Rating: ★★½☆☆

HTC’s HD7 is the second Windows Phone 7 device I’ve had the pleasure of testing, and it’s vastly different in form and function from the Samsung Focus, my previously tested WP7 handset. The HD7 is bigger, bolder, and on T-Mobile instead of Ma Bell. It’s HTC’s current flagship for their WP7 line, but is it as good as what has been considered the top phone for Microsoft’s mobile OS?

The HD7 is a large phone with a 4.3” LCD display. At first glance, it would appear that the HD7 has a stereo sound design, with twin speakers on the top and bottom of the handset, but that’s not how the HD7 works. As I showed in our first look, a microphone is on the underside of the phone, beside a Micro-USB and auxiliary input. The speaker-like opening on the bottom end of the phone is solely aesthetic. On the right side of the HD7 is the volume rocker and dedicated camera control, and the left side is completely clear of any buttons. The top has only the power/standby button. On the back of the HD7 is the 5MP camera and dual-LED flash, as well as the speakerphone. A metal stand pops out on a hinge atop the camera and rear speaker.

It should come as no surprise that the HD7 looks and feels very similar to the Evo 4G. It shares the same form factor and general design. However, the HD7 is sleeker with a clean, chrome bezel frame that’s warm to the touch and easy to grip. Unfortunately the bezel’s inward shaping, along with a hard-to-press power/standby button makes activating the phone a pest. The button isn’t easy to press. It has no click, no feel, and is too sunken into the phone. This is a serious issue that should have kept the phone from ever releasing. Anything that obvious on a phone shouldn’t even pass certification.

Another hardware issue comes from the kickstand, which is too far from the center to rest with stability. Many smartphones with a kickstand have this issue, and the HD7 is no different. It is too easy to tip it over. A slight shake on the table and it’ll fall over. If the table isn’t perfectly flat, it’ll rock back and forth.

The display is bright and, thanks to a standard LCD display, it’s easily visible in direct sunlight. While the Focus basically failed in sunlight with it’s SuperAMOLED display, the HD7 looks great in both indirect and direct sunlight. I was able to watch full-color videos just fine on the display with near-perfect clarity. The only downside is that it’s too easy to see lines of dots all across the screen, which is odd for any display. The screen is also highly reflective, so don’t expect to view too much on it in the sun. Still, the HD7 is perfectly readable in even the worst light conditions.

I wasn’t surprised by the speed and feel of the OS. With 12GB of internal space (no SD card slot), the HD7 is limited by what it can store but not by what it can do. I’m impressed with it playing movies, taking photos and video, running standard and 3rd party applications, et al. The only slowdown I’ve ever noticed is waking the phone up, sometimes it takes a moment to initialize the slide-up gesture to get the phone rolling.

Audio quality is also very good, though some of the auto-functions need fixing. For instance, most phones have separate volume levels for headphones and internal speakers, but the HD7 does not. The HD7 provides clear, crisp sound that is very accurate, and great for a phone. However, I do wish that instead of using the speakerphone on the back to play audio that the receiver and faux-microphone acted as stereo speakers. This could boost sound quality by using directional audio, instead of employing difficult algorithms to make sound blast from the rear speakerphone but sound normal to someone on the other side of the phone. It only makes sense that a phone with a stand have speakers on the front, where someone would actually view media.

Video quality is also excellent. It’s detailed and sharp, though not as vibrant as the Focus, nor does it have as good color and black-and-white contrast, as expected. The large screen also makes watching movies more pleasant than on smaller devices. Thanks to the simplicity of Zune, I had a great time watching movies on the HD7 and switching between various flicks and shows with wireless syncing.

The feel of the HD7 is solid, but not rugged. It jingles a bit when shaken, the kickstand is more of a toy than a tool, and it is of course quite large. It fits fine in the pocket, but if you’re someone who carries more than two things in a pocket, the HD7 will feel like a space hog. I frequently carry around several devices, including my personal phone and iPod Touch, and the HD7 does not play well with others in confined quarters.

From left to right: HTC Evo 4G, HTC HD7 and Samsung Focus

T-Mobile’s service is give and take in Los Angeles. In major areas like Santa Monica, Downtown, the San Bernardino Valley and similar densely-populated areas, the network ran fine and made clear calls. However, in areas with less people over more territory, like Calabasas, Malibu, Thousand Oaks and parts of Orange County, calls were easier to drop and roaming became more consistent. Battery life takes a serious hit when in such areas. My house in particular does not get good cell reception, and within a day of no calls and minimal use the HD7′s battery would drain completely. Compare that to AT&T’s Focus, which, in the same conditions and same limited cell reception, can last 4 days.

It’s not surprising that battery life is worse on the HD7. A larger device with a bigger and more power-hungry screen, roaming more constantly on a smaller network will have worse battery life. But moderate to heavy use in both major metropolitan areas and smaller communities proved that getting a full day’s charge with the HD7, especially for those traveling around a lot and not confined to a single city, is next to impossible.

Camera quality is mediocre to below average. The 5MP camera takes dull pictures and the lens is awfully slow, more often than not taking blurry pictures even in broad daylight. Unlike the Focus camera options are limited to effects (sepia, black and white, etc.) and shot types (landscape, portrait, etc.). As you can see in the pictures above (click to see full-size images), colors are dull, contrast is minimal and while detail is high, viewing images at their full size shows just how blurry taken pictures can be. The dual-LED flash is blinding and washes out even more color. Frankly, the camera on the HD7 leaves too much to be desired. If you plan on replacing a compact or sub-compact camera with a new cellphone, the HD7 will not suffice.

HTC built the HD7 as a solid device, but little more. Service is questionable (depending on your area), battery life is shaky – albeit in part due to service – and the camera quality is below par for both smartphones and even feature phones. Windows Phone 7 runs like a charm on the HD7 and viewing media is great, though I’d love to have front-facing audio instead of the back-end speakerphone. I recommend it for users who watch a lot of videos, especially with the easy Zune integration. I’ve watched several downloaded movies on the HD7 and they’ve been great, even in bright conditions. I don’t see it making it far for business users or anyone who lives on their phone. But when the first problem with the handset is the power button…well, Houston, we have a problem.

You can purchase the HTC HD7 from Amazon’s Wireless store for $0.01 after a 2-year contract signing or from one of the stores below.

Summary

Pros:

  • Good screen, bright enough for direct sunlight
  • Fast and responsive
  • Excellent for media playback

Cons:

  • Recessed power button difficult to push
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Camera lacks color richness, pictures often blurry and dull



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.