Editors' note: In our review of the HTC Surround and Samsung Focus, we point out some of the more major features of Windows Phone 7, but for a more detailed look at the full operating system, please check out our in-depth review of Windows Phone 7.
HTC came out strong at the Windows Phone 7 launch event with the introduction of five handsets. Most were for the European and Asian markets, but AT&T landed the HTC Surround, while Sprint will get the HTC 7 Pro in early 2011. The Surround is unique in that it offers built-in surround-sound speakers with Dolby Mobile and SRS WOW HD technology--a cool but niche feature. As far as devices go, the Samsung Focus will be the best choice for most consumers. Of course, the bigger story here is Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's gamble to completely overhaul its mobile operating system paid off, resulting in a fun and easy-to-use interface and an updated feature list that keeps it in step with the iPhone and Android. There are certainly issues and omissions that need to addressed --and hopefully quickly on Microsoft's part--but Windows Phone 7 shouldn't be overlooked.
The HTC Surround will be available starting November 8, for $199.99 with a two-year contract.
The HTC Surround fits right into the company's portfolio of smartphones with its classic, corporate-appropriate look and high-quality construction. The handset measures 4.7 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and weighs 5.82 ounces, so it's a tad on the hefty side but in turn, you get a very solid-feeling device. The soft-touch finish and metal frame around the screen also add to the phone's premium design.
Now, there's actually a reason for the extra bulk and that's the built-in Yamaha speakers. They hide behind the screen until you push the screen to the left. If you flip the phone around to the back, you'll also see there's a kickstand at the bottom that allows you to prop the phone on a flat surface for watching a video, listening to music, or taking a call hands-free. The speakers actually offer surround sound via Dolby Mobile and SRS WOW HD and to activate it, you just press the small button on the left-hand side of the speaker.
There's a noticeable difference when you do this, as the audio sounds richer and fuller. However, the overall sound quality didn't really knock our socks off. It's certainly better than most, but songs still sounded somewhat tinny. Also, during a speakerphone call, the volume, even at its highest level, was too low to have a conversation in a slightly noisier environment. For being the phone's highlighted feature, it's certainly not the selling point for the phone. We already felt like the speakers were bit of a superfluous item that would only appeal to a limited number of people, but now even more so.
Moving along, the Surround features a 3.8-inch, 480x800 pixel capacitive touch screen. It's crisp and bright, but colors don't quite pop off the screen as they do on the Samsung Focus' Super AMOLED screen. However, it's easy to read and viewable in daylight, and responsive.
The back, Start, and search keys are below the display, and like the Samsung Focus, HTC chose to go with touch-sensitive buttons. There's a volume rocker and a camera button on the right spine, and a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device. On back, you'll find the camera and flash.
AT&T packages the HTC Surround with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, and reference material.
Windows Phone 7 is a complete and refreshing departure from previous versions of Windows Mobile. Microsoft essentially pressed the restart button and worked with a team of designers to create a mobile operating system based a number of principles, including elegance and simplicity, typography, motion, and relevance, which we mostly saw during this preview.
The change is immediately noticeable as soon as you pick up the phone. Microsoft stripped away all unnecessary information (almost too much actually--the status bar displaying battery life, signal strength, and so forth goes into hiding after a couple of seconds) and soft buttons, and created a Start screen that consists of "live tiles," which are essentially dynamic widgets to your favorite apps, contacts, and hubs and also display alerts, such as new e-mail and missed calls. You can rearrange the order of the tiles and remove them by doing a long press on the screen. You can also "pin" new tiles, but to do so, you must first navigate to the list of apps (press arrow to the right of the Start screen) or the People hub, find the item that you want to add, and then pin it to the Start screen.
Beyond the Start and apps menu, you will find the platform's Hub system. The idea behind hubs is to bring together related content into a single place for consumption and interaction, and it really showcases some of the work Microsoft has done on relevancy, organization, elegance, and typography. There are six hubs in total--People, Pictures, Games, Music + Video, Marketplace, and Office.
Within each hub, you will find a panoramic user interface with bold, attractive text splashed across the top to identify different subsections (aka Pivots) that you can swipe across and in some cases, a small contextual toolbar along the bottom of the screen to help you perform specific tasks to the app.
Now, some might complain that this type of navigation requires too much scrolling and can be overly complicated and admittedly, when compared to iOS and Android, this is true and certainly won't be for everybody. On the flip side, we found it absolutely wonderful to be able to do so many things from one place, without having to launch several apps, so we have to give Microsoft kudos for thinking of this kind of organization. We also very much appreciated the consistent user interface, since it made it easy to work each of the other hubs.
Overall, Windows Phone 7 provides a more pleasant navigation experience than previous iterations of Windows Mobile, mostly from an aesthetic standpoint but in other aspects too. As much as Microsoft focused on the typography and creating a chromeless user interface, it also concentrated on motion and as you launch apps and navigate through the different screens, you'll notice that some of the transitions are marked by turnstile motions. It's modern and fresh, but sometimes it can slow down navigation.
The back and Start buttons did their assigned jobs of returning to the previous page and Start screen, but we wish there was a way to bring up a list of your recently used apps as Android does, since it's easy to get lost once you start diving deeper into an app. In general, however, we found the touch interface and general navigation zippier than past versions of Windows Mobile.
There are things that could be improved, though. For example, there's only limited support for landscape mode. It works for messages, videos, and photos, the Web browser, and games. However, if you rotate the phone, the Start screen will remain in portrait mode. Microsoft said that user testing showed that customers were really only rotating the phone to type messages, but were otherwise using the phone in portrait mode. But what about maps? What about when you're listening to music on the Surround with the kickstand open and want to see what song is playing?
All things considered, will Windows Phone 7 resonate with consumers? We think so. It's interesting to note that several times throughout the review period, people commented on how they liked the user experience on Windows Phone 7 better than Android--both from a looks standpoint and user friendliness. The iPhone is still the one to beat in terms of ease of use, but in a competition for simplicity between Android and Windows Phone, we'd say the latter would win.
Along the same lines, there's something to Microsoft's decision to crack down on third-party customization. From the very beginning, the company said it wanted to provide a consist end-user experience regardless of the phone or provider and in the long run, this will help make the transition easier as users switch devices or move carriers. This should also prevent delays when pushing out software updates, since each custom user interface doesn't have to go through testing to ensure it works with the new software. OEMs and carriers also still have the opportunity to add their customizations. It's just a more subtle approach. For example, there's an HTC Hub that brings some of the familiar HTC UI elements, such as the animated weather widget, as well as highlights some the company's featured apps.
At the end of the day, we have to give Microsoft credit for being able to acknowledge that its old OS wasn't working and taking a chance on rebuilding something from the ground up. The end result is something fresh, fun, and functional.
The HTC Surround's voice features include quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, text and multimedia messaging, and the full range of wireless options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. The dialer app is simple and straightforward, though to access it as well as other phone options (mute or speaker) once on a call, you must tap a small icon to activate pull-down menu.
Like many other smartphones, Windows Phone 7 is able to merge contact information from different e-mail accounts and social-networking sites, but it's a bit limited in scope and capabilities right now. The OS draws from Facebook, Windows Live, Exchange, and your other e-mail accounts for contact data, and after setting up your device with these accounts, the phone immediately pulls in contact information.
Previously, there was no way to filter the contacts--it was all or nothing--but Microsoft added a feature where you can now exclude Facebook contacts that don't exist in your other synced accounts (for example, Outlook, Windows Live, and Gmail), which makes your address book manageable if your Facebook account is full of casual contacts.
We chose this option and imported our Facebook, Gmail, Windows Live, and Exchange accounts. The syncing process was painless and happened in the background, but we ended up with numerous duplicates for the same contact. It's easy enough to link profiles, but with the number of duplicates we had, it was tedious and annoying.
As we briefly mentioned in the Navigation section, the People hub also provides real-time updates to your friends' Facebook statuses, and allows you to quickly like or add a comment if you wish. You can easily update your own by tapping on your individual card from the contacts list. For the most part, you can access most of the information you would see on Facebook from within the People hub, but if there is something that requires you to go outside the hub, you have to sign into your account via the browser as the dedicated Facebook app isn't available yet.
One other notable omission that might irk a lot of people is the lack of Twitter integration. This isn't to say it won't be offered in the future, but as of now, it's not supported at launch. It would also be nice to have a Favorite category in the People hub. The Recent list doesn't quite cut it.
E-mail and calendar
Windows Phone 7 offers a variety of e-mail support, including the standard POP3/IMAP accounts and, of course, Exchange/OWA. For most personal accounts, setup is a simple matter of entering your log-in ID and password, and we were able to sync up our Windows Live and Gmail accounts in a matter of seconds. Setting up Outlook requires some more information, such as server and domain info, but again, we didn't encounter any problems here. That said, for Outlook accounts not connected via Exchange ActiveSync, you must sync through the cloud (via Windows Live/Hotmail) in order to get your calendar and contacts synced to the phone.
We should note that you don't have to have a Windows Live ID to start using the phone, but if you want to access the Marketplace or Xbox Live, it is required, so you'll most likely want to create one or log in, for access to apps at the very least. This will also back up your phone's data to windowsphone.live.com where you can also manage your contacts, photos, and use several tools to locate or wipe your phone in case it gets lost or stolen.
Windows Phone 7 doesn't offer a combined in-box; a separate in-box is set up for each of your accounts. The e-mail experience is the same regardless of which client you're using, and it's strikingly simple in appearance, though that isn't a reflection of the app's capabilities. Messages are filtered by all, unread, flagged, or urgent, and also features a robust search function that can find keywords within the text of the message or within the e-mail fields. It's also a treat that you can simply tap to the left of a message(s) and press the small trash icon at the bottom to delete it.
You can configure the device to sync e-mail at different time intervals, ranging from manually to as items arrive. We received our messages as they arrived, sometimes before they even hit our real in-box. We didn't have any issues download attachments, but be aware that initially you have to manually sync your folders.