HTC Touch HD2 Review: A Tragedy

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 software.

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 just not 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 Touch HD.

Top to bottom, corner to corner — and it's a long trip — the HD2 is a perfect specimen of glass, plastic and aluminium. 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 millimetres of ink-black trim and a subtle row of satisfyingly pressable little buttons. The handset's minimalist hind-side, interrupted only by a slightly protruding lens for the HD2's 5-megapixel camera and an ever-so-slightly grained aluminium battery door, is elegantly tapered, emphasising just how thin this thing is.

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 10 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 3.5mm headphone jack and charging comes by way of Micro USB through to an adequate 1230mAh 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 mobile phone. (And hell, if you put your face close enough to this ridiculous screen, it's easy to forget you're not.)

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 almost all the information you look to your phone for. It's faster and more complete that you've seen before, with added colour, 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 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. Sense HTC has made a sort of meta OS which uses Windows Mobile 6.5 as a behind-the-scenes stage hand, only showing its face when it absolutely needs to. HTC has even added multitouch to the browser, maps and photo applications, which works surprisingly well for what almost certainly qualifies as an after-the-fact hack.

In fact, that could describe the whole Sense experience. 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 app Marketplace. 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 because 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.

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 you know you 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. 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 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 the same 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 on multiple carriers in the US 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: The payoff will be worth it. [HTC]

The 4.3-inch glass display is pure bliss.

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.

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

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

Not to beat a dead horse, but it's still Windows Mobile.

Trending Stories Right Now