HTC HD7 review

Touted by many as the flagship of the Windows Phone 7 armada, HTC’s 4.3-inch HD7 takes the prize for having the largest screen. But do more inches make it a better performer? Already we’ve seen those bemoaning its exclusive status with O2, but we’re not entirely sold on the bigger is better mantra.

It’s only fair to make a declaration before we set off on this review. This isn’t a typical review, because we’ve knowingly based it on a device that we know isn’t the final firmware - something that we know affected other review devices in the UK. However, given that Windows Phone 7 as an operating system is universal in its experience, and something we’ve covered in more detail in our review of the software, we decided to talk about the HD7 from a hardware point of view.

With that caveat, however, there come some restrictions - we’re pretty certain we’ve identified those areas that HTC is still to improve on the device, so it didn’t seem fair to award the HD7 a score until we have a chance to verify some of the facts.

The HD7 is a natural progression of the HTC HD2, launched back in October 2009. At that time it seemed like a huge handset, the most accomplished Windows Mobile device we’d ever seen and closer to a tablet than a mobile phone. It doesn’t feel quite the same today given the natural progression towards larger devices, but there is no escaping its huge screen.

Measuring 122 x 68 x 11.2mm, the 4.3-inch screen doesn’t make it excessively large. It is still relatively slim, but some might find it is a little large for their hand or their pocket, and at 162g it’s pretty heavy too. Others will revel in the space given over for exploring websites with Microsoft’s efficient new Internet Explorer browser (even if O2 has locked the default search in IE to Yahoo!). Despite the size and the HD name, the HD7 gets the same 800 x 480 pixel resolution display as other Windows Phone 7 devices.

Across the bottom of the display are the regulation three buttons offering back, Start and search. Elsewhere around the body you have the required camera button and the volume controls. The top of the HD7 sees the standby/power button, which is nice and large and easy to hit on the fly. On the bottom you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro-USB connection for charging and syncing (unless you opt for the wireless Zune syncing option).

The HTC HD7 is a close relative of the HTC Desire HD, but doesn’t get the same lavish design. The HD7 is edged with glossy rim that doesn’t reflect the same quality that the unibody design of the Desire HD does. It’s sturdy enough, sure, but we can’t help feeling that if HTC had a favourite, it would be the Desire HD. We also found that the volume rocker was a little loose and rattled when we touched it or moved the phone. Detailing around the top edge of the phone means it can be a little uncomfortable to make calls with for any duration.

Microsoft wants to be able to guarantee the consumer experience, so you won’t find the likes of HTC Sense here, with the alterations available to device manufacturers being restricted to exclusive app offerings, tinkering around the camera and that’s pretty much it. We've covered the Windows Phone 7 user interface in plenty of detail in our review (along with plenty of photos), so give that a read for more information. With the hardware having to meet Microsoft’s minimum specification, you get the usual 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, along with HSDPA, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and all the sensors you’d expect. HTC, looking to add differentiation, has its phones packing SRS and Dolby Mobile audio enhancement.

This ties in to a Sound Enhancer app available to download from HTC’s end of the Marketplace or through the HTC Hub. This enables switching between the various sound options and SRS makes a distinct difference to your music, putting real punch into the bass. On the video front, we found that Dolby Mobile noticeably widened the sound stage over the default settings - SRS in this case was too bassy and clarity was lost. Because there is no quick way to switch between apps on WP7, you'll have to return to the Start page to make use of the Sound Enhancer, but the chances are that once you've dialled it in, you'll not use it again.

The standard bundled buds are a little uncomfortable and easily bettered by using your own headphones - the 3.5mm jack means that’s no problem. You’ll need headphones to use the FM radio tuner and we found reception to be reasonable.

HTC is pushing the HD7 as a video device and has seen fit to include a kickstand on the back of the phone, the idea being that you can prop the phone up on a desk or tray table. This is fine for watching videos you load onto the device and the touch sensitive buttons mean you can still navigate without having to stab at a proper button. However, outside watching videos and browsing images or the web, the rest of Windows Phone 7 doesn’t rotate to landscape aspect, so we found we didn’t often use the stand - it isn’t practical for typing.

Fortunately the stand is solidly built and doesn’t add excessive bulk, fitting neatly around the lens of the camera and providing an opening for the rear speaker and dual LED “flash” that is offered. There is plenty of screen space for watching your video content. One of the launch shortcomings will naturally be the lack of internet video support on the Windows Phone 7 platform. We expected something of a fanfare at the official launch of Marketplace (midnight on 21 October) to announce those missing applications (YouTube, Messenger, Twitter) but we're still left wanting.

The arrangement if the dual LED flash means there is a fair amount of light to illuminate scenes, although we found the result was a green cast over low light images and a fair amount of noise still present, so it won’t replace your camera any time soon. You can apply a range of effects to both stills and video, including the usual suspects of Sepia, Negative and Solarize.

We’re suspicious overall of the camera performance and it looks like this is one of the areas that needs final software updates. Although we got some good close shots, we found that anything in the distance lacked any detail and wasn’t in focus. This is one area we’ll have to revisit.

HTC also offers a Photo Enhancer app which looks to make various tweaks to your photos. These aren't as whacky as we'd expected and are actually pretty good. The "auto enhance" seemed to do a good job of bringing a little more punch to photos and giving you a better final result. Other options will apply a touch of ageing to make your pics a little more distinct. 

The HD7 offers the 720 variety of HD which came in at a solid 24fps - as do all the other Windows Phone 7 devices available at launch. However, the HTC HD7 offers focusing in video, which not all do. This means you can switch subjects and it will try to keep things sharp. It also means that close items have much more detail than some of the fixed focus rivals. When moving the camera around you will see it seeking for the focal point before it settles.

Unfortunately the results we got from our review device didn’t meet the expectations we had for it, we suspect this is one of the firmware issues that needs to be updated. Close video work was fine, but it just wouldn’t focus at any sort of distance, so the video was effectively useless. We haven’t included a sample as we don’t think it is representative of the final results - watch this space, we will update you on this point.

Besides camera tinkering, one of the key areas for differentiation in Windows Phone 7 devices is in the range of exclusive apps that can be offered by manufacturers. In the case of HTC, it has a section of the Marketplace which offers access to its apps; these include the HTC Hub, which was pre-installed on our device. 

Through the HTC Hub you again get access to a few apps to download as well as being the location of HTC’s famous 3D weather. Enter the Hub and you get the familiar clock appearing, giving you the weather and offering up the conditions in different locations for you to swipe through, in full-screen animated glory. We knew HTC would get weather in somewhere, but perhaps an animated tile would be more immediate…

We found that Windows Phone 7 ran smoothly on the HTC HD7, although one or two unusual crashes raised our suspicions, as they didn’t fit the pattern of crashes on the other Windows Phones we have been testing. We suspect this is again down to firmware and something that needs to be fixed - we've seen it reported on other review devices elsewhere too.

With Windows Phone 7 offering a refreshingly uncluttered smartphone experience, it really plays to the HD7’s large display. You get plenty of space to type on and clattering out Word documents through the Office Hub is a real pleasure. We couldn’t, hand on heart, say that we’d take the HD7’s size over the Samsung Omnia 7’s AMOLED display however, which offers much better colour rendering than the HD7 and much better viewing angles: a noticeable shortcoming of the HD7 is how quickly the colour drops off when you glance at it from any sort of angle.

The other downside is the 1250mAh battery, which we found drained itself within the day without using the phone to any great degree. This may be improved by final firmware, but as we’ve seen with other large screened devices, battery life is always going to be a concern.

Our review device came generously equipped with 16GB of internal memory, which should be enough to store your essential movies and music on. There is also an 8GB version, so you'll have to see what is available to you at the time of purchase, as there is no option for adding additional memory.

Verdict

Overall the Windows Phone 7 experience on the HD7 is presenting on the large scale, which fits it perfectly. Windows Phone 7, although in its infancy, does offer a compelling and competitive experience and we find ourselves waiting expectantly for a few apps to fall into place, such as YouTube to enable some degree of online video support.

The build of the HD7 doesn't quite match some of the best we've seen from HTC, but for those that want to go big, the Windows Phone experience is pretty much unilateral. HTC's minor software additions through the HTC Hub don't really make a solid case for choosing the phone over any others, so it really does come down to wanting that big display and that 16GB of memory if you're lucky enough to have this option.

There is no doubting that the HTC HD7 is a great handset, but we feel we need to take a look at a final retail device before we can pin a final evaluation on it.