HTC's Touch Smartphone Promises Lots, Delivers Less

HTC's Touch smartphone initially looks like the Windows Mobile-powered version of Apple's iPhone.

But underneath its Potemkin touch interface lies the same old Windows Mobile operating system, which struggles with serious usability problems if you want to operate it with your fingers alone.

The result is that the Touch adds up to a handset that seems half-fast and ultimately unsatisfying.

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There's no denying that the Touch is a beautiful little slab smartphone, a rounded black pebble of a piece with a big touchscreen above two buttons and a five-way cursor rocker. On the back, there's a 2-megapixel camera.

Turn it on and you're presented with the bold, usable and finger-friendly interface that Windows Mobile 6 should have had — and that we hope Windows Mobile 7 will feature.

A big digital clock sits on the top of the screen, above alert buttons for messages and calls and a list of your day's appointments.

By sweeping your finger up the screen, you bring up a launcher with nine bold icons corresponding to popular applications.

Sweep your finger to the side and you get to choose among music, video and photo options.

Sweep it to the side again and you can touch the picture icons of your top contacts to make calls.

This "TouchFLO" interface is great. It's just what Windows Mobile needs. But with a few exceptions, it doesn't go past the launcher stage. (HTC has also loaded in a finger-friendly music application, a camera application and a phone dialer.)

So when you drop into e-mail, Web browsing, Office Mobile or any other application, you're back to poking at extremely tiny icons with an extremely picky stylus. This gets old very, very fast.

I've talked to HTC about this, and the company pleads that it shouldn't be bashed for improving part of the interface instead of the whole interface. A partial improvement is still an improvement, it says.

But I disagree, since this approach raises expectations and just makes the rest of the Windows Mobile interface feel more annoying.

Since the Touch is an all-touch-screen device, figuring out how to get text into it is one of the phone's big challenges.

Microsoft's on-screen keyboard is built for tiny miniature people, and alas, the full-screen transcriber had some real trouble with accuracy.

I had the best luck with the "block recognizer" mode, which is like an old PalmPilot's Graffiti area. But I still had to scribble with my stylus, not my finger.

The Touch also feels slow, a problem endemic to touch-screen Windows Mobile 5 or 6 devices with 200-MHz processors. (The T-Mobile MDA and Wing have the same issue.)

Sometimes the virtual buttons took several presses to respond. Launching applications, especially Windows Media Player, feels gummy.

If you try to change the volume during the first few seconds after launching HTC's audio manager, there's a noticeable delay in button response.

Interestingly, the Touch got slightly better scores on the SPB benchmark tests than the MDA, something we'll chalk up to the small performance improvements in Windows Mobile 6 over version 5.

Don't get me wrong, the Touch is a decent phone. Volume is loud enough, and voices are pleasing, though there's no noise cancellation in the microphone. The speakerphone plays out the back, and it's surprisingly loud.

You can use wired (via USB) or Bluetooth headsets, and there's a built-in voice-dialing application, but it requires you to record tags.

Considering how slim the device's svelte profile is, battery life is excellent.

As the Touch is a 900/1,800/1,900-MHz unlocked GSM phone, it works best on the T-Mobile network (AT&T's network uses the unincluded 850-MHz band in many areas.)

Since T-Mobile doesn't have a high-speed 3G (third-generation) network in the U.S., I'm willing to give the Touch a pass for its own lack of 3G.

EDGE speeds measured by JBenchmark Net were slow, though, at 71 Kbps down and 22 Kbps up.

I had better luck with Wi-Fi, which worked fine with both unprotected and WPA-encrypted networks.

The Touch's finger-friendly audio application is fun to use, but the device unfortunately uses its USB jack as a headphone jack, limiting the headsets you can use and driving a noticeable hiss over the cheap headset included with the phone.

I also played music through Plantronics 590 Bluetooth stereo headphones, sans hiss.

Otherwise, this is Windows Mobile, so it syncs seamlessly with Windows Media Player on the PC, and it supported our 4-gigabyte SanDisk microSD card without trouble.

Although the Touch can play video in full-screen landscape mode, results syncing video were mixed: Some of my files synced over beautifully, while others were jaggy with frequent frame dropouts. That's a problem we've had on other 200-MHz Windows Mobile devices, too.

Photos from the Touch's 2-megapixel camera could be sharper, and I saw some shutter-speed blur in low-light conditions.

The video mode is also disappointingly jerky and low-res, at 176-by-144 and 10 frames per second. But HTC deserves props for at least including a camera interface that you can work with your finger.

The HTC Touch is available only through specialty importers, but HTC doesn't seem to have a problem with those importers selling models unlocked in the U.S., a reliable importer, has phones in stock for $594.95 — roughly the same price as a locked 8-gigabyte iPhone.

Basically, the HTC Touch is a tease. It tempts you with a new interface that makes you feel like you'll fly across the device.

But with its slow response time and standard Windows Mobile software, it dumps you back on the ground at the end.

For something in a similar form factor, I prefer the T-Mobile Dash with Windows Mobile 6 and a plain old QWERTY keypad.

Benchmark Test Results
Continuous talk time: 14 hours 40 minutes
SPB Benchmark: 303
CPU Index: 1022
File system index: 127
Graphics index: 3024

Editor's Rating: Three out of five stars

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