For Windows Mobile 6.5, the OS is only (and thankfully) half the story. Microsoft left plenty up to the carriers and handset manufacturers, and with the Imagio, Verizon and HTC have at least created something interesting.
Verizon's HTC Imagio is a touchscreen Windows Mobile 6.5 handset, or "Windows Phone," with a healthy, if expected, spec set, iiiiinnncluding!: a 3.6-inch WVGA screen, Wi-Fi, GPS, a 5-megapixel camera, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and microSD storage expansion (but sadly, no included card). It's also the first smartphone with V CAST Mobile TV, which is a Flo TV-based live streaming TV service that looks and feels a bit like digital cable, phone-ified. Accordingly, it has an adorable kickstand.
$200 on contract with Verizon, after a $100 rebate
HTC is the Taco Bell of the handset world—they've only got a few ingredients that they put into their long menu of products, but the results are consistently pretty good, if not spectacular. Of the bulging ranks of 528MHz-Qualcomm-based touchscreen handsets, this is one of my favorite permutations. For its size, the Imagio is respectably thin—about as thick as an iPhone, but with a noticeably larger screen—and pleasantly rounded in the rear, with a subdued two-tone backplate accented with a shiny camera bezel and a chrome kickstand.
The front of the device is framed by a perforated grille, which looks and feels pleasantly knobbly, giving the handset a little friction, and a secure feeling in your hand. The bottom row of buttons—call, V CAST, Windows Start Menu, back and end call—are placed a little low to be comfortable to press, but anyone who's used to HTC handset designs won't have any trouble getting around this piece.
Performance is adequate, but since this is the same Qualcomm processor we've been complaining about for months now, and the 256MB of RAM isn't overly generous, it's nothing better than what we've already seen in the likes of the HTC Touch Pro2. HTC's done plenty of work to make TouchFLO run nice'n'smooth, sure, but it really wouldn't hurt to not just make a handset with speedier hardware, but to actually release it in the US.
I was pretty hard on Windows Mobile 6.5 in my review, but guess what? HTC likes it even less. TouchFLO 3D reaches deeper into the operating system than ever before, to the point that during casual use you can't even tell you're using a Windows Mobile phone.
The Titanium homescreen? Replaced. The new, larger contextual menus? How about prettier HTC versions instead? Mobile Internet Explorer 6? Replaced with Opera Mobile. Virtually every other piece of software that HTC had time to revamp or cover up? Out of sight, out of mind. And for one final kick in the nuts, the new Start Menu, which Microsoft even went so far as to require 6.5 phones to have a dedicated button for? Replaced with a slightly better HTC variant. That, right there, is a better review of Windows Mobile 6.5 than anyone could ever write.
Based on Flo TV, which probably doesn't mean much to most people, V CAST is a categorically impressive technology. The best way to describe it is that it's like having a digital cable box, complete with live broadcasts of familiar basic cable stations (Comedy Central, CNN, the like), and a familiar program guide interface. Video quality is fair, but definitely watchable, and the experience of flipping through live channels is pretty novel.
As interesting as the underlying technology is, there are a few serious problems. Watching TV is neat and all, but on a mobile device, video on demand would be infinitely more useful. And at $12 or $15 a month, I don't think people will be satisfied with the somewhat anemic channel selection (full listings here).
Moreover, I don't really understand how Verizon expects people to use this. You can't use it on a plane or a subway, so what, trains? During your lunch break at work? There center part in the Venn diagram of times where you might want to watch video content but don't have a computer or TV and times when you can realistically use V CAST is small, as far as I can tell. But if live, basic-cable-esque TV on your phone is something you can see yourself using, this implementation is actually pretty good.
This has been the story for a few years now, and it doesn't look like it's going to change with Windows Mobile 6.5: Handset manufacturers will continue to make the OS bearable to use, and carrier will occasionally grant handsets interesting—if not always useful—services to keep customers' attention. That's exactly what the Imagio does, bonding pleasant hardware design with a heroic salvaging of the phone's interface. At $200 after rebate, it's not a best value by a long shot, but in Verizon's sickly smartphone line, it's not a horrible choice.
I would've liked to end this review on that happy note, but while I was writing it Verizon sabotaged my plan, those scoundrels: Two Android phones will be announced for the network "within weeks," which means that unless you're bound to Windows Mobile either by software, your employer, or, er, extreme loyalty, you'd be best advised to wait a little while. [Verizon]
It's got an appealing design, large screen and minimal branding
HTC's done a hell of a job sprucing up Windows Mobile, as always
V CAST TV is technologically interesting, but it's expensive and I'm not really sure how people will use it
Windows Mobile 6.5, y'all
Specs could use a bump; namely the aging 528MHz processor and included storage
$200 isn't a great bargain, and Verizon' got some Android handsets coming down the pike.