Thoughts on the World

Digital Convergence - Still Waiting

Or... Why I Learned to Hate the HTC Touch HD

A few years ago I toyed with replacing my trusty PDA, phone and digital camera with a combined unit. That was not a success, and I ended up with a second hand SmartPhone, an iPaq 4700 PDA, and the T-Mobile MDA as my car satnav (a job it does acceptably). You can read an analysis of my trials and tribulations, entitled "Annoyance-Based Technology Selection".

Technology moves on, and it also wears out. My Motorola MPX220 has given good service, but it is dying, with several intermittent failures any of which could suddenly become permanent. The battery contacts on my iPaq 4700 are getting a bit tired. And I was also getting weary of my reliable but huge and somewhat cumbersome Creative Zen NX music player. The prospect of replacing phone, PDA, MP3 player and possibly GPS with a single unit looked attractive again.

After a little research, I hit on the HTC Touch HD, which has a very promising spec sheet and has had good reviews, both on the web and by colleagues. One was duly procured on eBay.

Some context is appropriate at this point: I neither know nor care how the Touch HD compares with the iPhone. If I wanted an iPhone I'd buy one. I don't. On the other and I've made consistent productive use of Pocket PCs for 10 years, since the original Compaq Aero, so such devices, and particularly the iPaq 4700, form a natural frame of reference.

My initial reaction was good. The Touch HD has a very stylish design, being essentially a featureless black tablet when off. The hardware specification is generous, with a fast processor, plenty of RAM, and just about every conceivable type of connectivity, including a GPS receiver. It has a built in accelerometer/level sufficiently sensitive to mimic ball bearing games, and a stylus which is magnetic so that it is both harder to lose, and its extraction can trigger relevant actions on the phone.

So far so good.

The problem with tablet-style phones (as opposed to flip or slide designs) is that the buttons can be accidentally pressed when the phone's being carried. HTC's solution is to have no hard buttons except a well-recessed one for power on/off. The trouble is that this then means there is no easy way to summon voice notes or voice dialling as on other PDAs, and the camera, operated by a soft button on screen, will never take a sharp picture. (cartoon)

Another generic problem is that while a PDA is usually carried in a case, a phone isn't (unless you want to miss lots of incoming calls), and is frequently held to the face, so the screen gets greasy. HTC don't have a solution for this, and the streamlined design with the screen not recessed probably makes it worse.

A more specific problem rises from the choice of a "widescreen" aspect ratio. While this makes sense for TVs and larger PCs, it doesn't work well for smaller devices, particularly those usually used in portrait orientation. The short side of a 4" VGA screen (like the iPaq 4700) is 2.4", while the short side of a 3.8" WVGA screen is only 1.95", therefore all text and input targets are 20% smaller. This may be fine for the most youthful eyes and fingers, but for me it's the difference between a device I can read at any distance from 6" to arms length and one where I have to position it carefully for comfortable reading. My input accuracy on the soft keyboard dropped from well over 95% on the iPaq, to probably around 80%, which is unworkable for substantial text.

Also display-related, the HTC fails to run a lot of older PPC software properly. I accept that some of these incompatibilities may be down to Microsoft, not HTC, but it feels like the problematic QVGA emulation of the Dell Axim X1, compared with my iPaq 4700 which ran 100% of the software which ran on its QVGA predecessor.

Battery life is somewhere between appalling and non-existent - on a good day it lasts a whole day on a charge, but not if you're doing anything processor intensive. This is better than an iPhone, but that's not the right benchmark here. My old smartphone usually lasts a week per charge, and the iPaq 4700 often lasts two!

Since the HTC doesn't have SD or CF expansion its ability to share files with other devices is limited, but it does support a micro SD card of up to 32GB, which held out the promise of replacing my elderly MP3 jukebox. However, music playing is plagued by skips and stutters, a widely reported problem which varies from annoying (a short skip every few tunes) to completely useless (outages of a few seconds every few minutes). This demonstrates that this function was never adequately tested by the developers. If my iPaq 4700 can play music all day while playing graphics- and compute-intensive games, and the music never misses a beat, why is the HTC so useless?

Physically the phone functions are good, reliably delivering calls in low signal conditions, but the phone software is useless. Firstly, there is no proper voice dialling (using speech recognition) by default. This seems to be a failing of many newer smartphones compared with devices like the MPX220. It can be fixed, but raises the question why does Microsoft not just bundle Voice Command with WM5/6?

The phone screen is a very clumsy design, sacrificing real estate to a stupid avatar/picture, then splitting core phone functions across two screens!

The upshot of all this is a device I can't live with. Any combination of these problems would be bad, but the appalling battery life and stuttering audio are real killers.

My main personal lesson is never again to place any value on any review which uses the words "cool" or "awesome".

I was also going to say "those who do not learn from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them", but actually that's unfair. It should now be perfectly possible to build a good combined PDA/phone/GPS/MP3 player. HTC have all the right ingredients, but failed to pay sufficient attention to the recipe. Maybe next time...


If you'd like to comment on this article, with ideas, examples, or just to praise it to the skies then I'd love to hear from you.

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