports continuous autofocus (!), just like the Surround. The camera interface provides the same minimalistic experience we've come to enjoy with Windows Phone, along with the same limitations: the flash setting is reset to automatic and the video resolution is switched back to VGA each time the camera is restarted. Like all other WP7 devices, the Arrive features a dedicated two-stage camera key, something we'd like to see on all phones. Overall, the shooter on the Arrive feels half-baked, and we hope HTC / Microsoft can address imaging performance in a future update.
There's not a lot to say about the software on the Arrive. And really, that's exactly how Microsoft wants it -- they've locked down the experience on Windows Phone 7 so comprehensively that you can seamlessly move between devices without skipping a beat. No skins, no garbage. There's something to be said for that.
There are, however, a couple notables worth mentioning. First up, Sprint includes a branded application, Sprint Zone, that's little more than a stylized RSS feed; clicking on news items and tips sends you out to the browser rather than keeping you inside the hub. The carrier's also got a curated list of recommended apps here that will send you straight to the Marketplace. The app's tile comes placed on the home screen by default, but like pretty much everything else in Windows Phone 7 -- thank you, Microsoft! -- it can be removed at the user's discretion. Secondly, as we've pointed out before, the Arrive is launching with Windows Phone 7's so-called NoDo update -- the platform's first with actual feature changes -- and that means that users now have access to copy and paste:
If you're coming from another platform, the way Microsoft has implemented the clipboard here isn't immediately intuitive, but you'll pick it up in no time. Long term, we think they'd be well advised to add some sort of mechanism for selecting individual characters -- the current system only works with entire words -- but it's a start.
After having used the Arrive for a few days, we think you could make a convincing argument that it's the best Windows Phone 7 device currently available. Problem is, that's still not saying much when you look at what's currently out there. Really, the landscape really hasn't changed much at all since the platform's retail introduction last year -- and HTC's upcoming HD7S could steal that title back by correcting one of the original HD7's biggest shortcomings, the weak display (a problem that afflicts the Arrive, too). That said, we'd argue that Sprint certainly picked one of the best manufacturer / form factor combos to launch Windows Phone 7 on its network -- and with the updates Microsoft's got in the pipeline, this one could be a player for many months to come.