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Review: HTC Touch no iPhone-beater

November 8th, 2007
HTC hopes to cash in on the touchscreen craze, but falls short.

unboxing and what's included

The first inkling that HTC is hoping to appeal to the iPhone's audience comes quickly. While elaborate boxing is no stranger to cellphones -- our LG Shine came in such a package -- the design is very conspicuously designed to mimic Apple's multilayered iPhone and iPod boxes. The cabling is not quite as elegantly stowed at the bottom of the box, however.

What buyers first see on opening the box

All accessories on display

The leather case

One area where HTC clearly trumps Apple is in the sheer number of accessories included in the box. Besides basics such as an AC charger and an extra stylus, the Touch comes with an exceptionally useful leather case. In day-to-day use, it kept my review phone safe and was also easy to open; HTC uses a magnetic flap rather than a latch. The earbud and inline-mic combination also deserves special mention. The audio quality is nothing special; however, the buds have a built-in hook design that catches on the ear to prevent the pieces from slipping out entirely. In Telus form, the Touch also comes with a 1GB microSD card, which was certainly appreciated but considerably short of the 8GB built into the iPhone.

Like most cellphone manufacturers, however, the accessories are limited by an insistence on a proprietary data port. Apple is guilty of this as well through its Dock Connector and a recessed headphone jack, but at least that jack allows users to plug in higher-quality headphones and use audio-out while charging the phone. HTC's device is only usable with the stock earbuds and can either receive power or output audio -- not both. Confusingly, the Touch also includes an adapter that has to be used to connect to AC power.

The proprietary data port underneath the Touch

Frustratingly, adding or replacing memory to the Touch is also unnecessarily difficult. The microSD card slot is not only inaccessible from the outside, but inconvenient from the inside as well; the only way to access it is to remove the back cover and hold open a fragile side plate while inserting the card with a free hand. Users simply will not be swapping multiple cards with this phone, which negates some of the point of removable storage.

Accessing the microSD slot; the storage is hidden underneath the chrome plate

calling and the hardware interface

The HTC touch is based on Windows Mobile 6, and so most any commentary on the device applies to Microsoft's OS in general. For typical phone functions, the Touch works well enough; unlike the iPhone, the presence of hardware answer and end buttons makes placing a basic call a relatively quick process. The dial pad is large and includes a convenient "last call" notice to remind you of an inbound call you missed or an outbound call to someone who is still unfamiliar.

Calls themselves sound adequate; neither end of our test calls had any significant complaints about understanding each other, although calls were not as loud or as clear as on the excellent Sony-Ericsson W580i, even after boosting volume. Signal strength on Telus' network was strong in most cases and even worked on the very fringe of access, but tended to fluctuate more often than with previous phone tests. Thankfully, the volume rocker is easy to reach, though the calling buttons are spaced too far apart to be easily operated without taking the phone away from one's face.

I also find the directional pad somewhat useless, which reveals some of the first real chinks in HTC's armor. The actual mechanism is acceptable; but without dedicated Windows Mobile keys, the directional pad is only useful for some elements at best. That HTC released the Touch DUAL with the missing keys just months after the original suggests that the company already knew users would complain about the scheme before it shipped the first model.

Windows Mobile 6, HTC Home, and the iPhone challenge

Some of the vitriol directed at Microsoft's Windows Mobile by fans of Apple and the iPhone is misplaced. For many common tasks, like e-mail or SMS text messaging, the OS is genuinely powerful and sometimes outperforms the supposedly more direct interfaces of limited feature phones. And though Apple has promised true third-party software by February, Windows Mobile has more support right now and is more powerful out of the box. No one will use a WM6-based device as a full computer replacement, but Office Mobile and built-in communication tools (like full Exchange support and Windows Live messaging) make it a better choice for business today.

The stock programs in the Windows Mobile Start menu

Having said this, the HTC Touch all too clearly highlights the problems of using Windows Mobile for a phone targeted as much at well-heeled regular users as professionals. Simply put, Microsoft ignores those very features that a non-business user would consider important. Just basic navigation can be somewhat difficult: in addition to scattering settings and features across several different locations, the OS frequently contains buttons and scroll bars that are just too small to be used on a finger-sensitive screen like the one HTC uses. Despite the name, many Touch users will find themselves tapping with the stylus instead.

More troublesome are the Internet and media player functions, which are underwhelming if not broken. Internet Explorer 6 for Windows Mobile is just incapable of rendering most websites properly, often having to use a mobile-oriented, text-only page. Windows Media Player is also a pale shadow of its desktop counterpart and effectively requires picking items out of a slightly enhanced file browser. Many common playback features, such as shuffling, are either hard to find or are absent altogether. Scrolling and scrubbing through files is also a painful experience.

Attempting to view a basic, normally formatted page in Internet Explorer 6

Playing music in Windows Media Player

While I would not want to excuse the iPhone of some of its faults -- many argue that its touchscreen interface represents a partial step backwards in terms of control from the click wheel iPod -- its visual interaction is clearly more suitable to real-world use, especially for the Internet. Mobile Safari really does render websites as they would appear on a desktop, and for the most part makes navigating elements easy. Organizing and playing media is also much more straightforward. Moreover, neither these nor any other setting requires a stylus: elements are large enough or intuitive enough to work entirely using the fingers.

HTC does partly remedy this with its HTC Home front-end for the phone. For those new to it, Home is a layer on top of the main Windows Mobile interface that is supposed to bring more information to the front and let users interact with more of the OS without using a stylus. I have had the most success with Home through the panel it grafts on to the main Windows Mobile Start menu. Checking for new messages or getting a weather update is considerably easier than it would have been with the default Windows Mobile interface. It also simplifies switching ring modes or launching a few other commonly-accessed settings.

Weather at the HTC Home front end

Most of HTC's effort has gone into its TouchFLO interface behind the scenes, however. A vertical swipe brings up a completely different interface designed entirely for finger input. On first glance, this seems an ideal fit, and none of the new HTC-made controls are complex; arguably, reaching contacts or checking on a song's progress are easier in this shell than in the Microsoft equivalent. Even so, a number of flaws quickly deflate rising hopes of avoiding the clumsier program menus and media playback aspects of Windows Mobile. The touchscreen itself gets in the way, for example. HTC uses a relatively unresponsive plastic touchscreen versus the glass of the iPhone, and this frequently requires hard presses to trigger properly: I have frequently had to try multiple swipes or taps before the screen would acknowledge a command, somewhat defeating the convenience of the interface.

Active music in HTC's TouchFLO interface

More importantly, HTC frequently kicks users out of its more elegant control scheme -- sometimes, without warning. Any more advanced control over media besides pausing and skipping tracks demands the normal Windows Media interface, and in some cases TouchFLO does not make it clear that tapping a given element will switch back. Most other icons in the interface often jump to Windows Mobile as well, and when this happens the user regularly has to return to stylus control. This undermines much of HTC's case for the Touch: why build a finger-driven control method when it often becomes redundant? Again, HTC ought to learn from Apple's practices, or even LG's Prada phone. If fingers are going to be used at all, it should be possible to use them the whole way through the OS.

battery performance and the camera

There are also a few lurking disappointments in regular use of the phone over time. Using calling and Internet features itself does not appear to drain the battery any more than usual, but the Touch I tested has an unusually short standby time: the device lasted for less than two days when largely idle, and less than that with substantial use. Smartphones such as this often have shorter battery lives, but having to recharge the Touch every day to guarantee a useful charge is irritating. When Apple claims 250 hours of standby for a device which also adds Wi-Fi, this performance is just unacceptable.

The 2-megapixel camera could also stand improvement. The lack of autofocus or flash is common, if unfortunate. All the same, HTC's choice of sensor is frequently intolerant of dark areas and frequently shows excessive noise and pattern artifacts in less than brightly-lit areas, especially shadows. Blurring is equally likely for anything less than controlled shots. Use the camera on the Touch only for daylight photos to capture a special event; it just cannot substitute for a dedicated camera or even a high-end phone camera like that from the Nokia N95.

Sample photos; notice noise in the bottom of the second shot

conclusions: HTC's touchscreen vision not ready for the spotlight

It would be exaggerating the case to say that I have never enjoyed using the phone at least some of the time. The form factor is solid, and as a business phone the Touch is quite capable. There is also little doubt that having quick access to information on the phone from the very top of the menu system is helpful. Telus' EVDO network is a genuine help on that front, as the connection has always been quick enough for checking e-mail and the web. An update to the Touch should enable it with even faster EVDO Revision A access in the near future.

After prolonged use of the phone, though, it becomes apparent HTC's best intentions have resulted in a compromise. The Touch really does try to shoehorn an iPhone-like experience into an operating system and phone design that are largely unsuited to the job. The Touch needs a keypad -- which it now has in Europe -- but it also needs a software makeover more extensive than HTC Home or TouchFLO offer today if it hopes to appeal to home users, the responsibility for which falls equally at the feet of HTC and Microsoft. Americans who have access to the phone today through Sprint should still consider the iPhone as their main handset if work is only a secondary concern; Canadians may not have that option, but another HTC phone with a keypad or else a more conventional cellphone like the LG Shine would be a wiser choice.

Strong messaging features.

Good for ordinary calling.

Wide range of accessories in the box.

Tiny interface, poor web and media software.

HTC UI changes only partly useful.

Sub-par battery life and camera.