HTC Touch HD2 Review: A TragedyS

Let's just get this out of the way: in terms of hardware, the Touch HD2 is the nicest phone in the world. It's ostentatiously huge and amazingly slim; it's business-savvy and utterly pornographic. But hardware like this deserves better. UPDATED

From the outset, the HD2 is a tragic creature, built from the finest pieces imaginable and burdened with a categorically disappointing OS. HTC has done their best to hide the HD2's shame, but it's not quite enough.

Meeting the HD2: Hardware

HTC's got a funny way of designing hardware, where they settle on a basic set of components then pump out virtually every iteration of this basic spec set they possibly can. (See also: HTC as Taco Bell) It's a rare occasion, then, that we get something like the Touch HD2, a followup to the similarly impressive, never Americanized Touch HD.

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A TragedyS

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Top to bottom, corner to corner—and it's a long trip—the HD2 is a perfect specimen of glass, plastic and aluminum. The massive screen-to-bezel ratio means the HD2 is essentially just a 4.3-inch piece of glass, its 800x480 multitouch display bordered by just a few millimeters of ink-black trim and a subtle row of satisfyingly pressable little buttons. The handset's minimalist hindside, interrupted only by a slightly protruding lens for the HD2's 5-megapixel camera and a ever-so-slightly grained aluminum battery door, is elegantly tapered, emphasizing just how thin this thing is—thinner than the iPhone, which is pretty good for a phone that I have to remind myself not to call a tablet.

It's got the same space-warping powers as a supermodel; it looks like a beautiful phone in pictures, but when you finally see it in person, it's twice as tall as you thought it would be and far too thin for its expanded proportions. It's almost not fair to other phones. And it will give them body image issues.

Behind this spectacularly huge screen is a 1GHz Snapdragon processor assisted by 448MB of RAM—specs that would have put a top-line desktop to shame less than ten years ago—and 512MB of ROM, aided by expandable microSD storage. The whole battery of expected high-end smartphone amenities are here, from GPS to a facial proximity sensor to an internal compass to Bluetooth 2.1. There's a 3.5-mm headphone jack, and charging comes by way of Micro USB, through to an adequate 1230 mAh battery (it'll get you through the workday, which is par for the course nowadays). Unless you absolutely need to have a hardware keyboard, there is nothing—nothing—the HD2 leaves you wanting for.

Moving In With the HD2

One of the benefits of Windows Mobile not having changed much in the last few years is that it's easy to compare new hardware to old, and let's be clear about the HD2: It's unbelievably fast. Applications open almost instantly and close without the slightest hesitation, and over Wi-Fi, web pages render in Opera Mobile as if you're browsing on a laptop, not a cellphone. (And hell, if you put your face close enough to this ridiculous screen, it's easy to forget you're not.)

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A TragedyS


This near-magical experience is spread throughout the HD2: Calls answer and end without the expected delay, the camera—a decent 5-megapixel number with a blinding flash and VGA video capabilities—wakes up as fast as you can point its lens, and tapping the home button, no matter how many apps you've got toiling in the background, always results in a satisfyingly clean and snappy return to HTC's ostentatious homescreen. Speaking of which!

This is one of the first Windows Mobile phones to have HTC Sense, which combines bits and pieces of their overhauled Android interface and kneads them together with years of TouchFLO 3D development. Practically, this means that using the HD2 is just like using any other HTC Windows phone from the last three years—a tabbed slider at the bottom of the screen moves you from homescreen panel to homescreen panel, where HTC has condensed a lot of the information you look to your phone for. It's faster and more complete that you've seen before, with added color, a Twitter client and visual browser bookmarks, but it's essentially the same HTC dashboard, just gussied up a little bit. And to the extent that such a thing—you know, a disguise—can work, it works.

Falling Out of Lust With the HD2

HTC's software ethos has always been to hide the unseemly parts of Windows Mobile. And it's got plenty! But with the HD2, they've taken this philosophy all the way to its logical conclusion: They've tried to replace Windows Mobile's UI entirely. The HD2 is HTC: Reductio ad Absurdum Edition.

And don't get me wrong, this whole Sense thing is surprisingly usable—it's a fairly rare occasion that you fall out of HTC's safe, smooth, grey-and-black arms, and into the Windows 3.1-esque hell that has been, and somehow still is, a Windows Mobile hallmark. With Sense HTC has made a sort of meta-OS, which uses Windows Mobile 6.5 as a behind-the-scenes stagehand, which only shows its face when it absolutely needs to. HTC has even added multitouch to the browser, maps and photo applications, which works well enough for what almost certainly qualifies as an after-the-fact hack.

In fact, that could describe the whole Sense experience just well. It's good, considering what it is. It's just that that's a huge qualification. As pretty as HTC's replacement apps are, they're not the same as having good core apps in the first place. Want to add music to HTC's fancy new media player? You've got to find Windows Mobile's old media player, add a directory and switch back. Want some new apps? Trundle on over to Windows Mobile's sorely lacking Marketplace, where most of the apps you download will look and behave differently than the ones in HTC's coddled ecosystem. Press Start, and you'll be greeted with Windows' unsortable mess of a Start Menu. Need to modify a setting that HTC didn't deem important enough to put in their own control panel? Good luck. And god forbid you don't like Sense, and want to stick with vanilla 6.5, you basically can't: It's not quite ready for stylus-free use, and the HD2's screen doesn't come with—or support—those forsaken almost-pens of yore. As much good work as HTC has done here, it's an uneven experience. Remember those flashy old Windows XP shell replacements like bbLean and Litestep? No? There's a good reason for that—they're patches and masks, and they can't fully replace an OS's UI.

Every time you notice the absurd lengths to which HTC has gone to deny this phone is running Windows—they've even replaced the calendar and text messaging apps, for god's sake—you find yourself asking the same question: Why even bother?

It's a question for consumers as much as it is for HTC. For HTC, why spend so much time and effort desperately—and only marginally effectively—hiding an OS when they know they can just replace it entirely? I understand they've got a legacy with Windows Mobile, but right now that legacy is starting to seem toxic, as HTC's insistence on distancing themselves from it in the form of passive-aggressive disguising operations shows. And for anyone thinking about buying this thing, why not wait a little while? We've seen how fantastic this hardware combo is, so why not wait until someone loads it up with software that HTC doesn't feel like they have to hide away like some kind of dark secret? Sony's about to outspec the HD2 with the Android-powered Xperia X10 anyway, and HTC would have to be stupid not to be working on something similar right now.

If you've got some undying loyalty to Windows Mobile, be it personal or work-enforced, life won't get any better than with the HD2—it's shipping sometime in early 2010, though I don't suspect it'll be cheap. If you don't, then just wait this one out. Trust me: for hardware like this, the payoff will be worth it.

UPDATE: Some people are saying I've been too dismissive of the phone simply due to its software, and they have a point: The HD2 is, without qualification, the best Windows Mobile phone on the market right now. And being a Windows Mobile phone isn't all bad: The browsers have Flash, Exchange support is perfect, and multitasking is seamless. On top of that, the Sense shell is an impressive piece of software, especially in terms of social networking and media playback. But the point remains: Even behind the very convincing disguise of a modern phone, Windows Mobile is lagging well behind its competitors in terms of new app development, fast OS development and general user experience, and by the time you get your hands on this phone—and just as importantly, by the time your contract is halfway through—Windows Mobile 6.5, Sense or no Sense, will feel like a complete dinosaur. Hence the "wait"—for a similar phone with better software, or for Windows Mobile 7. That said, if you're a Windows Mobile fan, or aware of its various quirks and still willing to take the dive, this is the finest Windows Phone in the world, bar none.

[HTC]

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

The 4.3-inch glass display is pure bliss

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

Actually, no, this whole handset is bliss. If they were sitting right here, right now, I would kiss the hardware designers on the mouth. With tongue.

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

Battery life isn't as atrocious as you'd expect it to be

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

HTC Sense does extensive damage control on Windows Mobile, making this the best WinMo experience out there right now.

HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

Not to beat a dead horse, but it's still Windows Mobile. (What that means)