Smart phones with slide-out keyboards don't have the same glamorous aura as their touchscreen-only cousins. That's partly because they tend to be fatter and partly because they have the stench of business about them. HTC is looking to change all that with the Desire Z, however. It's a snazzy-looking Android phone that will be available for around £420 SIM-free, or free on a £30-per-month contract.
Just like its larger cousin, the HTC Desire HD, the Desire Z rocks a solid aluminium casing, which gives the phone a really sturdy feel. We wouldn't recommend hurling the Desire Z at the pavement, but you can feel it's a well-constructed device. The corollary is that it's also relatively weighty, at about 180g. That's 14g heavier than the Desire HD, which is also a hefty phone.
The Desire Z is also reasonably thick, due to the keyboard hidden away beneath its touchscreen. Measuring 60 by 119 by 14mm, it's a real slab of a phone. The question is this: is the Desire Z's Qwerty keyboard good enough to make us forget its hefty dimensions?
The short answer is 'yes'. Rather than slipping out on a sliding joint like most Qwerty keyboards, the Desire Z's keyboard swivels out on three separate hinges, so that, halfway through the Optimus Prime-like transformation, the touchscreen and keyboard are actually separated by about 10mm.
Pleasingly, this design means that the upper portion of the Desire Z fits right up to the edge of the deployed keyboard. There's a small space between the top line of the keyboard and the touchscreen, to prevent you bashing your thumbs when typing.
The small, rounded keys are decent, and they're separated from each other by a little sea of plastic. We didn't notice any disparity in the resistance of the individual keys, and none of them felt sticky or flimsy. We found the gap between the keys reduced the chances of us making typos. We also liked the large spacebar, as its size means both your thumbs will be able to reach it without too much hassle.
The keyboard has function and shift keys on each side. The shift keys let you type capital letters, and the function keys let you enter secondary symbols assigned to each key. Getting used to using the function keys to enter punctuation marks, for example, may take some getting used to.
The keyboard also features two keys that can be assigned to open particular apps or otherwise act as shortcuts. That's a handy feature, but you'll have to be careful not to hit them by mistake.
Typing on the keyboard is a comfortable experience. Our only real concern is that the hinge mechanism could prove fragile. Even though the parts involved appear to be made of metal rather than plastic, we're worried that they'll wear down more quickly than your 18- or 24-month contract does. We're also concerned that the delicate, flat cable that connects the two halves of the phone is exposed while the keyboard is sliding out, so dust or dirt could get trapped near it.
Around the edges of the handset, you'll find a lock button and a 3.5mm socket for plugging in your headphones. There are also mechanical volume keys, a micro-USB port and a camera button. On the front, you'll find the same four touch-sensitive buttons as can be seen on the Desire HD, as well as a touch-sensitive trackpad.
We're rather flummoxed by the trackpad. It's mostly used for scrolling around Web pages or blocks of editable text, but, after a few days of using the Desire Z, we can't see what real value it adds. The beautiful capacitive touchscreen makes scrolling a pleasure, and moving around text is simple -- a magnifying glass appears when you hold your finger on the screen for a moment, making it easy to find a specific word. The end result is that we never used the trackpad.
Touchscreen and processor
The Desire Z's 3.7-inch display is simply fantastic. It's not as large as the 4.3-inch screen of the Desire HD, but, with a maximum resolution of 480x800 pixels, it's so bright and colourful that you might not miss the extra real estate. Everything is rendered very sharply, and we noticed hardly any blurring around the edges of text and icons.
The Desire Z's 800MHz processor is weaker than the 1GHz processor offered by the Desire HD. But we thought the Desire Z ran smoothly nevertheless, making flicking through the various home screens and menus a real pleasure. We noticed the interface hanging occasionally, but only for a moment. The interface isn't as silky smooth as that of the iPhone, but it's a million miles from sluggish.
The Desire Z runs on Android 2.2, the latest version of Google's mobile operating system. The interface will be familiar to anyone who's used Android before. As well as a full grid of menu options, you're blessed with five customisable home screens, which you can pack to the gills with dynamic widgets or shortcuts to apps. You'll also have access to thousands of downloadable apps via the Android Market.
Android 2.2 supports Flash Player 10, which means you'll be able to kick back with some online video in the Desire Z's browser. This is a neat feature, affording you access to a far greater variety of video than you'd get on the iPhone for example, which doesn't support Flash.
Manufacturers often tweak the user interface of the vanilla Android operating system, as HTC has done here, with its Sense skin. Unfortunately, such tweaks can end up slowing down future operating-system updates, as the manufacturer has to tweak the software once more. Thankfully, HTC does a better job than most of its rivals when it comes to rolling out updates.
HTC's slick Sense skin adds some really neat features. For instance, when you lift the phone while its ringing, the ringing volume becomes lower. Turning the phone over will silence the ringing completely.
Another useful feature is FriendStream -- a pre-installed widget that incorporates your Twitter, Facebook and Flickr feeds into one long stream of social goodness. The Desire Z's contact book can also pull in updates from Facebook and Twitter, so you can see Facebook status updates from the people calling you, for example.
Thanks to the HTCSense.com service, there are a few excellent cloud-based services that Desire Z owners will be able to take advantage of. For example, once you sign up, you can track your phone remotely using GPS, make the phone ring even if you've left it on silent, and wipe the handset remotely -- a nuclear option in case of theft or loss.
Listing all of the Desire Z's features would take forever, and then a few minutes longer. It's to HTC's credit that it's managed to make a veritable ocean of features and apps manageable and easy to navigate. That said, this phone isn't as delightfully straightforward as the iPhone, which keeps things simple by reducing the amount of features available to users.
On the phone's back, you'll find a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and an LED flash. It's capable of recording 720p video. The camera does its job well -- video looks impressively smooth and judder-free, and we were impressed by the autofocus. There's also a selection of entertaining filters and effects that you can add to your snaps. They're hardly revolutionary, but these effects can cheer up an otherwise dull shot.
The Web browser is very slick and supports multi-touch gestures. With support for 3G and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, the Desire Z is well kitted out as far as connectivity goes.
Due to its ability to run tonnes of apps at the same time, the Desire Z's battery could last less than a full day if you use it a great deal. Make sure you have chargers stationed at home, work, the pub and anywhere else you regularly frequent.
With a usable and comfortable keyboard, and a slick touchscreen interface, the HTC Desire Z offers the best of both worlds. It looks great, feels fantastic and is jam-packed with features. But the keyboard does make the handset bulkier and introduces elements that could break.
If you really can't manage without a physical keyboard, the Desire Z will prove an excellent choice. If you think you could cope with just an on-screen keyboard, we'd recommend checking out the slimmer and slightly faster HTC Desire HD.
Edited by Charles Kloet