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July 16, 2010

HTC HD2 - Is it the Best Smartphone ever

For many years Windows Mobile users have been disappointed every time a new handset was announced because this or that feature was missing. Not long ago it was screen resolutions, people wanted VGA screens, before that it was Wi-Fi or GPS, 3D acceleration or camera flashes etc. This year HTC finally announced what everybody’s been wishing and waiting for. A Windows Mobile Smartphone that has every single feature imaginable (besides a QWERTY keyboard), the HTC HD2. Will this device be enough for the power user?
 

The Hardware

First we are going to look at what we’ve got here. With its 4.3inch WVGA display the HTC HD2 has the biggest capacitive touch screen on a phone ever and is the first capacitive Windows Mobile device. Made popular by the iPhone (followed by Android devices) capacitive touch panels enable multi-touch/point input unlike commonly used resistive touch-panels and a smoother finger interaction thanks to the glass screen. Another advantage of this technology is that there is no air gap between the touch-panel and the LCD display so optical clarity and contrast is improved reducing the need for heavy backlighting making power draw lower. Unfortunately traditional stylus (or any other conventional object, finger nail) can no longer be used.

Other than that, the huge screen is the first thing that will feast your eyes when you see the HD2, and the device’s second most important component is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset (QSD8250) which is composed of a 1ghz CPU and 600Mhz DSP. The CPU is a derivative of the ARMv9 Cortex8 architecture and includes an AMD Z430 GPU featuring a unified pixel & vertex shader pipeline (based on the Xbox 360 Xenos GPU) and is OpenGL-ES 2.0 compatible. To make it simple, it’s the fastest mobile SoC out now (nVidia’s Tegra APX is close but the ARM11 CPU currently used is holding it back). Besides those two important features the HD2 packs a 5Mpix camera with autofocus, dual LED flash, 448Mb of Ram, 512Mb of Rom, Micros USB port, 3.5mm jack; FM radio, aGPS, Digital Compass , and a lot more.


Better yet the whole package is only 11mm thick. The HTC HD2 is what every Smart Device fanatic has been waiting for. As you can see in the pictures the HD2 isn’t that much bigger than the iPhone and is actually 1mm slimmer.

The build quality is the best in the market compared to any other Smartphone. So far there are no noticeable manufacturing defects with the HD2, it feels tight in the hand and the metallic battery cover definitely makes the phone feels solid. Nevertheless, one thing to consider is that the screen is a huge piece of glass and dropping the phone will surely destroy it.

HTC Sense

The HD2 runs HTC’s latest UI called Sense (formally known as TouchFlo3D) and this is where the fun begins. Sense brings the dragon inside the HD2 alive. The UI is so far the best on a mobile device. It’s fast, responsive, nice & smooth. It’s not the easiest to use though, users need to get acquinted with this UI in order to get most out of it.

Any iPhone user would feel a bit of difficulty in getting along with HD2 once he switches and start using it. But this mainly is a reason behind some applications such as Outlook which might feel out of place, and the level of customization made the iPhone look like a toy. One critic said: “I had to re-accommodate myself to a device that does a whole lot more than the iPhone I was using; it does many things better and a couple of things worse.” in this case, though HTC HD2 is a bit of a get-use-to device, it spans a whole new prespective of UI once a user can handle it.

The Lock Screen

Reminiscent of the iPhone’s lock-screen slide icon, the Windows Mobile 6.5 UI features lock-screen slide too, which features a slightly enhanced sliding mechanism that changes depending on the notifications popping up on the phone at any given time. Just tap on the slider and you’ll get more sliding options expanding and letting you directly access the application (emails, messages, missed calls & voicemails).

At the bottom of the screen you have the date/ hour and if you have an appointment scheduled it will also show up down there which is really nice compared to the basic lock screen on the iPhone.

The only downside is that Microsoft obviously placed the slider at the top of the screen to differentiate from Apples’ iPhone, which makes it hard to easily access especially with a big screen device like the HD2.

The Home Screen

The Home Screen is where all the fun begins and this is when a user realizes just how big the screen is. Just place it right next to the iPhone which is rendering x2.5 less pixels (480×320/HVGA), it will show a whole new level of HVGA.

Even though it can look similar to the previous TouchFLO™, the new Sense Home Screen has some new tricks. The Major difference is the introduction of the six shortcuts; three are only visible at first so the user has to slide his finger up to access the rest.

HTC has also skinned everything from the world clock to the alarm, something that was long overdue. The home screen now features animated backgrounds. Either the weather or three different wallpapers that an HD2 user can easily select or even customize to his preference.

Sense Tabs

Without going into much detail about all the different tabs, the People Centric contact management introduced on the Diamond2 earlier this year has been refined with some nice Facebook® integration. For example, a user can now have direct access to his friends’ photo galleries via their contact card or the HTC Album. The device lets the user stream all the photos in real time and browse through them (pinch zooming).

Furthermore, HTC has removed the favorite contact selector and replaced it with a grid of 15 possible favorites.The nice touch here is that a user can assign different actions to each contact. In other words, when taping a contact picture it takes the user directly to the contact card and taping beneath it will dial the selected number beforehand or the other way around (assign a number/message to the picture and contact card to the name below).

The messaging tab hasn’t really changed, the same goes for the email tabs (it looks closer to the one on HTC’s Android devices). The internet tab now features bookmarks accessible via thumbnails which are a nice touch too.

The calendar has now been totally skinned so a user will never have to get close to Windows Mobile’s default UI. Creating appointments is now handled directly through HTC’s UI. The Stocks is left untouched compared to the last version unlike the Photo & Video and music tabs. These two tabs have a new landscape mode. When a user turn his device a nice 3D animation will be triggered and a cool looking cover flow like-menu will be presented (Cover Flow wasn’t invented by Apple, they bought it!).

Then there is the famous weather tab featuring some nice animation but still not really useful for anything other than basic weather forecast. The HTC Footprints Geo-localization feature is now integrated into the UI, and HTC Peep; an integrated Twitter client. Peep could need some improvements though, it’s slow to update, sometimes slow to scroll and the UI isn’t really intuitive. Finally, the settings tab encompasses nearly every settings menu in Windows Mobile. As far as any user’s concern, 90% of the setting via HTC’s UI can be accessed now.

General Use

According to a wide number of users, the HTC HD2 is the fastest and snappiest smart device ever used; yes it’s faster than the iPhone 3GS. Opening programs, sliding from tab to tab, and taking pictures, everything is nearly instantaneous. The underlying OS hasn’t fundamentally changed, neither did HTC’s UI (it can run on previous MSM7201 devices) so all this comes from the Snapdragon chipset. And this makes a user sit back and think a little bit about what’s actually going on here. Windows Mobile is currently still based on the Windows CE 5.2 kernel (since WM5 back in 2004) which isn’t even optimized for the latest ARM architectures (yes not even the MSM72XX) so everything is basically running in “brute force” mode. Just imagine what it would have been like if the HD2 was actually running on a new version of Windows Mobile. People wonder why the iPhone 3GS, which is a 400 MHz ARMv9 Smartphonee, can be so smooth compared to higher specification devices that uses a Windows Mobile OS; well that’s because in the case of the iPhone the OS is specifically tailored to the hardware. Just a few Binging or Googling for WinMo benchmarks and it will show that 4 years old devices sometimes come out faster than current phones.

Web Browsing

Some users, after heavily using an iPhone 3GS for a quite long period of time, were really eager to see how the HD2 stacks up against what is, in their opinion, the best mobile browser on the market, the Safari Mobile. Web browsing is usually what most users do on their Smart Devices, thus they really need something that works efficiently. Opera Mobile 9.7 is the default browser on the HD2 and the first thing to be noticed is that the v-sync problem found on previous HTC devices was finally fixed. No more screen tearing when panning around web pages (especially in landscape mode).
However, the browser wasn’t running in OpenGL ES mode even though it is supported. But it can be enabled from the registry but it’s buggy and slow. Thankfully, HTC finally decided to implement OpenVG drivers unlike earlier devices like the HTC Diamond, TouchPro and HD. Opera Mobile still can’t match Safari. The text reflow is a nice touch but it renders the pinch-zooming features.

For example if a user pinch-zoom on a picture in a news post the whole screen will jump to the left once fingers are released off the screen, because the text in the news article was reflowed to the left. On the contrary, tabs and the address bar are handled better in Safari, thanks to the thumbnails view.

Another nice touch on the iPhone is the way it handles YouTube videos embedded in a page. A user gets a thumbnail with a direct link to the YouTube application, in Opera there is none. Moreover, Opera has also a bad habit of not rendering pages correctly or just missing whole parts of a page, thus the refresh button has to be pressed often in order to reload the whole page. The full page overview is also better on the iPhone, the whole webpage can be zoomed in. However, it is already zoomed in by default in Opera, that is, if the page being accessed has a minimum resolution set. This can be fixed by editing the Opera configuration file, but it tends to slow down rendering speed.

This is not to say that browsing on the HD2 is worse. The user needs to accommodate to some of the shortcomings (just like first use of an iPhone). The 4.3” display coupled with the WVGA definitely makes up for it. Page rendering is usually really fast and offers all the advantages of Windows Mobile, like directly downloading through the browser and so on. The Opera Mobile 10 Beta fixes nearly all the UI problems and many other things, unfortunately it doesn’t support multi-touch zooming yet and the text is already reflowed in a weird way. Internet Explorer Mobile can also be used, but page rendering is slow.

Games

There isn’t much to talk about here other than the fact that the HD2 does indeed have an OpenGL ES 2.0 GPU (AMDZ430), and the games specifically coded to utilize OpenGL ES run perfectly on it. It has been tested with Xtrakt, Experiment 13 and Electopia, and reported that everything’s smooth.

Older WM games can work without any problems, however, there are few compatibility issues. But because they are mainly designed to be controlled by a stylus or directional pad, that are not available on the HD2, they are not a joy to play.

Multimedia

Multimedia browsing and viewing has never been Windows Mobile’s strong point and this hasn’t changed with 6.5 which still pack the old Windows Media Player that doesn’t natively support Divx / MPEG and a fairly crappy image viewer. Thanks to HTC this is partially fixed by their HTC Album application that sits on top of the OS. Codec support is still the same (HTC Album “uses” WMP to handle video), but the user gets a nicely laid out interface. It should be noted that WMV and MP4 decoding is hardware accelerated when using HTC Album (a WMP). Unfortunately there are still some major incompatibilities depending on the bitrate/baseline used to compress the videos.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Chipset support’s 720P decoding but because the player can’t even detect/open the files; this feature is totally unusable. Some users managed to play a WMV-HD trailer encoded in 720P ( bitrate 5500Kb/s ) in WMP, but because the file was located on the supplied MicroSD (not SDHC) the player stopped every few seconds to buffer, but when it played it was fairly smooth.

The other option is to use the famous CorePlayer application, with it nearly all codecs can be played (no AC3 support though) but everything is software decoded (GDI rendering must be selected to get the best results). CoreCodec has been promising better decoding performance and a new UI in CorePlayer 2 for several years now but probably won’t be released before the end of this year. The conclusion is that the HD2 can smoothly play any video file encoded in resolutions up to 800×480 (and a bit higher). Other than that, Microsoft should seriously think about upgrading their OS version.

Photo browsing is where the HD2 shines; with full multi-touch support the experience is the best on any device yet. And unlike the iPhone all photos can be sorted in any resolution. There are so many things done better than on the iPhone here, like the ability to see image properties, delete images other than the ones in the camera roll, upload photos/videos directly to Facebook and Youtube. The best part here is that HTC managed to overcome the 16bit limitation of Windows Mobile and render the images in what looks like 32bit, using an advanced dithering algorithm.

Speaking of YouTube, the HTC application is still one of the best around, and the ability to select the video quality is just common sense. There is no reason to justify why the iPhone absolutely wants users have lower video quality when they are in 3G / HSDPA instead of Wifi , that’s just another case of Apple deciding what’s best for the user!

The only thing missing from HTC’s YouTube player is the ability to sync your favorite videos with your online account (something that the iPhone does).

The music tab hasn’t really changed besides the landscape mode and the fact that it is faster to navigate through. Sound quality is fairly good and the Equalizer (Audio Booster) is a must.

Office Mobile, PDF and all the software on board

As usual, Microsoft’s Office Mobile, Adobe Reader and a whole lot of applications are included on the device. Because of the capacitive panel and the subsequent lack of stylus, HTC added multi-touch zooming into a couple of these apps (Office, Adobe Reader, Outlook, File Explorer). The implementation isn’t perfect but it gets the job done. This function can be enabled in nearly all of the applications installed on the device with something like Zoomer. What must be said here is that even though all those third party applications really stick out like a sour thumb because of their old finger unfriendly UI, they are what makes Windows Mobile so nice. You just feel like you have a small fully functional pc in the palm of your hand. On the other hand, Outlook mobile’s rendering of HTML emails is still abyssal compared to the iPhone and the only application that’s “missing” is HTC’s Taskmanager that was on the top right, but it can be added back by downloading a cab extracted from older HTC ROMs.

MyPhone

The Microsoft MyPhone syncing service is one of the best additions to Windows Mobile. It gets the job done simply and quickly, and can be downloaded for free from Microsoft’s website. Cloud Storage space is currently only 200Mb but the next version should pump this quite a bit. Hopefully it will add MMS syncing support and also run on Microsoft’s Live Mesh/Azure technology.

Marketplace

Unlike Apple’s iPhone, Windows Mobile doesn’t restrict you to an application store to install third party applications because as of right now Microsoft’s Windows Marketplace for Mobile is nearly useless in non-English speaking countries. Even in the US where most of the applications are available, the selection fairly small and the applications are a bit expensive. The most ridiculous part is that applications can’t be installed on the storage card! On a UX stand point the Marketplace application is fairly good and gets the job done. The UI still looks old though.

Camera

For the first time in history HTC managed to make the camera useful on one of their devices. This is mainly due to the fact that it no longer takes ages to load. Just click on the icon
and snap a picture or video. With the fix applied, the picture
quality is by far the best seen on an HTC device (the quality can be improved by applying some tweaks found on the internet and XDA sites). The small disappointment is the lack of 720P video encoding which is said to be enabled on the upcoming HTC Bravo Android device.

Connectivity

The HTC HD2 has nearly everything you can wish for in terms of connectivity. It is Wi-Fi B/G/N compatible (the N part has to be enabled through the registry), Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR, GPRS / EDGE / 3G / HSDHP / HSUPA 7.2Mb/s, aGPS and finally FM Radio with RDC (TMC can also be hacked through third party applications). Cellular reception has been good so far although call quality suffers a little bit because of the high volume of the earpiece (it has to be lowered a bit to avoid distortion).
The nice added bonus is the Wi-Fi Router application added by HTC that lets you use you HD2 as a wireless Wi-Fi router (connecting to your 3G network).

Navigation

The HD2 is one of the first Windows Mobile devices to feature a Digital Compass. To make use of this feature HTC included a compass application which looks quite similar to the one on the iPhone 3GS but with a nice twist. You can pin-point any location on Google Maps and a green dot symbolizing this location will appear on the animated compass to show you where and how far the location is. The latest version of Google Maps mobile also partially supports this digital compass. Ironically, Microsoft’s mobile mapping solution isn’t really supportive compared to Google applications, which are set as default mapping software on the device.

After giving enough time to test the GPS Navigation on the device, the Time-to-Fix is greatly improved compared to previous HTC devices and the signal coming from the transceiver is quick to be displayed on GPS applications. HTC have also included an application to download Satellite data that are valid for 7 days automatically to speed up Time-to-Fix and it works perfectly. And that is another area where HD2 beats the iPhone!

Thoughts and Conclusion

After more than 30 days of heavy use and testing it can be said that the HTC HD2 is currently one of the best, maybe even the best Smartphone available. The hardware is just phenomenal and HTC did a really good job on the software side. The HD2 hardware deserves something on a whole new level, a more upgraded version of Windows Mobile OS. Nevertheless, the Redmond OS has so many innovative technologies and services that can and will be integrated into a new version of Windows Mobile system, like Silverlight (for the UI, Bing Maps, and Photosynth), Zune Player & Marketplace, and Xbox Live.
HTC did an awesome job with the HD2 and came out with what is currently the best Smartphone on the market and the only Windows Mobile device this review recommends.
Now it’s Microsoft’s turn to deliver something great and do it as soon as possible. Currently, HTC started to introduce new devices with Android OS. The Android is an open source operating system, getting updated rapidly by Google on a monthly basis and gaining both market and consumer mind share every day.

Contributing Writer: Bander Zahran.

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