The HTC HD7 packs Windows Phone 7, a totally revamped version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, into a gorgeously oversized case with a huge 4.3-inch screen. The OS still has plenty of room to grow, especially with apps and games, but we're impressed with the HD7's fresh approach and wonderfully responsive, swoopy feel.
Because we reviewed the HD7 before it hits the shelves on 21 October, some important online services, such as Xbox Live and the app Marketplace, were not fully up and running for our tests. Because of that, we'll be updating this review and re-scoring the phone when we can give them a full run-through. We'd advise you to wait until then before ordering the phone based on our review.
The HD7 will be sold exclusively by O2, and you'll be able to pick up a free phone on a £40 per month deal. It will also be for sale on pay as you go for £379.
Acres of fun
There's a sextuplet of phones launching with Windows Phone 7, and they're almost identical. Microsoft's strict minimum specs mean the six slabs of smart phone goodness all have at least 8GB of memory, 1GHz processors, at least 5-megapixel cameras and large screens.
The HD7 separates itself from the WinPho crowd with an epic 4.3-inch capacitive touchscreen. This is edging into tablet territory, and we love it. If you tend to sport a small pocket, beware, but we think bigger is better when it comes to screens. Surfing the Web, watching videos and using maps are just some of the features made that much better on the pure acreage of the HD7.
The screen is also one of the most responsive touchscreens we've ever had the pleasure of using. Its face is going up right next to the iPhone 4 on the Mount Rushmore of touchscreen phones we're building. Both the HTC hardware and the Windows Phone software get the credit for the buttery-smooth sliding transitions between screens and the snappy on-screen keyboard. The multitouch zoom, which lets you expand a map or photo with the pinch of your fingers, is another example of pure touch perfection.
We wish, however, that Windows Phone took better advantage of the HD7 in landscape mode. HTC has built in a little kick-stand in the back for chilling out in front of it long-ways, but most of the user interface doesn't play well with this orientation. It's not uncommon for smart phones to not support landscape in the home screen and the main menus, and it works fine in many places, but we missed it in maps.
The phone is also slightly uncomfortable to make calls on. Holding a huge slab against your face doesn't make you crave a long chat, and the ridge along the top of the large top speaker digs into your ear. In our tests, calls connected fine and sounded clear from both ends, but we think a phone this big is better as a mobile computer and media centre, rather than a comfy handset for those long calls to mum and dad. And it's worth noting that our sister site ZDNet UK has spotted a proximity sensor bug that could lead to your face messing with your calls, although we didn't have the problem with our test phone.
It's almost a pity that Microsoft chose to keep the Windows name on its new operating system, because Windows Phone is a total reboot compared to Windows Mobile. Gone are the tiny icons and reams of confusing menus -- Windows Phone is the complete opposite of its predecessor.
The user interface is finger friendly to a fault -- we actually find the tiles on the home screen too huge, especially on the HD7's epic screen. But there's no doubt they're easy to press with a fingertip. And everything slides, swoops and bounces with enthusiasm as you touch it.
The endless animated transitions could become tedious after you've been using the phone for months, and you just want to move around quickly. But they're slick and playful, and they draw you into interacting with the phone, which helps you discover features quickly and without any stress.
Menus and options have been stripped down to the bare minimum. Your options are to swipe to the left or right to reveal more stuff, the occasional menu that slides up from the bottom, and perhaps a couple of on-screen buttons in applications such as email. You can also press and hold in places to bring up a context menu. This stripped-down look is smart, and in general, we like the intuitive feeling of swiping, poking and prodding when we're trying to do something.
But occasionally, we found it hard to find how to do what we wanted. It took us ages, for example, to figure out that to delete a user account, we had to press and hold it on a list of accounts. We think it would be simpler to add a delete option next to the save and cancel buttons when you're actually looking at the account settings. It's a tiny quibble, but it's just one example of how such a simple-looking UI can have its pitfalls.
The simplicity extends to the HD7's home screen. Here, you can place widgets, known as tiles, that link to your favourite things, whether as shortcuts to apps or to specific items such as a music playlist or contact in your address book. Some of the tiles show animations -- your friend's Facebook photo peeking out under their name, for exmaple. And they can display live data, so the tile that opens your email displays how many unread you have, for example.
You can change the tiles' colour, and the background can be black or white, but that's it for changing the look -- you can't even have a wallpaper picture. If you love tweaking and customising, an Android phone is a better option, but we think the massive icons of the HD7 strike a good balance between elegance and customisability.
The HD7 also connects to a whole heap of online services, including Windows Live. That's the online suite that includes Hotmail, online Office docs, and cloud-based storage called SkyDrive. There's also Xbox Live for games, Zune for music and the Marketplace for apps.
It's easy to set up and sign in, but be careful -- the ID you use depends on whether you'd rather link your Xbox Live account, your Zune subscription, or your Windows Live account. You can add the other accounts later, but you have to pick the right one first. There's also support for Google accounts, including Google apps, and we found syncing email and calendars flawless.
Facebook is also built in, and we like how it's integrated with the address book so you can see your friends' updates along with their other details. But there wasn't a Facebook app when we tested the phone, so for events, groups, or any of FB's other features, you'll have to use the Web site. Ditto for Foursquare and the rest of our favourite social networks, although there is a first attempt at a Twitter app available, which needs some work.
We'll have to wait and see how many apps are in the Windows Marketplace when the HD7 comes out on 21 October, but there will obviously be an awful lot of catching up to do compared to the awesome Apple App Store or the up-and-coming Android Market. At its launch, Microsoft showed off apps from Tesco, eBay and National Rail, but none of them were available in our tests.
We also found it annoying that music results are included when we searched for apps. Searching for a decent Twitter app just led to a list of rap songs about Twitter. Funny, but useless, and a major downside since we can't imagine searching for songs and apps at the same time.
Games are similarly thin on the ground in Xbox Live, with Bejeweled the biggest name available. That meant we couldn't take the HD7's game graphics for a good test drive, so we'll be updating this review when we've had a proper go. Similarly, the Spotlight recommendation section wasn't up and running, and neither was the Web site to configure our mobile Xbox Live account. At least our account was easy to add to the HD7, and our avatar showed up with all our achievements, as promised. Stay tuned for more on this feature.
The lack of apps and games is one major reason why the HD7 might turn off avid smart phone users who are thinking of switching to Windows Phone. It will probably take months to get the big brands -- and the all-important virtual pints and fart apps -- into the store. You can still visit the Web sites of your favourite services, like National Rail, but there won't be an interface that matches the phone, you can't use them offline, and you won't see any of the features integrated with the phone or on a home screen tile.
Zune is like a Microsoft iTunes, and it brings music streaming and shopping to the HD7. There's also Zune software for your desktop, where you can sync your photos and videos as well as shop for tunage. We've broken down the best and worst of Zune on our Zune vs Spotify head-to-head, so check that out. Once we got the HD7 connected to Zune with the included USB cable, music, podcasts and videos all synced effortlessly. Even movies were converted automatically to a playable format, which is a treat.
On the phone, finding and buying songs is as easy as the proverbial pie, and they tend to be cheap -- 79p for a song and £4.99 for an album is very fair. And unlike on the Zune software and the Xbox, you don't have to buy Microsoft Points -- prices are in normal British booty. If you sign up for the Zune Pass, for £8.99 a month, you can also stream any of the songs in the marketplace straight to your earhole.
Caught in the Web
All Windows Phone 7 phones are going to sport some pretty mean specs, and the HD7 is a case in point. The latest Wi-Fi 802.11n standard and 7.2Mbps HSDPA keep you connected at home and on the move, and the Web browser does a great job rendering pages quickly and accurately.
There's no Flash in the browser, you so will miss out on some chunks of the Web. Since we got Flash Player 10 on our Google Nexus One running Android 2.2, we're addicted to having the option to see Flash, but very few phones have that feature so far, so we won't hold it against the HD7 too much. There'll be a YouTube app to play the best of the Web's movies of cats jumping into boxes, but it wasn't up and running in time for our tests, so we'll have to wait and see how it holds up to scrutiny.
We do have one big quibble with the HD7's Web browser, and that's Yahoo search. It's easy to search from the phone's home screen by pressing the touch-sensitive search button, and you're served a delicious-looking platter of results from Bing from the Web, news, and nearby locations that you can bring up in the map. It's annoying to jump from the search button to select the text field way up at the top of the screen -- the field should be highlighted when the page opens. But that's just a quibble. The real pain is when you search from the address bar in the Web browser and you get an ugly Yahoo results page that looks like it belongs on the cut-rate browser on a £30 feature phone. Blowing it up to HD7 size is a travesty.
O2 has made the same mistake by slapping a huge list of bookmarks for its WAP pages on the HD7, which look ugly and ridiculous on a phone that can deliver the mobile Web to perfection. You can delete the bookmarks, but you can't change the search provider settings. Here's hoping MS sorts that out double-quick in its update to Windows Phone, which is coming in early 2011.
MS has already promised that the update will add the ability to copy and paste, because it's one of the features that's been most requested by beta testers. The company says that you don't really need it, because everything on the phone is linked -- so if you see a number in a text message, for example, you just have to tap it to dial it, rather than copy and paste it. Numbers worked well for us in text messages and appointments, but addresses didn't get recognised as links. Even in the calendar, we couldn't click an address entered in the location field to open it in a map. We've seen this feature demoed in the past, so we were disappointed that it wasn't working in our tests, especially since there's no copy and paste to work around it.
Another unsurprising downfall of such a powerful phone, and such an enormous screen, is battery life. In our tests, we found we had to charge the battery every day under normal use -- so if you're having a serious surfing marathon, or using GPS for hours on a road trip, start looking for sockets.
The HTC HD7 gives Windows Phone 7 the best possible launch pad, thanks to its sleek good looks and big, beautiful screen. The new OS is swipy, swoopy fun and surprisingly simple to use. Without a packed-out app store, smart phone lovers may not be tempted to switch from the iPhone or Android phones, but anyone looking to upgrade from a more basic phone will find much love. Xbox Live remains a mystery for now, but Zune is music to our ears.
Edited by Nick Hide