There's no doubt about it, Windows Mobile is a tough sell in a world of iPhones and Androids. HTC has stood out as the one company focused on designing sleek, usable WinMo handsets, but even then it has struggled to really land a winner. The Diamond2 and Touch Pro2 were fair efforts but they were pulled back by the resource-hungry Windows Mobile monster. Can the HD2 overcome the OS burden and deliver a consumer-friendly Windows phone?
The HD2 is a solid, beautifully designed handset, not that we expect any less from the Taiwanese manufacturer. Its 4.3-inch screen may seem unwieldy, but in person it feels like the perfect size for a touchscreen, and its 157-gram weight helps give this impression too. The screen's 800x480 resolution display is sharp and colourful and makes for a very responsive input panel with loads of screen real estate to play with.
Most impressive is HTC's minimalist approach to external buttons and inputs. Around the edges you'll find a volume rocker on the left-hand side, and a 3.5mm headphone socket and a microUSB charging port on the bottom. Under the screen there are five mechanical keys, calling buttons, home and back keys plus a dedicated Windows button for opening the program menu. Outside of these options everything else is controlled using the capacitive touchscreen.
Owners of HTC's Windows phones will be familiar with the HTC TouchFlo 3D user interface, a custom shell for Windows designed by HTC to add usability and some extra functionality to the otherwise bland WinMo user experience. TouchFlo 3D has itself had a facelift since the last HTC Windows phone release, and it now goes by a new name: HTC Sense. Sense has more options but the same basic design as TouchFlo 3D (both use a horizontal list of tools at the bottom of the screen).
The other significant difference is the ability to customise the workspace beyond just changing the wallpaper image. Now users can re-order the layout of home screen menus, placing Twitter and weather before stocks and settings, or they can choose to turn off entire home screen tabs altogether — handy for hiding those pesky Telstra service tabs that otherwise clutter the home screen.
Speaking of Telstra services, as a Telstra exclusive the HD2 comes with a whole swag of the telco's web links and apps pre-installed; some are shameless attempts to open your wallet, while others are truly excellent additions to the phone. Foxtel, for example, has received a major overhaul since the last time we saw it and is now delivered via a slick dedicated app complete with touchscreen controls. In this new Foxtel app you can watch the program in the top half of the screen while you scroll through the other channels on the bottom of the display.
Sense also brings a few key social networking features, including the Twitter app Peep and Facebook syncing with contacts in your address book. Peep is an excellent Twitter client for checking your feed on the run; it has its own home screen tab so you don't have to go fishing around in programs to open it, and though you can't control all aspects of Twitter with Peep (you can't view a list of a contact's followers, for example) it has enough functionality for most everyday use.
But it's not all Foxtel TV and Twitter, the HD2 is a business phone after all. There are mobile versions of Office, Excel and PowerPoint (with a free beta trial version of Office 2010 available on the Windows Marketplace too), there's VPN access, high-speed uploads for transferring files from the phone to clients and colleagues, and full syncing with Microsoft Outlook via ActiveSync. Windows Mobile 6.5 also brings Microsoft's MyPhone software, allowing you to backup your phone's data to a web server, post photos to online services and blogs, and protects your phone in the event that it gets lost or stolen.
When it comes to web browsing you're spoilt for choice both in regards to connectivity and to browsers themselves. Firstly, you get to choose between Next G mobile data (with speeds up to 7.2Mbps) or Wi-Fi, and once you've settled on your connection of choice you can choose to use Microsoft's upgraded Internet Explorer browser or the pre-installed Opera Mobile version 9.7. Both do an excellent job of rendering web pages and succeed in being extremely user-friendly; however, the Opera browser is the only one that takes advantage of the HD2's multi-touch capabilities, offering pinch-to-zoom functionality.
Two unique features are conferencing call and the Wi-Fi Router mode. Conferencing call is identical to what we saw on the Touch Pro2, allowing up to five users to join a call simultaneously. The Wi-Fi Router turns your handset into a mobile hotspot, allowing up to seven users to share your Next G data using any other Wi-Fi-enabled device. It's easy to use too, simply create an SSID and a password and you're away.
HD means high-def right?
OK, the truth's out, the HD2 doesn't actually support HD-quality video playback, but it is a very handy multimedia centre. It starts with the generous 16GB microSD included with the phone, but that would mean precious little if the HD2 wasn't capable of high-quality media capture and playback. The HD2 plays MP4, H.264 and WMV video files plus AAC, WMA, WAV and MP3 audio files all of which look and sound fantastic when played through this excellent phone.
The 5-megapixel camera on the back of the HD2 is one of HTC's best in our opinion. By default, the camera's brightness and colour saturation appear to be bumped up past what you would consider to be natural colour. The results are radiant images that jump off the 4.3-inch screen when previewed. The lens is supported by bright dual-LEDs and the software features touchscreen auto-focus, letting you select the subject of your shot by touching them in the preview window.
When you first turn the HD2 on we guarantee you will be blown away by the speed of the user interface (UI). Scrolling transitions between menu tabs are as smooth as butter and searching through a gallery of images is equally zippy; with images moving accurately with your finger gestures. Web browsing is also a pleasure; page scrolling is iPhone-like in its ability to keep up while you scan a long page full of rich content and the pinch-to-zoom feature is accurate too.
It's really disappointing when this performance starts going south, which will definitely happen if you don't follow a strict regime of closing every app with the "X" after use. Windows Mobile 6.5 is a system technically capable of multitasking, but the price is a sharp dip in performance if you absent-mindedly leave multiple apps running in the background. Curiously, there's no task switching key on the handset so multitasking is almost redundant considering you have to return to the programs menu to reactivate a previously used application.
Battery life is a standard smartphone day which is to say it should see you through a work day but you'll want to charge it overnight. Our use of the HD2 consisted of push email, regular Twitter updates, less than an hour of web browsing a day and a moderate amount of calls and text messages. No doubt a high-use business person or a multimedia junkie could tear through the battery charge in less than a day.
Hands down this is the best Windows Mobile smartphone ever built, and it's amongst the upper echelon of all smartphones available today. If you were just comparing hardware, the HD2 would win the day against the iPhone and the army of Androids, but with Windows Mobile 6.5 and its appalling memory management lurking under the veneer of the slick user interface, it's hard to name the HD2 as the most capable smartphone available. Windows Mobile loyalists need look no further, the HD2 is as good as it gets on the WiMo platform.