Tuesday, 19 January 2010 10:00

HTC HD2 - I can't believe it's not butter!

By
After surprisingly positive reports on the WinMo 6.5-powered HTC HD2 when it launched in the US late last year, the HD2 has launched in Australia at last via Telstra, and with multi-touch capabilities along with an amazingly fast and smooth experience, it’s hard to believe you’re really using a Windows Phone instead of a jailbroken iPhone with a WinMo skin!

HTC’s HD2 has arrived at last, exclusively via Telstra at the special launch price of $829 outright (despite the press release listing a $979 price point), as well as being available at $0 upfront on an $80 per month plan over 24 months, and will be available from other carriers from March 10, mere weeks before the next iPhone will likely emerge.

Ah, the Apple iPhone. Like pure and creamy dairy butter in a world of artificially yellowed margarine, the iPhone stands out as having revolutionised the smartphone industry like no other, with the competition still struggling to match the iPhone experience, let alone beat it.

Promising interfaces and operating systems like Google’s Android, Nokia’s Maemo 5, Palm’s WebOS and WinMo 6.5 mega-makeovers like HTC’s Sense UI in the new HTC HD2 have arrived to further whet the appetite of the smartphone loving public, but Apple still towers above them all - despite the alternatives offering features like proper multitasking, removable batteries and Flash support, amongst others.

These are all features and benefits that Apple could support, if it wanted to, and some of which it likely will in the upcoming iPhone OS 4.0 software and the iPhone 4.0 hardware.

But while we expect Apple is going to shock and awe once more with the iPhone 4, competitors like HTC, who are playing on both the Microsoft and Google side of the fence, are competing with Apple’s present and future today, and have to rapidly innovate to stay in the game, with the HTC HD2 the latest WinMo powered offering.

HTC has evolved its TouchFlo WinMo skin/interface into the Sense UI for both WinMo and Android operating systems on HTC’s own branded devices to differentiate itself from the competition, and on the HTC HD2, it really shows.

Combined with a really fast 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a capacitive 4.3-inch touch screen, multi-touch capabilities and a customised and improve Opera Mobile browser, HTC’s HD2 delivers an experience that feels as smooth as as iPhone.

It’s surprising and shocking because it’s not what you expect from any Windows Mobile phone, despite valiant efforts by companies like Samsung and HTC to dramatically improve the WinMo experience.

HTC’s implementation of Sense UI over WinMo 6.5 is superb, seemingly almost completely removing the traditional Windows Mobile/Win 3.1 experience of old.

I asked one of the HTC technical people at today’s launch to show me if any of the old WinMo interface remained, and one HTC fellow said that he’d looked and had only been able to find the “Task Manager” app in the settings which still looked the same.

In the demo during the launch, we also saw some great integration with email, meeting requests and the phone dialler app.

What happened was that there was a meeting request for a conference that included a call-in number and a pin.

Once the number was touched to dial, and dialling commenced, a note icon on-screen (once finger pressed) contained conference details from the meeting invite, along with the pin code clearly visible.

Another feature is the ability to set up a 5-way phone conference call, something Telstra says is exclusive to its network and clearly a useful business tool, especially when self-initiated conference calls over mobile phones are normally limited to 3 participants.

This kind of smooth integration is clearly being delivered by the magic of software and is easily duplicatable by Apple, Google, RIM, Nokia or anyone else, but it is nice to see Microsoft and HTC delivering it first, showing that despite falling interest in the Windows Mobile platform as it currently stands, Microsoft isn’t standing still and with its partners is setting up for a mega smartphone fight!

What else can the HD2 do, what “first” has Telstra offered HD2 users beyond exclusivity, what’s one very cool iPhone beating feature that’s so useful it’s amazing Apple’s not doing it, and what are some serious disappointments?

Please read on to page 2!


Thankfully, HTC haven’t skimped on the specs of the new HD2, and in this case the new specs really make a difference to the experience, rather than being some hyped up add-on or capability that still delivers an ultimately disappointing handheld computing and communications experience.

While I’m going to need a much longer hands-on trial of the HD2 to deliver a final verdict, as everybody knows, first impressions really count.

Thanks to the inclusion of multi-touch capabilities on a capacitive screen, just like the iPhone and despite Apple’s previous patent proclamations, the ability to pinch to zoom and shrink in places like the email client, the web browser and photos delivers a truly iPhonesque experience WinMo has never offered before.

Even better, when multi-touch is used to zoom in on text, as you’d read on a browser, the text actually reflows to fit readably on the screen, even as you zoom in futher – instead of zooming in text and chopping off the left and right hand sides of sentences!

This is such a simple and obvious thing it beggars belief that Apple’s Safari didn’t include this capability from day one, and now that it has been delivered by Windows Mobile, it’ll beggar belief yet again if Apple doesn’t make a similar feature available in iPhone OS 4.0.

Typing on the HD2's new on-screen keyboard felt smooth, fast and eerily iPhonesque too, although from my initial impressions the iPhone still has a more forgiving keyboard AI spelling engine thus letting you type faster still on an iPhone for those with quick thumb-typing abilities. That said, it was very impressive for a WinMo phone, but you can't let HTC or Microsoft get away with the fact that Apple delivered it waaay back in 2007.

One feature it took Apple billions of years to offer is Internet sharing. Microsoft has offered it for some time, but with the HD2 it's had an upgrade and is now like Internet Sharing but on steroids! It's called Wi-Fi Internet sharing and lets up to 7 other Wi-Fi users share your HTC HD2’s 3.5G Internet connection. Sure, this will drain your battery faster than if you weren't sharing your Internet connection over Wi-Fi, but you can charge it while sharing and it does have a removable battery.

There’s also amazing graphics capabilities which HTC shows off with its weather application, embedded under the clock display of the HD2, which can send snow, clouds, sunshine and even thunder and lightning along with rain across the 4.3-inch display when invoked – it’s a nice graphical touch which HTC pioneered with the original HTC HD.

It’s also something that Telstra removed from the original HTC HD, lumbering users instead with a link to “BigPond Weather” which was a web page of information. The local head of HTC assured me today during the Q&A session of the HD2 launch it could be switched back on, but at the time, for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. Thank goodness HTC has made it front and center in the HD2 home page to stop telcos from trying to remove it!

Because this particular version of the HD2 is a Telstra exclusive, compatible with Telstra’s 850MHz 3.5G network, it can access the Internet with upload and download speeds twice as fast as the competition, while also offering paid extras like Foxtel Mobile with 31 streaming TV channels and the GPS navigation software WhereIs Mobile, amongst other integration with wide range Telstra’s BigPond Mobile and Sensis search services.

But in what Telstra says is a first, harking back to my comments about the weather app being blocked on the original Telstra-customised HD from a couple of years ago, Telstra is letting HD2 users make many more personal customisations than ever before, which I understood as being able to remove all the Telstra customisations and replace them with your own, except for one last area – the three big icons on the home screen under the clock.

These are still hard coded for BigPond, Foxtel and Sensis. It’s a shame Telstra couldn’t let go of these either, letting consumers put their favourite shortcuts there instead, but given that Telstra wants its users to use Telstra services, it’s not surprising to see Telstra still keep a major foothold on the home screen even as it relaxes its forced customisation grip in other areas, such as un-deletable favourites in the favourites menu and other "good for the telco, not the consumer" customisation quirks that don’t immediately come to mind, but were annoying at the time.

So, what are some disappointments in what is otherwise the most remarkable Windows Mobile phone to date, and what are the full specs? Please read on…


Well it’s not all rainbow coloured puppies suckling on bottles of magical unicorn tears – there are some areas and things that HTC needs to improve on.

To start with, there’s no front facing video camera. That means no video calls are possible, and even if video calling isn’t anywhere near as popular as voice calls, it’s a great shame to see it removed.

Then there’s the lack of any pre-installed voice dialling functionality, no stylus for those that want it (even though capacitive screen compatible stylii are on the market for iPhones), no handwriting recognition, no easily accessible MicroSD card slot (it’s under the battery, although thankfully a 16GB card is provided), no lens cover, no DivX/XviD support out of the box and no video-out capability!

There’s also no guarantee of any future Windows Mobile 7 compatibility, and with reports of LG saying its own WinMo 7 phone is due out in September or October, a sub-year phone replacement cycle in what is still supposed to be tough economic times might not suit all users, some of whom might prefer to wait for a WinMo 7 powered HTC HD3, or other WinMo 7 powered devices that seem set to arrive around the end of Q3 this year, but probably won't arrive down under until the end of 2010 at the earliest, and more likely in the first quarter of 2011.

Until WinMo 7 phones launch, and unless someone else truly outdoes the HD2 in the meantime, the HTC HD2 is a surprisingly solid and even enjoyable smartphone contender, and even more so when you consider that it runs Windows Mobile.

For WinMo users, it’s a very tempting upgrade, especially as WinMo 7 phones are still months away, with one rumour monger even recently suggesting WinMo 7 would be delayed until 2011, although many more reports say that next month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona will see Microsoft finally spilling the WinMo 7 beans.

They’d better be exciting beans, too, because if not, iPhone OS 4.0 mania from January 27th onwards will be in full swing and may sweep like a tsunami over the competition.

The HD2 is what HTC’s very first “Touch” model should have been like – had it been the iPhone’s current dominance would not have been assured. Now HTC has caught up, with Microsoft Exchange-using business customers likely to be the most excited by a business phone that can actually lay claim to being very cool.

The only problem is Apple’s circling iShark, which in its 4.0 incarnation could be bigger than Ben Hur and Avatar put together.

We’ll just have to wait and see, but in the meantime, go to a Telstra store and have a play with the HD2 for a WinMo experience that so tastes like butter I’m surprised that it’s not!

Full specs can be found here at HTC’s site, here.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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