HTC knows how to steal the show. On the day that Microsoft "officially" unleashed Windows Mobile 6.5 on the world, HTC pulled the covers off the HD2, their flagship Windows Phone and one that leaves other Windows Mobile devices in its wake.
HTC have a history of customising interfaces from previous iterations of Windows Mobile to more recent Android devices. A large part of the HTC Hero's success was down to HTC's Sense UI, which now finds its way onto the HD2, although visually it is close to previous TouchFLO layer that HTC have used.
With a massive 4.3-inch 480 x 800 pixel resolution display, it steals the crown from Toshiba's poorly-received TG01. Unlike the TG01, however, HTC have designed this handset well, with neat industrial-looking lines.
It measures 120.5 x 67mm but it is only 11mm thick, so despite the large footprint, it is still pocketable. We've been carting it around in the hip pocket of our jeans, but with such a large glorious screen, you can't really put anything else in the same pocket for risk of scratching. It is perfectly suited to an inside jacket pocket, however, which is where we suspect HTC see this phone heading: a corporate world of finely tailored suits.
Running across the bottom of the screen you get the usual suspects in terms of control buttons: calling, Home, Windows and back. As we saw on the HTC Touch2, the Home button takes you to the front of HTC's Sense interface, whilst the Windows key takes you to the front page of Windows Mobile 6.5 and the new honeycomb interface (which can also be accessed through the "Start" option in the top left-hand corner on all pages except in "full screen" viewing modes).
Around the body of the handset you have a volume control on the left-hand side, but that's the only other hard button on offer. On the bottom you'll find the Micro-USB and 3.5mm connections. Around the back is the 5-megapixel camera, with a dual LED flash, sitting next to the outlet for the built-in speaker, which is rather good.
The phone itself is edged in a rubberised finish which neatly caps the top and bottom, as well as running around the edges making it feel secure in the hand. The neat metal backplate removes to give you access to the battery, microSD and SIM slots. It all feels and looks like the premium product that it is. One slight disadvantage, like the iPhone, is that you get a hard edge across your ear when actually using it for phone calls.
Power on and you are greeted with familiar setup pages from HTC, helping you to swiftly hook-up to a Wi-Fi network and taking you on to register on your social networks (if you want to), so you are instantly jacked-in to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Ominously missing is a connection to Google, which the Android siblings thrive on.
As we saw in the First Look of the HD2, the HTC Sense in this form is similar to previous iterations of HTC's TouchFLO customisation, but that's no bad thing: it is user friendly. Instead of being greeted with Microsoft's rather boring opening menu, you have the luscious HTC gloss on everything.
From the Sense front page you can swipe across like you can on the Hero, but rather than having 5 pages, here you move across the shortcut bar at the bottom, giving you access to what is essentially a range of widget pages. You can customise some pages as well as adding and removing widget pages, so you can dump Stocks, or Twitter, if you don't think you'll use them.
The more you dig through, the more it does look like Sense as we know it from the likes of the HTC Hero. You don't get the same visual pop as the screen changes, but it is easy to get around and you can run your finger across the bottom shortcut bar to land you on what you want to access.
On the front page you have three visible shortcut spaces, which you can add contacts, applications or bookmarks for instant access. The front page, though, has hidden depths. Swipe it up and the clock neatly folds away and you are into a customisable grid of shortcuts, so you can dump your favourite apps, contacts or bookmarks in here, so you never have to press that Windows button.
Contacts offers the same luscious visual experience. Arrive at the Contacts page and you again have a customisable grid where you can select your frequent contacts for one-press access. A great thing about this shortcut list is that you can choose what that shortcut does – take them to that person's contact details, or call one of their numbers, or perhaps directly into email.
You can have a regular list of contacts under "All people" which you can either flick to scroll through, or run your finger down the right-hand edge to jump to a letter of the alphabet. Of course, once you've pulled in Outlooks contacts from your PC via ActiveSync, the HD2 will pair them up with your Facebook friends - but you'll have to nudge it to do so – bringing in more info and populating the images and so on. It's a far cry from the bland Windows Mobile default Contacts display lurking in the back somewhere.
From a contact's details page you can pull up the Google Map of their location to instantly get directions, or move sideways to view their messages, emails, updates and call history too, which is a great person-focused approach and the very essence of the Sense UI.
The same experience ranges through messages and emails, with easy access to multiple accounts, be they POP, IMAP, or Exchange. Moving through to photos you can flick through your photos with a finger swipe, with pinch or double-tap zooming. Photos and videos can be quickly shared right from the off, with Facebook and YouTube links already established.
The Twitter widget page in Sense is pretty much like the Android version, letting you view, or enter Peep proper. If you are a heavy Twitter user, you might as well just add a link to Peep right from the front page to head straight into your Twitter feed, rather than scrolling across, but each to their own. The widget pages in Sense can be rearranged too, if you prefer.
Pressing the icons across the top of the screen will bring up your notifications area, which will tell you if you have missed calls, messages and so on, as well letting you view the mobile operator, Wi-Fi and battery statuses, so you can kill Wi-Fi or whatever you choose. Like Windows Mobile 6.5 proper, the lock screen on the HD2 also gives you notifications, so you can see with a tap that you have emails, missed calls and so on and get right to them.
What HTC have done with the HD2 then, is taken the pain out of Windows Mobile and they have done it in a way that takes the integration their own interface very deep indeed. In fact, in most daily tasks, you don't have to touch a Windows Mobile page – even the Settings menu as been reskinned. It's a beautifully refreshing experience as a result.
There will be occasions then you get a frightening reminder of what is lurking underneath, when you'll get a rough Windows Mobile 6.5 page punching through. For example if there is an error in your email setup or something like that, you get a glimpse back into the dark ages. Depending on how you use the phone, you may experience more of less of this, of course.
You also get those benefits that Windows Mobile brings, and with the HD2 packing in a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, Microsoft's operating system runs with a fair lick. Opening applications is swift and it copes with skipping around without getting bogged down. Copying and pasting multiple files from the memory to an inserted microSD card, for example, was quick and easy in File Manager.
The size of the HD2 also neatly sidesteps one of our gripes about Windows Mobile, and that's the occasional need to press a tiny "X" or "OK" to close a page. Here the icons are big enough to tap with a finger. Ditto the two options presented that the bottom of the page, usually to access the menu or make a selection. Here you can actually do it reliably first press.
And that is due to the HD2's capacitive touchscreen display. It means that presses are so much more reliable than before and you don't find yourself pressing away with no response. That response is essential when you move over to the keyboard.
The keyboard is HTC's own keyboard supported by their predictive entry which helps to iron out any mistakes that you introduce whilst bashing in a message. It is responsive enough to actually use at speed too and we found the experience to be very close to the HTC Hero – high praise indeed.
You get options for a full QWERTY, a compact QWERTY, or a standard 12-key phone keypad, but with the space on offer here, you never really need to dive out of the full thing, even in portrait mode. It will also spell check as you go, if you want it to.
The screen lends itself to photos and video viewing, which we’ve already mentioned and a YouTube app is ready installed to get you off to some online video viewing. With so much space available it also lends itself to browsing the Internet too.
You get multi-touch browser support in the form of pinch zooming, but once we really set it to task, we found it was not as reliable as the Palm Pre, occasionally stuttering around the edges of pages and bouncing back to the centre. Double tap zooming is also present, quickly snapping in and out of pages. Dragging pages around is also relatively smooth, not quite as good as some other rivals, but the best we've seen on a Windows Phone. This is partly due to ditching Internet Explorer Mobile in favour of Opera, so you get great full screen browsing which is relatively quick, with support for multiple pages.
The 5-megapixel camera around the back performs well but does suffer from some shutter lag. Autofocus will pick-up on your subject, or you can touch to focus, with touch and hold to take a picture, so saves you from the shake of moving your finger. The dual LED flash gives some hope to indoor snappers and ISO runs up to 800, but with noticeable noise.
Video capture comes in at 640 x 480 and seems to hold a regular 25fps fairly well, and we found the results were good – better than many mobile devices seem to achieve.
Another headline feature of the HD2 is its Wi-Fi router feature. Our Mac found it and hooked up with no problems at all, drawing data through the mobile phone network. Apparently on some phones you'll be charged for tethering, which isn't a problem here.
The battery life is also surprisingly good. You'll get a full day of average use from it. Yes, it will need charging every night, but with calls, plenty of data and a bit of everything else, it's seen us good. Those who plan to use it as a Wi-Fi router and make plenty of calls might want to look at getting a second battery however.
The HTC HD2 gives you a full smartphone experience from all angles. The tech specs are fully loaded, giving you HSDPA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, a digital compass, accelerometers, proximity sensors (so it knows when it is next to your face…). You get that 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, video capture that actually looks ok and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Then there's the responsive 4.3-inch high-resolution capacitive touchscreen display.
It wouldn't be fair to mark the HD2 down simply because it is a Windows Mobile device, despite that OS having a number on inherent problems. If anything, HTC should be praised for what they have achieved with the HD2 through their customisation.
But you do have to consider that when you push beyond what HTC Sense offers you here, you are back to Windows Mobile and that unfortunately includes a rather basic Windows Marketplace, which still looks a little sparse at present.
Another downside, of course, is that you have a giant phone. If you spend most of your time moving from home to desk via the train, this might not be a problem, but slip it into a pair of shorts come summer and you might want something smaller.