HTC 7 Pro

The HTC 7 Pro is one of the few QWERTY handsets available for Microsoft's shiny new Windows Phone 7 operating system, also appearing as the HTC Arrive variant for those on the US Sprint network. But will this "pro" model be a business workhorse or a consumer darling?

HTC do know a fair bit about QWERTY handsets, despite their strong portfolio of touchscreen devices currently across both Windows Phone 7 and Android. The HTC 7 Pro isn’t just a reworking of the HTC Desire Z, but is more akin to some of their older devices like the HTC Touch Pro2, back in the bad old days of Windows Mobile.

Things have moved on for both Microsoft’s mobile OS and for HTC, and the HTC 7 Pro shows all the attention to detail that you’d expect from a modern HTC device. Rather than being a straight side-slider like the Desire Z, it is a flip slider, so the screen pops-up at an angle giving you more space for the keyboard without resulting in a hugely wide phone when opened up.

The screen comes in at 3.6-inches, so it is one of the smaller Windows Phone 7 displays out there (whilst packing the defacto 800 x 480 resolution), but given the extra bloat that the keyboard brings with it, you get one of the heavier and larger devices around. It measures 117.5 x 59 x 15.5mm and weighs 185g. We noticed that weight in long calls and despite the slick design, the top edge of the phone is extremely uncomfortable to hold against your ear thanks to the sharp ridge along the top. That said, we didn’t have any problems with the quality of the calls from the phone.

Given that this is a Windows Phone 7 device, it conforms to those specifications laid down by Microsoft. As such you’ll find three controls across the bottom of the display - back, Start and search. There is a volume rocker on the left-hand side and a camera button on the right. The power/standby key is on the top, alongside the 3.5mm headphone jack. Charging/syncing is handled by the Micro-USB on the right-hand side.

The design picks up some of the notes of the HTC HD7, with two grills at either end of the face of the handset. They look a little like they could house stereo external speakers but they don’t - it’s just a design point. The external speaker is around the back, next to the 5-megapixel camera which is supported by an LED “flash”.

The slide mechanism is worthy of note. It’s fairly substantial and doesn’t pop open quite like the Desire Z does. One handed opening is pretty much impossible, so you have to grip it in landscape and use two thumbs to get it going. The top the slides over the base, revealing the keyboard then flipping up thanks to a sprung section once it reaches the back edge. The bottom of the screen then slots into a recess in the base, so it is securely opened. To then close it you need to push the screen down flat and slide it back across the keyboard.

Opening the phone reveals the indent that will allow you to pop off the back cover, which can’t be reached when the phone is “closed”. You won’t really need to access the internals that often anyway, because this being a Windows Phone there is no option for expanding the internal memory - you take the 8GB that HTC provide you and you like it, Microsoft encouraging you to take advantage of the your SkyDrive space that comes with your Windows Live account if you need more storage. Realistically speaking, 8GB is pretty respectable unless you really need to carry a huge collection of movies or music.

Sitting at the core of the HTC 7 Pro is a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor backed by 512MB RAM. This is pretty much a par-for-the-course configuration and once you power on the phone you are greeted by the happy smiley face of Windows Phone 7. We’ve covered Windows Phone 7 in some detail in our review of the OS, and things have moved on slightly since launch, with apps available to download through Marketplace hitting the 10,000 mark recently. If you are new to Windows Phone 7 is is worth reading our review of the OS too, as we won't cover all the details here.

For those worried about whether Windows Phone 7 is going to meet your app needs, we always say it is worth considering the apps (or services) you currently use. You’ll find the likes of Facebook and Foursquare are well equipped with apps, although Twitter’s official offering is a little slow compared to iPhone or Android alternatives. You can also get apps from companies like eBay and through the HTC Hub you can download a reasonable YouTube app too.

Of course the HTC Hub also offers you some other applications that you may be familiar with if you’ve used HTC devices in the past. There is a Photo Enhancer which will let you apply effects to images (with some basic options in the camera too) and there is a Sound Enhancer that lets you tweak the on-board SRS options, which will beef-up your music or movies. Of course, the HTC Hub icon on the Start page also reflects the local weather and opening it up gives you some of the full screen animated weather that HTC are known for. 

There are some areas that see Windows Phone 7 a little lacking: the elephant in the corner that is copy and paste is still forthcoming and advanced users might find that they can't always change settings to configure the phone exactly as they might want. There is no sign of Flash for the browser and Bing Maps, although fast and accurate, isn't as impressive as the latest iteration of Google Maps.

The size of the device means the on-screen keyboard is a little small, but we still found it easy enough to bash in text one-handed in portrait without too many problems. Flip the phone into landscape and you’ll be able to go two thumbed on the screen, but given that this is a QWERTY device, you’re more likely to flip it open and start bashing out your messages on the hardware keyboard.

The thickness of the phone and the size of the keyboard make it much more comfortable and natural to use than the Desire Z which is a real bonus point. One of the negatives is that Windows Phone 7 isn’t full conversant with landscape operation, so you’ll find that some apps never give you the option of landscape entry. Sure, you can pop-out the keyboard, hit the text box and start typing, but it’s difficult to follow text entering horizontally from bottom to top.

Fortunately the core applications: search, messaging, emails, Internet Explorer, contact profiles and the calendar all work in landscape, as do many apps that involve text entry, significantly Office, so you can drum up a Word document at your leisure. In fact we started writing this review on the device, saved it to SkyDrive and then continued work on the laptop.

The oddity, however, is that Windows Phone 7’s iconic wrapping wallpapers and sliding screens haven’t quite made the transition to landscape. So when you open up Office, for example, you have to navigate the app in portrait before switching to landscape for typing. You’re similarly restricted in Marketplace, Xbox Live, and the Zune music player. To be fair there isn’t much typing to be done in some of these apps and if you hit the search button, you can enter search in landscape, get search results in landscape, but when you click through you’re back into portrait.

The result is a QWERTY device that doesn’t quite hang together and offer a completely seamless user experience. In practice this is more of an inconvenience than it is a serious deficiency and given that the text entry experience of Windows Phone 7 from the keyboard is pretty good anyway, we’d sooner pick one of the larger touchscreen devices. However, if you intend to enter a lot of text, then at least this phone gives you that option, accepting that the experience has limitations at this time.

The keyboard itself is good, the device nestling neatly into the hands for double thumbed entry. The finish isn’t quite as nice as we’ve seen on some other QWERTY devices and there isn’t very much travel in each key so it doesn’t feel quite as positive as we’d like. The layout is conventional, offering up five lines of keys, so it is larger than many rivals. At no point did we find we had to stretch excessively either. The top line offers a full row of number keys, so numeric entry is easy without pressing and holding like some others will want you to do.

Some keys offer alternative characters highlighted in yellow which correspond to the FN button on the keyboard. However, a long press on the respective key brings up that character so the FN button becomes almost redundant, unless you want to toggle it on with a long press which seems unlikely unless you are writing $#!t. The Shift will offer Caps where needed and can also be toggled with a long press if you need to SHOUT something. The positioning of these two keys is a little awkward as you often need a capital letter on the fly and hitting the Shift is tricky - it would have been better in the bottom corner, rather on the line above.

The camera on the rear of the handset offers 5-megapixel photos offers up average quality of images, a little flat and lacking the sort of vibrancy we’d like to see, but is perfectly adequate for sharing online quickly and easily through WP7's in-built social functions. The dedicated camera button does mean you can easily launch the camera and the autofocus is fast enough on a half press of this button. Typically the flash is of little practical use, lacking the power to illuminate anything other than a very close subject and on the flipside blowing out anything too close to the phone - but this is common of most such arrangements.

Video capture offers a top HD 720p resolution, but we found that the camera reverted to 640 x 480 every time we left the app, so you’d have to reinstate the top resolution in the settings before pressing the button, which is a bug that needs to be fixed. The quality of the video captured isn’t that good either lacking sharpness and detail in anything by close work. It offers in-video autofocus, but this is a little temperamental and only really good for major changes in subject - often failing to notice that we’d moved something in front of the camera to examine.

Managing content on your device with a PC is easy enough, the Zune software offering up a great comprehensive interface to manage content with - including any device updates that come along. On a Mac it is less pleasant, with Windows Phone 7 Connector giving you very few options and imported video and photos being unceremoniously dumped into iPhoto with on options at the point of save. Still, it’s nicer to have the software than not, especially as you can't just mount the device to directly add and remove content - something we'd like to see in the future.

Battery life from the HTC 7 Pro is reasonable. In general conditions we could manage just over a day, although we found ourselves charging most nights to ensure we’d make it through the following day.

Verdict

Overall the HTC 7 Pro doesn’t impress us as much as we’d like it to. Windows Phone 7 in general is aesthetically pleasing and offers most of the features and connectivity you’d demand from a modern smartphone, but there is obviously still a fair way to go to capture the speed and excitement of Android or iOS. It did seem stable on the whole, with no crashes encountered during our time with the phone. The only thing that did fall over was email syncing with one of our Google accounts (only one mind you) that was solved by removing and then adding that account again.

The HTC 7 Pro offers up respectable hardware but is let down because the operating system isn’t fully conversant with landscape use. That means you’ll spend a lot of time switching back and forth between the two aspects, until, like us, you’ll probably decide that the touchscreen input is good enough and the keyboard gets used less and less.

QWERTY Windows Phone 7 devices are something of a rarity and we can see why Dell opted for a vertical slider with their Dell Venue Pro given the limitations of Windows Phone 7. The HTC 7 Pro doesn’t critically fail and is pleasant enough in day-to-day use, but it doesn’t feel like a complete experience yet.

Thank you to Expansys for the loan of this handset.