Though HTC made its mark in the United States with an extensive line of high-end smartphones, the company is now trying to diversify. Just consider one of its latest handsets, the HTC Freestyle for AT&T. It looks like your standard Android phone, but the BREW-powered Freestyle is billed as one of the carrier's "quick messaging devices." You get a touch screen, HTC's Sense, and HTC's Friend Stream, but the midrange feature set and minimalist interface set the Freestyle apart. It's well-designed and it performs relatively well, but we missed offerings like an accelerometer and Wi-Fi. As such, we wouldn't recommend the Freestyle to everyone, but it does offer a quasi-smartphone experience without the required data plan.
Since we like to give credit where it's due, HTC's design team deserves our praise. On the whole, we've had little to complain about when reviewing the manufacture's phones, and the Freestyle is no exception. Its metal skin gives it a sturdy feel in the hand, and we appreciate the rounded corners and smooth sides. The bottom and top patches on the phone's rear side are made of plastic, but they're covered in a comfortable soft touch material. HTC fans will notice that the Freestyle resembles many of the company's previous smartphones. It's smaller, of course, at 4.2 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.49 inch deep, but it's heavier than it looks (4.52 ounces). We had no trouble slipping it into a pocket or bag, and we're confident it could handle a few bumps and bruises.
Front and center is the 3.2-inch display. It's doesn't have the richest resolution (480x320 pixels), but it's more than satisfying for a midrange device. Graphics and photos looked fine, and there's plenty of space for navigation. As mentioned, the Freestyle runs on BREW, which is unusual for a GSM phone. To most users, that won't mean much, as the interface is user-friendly, even if it is a bit boring. The main menu has a standard icon-based design and the organization is straightforward.
In a few ways the interface resembles Android, which is something we wager that HTC was going for. You'll find seven home screens that you can program with widgets for the weather, your photo gallery, and messages. You can't drop app and feature shortcuts just anywhere, but one home screen has a grid of 12 shortcuts that you can program. The list design of the secondary menus has an Android feel, and the Freestyle serves up shortcuts to the messaging app and phone book on the primary menu page.
HTC also stocked the Freestyle with its Sense interface. As manufacturer skins go, it's our favorite since it's not too complicated visually and doesn't ask too much of the user (Motoblur, for example, requires you to sign up for a separate account). HTC also included its Friend Stream feature, which shows a steady flow of your friends' updates form social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. You even get HTC's Leap feature, which allows you to see all seven home screens at once by pinching on the display with your fingers.
The touch screen is responsive, though there's a slight lag when opening some features. It's not a deal breaker, but it is noticeable. Below the display are three navigation controls: the Talk and End keys and a Back button. All the buttons are large and tactile. There's also a very thin key above the Talk key that opens a secondary pop-up menu. That's another very Android touch.
The phone dealer interface is pretty standard. The numbers and letters on the virtual keys are large and you can jump directly to your call history and phone book. The virtual keyboard, on the other hand, isn't our favorite. It's small, we don't care for the black background, and you have to switch the orientation manually since the Freestyle lacks an accelerometer. Perhaps HTC was trying to save money here, but we still think it's not the best move considering that lots of basic phones have accelerometers. After all, the phone has a proximity sensor, so why not an accelerometer, too?
A long volume rocker sits on the Freestyle's left side. It's thin, but it's easy to find when you're on a call. On the top are the 3.5mm headset jack and power switch; the Micro-USB charger port is on the phone's bottom end. We prefer not to see ports on the bottom of devices, but it's not a big deal. Around back you'll find the camera lens and a tiny speaker, and on the right spine is the camera shutter. You'll need to remove the Freestyle's bottom end to access the MicroSD card slot, SIM card, and battery. Fortunately, you don't have to remove the battery to access the first two.
Since the Freestyle isn't a smartphone, you won't be blown away by its features, but it covers just about everything you'll need for basic communication. Each contact holds three phone number types, an e-mail address, a street address, a birthday, a notepad, and a URL. You can save callers to groups and you can pair individuals with a photo and one of 34 polyphonic ringtones. For more storage, the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts.
Other essentials include a calendar, text and multimedia messaging, a calculator, and an alarm clock. We were hoping for more basic options, like a task manager, a countdown timer, and a stopwatch, but they aren't onboard. As such, you'll need to download an equivalent app from AT&T's AppCenter. You'll also find Bluetooth, an airplane mode, GPS, PC syncing and USB mass storage, instant messaging, an FM radio, and access to AT&T Mobile E-mail. That's a decent assortment, though it's too bad the Freestyle lacks Wi-Fi. Again, we suspect that HTC was trying to save money, but we wish it wouldn't have cut corners there.