Considering the announcement of the Palm Pre and the leaked images of the HTC road map, 2009 looks like the year everyone tries to out-play Apple with iPhone look-alikes. Last year, we saw touchscreens from Samsung, HTC and LG try to vary the formula, but with limited success compared to the front-runner. HTC has reconsidered its approach and the Touch HD is a fitting start to the year — it's shaped like an iPhone, but bigger.
Its 3.8-inch display is the biggest in this field and its WVGA (480x800) resolution is amongst the sharpest. Together these aspects add to make HTC's fantastic TouchFlo 3D interface look its best. With a screen this large and clear even some of the smallest areas of the interface are now finger-friendly. HTC includes a stylus with the handset, sheathed on the bottom right of the phone, but we've had no occasion to whip it out during our tests.
The Touch HD feels fantastic to hold. Though its 12mm depth is identical to the iPhone 3G, its design is slightly boxier, which helps make the Touch HD feel much less likely to slip from your grip. The front is a single piece of glass covering both the touch-active screen and four touch-sensitive keys below the screen, for dialling and exiting applications to the home screen.
The back of the Touch HD houses an auto-focusing 5-megapixel camera that sadly lacks a flash. A second front-facing camera lives above the large touchscreen and is used for video-calling. Under the battery cover we find a 1350mAh Li-on battery and the microSD card slot — an 8GB microSD is included with the phone. Also, HTC has included a 3.5mm headphone socket along with a separate USB port.
The increase in size and improved camera module may give the false impression that the Touch HD is a vastly different smartphone experience to HTC's previously released Touch Diamond, but side by side these phone's aren't significantly different under the hood. Both phones run Windows Mobile 6.1 and feature a nearly identical suite of applications including Pocket Office supporting MS Office documents, ActivSync, a PDF reader, RSS feeder, a business card reader and a snazzy YouTube client.
The Touch HD also makes use of the same excellent Opera Mini web browser that we saw in the Diamond. While this browser may not feature the multi-touch "pinch and pull" zoom navigation of the iPhone's Safari browser, it has a decent alternative and renders full-sized web pages extremely well.
Like all smartphones in this segment, the Touch HD includes HSDPA technology for fast web browsing, Wi-Fi for accessing local networks and a built-in GPS receiver. Our review unit did not come with navigation software pre-installed, which is a shame considering the screen size. When its released exclusively with Telstra we won't see any dedicated nav-software installed; however, Telstra has confirmed that its WhereIs Navigator client will be available to download to the Touch HD in March.
In the realms of technology, bigger doesn't necessarily translate to better, however, this is certainly true when comparing the Touch HD to its predecessor. Supporting the huge screen is a 528MHz Qualcomm processor and 288MB RAM, a significant increase in memory from the Diamond, and this results in the best performance we've seen for TouchFlo 3D to date. After an agonisingly long boot time, the Touch HD runs smoothly. Swiping from menu to menu is fluid and there is only a few instances, like starting and ending calls, which always tend to lag the interface.
Battery life is also light years better than the Diamond. Putting a 900mAh battery in the Diamond was a huge mistake by HTC, but this 50 per cent larger battery pays dividends, giving us at least three days between charges with moderate use. HTC rates the battery life at a whopping seven hours of talk-time.
As a media player, the Touch HD passes with flying colours, but still lacks the intuitive interface of the iPhone. YouTube videos look great and music sounds great, with thanks in part to HTC wisely including a 3.5mm headphone socket. Its finger-swiping media menus are definitely attractive, but switching between artists and albums can become tedious with the amount of input required to perform what is a simple task.
Its 5-megapixel camera also falls just short of the mark. Its interface is exactly as the iPhone's should be, with access to changing the white balance and image size, etc. Users can manually focus elements in the image by touching on the subject in the touchscreen viewfinder — a very cool touch — though this has little effect on the sharpness of the pictures this camera takes. Overall, the 5-megapixel camera takes mediocre pictures that lack natural colour and appear slightly blurry.
Call us HTC fanboys, if there is such a thing, but we're pleased to say this is HTC's best smartphone so far. Windows Mobile is still a less-than-perfect OS, but issues with WiMo are fewer than in previous HTC releases, and the Touch HD has certainly been a pleasure to review. Fashion-conscious business people who want a sexy phone that pulls its weight with business-focused features would be wise to check this one out.
Of course, you'll need to be a fashionable business person to pay the hefty AU$1,499 price tag, or to meet the AU$150 monthly contract payments with Telstra. These large, high-res screens don't come cheap, and we feel this pricing will sadly put the Touch HD out of the price range of many.