HTC Desire Z

There aren’t that many Android devices that offer a physical QWERTY keyboard. The HTC Desire Z squares up against the Motorola Milestone 2 nicely, leaving other devices to mainly scrap it out for the mid-range dollars. Even with the Desire Z taking a position towards the top of the scale, it would be easy to knock it after a glance at the spec sheet.

Indeed, we highlighted that it had an 800MHz processor rather than the more common 1GHz processor in our First Look of the HTC Desire Z. But let’s do it justice - this is a second generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset and as such, it is decidedly more efficient than 800MHz models of old - in fact, it will offer better performance than many older chipsets clocked at higher processor speeds. 

As such, it sits under the HTC Desire HD from a performance point of view, but in general, the Android 2.2 operating system layered with HTC’s latest version of the socially integrated Sense user interface runs along at a fair lick, gobbling up challenges in its path. It is loaded too with 512MB RAM, which is average for high-end Android devices, again coming in under the Desire HD’s superior offering, but holding off the challenges of pretty much all other current generation Android smartphones.

In the hand the HTC Desire Z bears all the hallmarks of quality that we’ve become accustomed to from HTC. Metals and rubberised plastics give the Desire Z an incredibly tactile feel in the hand. Details, like the metal framing of the LED “flash” and camera opening add a touch of class, and we’re really taken with the battery cover. Slide the catch and the metal plate comes away to reveal the battery bay, also offering slots for SIM and microSD cards.

A side slider will never be as easy to design as a touchscreen-only device because you have to have the mechanism somewhere and you have to work with the two halves of the device. In fact, we were so unconvinced when we first saw the Desire Z in leaked photos that our news editor called baloney on the handset (we've even recreated that fateful shot here). He’s eating humble pie and we’re still marvelling at how HTC has managed to get the screen and the keyboard to sit so close once opened.

Often you have to contend with the thickness of the screen section and it can make the top row of keys harder to use. This isn’t a problem here because of the Z hinge that HTC has put in place. It springs open with real purpose, then sitting on the top of the keyboard almost like it is one piece.

It isn’t however, and this is where we see the shortcomings of a slider device. Although the opening action is excellent, it feels a little soft to close. We want it to be more substantial when open so you can manipulate the phone without it closing. When passing it across the table for friends to ogle, it would often close again. When open it does feel solid enough to use the touchscreen however, when gripping the keyboard with two hands.

In terms of dimensions the Desire Z inevitably gains some mm over similar-screened touch devices. Measuring in at 119 x 60.4 x 14.16mm, it isn’t exactly fat, and it will slip into any pocket or bag with ease. The 180g weight in the hand is moving towards the heavy end of the spectrum and some people we showed it to commented on this fact. It is both heavier and larger than the Motorola Milestone 2, which also packs in a 3.7-inch display, and is appropriately positioned to be the Desire Z’s chief rival.

But critically, the 119mm length of the Desire Z might be its biggest flaw. Slide out the keyboard and your hands have to wrap around this to get your thumbs to work on the keys. We’ve used a lot of keyboards, and although the key area of the Desire Z isn’t that much different from other devices, we found that the extra 10mm or so at either end of the keyboard made it less comfortable than we’d originally thought it would be.

The keys themselves are well spaced and the response is great, with a nice crisp action to them, but we never really got a rhythm going to bang out messages quite as adeptly as we’d like. To check we weren’t losing the plot we pulled out an old LG GW520 and found we could use it better thanks to the smaller frame of the phone. This is one to test in-store before you buy, as it may well come down to the size of your hands and the size of your thumbs.

One of the reasons the frame of the phone is large is because of that 3.7-inch capacitive touchscreen display. Coming in with 800 x 480 pixels of resolution, it essentially offers you the same as the Desire, and competes with almost all other high-end devices in the Android space, topped only by the iPhone 4 for pure resolution when it comes to smartphones. You get a pixel density of 252ppi, and it is both bright and vibrant, only falling short of the Samsung Galaxy S, whose AMOLED display trumps its rivals when it comes to serving up deep blacks and striking colours.

The touch response is everything we’ve come to expect from HTC’s Android devices and you’ll get the full touch experience you do with the Desire - so having the keyboard doesn’t mean you lose anything. You still get an excellent on-screen keyboard that works in both portrait and landscape. Predictive text and auto correction will help iron out your mistakes, although as always we found the haptics couldn’t keep up with fast fingers, so were quickly disabled.

Using the landscape keyboard on-screen means you lose a lot of screen space in that aspect which is where the Desire Z should really excel. Rather than always typing into a text entry box, you can be watching the live results appearing from your searches for example. Having a physical keyboard frees up so much more screen space and here you’ll find the same thing - space to enter details into a web page and still being able to see everything around it.

HTC has chosen not to include any cursor keys on the Desire Z, but it has included a tab key that will skip across live sections of a page and combined with the enter key means you can skip down a list and select something, be that a search result, flicking through your emails or whatever. To navigate without using the screen you can also use the optical navigator, which is again clickable letting you select and confirm actions.

Elsewhere the keyboard offers two shift and two Fn/function buttons, so you can use either your left or right thumb to select an alternative character from the keyboard. But the keyboard mapping seems to have a bug, where a long press offers up an alternative character, often not the symbol printed on the key. Press and hold “H” and you get offered “&” rather than the “*” printed on that key. However, press the Fn button and hit “H” and you get the “*”.

Fortunately a long press on number keys returned that number, but we’d have really liked to see capitals offered on a long press like the BlackBerry does, rather than the wrong symbol and/or a selection of accented characters we’d never use. Those using languages other than English may find this a real advantage, but having selected English as the keyboard language, we found this glittering array of accented letters to be of little use. One feature we like is the inclusion of two shortcut keys, which you can assign to any application, shortcut or bookmark you like.

Thus far, HTC Sense has been a portrait-only experience. With the Desire Z, it now gets to switch into landscape, with widgets and icons rotating when you open the keyboard. In some cases you get a little more from your widgets, for example half screen widgets which are a line in portrait are now a box in landscape and it all works very nicely.

Of course HTC Sense serves up its normal smorgasbord of connected user-friendly treats, some of which duplicate those core Android offerings but you do at least get choices - although we won’t attempt to cover them all here given the amount of time we’ve spent on them in previous HTC reviews. Some of HTC’s offering is dependent on using its services, so if you want to use the FriendStream widget you’ll have to sign into HTC’s Twitter and Facebook clients, rather than the native Android apps for example.

You could say you are spoilt for choice, and choices are something that you have plenty of, especially when it comes to customisation. The customisation menu is extensive, offering a range of widgets from HTC as well as any that Android offers. There is, for example, both an HTC and Android power control widget. You can alter the 7 pages that makes up HTC’s homescreens any way you wish, dropping shortcuts, links and so on. You can change the overall design, perhaps if you want a wood effect instead, as well as setting up difference “scenes” which change the entire theme of the interface, which we’ve always felt was a step too far.

Being an Android 2.2 device you get the inherent features that it supports, so you get the niceties of being able to turn your phone in into a Wi-Fi hotspot, you get Flash video support in the browser thanks to the Adobe app and things like simple multiple Google account support. Android phones are designed to walk hand-in-hand with Google’s Gmail system, so you’ll find your contact, calendar and email falls into place and you always get the option to switch off the synchronisation you don’t want, piecemeal, in the settings.

You also get the Android Market to add additional content, and although it isn’t quite on a par with the Apple App Store, we can’t help feeling that it is coming on leaps and bounds, with the addition of bigger names like Skype bringing their VOIP calling to Android 2.2 users.

We mentioned the optical navigator and this lies beneath the four touch-sensitive controls offering home, menu, back and search as you’ll find on HTC’s other Android devices. They do feel a little squashed however, as the touch buttons lie very close to the onscreen controls that sit on the homescreens and many applications. On occasion we found that we hit the device control keys rather than the application control we were looking for. This is probably something you’ll have to accept, although arguably, some would rather see the optical navigator removed and the touch controls moved further down away from the screen.

Usually for an HTC Android phone you have a dedicated camera button. This sits on the right-hand side of the top section. Volume controls lie on the left-hand side and these also double as zoom controls for the camera, which we found lead to some problems - namely that you can’t rest the phone on a surface to keep it stable (for a low light shot for example) because it triggers the zoom (as happened in the sample below).

That camera is a 5-megapixel model, capable of capturing some respectable shots, perhaps with a tendency to underexpose. The LED flash is rather ineffective, either blowing out close subjects or afflicting them with a greenish/yellow cast, but in this it is no different from other phones. Given good light, the Desire Z is fast to focus, offers an array of interesting tweaks, and you’ll always be able to download something from the Market if you want to go a little further.

On the video front it offers 720p capture, giving you 30fps capture, but sometimes struggles to hit that smooth number and some of our test videos did drop a few frames here and there. But, like the HTC Desire HD, you also get in-video focusing, so you can switch focal point by touching the screen whilst recording. It also seemed to respond to these presses faster than the Desire HD did. On the whole, imaging is pretty strong from the Desire Z.

The Desire Z is also a comfortable phone to make calls with, thanks to a softly sloping top where it makes contact with your ear. Of course you get the proximity sensor, so it disables the screen when you are talking and offers up a range of options when you take the phone away from your face.

New features come into this version of HTC Sense, including a link-up with an online companion site HTCSense.com. This offers smart features like being able to locate, ring and erase your phone remotely, as well as offering a backup of contacts and messages. As a brand new service we applaud its ambition, but we think there is still some way to go. As with the Desire HD, we’ve never got it to locate our phone, and some of the other features seem a little intermittent in performance.

You also get a new mapping addition and a car panel, with HTC having its sights on the PND market. Google Maps offers up free mapping, but if you want to go further, there is additional mapping backed by Route 66. We resisted the urge to fork-out hard cash for this service after a few searches that failed to find the location we were looking for, something that Google Maps doesn’t seem to struggle with. Of course, you get the rudimentary Google Maps Navigation as a free service too.

The browser experience too is solid, offering fast access to full websites, although you won’t get the same impact you get from the larger devices out there. Fortunately you can pinch zoom or double tap to reflow the text. The bookmarks are a little hidden for our liking, but you can always grab another browser if you prefer. As we mentioned, this model supports Adobe Flash 10.1, although the experience isn’t a direct translation of what you are used to on your PC, as you’ll still have to get round the target website offering up a mobile site instead, and some sites (like watching a 4OD catchup video) gave us an age-restriction pop-up that we could never get round because the video blocked the necessary on-screen button we needed to press. That said, we’d rather have Flash support than not, and it still makes it easy to view plenty of videos directly in the browser.

Video and music are served up with the usual HTC aplomb, although you don’t get the lavish attention of Dolby Mobile or SRS enhancement - so it doesn’t sound as good as the Desire HD. We like the fact that you have plenty of music control from your lock screen, so you can skip tracks or pause as you wish. You also get the option to stream content using DLNA from network devices although the video format support isn’t the most comprehensive. Of course, you do get options with Android and different media players from the default may offer you the support you need. With only 1.5GB of storage, you’ll need to add that microSD card if you plan to carry any amount of content with you. 

The battery is a 1300mAh unit and like other high-end large screen smartphones, battery life is the biggest challenge this phone faces. It will out-last the Desire HD, but we still found ourselves charging it every night, so the addition of the keyboard won’t offer any respite from that hungry 3.7-inch display in real terms.

Verdict

The HTC Desire Z should be taken from two angles. The first is that it offers a touchscreen smartphone experience that many will love, with HTC Sense offering up its easy take on Android and packing in plenty of connected features for you to enjoy. You get all the benefits of the current version of Android too.

You then move over to the keyboard, and despite the impressive opening of the mechanism and the slick way the two halves of the phone sit together, it just doesn’t feel as good to type on as some other smaller handsets. If QWERTY is really your thing and you crave those buttons, then give it a try to see if it suits your hands. For some, the partnering of the physical keyboard with HTC’s usual offering will be an absolute delight, for some, like us, it won’t quite hit the mark.

The HTC Desire Z is undoubtedly a powerful Android handset, but we’re yet to see how its rival the Motorola Milestone 2 will compare in a full review - there is always the chance it will take the top spot. 



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