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.
On the other hand, the Freestyle is so chock-full of third-party apps that it borders on bloatware. Sure, options like AT&T Navigator and Vlingo's Voice App (both require an extra fee) are useful, but apps for eBay, AllSport GPS, and Where seem a little ridiculous on a phone of this caliber. You also get FunScreenz (crazy wallpapers), WikiMobile, AT&T FamilyMap, Mobile Yellow Pages, demo versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Deer Hunter (the game, not the movie), and City ID (for showing the city and state of callers' phone numbers). On the upside, you can manage and organize your apps with the include App Manager.
The 3-megapixel camera takes photos in five resolutions, and you can choose form three quality settings. Other editing features include brightness and white balance, spot metering, HTC's flicker adjustment, three color effects, a digital an adjustable contrast tool, and a self-timer. The camera interface is user-friendly, and we like how the settings menu overlays the viewfinder rather than blocking it completely.
The camcorder shoots clips with sound in three resolutions, including MPEG4. You also can choose from a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Camera performance is relatively decent with natural colors little image noise.
For other media the Freestyle supports AT&T's Mobile Video service, which offers tons of streaming-video content, and AT&T Music, which brings wireless song downloads through a variety of partners. AT&T also added its own AT&T Radio app, a music videos channel, and a dedicated portal for MobiTV.
The Freestyle offers a full HTML browser. The display's resolution doesn't quite do it justice, but it is a nice option to have. There's enough room to maneuver and you can save a list of bookmarks. On the downside, the interface was a tad temperamental at times, and here again you have to switch the orientation manually. The 3G data speeds are fine, but nothing spectacular.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; HSDPA/UMTS 850/1900) HTC Freestyle world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was serviceable by most accounts. We had enough volume, but we encountered a couple of problems with audio clarity. There was some static at times, and the audio cut out briefly on a couple of occasions. In fact we needed to record the below voice sample twice. AT&T's network remains relatively strong in most of our testing area, though it did peter out inside large buildings and underground.
HTC Freestyle call quality sample Listen now:
On the opposite end of the line, callers were mostly pleased as well. They could tell that we were using a cell phone, and a few mentioned a lot of background noise, but complaints were minimal. The phone does appear to have a sensitive sweep spot, though. We had to speak directly into the microphone if we wanted to be heard. Speakerphone calls weren't great, unfortunately. The audio on our end was distorted--everybody sounded like robot--and there was a distinct background hum.
The Freestyle has a rated battery life of 6.4 hours talk time and 16.2 days standby time. It has a tested talk time of 6 hours and 19 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Freestyle has a digital SAR of 1.15 watts per kilogram.
With its touch screen and Android-like interface, the Freestyle is an unusual phone. We get what HTC was trying to do here--offer elements of a smartphone without the high price--and for the right user, it's a good buy at just $99 with a two-year contract and after a $50 mail-in rebate. We'd prefer a couple more features at least, but it's still an easy-to-use and functional phone that makes good calls.