Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Gadgets for Geeks: HTC Touch HD phone review - iPhone killer?

I’ve recently got my hands on an HTC Touch HD (aka “Blackstone”), considered by many reviewers to be the best Windows Mobile “iPhone killer”. I’ll cover my experiences with the phone, and see how it stacks up against the extremely popular iPhone (the current 3G version).

First of all comes the “unboxing”, which to gadget freaks is something of a fetish…. There’s lots of YouTube videos of gadget lovers opening the boxes of their prized new electronic gizmo with trembling hands, providing commentary in a voice that frequently cracks with nervous anticipation.

I’m not quite that bad yet, so I was able to open the package the postman delivered with steady hands, and inside I found the HTC Touch HD’s cube-like box, black and stylish – it even had a magnetic clip to fasten it closed. At first glance it looks more like the box of an expensive piece of jewellery, and opening it did nothing to dispel this impression.

Inside, lying on a bed of what looked like black velvet, was the Touch HD. Similar in size to the iPhone, the Touch HD is a glossy piano-black all over the front, and it’s black everywhere else too, apart from the brushed-aluminium metal surrounding the rear camera lens.

Being a touch-screen phone, there are few buttons to spoil the sleek lines of the phone… in fact the only physical buttons are the power switch at the top, and the volume up/down on the left side, and both of these are almost flush with the casing so are barely visible to the untrained eye. In addition to these, there are 4 touch sensitive “virtual buttons” along the bottom of the phone (Call, Home, Back and End Call), located just underneath the screen.

And what a screen it is! At 3.8” diagonal it is the one of the biggest screens you’ll find on the current generation of phones – the iPhone’s screen is a noticeably smaller 3.5”. But it isn’t just the larger size that makes the Touch H D's screen so impressive, it’s its massively superior resolution – 480x800. The iPhone’s screen is a relatively paltry 320 x 480. In terms of screen size and quality, the Touch HD beats the iPhone hands down – its screen is bigger, clearer and seems brighter too.

The TouchFlo 3D interface used on the Touch HD is in keeping with the stylish black theme of the phone itself, so it isn’t quite as eye-catching as the colourful icons you’ll find on the iPhone’s main screen, but it works well and looks good.

The Touch HD’s touch screen is accurate and responsive, and most functions (including all the main ones) can be easily achieved with a finger, just like on the iPhone.

However, unlike the iPhone, the Touch HD’s screen uses resistive technology which means that you don’t need to use a bare finger to use it (so it works with gloves on, or with the included stylus). The iPhone is designed purely around easy finger-based control and its capacitive screen allows multi-touch – something the Touch HD’s resistive screen can’t offer.

The Touch HD, being a Windows Mobile device, does have some functions that aren’t particularly finger friendly, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and the stylus (which is magnetically pulled back into place with a satisfying click) gives a precision beyond even the slimmest finger.

In fact, I generally prefer to use a stylus for most things because of a problem common to all touch screen devices – finger prints.

These shiny gadgets and their beautiful screens can become blurry and ugly devices after a few swipes of a greasy finger (been eating Doritos on a bus and not had a chance to wash your hands? Then you’re gonna mess up your phone’s screen pretty quick!).

If you are a finger-phile or stylus-phobe then the iPhone is probably the better option for you; if you occasionally need to use your phone in the cold and don’t want to take your gloves off, or if you like munching greasy snacks while using your phone then the Touch HD is your best bet.

The Touch HD offers a number of different on-screen keyboards – from full or compact QWERTY, through to the T9-enabled “numeric” keypad as found on conventional mobile phones. I found the Touch HD very comfortable to use for text entry (both with fingers and with the stylus), and found its on-screen keyboards just as quick and accurate as the slide-out keyboards found on some other phones (like the Touch Pro and Sony Xperia).

Both the Touch HD and the iPhone are too big to comfortably use one-handed (unless you have unusually large hands that is!), so if you like to text whilst holding a drink in your other hand, these phones are not for you.

The Touch HD can store and play many types of files, from videos, applications and games to MP3s and Word files. To get the most out of it, you need plenty of storage space, and to this end the Touch HD comes with a Micro-SD (SDHC compatible) card slot, which supports Micro-SD cards up to 32 GB. Mine was supplied with an 8GB card, which was nice, although I’d recommend buying a larger one if you want to keep large collections of videos or MP3s on your phone. The iPhone lacks a Micro-SD drive, but comes with either 8GB or 16GB of internal memory. Due to the increased flexibility of a Micro-SD card, I put the Touch HD ahead of the iPhone when it comes to storage.

One of the main uses for phones like the Touch HD is music on the move – the Touch HD functions as a decent MP3 player, and is easy to control with a finger. The Touch HD has a standard headphone jack on the top, so you can connect your favourite headphones if you don’t want to use the ones supplied with it (which are adequate, but nothing special).

To get music onto the device you can either copy it across directly by accessing the Touch HD’s Micro-SD card by “dragging and dropping” from your computer, or you can use Windows Media Player to manage and sync your play lists over to the device. I’ve always preferred the “drag and drop” method over allowing an application to manage my music files, but the advantage of syncing music over via Media Player is that album art is automatically copied over as well (you can copy album art over manually, but to me this isn’t worth the hassle). I’m actually starting to get used to using Media Player to manage my music and sync it to my device now... dinosaur though I am when it comes to digital music!

If you have an iPhone you pretty much have to use iTunes to transfer your music over. It’s a powerful application, and its built-in music store makes it much easier to purchase music. For ease of use, and a seamless experience, the iPhone beats the Touch HD when it comes to music and music management. However, if you want freedom in the software you use to download and transfer your music, don’t want to be chained to particular providers and DRM systems, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty with some file conversion etc., then the Touch HD might be more to your liking.

The same applies with software. The Touch HD runs on Windows Mobile, so there’s a vast library of software out there you can use on it, including a lot of freeware. Some of it installs seamlessly via Active Sync, but you’ll probably find yourself having to manually install a lot of it – it’s quite straightforward, but not as user-friendly and seamless as the iPhone with its “App Store”.

If you want the freedom to fiddle around with settings and generally tinker, the Touch HD is what you want. If you want everything to be smooth and seamless, don’t want to have to fiddle with settings, and don’t mind it being more restrictive, then the iPhone is the better bet.

The Touch HD also includes GPS, which integrates with the included Google Maps software. The iPhone includes Google Maps as well, but I found it ran a lot more smoothly on the Touch HD. It’s no substitute for a full in-car GPS system (and Google Maps comes with a warning not to use it whilst driving), but it is handy, and can help you plan a route. You can also use Satellite View and take a look at the roof of your house. Pointless, but impressive, particularly to gadget fans!

The Touch HD includes a 5 megapixel camera (compared to the 2 megapixel one on the iPhone), which is adequate, but not great despite its high resolution – due to lack of a flash, in low-light conditions if you don’t hold the camera perfectly still it will produce a blurred image.

(both pics taken with the Touch HD, then scaled down for display on the web)

However, in well-lit conditions the results are perfectly acceptable. The camera seems quite slow to activate though, which can be a problem if you need to take a photo quickly…. it takes about 3 seconds to configure itself. You can make the camera more responsive by changing some settings, but the quality will be reduced.

It also functions as a video camera, which produces surprisingly decent quality footage. As well as the main camera on the front, the Touch HD includes a smaller, low-resolution camera on the back that can be used for 3G video calls, but also used to take pictures of yourself (or you can use it as a kind of high-tech virtual mirror if you want).

The Touch HD makes connecting to your existing email accounts extremely easy. I got my GMail set up in about 30 seconds, and I've never set up email on a mobile phone before (and never set up GMail with a separate mail client before either). Its easy and comfortable to read the emails thanks to the large screen, and replying is quick and easy with the stylus. Its probably quick and easy with fingers as well if you use the t-9 enabled virtual keyboards, but I've always disliked any kind of predictive text so I haven't done much testing of that aspect.

Both the Touch HD and the iPhone have a number of functions that are useful from a business perspective - easy access to stock information, plus push email, appointment management and calendar reminders etc., but the Touch HD includes Mobile Office, which in my opinion makes it the better phone for a businessman on the move - it allows you to view (and usually edit) Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. Parts of this review were written on the train on my mobile edition of Word, and while its nothing like as comfortable as using a netbook or laptop, it was not the finger-cramping, frustrating experience I've had trying to write on older smartphones. It also includes a trial version of Outlook Mobile, which makes it easy to remotely access work emails and calendar information securely.

Another business-focused feature, which will appeal to gadget lovers even if they don't use the phone for business, is the built-in World Card program which uses the phone's camera to photograph a business card, and then performs optical character recognition on the image, allowing you to create a contact automatically, with the name, number and other details being "read" off the card so you don't have to type them in. Potentially handy, but great for novelty value too!

The Touch HD includes a voice-recorder program, so it can double as a dictaphone if needed.

One feature missing from the Touch HD, but present in its keyboard-equipped sibling the Touch Pro, is TV-Out. The absence of this is a bit of a shame, since this would allow the Touch HD to be connected directly to a TV or projector, and then it could be used to deliver a full presentation using the built-in mobile Powerpoint application.

But enough about the work-related features....can the Touch HD keep you amused when you want to relax? Yes it can!

As well as music, which we've already looked at, it can also be used to watch video.

I had a go with the built-in YouTube application and it worked very well indeed through my wireless network - you can browse all YouTube video content and watch whatever you want in full screen. I recommend looking up the Norwegian death-metaller Abbath parody video, where the clips from some of his music videos have been edited together to the sound of the Scissor Sisters "I don't feel like dancing".

You can use the YouTube application away from home too, but that could end up costing you a fortune if you don't have an unlimited data package with your provider, as those YouTube videos are a lot of KBs, plus if you're travelling through a low-signal area the video can become quite juddery.

I've compressed a couple of my DVDs down using the free Handbrake utility, resulting in files that are approximately 700MB in size. The high resolution (800x480) of the Touch HD means it can actually display video taken from NTSC DVDs (which have a 720×480 pixel image size) at full resolution. so you don't have to lose any detail.

Watching movies on the Touch HD is an absolute pleasure - thanks to the large screen and vivid colours. The sound is also good through standard headphones... through the built in speaker it can be a bit tinny when the volume is high. After watching the video I encoded for the Touch HD, I used it to watch some video encoded at the lower resolution supported by the iPhone, and the difference is noticeable - the iPhone-optimised video looked slightly blurred, whereas the Touch HD-optimised video was pin-sharp (as it should be, considering the Touch HD has a much higher pixel density than even a top of the range HDTV!). The lower-resolution was still perfectly watchable though, and the lower-resolution format is ideal if you want to cram as much video as possible onto your storage card.

I was surprised at the battery life when watching video.... I watched the whole of Shawn of the Dead (which runs for just over an hour and a half) at full resolution, and the battery was still at over 70% when I was done - quite impressive for such a slim device with such a large screen, and more than sufficient to while away all but the longest train journey. Although the battery capacity of the Touch HD, at 1350mAh, is 50mAh less than the iPhone, the Touch HD offers a longer standby time (but a shorter talk time).

However, the Touch HD has a major advantage over the iPhone in the battery department: you can remove it / replace it yourself, whereas on the iPhone the battery can only be replaced by Apple, and if you're out of warranty that can cost as much as 50% of the price of the phone! Replacement / spare batteries for the Touch HD can be picked up cheaply and it takes only a few seconds to change them over. Ideal if your battery fails for any reason, and it gives you the possibility of carrying a spare, charged battery for those times when you're going to be unable to charge your phone for a long period.

But I digress... watching videos on your phone can be fun, but what else can your Touch HD do for you entertainment wise? You can play games on it. Lots of games! There's a huge library of games available for Windows Mobile, and hundreds of them will work on the Touch HD.

However, there's a fair few Windows Mobile games that WON'T work on the Touch HD - there's two main reasons for this:

1 - the Touch HD doesn't include a D-pad. Some Windows Mobile games require the d-pad to control the action, and these may load on your Touch HD but you won't be able to control them.

2 - the Touch HD runs at a higher resolution than most phones, and many games, especially the older ones, don't support it.

It's not all doom and gloom though - many of the available games are freeware, so you can try them out, and if they don't work, you've not lost anything. Many commercial games have free trial or demo versions which you can use to see if they run on your Touch HD - if the demo works, the full game is almost certain to work too.

One of the games included with the Touch HD is called Teeter. It is very simple, but maddeningly addictive (or should that be frustrating?). It makes use of the Touch HD's built-in accelerometer, which lets you control the game by tilting your phone. In Teeter, the aim is to guide a ball around a small "obstacle course", avoiding falling into holes. It sounds straightforward,but, despite the tilt-sensor being very accurate, it's harder than it looks! This game probably isn't one to be playing when you're out and about, as you'll get funny looks if you're sat on a bus, carefully tilting your phone around in front of you and swearing profusely at it!

The accelerometer is also used in what may be the ultimate geek phone application - the Diamond Light Saber.

Its a freeware program, and once loaded it presents you with a black screen with a lightsaber hilt at the bottom. A quick flick of your finger up the screen and the glowing blade extends, complete with the activation hiss right out of the movies. Once your light saber is activated, swinging your phone around will cause it to produce the appropriate noises based on the movement you're making. You can even get it to play the Starwars theme music while you wield your virtual saver. Geeks of the world rejoice!

But what if music, video, games or even virtual light sabers aren't enough to keep you amused? Fear not, for the Touch HD has still more to offer - the Internet in fact.

While Internet access via your phone is hardly usual these days, the Touch HD makes it more usable than most phones. The large screen and high resolution let you fit more on screen, and keep text readable even when its very small. The built-in browser, Opera, is excellent, and lets you browse the web comfortably, using a quick double-tap to zoom in or out, or a drag of the finger to scroll around. Tip your phone sideways and, thanks to the accelerometer again, Opera switches the display to wide-screen landscape mode.

I tested the BBC's "iPlayer" and it worked extremely well, allowing me to watch TV programs on my phone - smoothly and easily, and in full wide screen too! Like the YouTube viewer, I don't recommend doing this away from your home wireless network unless you have an unlimited data plan!

The only downside is that the Opera browser doesn't support Flash, although flash enabled browsers for Windows Mobile will be available shortly, so this is only a temporary set-back. In fact, by the time you read this there will probably be several Flash-enabled browsers you can use on the Touch HD.

You can also get free applications for various Internet applications like Twitter and blogging. The Touch HD includes software to allow you to read RSS feeds, so you can keep up with your favourite news, events and people.

And if music, photography, video recording, Office, videos, games, light sabers, voice-recording, mobile TV, world-wide web, Twitter, RSS and blogging aren't enough, the Touch HD has one more card in its hand - it can also let you make and receive phone calls and text messages. Will wonders never cease?

Overall, it's a great phone - the best Windows Mobile handset I've seen so far. It packs more features than the iPhone, and its larger, higher resolution screen makes it a serious competitor - if you don't mind having to fiddle around from time to time to get things to work properly it's a winner; if you want a seamless experience right across your iTunes music collection, video and software, and don't mind being tied to only Apple-approved providers, then the iPhone is probably the one for you.

For me, I'd take the Touch HD over the iPhone any day. Highly recommended!

1 comment:

Christian Lin said...

Thanks for the great review. I've been eyeing for this phone for the past few weeks. May plunge for it later this year as it becomes cheaper.

See, I always like to use my phone with one hand even for sms (ie driving). I like the screen and like you, don't want it to be smudgy - but that means I have to use the stylus.. which requires two hands. Hence my dilemma.