The HTC Smart has landed with O2 as an exclusive handset in the UK. At the press launch at Mobile World Congress, we were on hand to witness all those involved extol its virtues as an affordable smartphone. But does it fulfil this remit? Does the Smart offer you an affordable way to grab a slice of the action that HTC offer on their high-end handsets?
The first thing to note about the Smart is that it runs of the Brew operating system. Brew is Qualcomm's OS and is the same platform that you'll find in INQ's phones. Some might question why this isn't just a low-spec Android device as we did ourselves. The only answer we can come up with is that HTC is probably aiming to protect existing entry-level Android devices, the HTC Tattoo and the recently-announced HTC Wildfire, although the Smart is cheaper.
The HTC Smart gives you a 2.8-inch resistive touchscreen display with a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels, which is relatively low-res given the size. The handset itself measures 104 x 55 x 12.8mm and weighs 108g, so it is reasonably small and light. The screen doesn't entirely fill the front, instead leaving space for the slightly unusual button arrangement.
Across the bottom of the screen you get the normal calling buttons and a large back button which also doubles as a home button and an application menu button when already on the homepage. There is an additional small, offset button on the bottom edge of the screen panel which pops up options for the page you are on. It's an odd arrangement and doesn't seem to offer any great benefits, but once you get used to it, it doesn't pose any great challenges either.
Around the sides of the handset you'll find a dedicated camera button to fire up the 3-megapixel camera on the back and a volume rocker. One of HTC's Mini-USB connections lies on the bottom, whilst a 3.5mm jack is welcomed on the top.
The build quality is reasonable considering that this is destined to be a budget handset, although there are noticeable creaks as you manipulate it in your hand. The response of the buttons is good enough, but this is principally a touchscreen phone, so your inputs will be done via the screen, whilst the buttons handle a large amount of the navigation in and out of the various menus.
The fact that this is a Brew OS device probably means little to you because it is HTC Sense that you see. This is one of the attractions of the Smart: Sense is simple to use and offers connectivity with the likes of Twitter and Facebook, but less so here than in other devices in HTC's range. If you've experienced HTC Sense on another device and think that that this is a cheap route to all that goodness then beware – the offering from the HTC Smart has been cut down considerably.
Like other Sense devices, you are invited to plug in your details for Facebook and Twitter, both of which feed into HTC's FriendStream application. This will combine updates from both of those social networks, although we have always found that Facebook gets utterly lost in the heavy noise of Twitter.
To populate your address book you'll need to install HTC Sync on your PC which we found efficiently moved contacts in from Outlook. In the background there was some connection with Facebook contacts, but we did have to prompt some into making that connection, an action that can be triggered from a contact's details page. This then pulls in their picture too, giving you that rich look and feel that smartphones are known for, however we did find that some contact images would never stick in place. You also get a log of calls and messages and the option to view updates from Facebook.
This is where the richness sort of ends, as apart from a brief snippet of information on that update, you are diverted through to Facebook Mobile via the browser. It's perhaps a surprise to find there is no dedicated Facebook app, or any dedicated Twitter app, and no options for any other social networks.
And this is one of the shortcomings of Brew OS – there isn't the easy access to a world of goofy applications like other smartphones offer, so what you see is pretty much what you get.
You can update Facebook and Twitter through FriendStream although you have to manually change in the settings where you want to post your update too. You might not want to share some of your insignificant Twitter prattle with your Facebook buddies, but changing the options is a bit of a fiddle. You also don't get the option to send out a picture to Twitter, but you can share pictures with Facebook through the photo viewer options. Videos have no sharing option and there is no YouTube app either.
Aside from social network integration, Sense offers a number of other pages which you can pick and choose to get the information you want, swiping left and right to move across these pages.
So you get the wonderful weather that detects where you are and gives you the conditions for your location, you get a music player panel and so on. Messaging and email are handled separately, but offer up widgets where you can flick up and down messages for a quick read. The page widgets are "live" but do take a while to update once you arrive at them.
Accessing the application menu is – as we've said – done by pressing that back button when on the homescreen. This pops-up a 3-page application menu with big icons so you can pick what you want. It's easy enough to get to, but you also get the option of dropping shortcuts onto the homepage, accessed by swiping up, just as it is with HTC's Windows Mobile devices. This means easy access to your favourite applications, and once set you'll rarely need the menu.
The HTC Smart is powered by a 300MHz processor which is relatively slow by modern standards, so it doesn't really cope with being asked to do too much at the same time and it can be a little slow to get itself into gear. That's fair enough on an entry-level device, but the keyboard is a different matter.
We found that we had to slow right down to get the Smart to accurately respond to our touches. You can't fly through text entry like you do on the Apple iPhone or the HTC Hero, you have to take it slow. It's a shame because it will slow down those who are heavy texters quite dramatically. There are a number of devices with a keyboard that offer much faster text entry than the Smart, which we think it is the biggest challenge it faces.
Given the size of the screen and the accuracy of the touch response, we found that the landscape QWERTY keyboard was just too small to use. Too often we'd hit the wrong character and the QWERTY keyboard offers no predictive text like the T9 keyboard does.
Flip into portrait and engage the predictive text and we found things much better. The HTC Smart isn't suited to double-thumb landscape action, but as a T9 keyboard it just about works. There are some quirks however, like a language change key set on the keyboard. With a button press you'll find yourself typing in French. Fortunately you can disable this in the keyboard settings, but it seems strange to have this key sitting on a keyboard that is already cramped.
The other strange thing is having to enter a text entry field and then plug in the details, then press a back button on-screen to put that text into place. It's a bit of a fiddle, but you do get used to it with time.
The camera on the back will offer you 3-megapixel images, with a built-in LED flash too (which you can also use as a torch if you want). The camera demonstrates obvious lag when pressing the button and has little in the way of settings. The results in good light on stationary subjects is good enough for sharing online but nothing to get excited about – it's fixed focus too, so won't compete with autofocus rivals.
Video capture is strictly low res at 320 x 240 pixels and low frame rate of 15fps. This is typical of devices at the affordable end of the market and it means you get blocky and jerky video which is only really good for showing on the device as it will soon get lost in this brave new world of YouTube HD should you post it online.
It's great to see a 3.5mm headphone jack however, meaning you can use your own headphones and as a music player the Smart isn't bad. We like the fact that you can change the volume even when the screen is locked, which is great for when you are on a noisy bus or train. The external speaker is reasonable quality and loud enough to be irritating. There is an FM radio and Bluetooth 2.0 too.
In terms of memory, you'll be able insert your own microSD card to expand on the 256MB internally, which is probably the best way to manage your media. Format support is a little bare, but major music and video types are covered.
As a phone the HTC Smart is comfortable to use and we had no problems with call quality. One of the things we really like about the Smart (and HTC Sense in general) is being able to appoint favourite people. You then get a page where you get direct access to the people you contact the most and you can define what action the phone takes when you press on each person. Text your girlfriend, phone your mum, email your boss, that sort of thing.
The HTC Smart packs in HSDPA connectivity which will take care of your data, but there is sadly no Wi-Fi, which could potentially ease the burden for those with a home network. As such you'll fall into O2's "fair use" data policy as part of a contract, so it is worth asking what you can get away with when you look to buy it.
We mentioned that the Facebook updates take you through to the browser and as far as the browsing experience goes it isn't bad. Entering text is more of a problem than getting the browser to go off and fetch your favourite websites. If you stick to mobile sites then you'll have a much better experience.
Zooming is handled with a slider. It isn't as slick as you'd get on a high-end handset, but you wouldn't expect it to be either. We did find it a little slow off the mark, despite having a nice rich feed of HSDPA, so don't expect too much.
Battery life is generally good and we managed a couple of days on a single change, but you'll find yourself charging every night if you use it to listen to a lot of music, for example.
The HTC Smart is designed to give smartphone features at a price that all can afford. We'd have liked to see Wi-Fi or GPS, but understand that you can't pack everything into a phone aimed at the cheaper end of the market.
We're even happy to step around the closed system that it runs on. Yes, most other operating systems provide one-touch access to a world of applications which you don't get here, but for £10 a month on a 2-year contract, this really is affordable.
HTC Sense looks great, offering a good user experience and negates the need for some apps because it covers those social networking basics and offers you things like weather. It isn't as comprehensive as versions of Sense we've seen elsewhere, but it does bring some nice touches – like adding contact pictures (most of the time).
What we aren't sold on, however, is text entry. As a messaging phone it doesn't really hit the mark, although in fairness, HTC's Sense pages are swift enough to thumb your way through.
We were initially excited by the HTC Smart when we first saw it. As a package it offers a neat range of features unique at this price point, but the touch response makes it difficult for us to fully stand behind.