htc HD7 Windows Phone 7 handset review

The HD7 is a large Windows Phone 7 device with a 4.3in screen. It is one of the original Windows Phone launch devices and in the UK is exclusively available only on O2 – a network which offers no other Windows Phone devices at present.

I’ve owned the HD7 since February of this year and upgraded from an iPhone 3G – hence a number of direct comparisons with the Apple device in this review. The OS itself is reviewed separately.

Hardware

At the front is a minimalist and stylish face dominated almost entirely by the large screen. It stretches to the edges of the case except at the bottom where the three standard Microsoft-dictated buttons are located.

Most other Windows Phone devices use real buttons but the HD7 has capacitive touch buttons with haptic feedback to imitate a physical feel. It’s a really nice feature and very pleasant to use, although the buttons can easily be pressed accidentally especially if trying to use the phone one-handed.

The rear is quite fussy – definitely more geek chic than Apple chic. The larger upper area is a removable cover which clips in place, and reveals a standard-size SIM socket and user-replaceable battery. A useful and surprisingly solid metal kick plate surrounds the 5 mega-pixel camera lens, allowing the device to stand up in landscape mode – perfect for watching video footage.

The camera takes decent quality pictures although the flash is useless – completely blowing out anything you try to photograph. At present, the OS doesn’t remember camera settings and it is irritating to have to turn the flash off every time you take a picture. This is a design decision by Microsoft but in real world usage scenarios it’s not the optimal solution. The quality of pictures is good but falls short of the iPhone 4’s best-in-class camera. Anyone interested in using the HD7 for video calls should note that there is no front facing camera.

Above and below the screen are two slim grilles which add distinctiveness to the design but are not without their drawbacks. Sharp protruding edges enclose the grilles and the upper one can get uncomfortable against the ear during calls. Also, the grills collect dust and other debris and are hard to clean. The top grill contains a notification LED which illuminates when charging and – very usefully – flashes when there is a missed call. There’s no way to enable this for emails or text messages though which some users might like to have as an option.

The screen itself has great image quality – it’s clear and vivid, especially when using the WP7 dark theme. Super AMOLED devices like the Samsung Omnia7 are apparently much more vivid but I haven’t had a chance to compare them. A shop demo unit I first looked at had a discoloured section of screen, but this was due to a damage or a fault because my handset is perfect in this respect.

The HD7 screen has never disappointed me, it’s sharp and colour accuracy is good. The only downside is visible elements of the capacitive touch screen – a grid of dots – that catch and reflect under bright lights. This bothered me initially and was my biggest argument against getting the phone. In practice it’s never really a problem but is still disappointing when other devices don’t have the same flaw.

One other quirk I’ve learnt to live with is the loose side volume button which rattles and vibrates, and makes a noise when the phone’s vibrating motor kicks in. Do htc have any QA? Other than that, the handset feels like a quality product.

Call quality

Compared directly to an iPhone 3G, it’s disappointing to find that the clarity of calls via the earpiece is not quite as good – it’s perfectly acceptable but is slightly more muffled. On the flipside, this is more than made up for by the better reception. On a number of occasions I’ve noticed the phone holds a signal much better than an iPhone, allowing me to have a conversation in a less than ideal reception area without the frustration of broken up speech.

Large screen implications

Large form-factor mobiles with 4.3″ screens struck me as a bit silly at first so it’s been an interesting experience to own the HD7. There’s definitely a trade-off.

On the upside, the very attractive Windows Phone OS is shown off to stunning effect. The use of empty space as an integral part of the user interface is even more noticeable on a larger screen. As an internet and gaming device it’s a joy to use and has altered my perception of how big a phone screen should be. A phone in my hand with a 3.5in screen like the iPhone 3G now looks low-end and a bit dated.

The downside is that the screen is almost certainly too big from an ergonomic point of view. I struggle to use the phone single-handedly because my thumb doesn’t reach across the screen fully, and the lower part of the thumb easily catches the capacitive buttons below the screen. It is possible to avoid these problems with care, but this is really a phone to use with both hands.

Typing issues

Design-wise the onscreen keyboard is a masterpiece. It’s clear and well laid out, and the word correction and completion is in another league to iOS devices.

The bugbear I have with the onscreen keyboard is accuracy. I hit the wrong key more often than I did on the iPhone which has a significantly smaller screen and onscreen keyboard.

It is possible that WP7 doesn’t quite have the intelligence of Apple devices when it comes to interpreting touches, but I suspect the problem is hardware related. I downloaded an app called TouchTest from the marketplace which shows a target shape that follows your finger around the screen. This app clearly shows that vertical motion tracks perfectly smoothly, while horizontal motion does not. It jumps even when you move your finger across the screen smoothly – as if there’s steps in the touch screen tracking. This is possibly related to those visible dots.

Bugs and glitches

There have been numerous reports of problems with the HD7 in web forums and blogs, some of which I have experienced:

  1. What appears to be a display driver problem, where occasionally the screen corrupts badly and the phone is unusable even though it’s still functioning. A reboot cures it.
  2. Random reboots. This is particularly worrying because it could be a something hardware related. This has happened a few times.
  3. Alarm and volume issues. There are some issues related to the volume control and it’s effect on the various types of sound on the device. Apparently if you load a game and then turn the sound off, alarms are then silent as well. This hasn’t happened to me and I use the phone alarm to get me out of bed every morning

It appears that the NoDo update has resolved the first two of these issues, as I have not seen them since running the latest version of the OS. My phone currently has an uptime of 10 days and hasn’t had a single issue. NoDo definitely has a number of performance and reliability improvements for the HD7.

Although not widely reported, my phone used to occasionally stutter as if the touch screen is unresponsive, but it’s more likely to be the OS struggling with one of it’s background tasks and not keeping up with user input. This also appears fixed since the NoDo update.

Summary

The HD7 gets a qualified recommendation. I’m very happy with it and love the large screen. I don’t regret getting it instead of the iPhone 4, although I imagine many would question the sanity of that decision. Performance is great and the kickstand is a nice feature. If the selection of phones had been greater I’d have seriously considered the Samsung Omnia7 as well, but it wasn’t an option at the time of purchase on my carrier.

The HD7 runs the smartphone OS I wanted, and does it very well.

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