ITG xpPhone 2 hands-on: Windows 7 on a smartphone

We got a little worried when ITG missed its January unveiling for the xpPhone 2, but yesterday, this Windows 7-powered smartphone finally made its debut public appearance in Guangzhou, and we happened to be there to scoop up a demo unit. Since we last came across the second-gen xpPhone, its ambitious Chinese manufacturer has dished out more detailed specs: the 17.5mm-thick device comes with a 4.3-inch 800 x 480 LCD made by Sharp, multitouch input, an Intel Atom Z5xx series processor up to 2GHz, up to 2GB of RAM, up to 112GB of SSD made by Silicon Storage Technology, microSD expansion and a multipurpose HDMI Micro socket (not HDMI Mini as we mistakenly said in our video after the break) that takes care of video, audio, data (USB 2.0) and power. Read on to find out what we think of this weird creature.

Upon seeing the xpPhone 2 up close it reminded us of an enlarged Nokia N8 (with a footprint similar to that of the 5-inch Dell Streak); except the former lacks a main camera on the back -- it's only equipped with a 1.3-megapixel front-facing webcam instead. You'll also find two call buttons and a power button around the top right corner, whereas the HDMI Micro socket is located on the left along the bottom side. There's no 3.5mm headphone jack, so here's hoping there'll at least be an adapter of some sort. Likewise, hopefully ITG will add volume adjustment function into the call buttons.

On the back there's a loudspeaker along with a small monochrome LCD for showing the phone's various statuses, caller number and eventually text messages (ITG's still working on Chinese compatibility). The battery cover and most of the body is made out of a smooth, sturdy magnesium alloy -- a huge improvement from the original xpPhone's cheap plastic body -- though we hope the final product will have finer seams. Inside it sits a huge 11.1Wh battery, which is almost twice as much juice as those on a regular smartphone these days. ITG has yet to confirm the phone's final weight, but you can imagine it being the equivalent of a slightly larger smartphone with an extra standard battery.

You may recall that the xpPhone 2 claims to offer an astonishing battery life of 18 hours of call time. Well, we found out that there's indeed a catch: it turns out that unlike how Fujitsu F-07C runs Symbian as the main OS and Windows 7 as a secondary OS (in which you can pick up incoming calls but not dial out), ITG's solution is to let the cellular circuitry -- including the small LCD on the back -- be able to run on its own when Windows is switched off. Even ITG's website says your communication won't be affected by a sudden BSOD. Without booting up Windows or using the main screen at all, you can use the phone-only mode to pick up incoming calls, dial numbers from a list as well as read text messages on the small screen (with the two call buttons also acting as your navigation keys), but you won't be able to tap in numbers or type text messages. To be honest, Fujitsu's approach seems more sensible in this aspect.

To make phone calls or text people, you'll have to use the xpPhone application in Windows (either by launching it the usual way or tap its draggable floating icon on top of all windows). It's very straightforward here: you get the usual dialing pad, contacts list and call settings; but what ITG's really pushing here is its self-developed VoIP software that allows free, 128-bit encrypted phone calls between xpPhone 2s. As expected at this day and age, your contacts list is synced to the cloud; and you can set certain contacts to let their xpPhone VoIP calls wake your xpPhone 2 up from standby on Windows -- pretty cool if this works well. As for the standard cellular connectivity, the demo units we looked at were all running on China Telecom's CDMA 1x 800MHz network, but there will also be support for China Unicom's WCDMA and China Mobile's TD-SCDMA -- this is simply a matter of installing the appropriate radio module at ITG's factory. To return to Windows, simply tap on the Windows icon at the bottom-right corner of the application's main screen.

The company's chief engineer told us that the xpPhone 2 gets between three to four hours of battery life on Windows 7, which is much more than the one-hour usage we got out of the F-07C, but definitely not enough for an active user especially considering there's no low-power OS as a backup. Either way, we shall see if the battery life is as good as promised when we get hold of a review unit. From a performance point of view, the desktop OS we saw felt almost as smooth as you'd get on a netbook thanks to its 1.2GHz Atom Z515 chip and 2GB RAM, and we had no complaints when playing a quick 720p clip of Girls' Generation, despite the loading of it wasn't as instantaneous as we had hoped. At no point did our phone get too warm but we shall check more thoroughly with a review unit.

It's a real shame that Windows 8 is months away from launch (ITG originally thought the new OS would be out in January, hence the previous event date for the xpPhone 2), so early birds will have to live with Windows 7's not-so-finger-friendly interface. With our demo unit we did struggle to hit some buttons, especially when trying to close the windows. On the bright side, the phone does come with a capacitive touchscreen (unlike its predecessor), which is one of the reasons for why ITG decided to ditch the physical keyboard; but if users need it, they can purchase a flip-cover style keyboard add-on that also packs a battery to double the device's endurance. As for your USB peripherals, the xpPhone 2 will have an expansion dock to take care of those.

The China-exclusive xpPhone 2 won't be cheap when it launches in a month or two: its various flavors (with either silver or gold highlight) will cost between ¥7,000 ($1,110) and ¥12,000 ($1,900), so it's not the kind of phone that you'd want to accidentally drop into the toilet. When asked whether this price range could be an issue to gain traction, ITG's CEO Brad Wu (pictured above) said the xpPhone's actually aimed at the likes of business executives and government officials, especially with its aforementioned "military grade" call encryption service. By putting out ads on TV and in subway stations, Brad hopes that office workers will choose the xpPhone 2 over the regular, less premium smartphones when sucking up to gifting their bosses. Well, we can already picture the awkwardness when one explains to the boss about keeping an eye on the battery while running Windows on the device.

While he's at it, Brad also gave us a little background on his company and himself -- after all, we were curious as to what made this 40-year-old Hunan man so ballsy. Prior to ITG, Brad graduated in 1993 with an electrical engineering degree, before joining P&G to help market its shampoos and Pringles chips in China (no, really). The CEO recalled the days when laptops were still too bulky and when phones were not very powerful, but one day the UMPC form factor came along, he looked at the OQO (which is now owned by a Chinese company, funnily enough) and Sony VAIO UX, and thought to himself that the technology was ready to bring the PC and the mobile phone together as one, which then lead to the xpPhone as his first attempt.

Despite knowing that he won't top the charts when it comes to volume, Brad doesn't seem too concerned. In fact, he doesn't take too kindly to the buzzing smartphone market: he reckons with devices "barely able to differentiate" in terms of hardware specifications, it's only a lose-lose situation for everyone; and to rub salt in the wound, he added that multi-core chipsets aren't that useful on phones compared to PCs. Very strong words there in a "post-PC" world, Mr. Wu, but we shall let the final product do the rest of the talking.