For all the buzz about tablet computers, the hottest category among small digital devices remains the super-smartphones, those pocket-size, touch-screen computers for running apps.
Apple this week reported strong sales of its iPhone. New phones running Google’s Android software platform seem to appear almost monthly and reportedly sell briskly. As these phones have added capabilities, some have gained larger screens. While Apple has stuck with a screen that’s 3.5 inches diagonally, some Android phones sport 3.7-inch screens. Now there is a competitor with a truly huge screen—4.3 inches. It’s the HD2 from Taiwan-based HTC, and it is being sold by T-Mobile in the U.S. for $199 with a two-year contract.
T-Mobile boasts that the HD2’s screen is the biggest on a U.S. smartphone. But how big is too big for a device that is meant to be toted in a pocket or purse? How valuable is a large screen compared with well-designed software?
To find out, I’ve been testing the HD2. My verdict is that, despite the larger dimensions required by its giant screen, the HD2’s hardware is attractive and unlikely to put off people who have already crossed over to bigger devices, like the BlackBerry or iPhone.
However, I found the HD2 to be significantly inferior overall to touch-screen rivals from Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG), mainly because of its software, based on the aging mobile Windows platform from Microsoft (MSFT). While HTC has added its own software overlay to dress up the design, I still found using the HD2 to be too often a chore. It looks cluttered, a patchwork of different interfaces. And, in my tests, it was prone to error messages and even freezing. Also, despite a fast processor, the software responded sluggishly too much of the time.
Another important downside for prospective HD2 buyers is that the Microsoft software version on which it is based can be viewed as a dead end. The software giant is producing an entirely new mobile-software platform, Windows Phone 7, due late this year.
The HD2 supersmartphone
HTC says the HD2 won’t be upgradable to the new Microsoft platform, nor will it run the new generation of third-party apps Microsoft hopes to attract. The HD2 has access to only about 1,200 third-party apps, versus 185,000 for iPhone and over 30,000 for Android.
The HD2 is both wider and taller than the iPhone and the flagship Android phone, Google’s Nexus One. But it is actually a tad thinner than either of those. The bigger difference is weight. While the iPhone and the Nexus One tip the scales at under 5 ounces, the HD2 weighs substantially more—5.54 ounces.
Despite the larger footprint and weight, I didn’t find the HD2 clumsy to carry in a pocket or odd to hold up to my ear. The screen isn’t only large, but vivid and pleasing. Videos and photos look beautiful on it.
T-Mobile has bundled some nice apps with the HD2 and placed them on the home screen. These include the Barnes & Noble e-book reader, the Blockbuster video download service, and a trial of the MobiTV live TV app. After some false tries and error messages, I was able to rent and watch a movie from Blockbuster (BBI), watch TV and buy a couple of books from Barnes & Noble (BKS). I also could sync photos, music and videos from my own PC and Mac.
The camera, which takes photos and videos, has a 5-megapixel resolution and a flash, and took better pictures than my iPhone does. Phone calls were crisp and clear, the 3G-cellular connectivity was fast, and the built-in Wi-Fi worked fine. Memory is generous for the price, at 16 gigabytes on a removable card, plus another gigabyte internally.
But my problem with the HD2 is mainly its software and user interface. Unlike on Android phones and the iPhone, there is only one home screen available for app icons, and much of it is taken up with a huge clock widget that can’t be removed. That leaves only nine icon slots to fill with your favorite apps or functions, compared with scores on competing phones.
To help make up for this, there is a band of smaller icons along the bottom of the screen, which offers limited customization. But the combination was a confusing jumble, to my eye. In addition, I found the touch functionality was often sluggish and halting. It frequently took hard presses to activate icons on the screen. And twice, while simply dialing a phone call, the device froze on me. I have occasionally had similar bad experiences on rival phones, and T-Mobile says these problems aren’t typical. But the glitches occurred too often for my taste on the HD2.
So, my bottom line is that the HD2 might be fine for folks who value the large screen above all. But, for everyone else, I’d look elsewhere.