In some ways the HTC HD2 feels like a phone from the future. It boasts a positively huge 4.3-inch multitouch display that makes surfing the web, watching movies, and flipping through photos a more immersive experience. And thanks to its 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, this device offers the best performance we’ve seen yet in a Windows Phone, especially within the elegant Sense user interface. Just as important, T-Mobile went the extra mile by bundling the HD2 with all sorts of entertainment applications, including a Barnes & Noble eReader for eBooks and Blockbuster on Demand for movies. Unfortunately, the backbone of this device is the dated Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system, which occasionally rears its ugly, confusing head. Plus, T-Mobile’s 3G coverage remains spotty. So is this smart phone worth $199, or is it just a slick-looking bridge to even better Windows Phone 7 Series phones?
Make no mistake: the HD2 is large. In fact, some may feel a bit silly holding this slate up to their head to make calls. And yet the device slips into a pocket with relative ease (thanks to its 0.4-inch profile) and is lighter than the Motorola Droid (5.5 ounces vs. 6 ounces). This phone also feels solid, complete with a brushed aluminum back panel.
The capacitive 4.3-inch (800 x 480) screen dominates the front of the phone, which provides a big canvas for surfing the web. Pinching to zoom worked well, but in many cases we didn’t need to use this function because there’s just so much real estate. Video playback was also crisp, including the two preloaded Transformer flicks. We wish there was a kickstand, like on the upcoming HTC Evo 4G, but overall the display is tailor-made for movies, maps, and other apps that could always use more breathing room.
Underneath the screen are four smallish but responsive buttons: End, Home, Start and Back, and End. The left side of the HD2 houses the volume controls, and around back is the 5-megapixel camera and dual-LED flash. We wish HTC included a dedicated camera launch/shutter button. The 3.5mm headphone jack is on the bottom of the phone, which is awkward.
When you boot up the HD2 for the first time, you immediately know that this isn’t your typical Windows Mobile phone. And that’s because of HTC’s Sense technology, which prompts you to enter various account info (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) before you start using the device. The process is simple, and we like that updates start pouring in without you having to lift a finger. With the flick of a finger you can quickly scroll between Calendar, Internet, Messages, Music, People, Twitter, and More using the friendly icon-driven interface. The animated weather widget is especially cool.
Pressing the Start button launches the Start menu, which is populated with large icons for dedicated apps and categories like Games, Google Maps, TeleNav (for GPS), and YouTube. Although it’s annoying that you can’t move apps exactly where you want them on this screen—they can only be bumped to the top—you can populate the home screen with Quick Link shortcuts to your three favorite programs. You can also choose contacts or bookmarks.
HTC deserves a lot of credit for doing such a thorough skinning of WinMo. We especially like the little touches, such as how easy it is to turn Wi-Fi on and off by clicking the little icon above the home screen. However, there are plenty of reminders of the OS running under the hood. For example, the fact that entire e-mail messages don’t download by default continues to be a weakness. Plus, there’s no way to get to your entire inbox after you click on a message in the Mail app on the home screen. Instead, you have to open the separate e-mail app from the Start Menu. Such annoyances make the HD2 feel at times like it has two personalities.
The HD2’s huge screen cuts down on the number of errors, but we couldn’t type as quickly as we wanted. Despite the speedy Snapdragon processor, this phone had trouble keeping up with our taps. More frustrating is the fact that when you switch from portrait to landscape mode while typing, the keyboard disappears and you have to launch it again. Compounding our frustration is that if there’s a typo in the middle of a word, the capacitive screen makes it difficult to place the cursor exactly where you want it, forcing you to use the arrow keys on the soft keyboard. On the plus side, the HD2 does offer haptic feedback and suggested words to speed up text entry.
If you’re not a fan of tapping individual keys, you can use the bundled Swype keyboard, which allows you to type quickly just by drawing a line between the letters you want to enter on the screen. Using this method we improved our accuracy, even if it requires a bit of a learning curve.
A pretty robust 448MB of RAM and a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor make the HD2 the fastest Windows Phone yet. As long as you don’t have too many apps open, it feels snappy and responsive. However, the more programs you have running, the more the HD2 gets bogged down—just like every other Windows Mobile 6.5 device. For example, when we had the Blockbuster app (and nothing else) running in the background, the camera recorded a video that looked like a slideshow. Our advice: keep the task-killing app on the Start menu front and center on the home screen.
This is one of the HD2’s strongest selling points. The bundled Opera Mobile browser flies, delivering complex pages like CNN.com in 9 seconds over Wi-Fi. Websites look gorgeous on the large screen when you’re surfing in landscape mode. We also like that Opera supports tabs. The speed over T-Mobile’s 3G network was only a few seconds slower, but we wish we could access it in more places; both in our New York City office and central New Jersey, the HD2 fell back to the sluggish EDGE data network. Our only other complaint is that some sites, like NYTimes.com, would only load their mobile version, even after we tried to tweak the settings.
E-mail and Messaging
As you would expect of a Windows Phone, the HD2 syncs with Outlook, but this phone also makes it easy to set up AOL, Gmail, Windows Live, Yahoo, and other accounts. The device supports attachments for Excel, PDF, PowerPoint, and Word files. We just don’t like the dated e-mail interface or the fact that the HD2 doesn’t automatically download entire messages; in some cases we had to click “Message and all attachments will download next time you connect and receive e-mail”. Lame.
The HD2 covers most of the instant messaging bases, bundling AIM, Google Talk, Windows Live, Yahoo, and even MySpace IM. Unfortunately, when we tried to sign into Google Talk we got a “Request Could Not be Completed” error message.
Apps and Entertainment
This is where T-Mobile put in a lot of work. Almost in anticipation of owners criticizing the relatively thin selection of apps in Microsoft’s marketplace, the carrier loaded the HD2 with a ton of multimedia apps and some seemingly top-shelf games. The Blockbuster app, for example, lets you download current movies like Sherlock Holmes ($3.99 to rent or $17.99 to buy). T-Mobile also preloaded the HD2 with Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to show off this handset’s multimedia capabilities. In addition, the phone comes with a 30-day trial to MobiTV ($9.99 per month after that), as well as Slacker for streaming your favorite tunes. We especially like the Barnes & Noble app for downloading and reading eBooks on the go. The screen fits more text than the iPhone, and page turning was instantaneous, even if outdoor readability is limited.
It took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to download Sherlock Holmes over Wi-Fi, and the picture quality was good with plenty of detail. We could see every crevice of a wooden table when Jude Law went to pick up his gun. We noticed some dropped frames during action sequences, but the audio and video was mostly in sync. Streaming an episode of The Daily Show on MobiTV paused a few times, and the picture was somewhat pixilated, but overall the picture looked fairly good at full screen. It took only 5 seconds to start streaming MSNBC.
On the games front, the HD2 comes with trials of some big-name titles, but most of them disappoint. Guitar Hero 5 Mobile looks basic and bland compared to Rock Band on the iPhone, and while Prince of Persia is a decent side-scrolling platform game, performance was sluggish (especially with other apps running in the background). The best looking of the bunch was Ferrari GT Evolution, which utilizes the phone’s accelerometer controls well. Too bad the gameplay stuttered every few seconds.
Other noteworthy apps include FaceBook, Peep (Twitter), and YouTube. Peep was one of our favorites, as it lets you easily toggle between all tweets, mentions, and direct messages. You can insert photos as well. HTC also includes its own Music app, complete with a Cover Flow-style design.
The HD2 can easily double as a pocket camera for uploading photos to Facebook or sharing via e-mail. And if you take your shots outdoors, the images are good enough for 4 x 6-inch prints. The pictures we took of Herald Square in New York on a sunny day were bright, crisp, and full of color. The HD2 is equally impressive as a camcorder, capable of shooting smooth VGA video at 30 frames per second. In dim conditions, the phone’s dual-LED flash came in handy both when capturing still shots (as long as the subject was close) and video (though our Golden Retriever’s eyes had that creepy glow).
Call Quality and Battery Life
The HD2 made calls that were clear and plenty loud for both parties, and we appreciated the booming speaker. Can you leave that charger at home? It depends on how long you’ll be out of the house; in our tests the handset lasted from 8 a.m. to a little after 4 p.m. with moderate usage, including web surfing, watching YouTube, and playing a few games.
Saying that the HD2 is the best Windows Phone ever isn’t a stretch, but with the much more exciting Windows Phone 7 OS around the corner, does that compliment carry much weight? Yes. HTC and T-Mobile have teamed up to deliver a very intuitive interface and a rich selection of multimedia services, even though they’re not as integrated as iTunes. However, other phones with this processor offer better performance, which reminds us why Microsoft is moving on. If you don’t mind a smaller screen, we prefer the Nexus One for T-Mobile because of Android’s responsiveness and better app selection. Nevertheless, the HD2 is a satisfying smart phone that does a good job of browsing the web and entertaining users on the go.