Don't look now, but Windows Phones could become the top value-priced option for lots and lots of smartphone shoppers. Consider the HTC Radar 4G for T-Mobile, which offers Microsoft's easy-to-use and fun 7.5 OS along with an attractive aluminum design for $99. The device features a 1-GHz processor, a 5-megapixel camera, and a bright 3.8-inch display--plus Netflix. Read on to see whether this phone beats the sub-$100 competition.
Editors' Note: The HTC Radar 4G is available for free through wmdeals.com for a limited time, which is a great deal. However, we're basing our rating on the $99 carrier price.
The HTC Radar 4G is right up there with the iPhone 4 as one of the most elegant looking smartphones in its price range. The device has a sturdy aluminum unibody design, broken up by bands of white plastic on the back and a strip of white along the bottom front edge. The mostly glass front covers the display and a white bezel. This handset felt very solid in our hand.
The right side of the Radar 4G houses a long volume control and a dedicated camera button, and a power button and headphone jack line the top. There's a microUSB cable on the left side and a 5-MP camera, flash, and speaker on the back.
Weighing 4.8 ounces and measuring 4.7 x 2.4 x 0.4 inches, the Radar 4G is larger and heavier than the Samsung Focus Flash (4.1 ounces, 4.6 x 2.3 x 0.4 inches). However, the Radar has a larger display--3.8 inches vs 3.7 inches--and an aluminum unibody design, as opposed to the mostly plastic Flash. The iPhone 4 weighs the same as the Radar but has a slimmer 0.37-inch profile.
Display and Audio
The 3.8-inch display on the Radar 4G was impressively bright, making it easy to read e-mail and review photos in direct sunlight. The Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Focus Flash offers better contrast and superior viewing angles--making the Radar 4G's display look somewhat washed out by comparison--but this panel holds its own. We could easily make out the details of darker scenes in The Avengers trailer on YouTube.
The back-mounted speaker on the Radar 4G pumped out a lot of volume. The phone easily filled a small office with sound when we streamed "Help Is on the Way" from Rise Against. We had to back away from the max setting to minimize distortion, but the guttural vocals and jangling guitars were nice and pronounced.
All Windows Phone devices feature the same keyboard, and just like the others the Radar 4G's was fast and accurate. We also appreciated the dedicated .com and @ keys. Because of the narrow screen, though, some may prefer to type in landscape mode.
Software and Interface
Running Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango), the Radar 4G offers a very different user experience than Android and BlackBerry phones--mostly in a good way. The dynamic Live Tile interface keeps you up to speed by displaying incoming updates, and it's easy to move tiles around to customize the look and feel of your phone. Plus, you can pin all sorts of things to the Start screen, from specific contacts and web pages to Foursquare specials.
One of the other hallmark features of Windows Phone 7.5 is the People Hub, an address book you'll actually want to use because it displays social networking updates from your friends and followers from multiple services (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Windows Live).
The Groups feature is one of our favorites, because you can create a group of contacts (such as Family) and choose to see only their updates. You can also send a message to everyone in your group at once.
Windows Phone 7.5 stands out from other platforms in a few other key ways. Local Scout, found on the Radar's home screen, makes it easy to find places to go and things to do near your location. And you can switch apps easily by pressing and holding the Back button.
The overall interface is friendly and fun, with large and easy-to-read text and a panoramic design for hubs and apps that invites users to swipe. However, some options are too hidden for our tastes; you have to click the top of the screen to see your signal strength.
You won't find many software differences from one Windows Phone to the next, but HTC does include some of its own apps. The HTC Hub presents the time with a large clock, similar to Android phones, and swiping to the right will present the latest stock updates, news headlines, and featured apps from HTC.
Other HTC apps include Photo Enhancer, which lets you auto enhance pictures and add nifty effects (from Cinnamon to Vintage). Then there's HTC Locations (for sharing your location) and Connected Media (for streaming content from media servers). HTC Watch should be able to let you purchase movies and TV shows, but on our device we could only watch trailers.
T-Mobile bundles a couple of its own apps, including T-Mobile TV and My Account. TeleNav GPS Navigation is also on board for turn-by-turn directions.
Microsoft's app selection is improving all the time. All the staples are here (such as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and The Weather Channel). The game selection is also quite good, though many titles that are free elsewhere are paid here, such as Angry Birds. Trials are available, but you won't get very far before hitting the pay wall.
The Radar 4G comes with a 1-GHz Snapdragon processor (MSM8255), which proved plenty responsive when we flipped through menus and opened apps on this Windows Phone 7 device. Still, the Samsung Focus Flash packs a faster 1.4-GHz processor for $50 less, and it beat the Radar in some benchmarks.
We first ran WP Bench, which tests CPU; memory and storage; and GPU performance. The Radar 4G scored 79.62, compared to 94.91 for the Focus Flash. In a separate benchmark called Benchmark Free, the Focus Flash once again triumphed, scoring 6.3 to the Radar's 4.7 on integer and float CPU tests.
Does this translate to a real-word advantage? Yes, but not a dramatic one. The Radar was slightly slower to open apps, such as the Picture Hub and the Rocket Riot game, but gameplay was just about as smooth.
4G and Web Browsing
Although the Radar 4G rides on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, you don't get the carrier's fastest speeds because this is a 14.4 Mbps device. T-Mobile's highest-end smartphones can deliver a theoretical maximum throughput of 42 Mbps. On our tests, we saw between 1.5 and 1.8 Mbps downloads from the Radar. The Samsung Galaxy S II, a HSPA+ 42 device, averaged 16.2 Mbps.
The good news is that the Radar 4G pulled down web pages fairly quickly, taking 6 seconds to load the mobile version of CNN.com and 7 seconds for ESPN. It took a longer 15 seconds to render the full Yahoo page and 16 seconds for NYTimes.com. We're just not a fan of how IE Mobile handles tabs; they're two screen taps away.
E-mail and Messaging
E-mail and productivity continue to be among Windows Phone's strengths. Outlook Mobile has a clean layout with a handy conversation view, and you can link inboxes to stay on top of all your new messages. Attachment support is also robust (Excel, PowerPoint, Word), thanks to Office Mobile.
Threaded messaging within Windows Phone 7.5 allows users to start a conversation on, say, Facebook and pick up where you left off with texting. This is a welcome feature, but it would be nice to see Microsoft add more services such as Google Talk to the mix.
Music and Video
The Radar 4G is ready to entertain with not only music and video purchased through Zune but also with pre-loaded apps such as Netflix and Slacker. An episode of The Cleveland Show﻿﻿﻿﻿﻿ looked a bit blurry when played over "4G," but we could easily discern the characters and the animation was in sync with the audio.
While we really like Slacker in general, we found the app to be too slow to load and resume. Music fans will appreciate that Spotify is available for download now.
Camera and Camcorder
The Radar 4G's 5-MP camera is capable of taking quality photos, but you need a fair amount of ambient light. A shot we took of a pumpkin next to flowers had rich colors, and we could make out the pattern on a pot from a few feet away. When we didn't engage the flash, indoors images looked rather grainy.
It took this HTC phone about 3 seconds to fire up the camera when pressing the shutter button with the lock screen off, which isn't bad. However, we did notice that the camera was a little slow to focus (panorama shot, below).
The 720p footage we captured of the Manhattan skyline and a rooftop patio had accurate colors and fairly good detail. But we did notice that the camcorder had trouble adjusting from light to darker areas.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Although it took longer than we'd like for the Radar 4G to connect our calls in some cases, the phone delivered solid audio in both directions. When we dialed a landline, we didn't hear any fuzziness on our end. The speakerphone was plenty loud, even with it facing down when we had the handset on a desk.
The Radar 4G doesn't have a replaceable battery, but it has serious staying power. During our testing, we nearly always got through a full day of use, which is better than what we've experienced with Android phones. After unplugging the phone at 6 a.m. and using it regularly through the course of a day--web, e-mail, playing Netflix, downloading apps--we had 4 percent juice left at 7:50 p.m. That's impressive endurance.
T-Mobile has a very good selection of smartphones for less than $100, so the fact that the HTC Radar 4G belongs on your radar tells you how far Windows Phone has come in the last year. The dual-core-powered LG G2x is the better choice for Android fans, but first-time smartphone owners and anyone else looking for a more intuitive and engaging user experience should definitely consider this device.
Among Windows Phones, we give the edge to the $49 Samsung Focus Flash for AT&T because of its lower price (without a limited-time promotion), faster CPU, and Super AMOLED screen. But T-Mobile customers willing to give Microsoft's OS a shot will really like the Radar 4G's more premium design, slightly larger display, and better data speeds versus AT&T. The Radar 4G is a solid and fun smartphone at a reasonable price.