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HTC Surround Review

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The HTC Surround is part of the first batch of Windows Phone 7 devices to arrive on the U.S market. It has been designed to be a great music companion, thanks to its powerful sliding speaker. This seems like a perfect companion for the Zune Pass, the music rental subscription service from Microsoft. I know, building a speaker-smartphone is a bit of a strange idea, but I’ll keep an open mind. Most importantly, I’ll focus on what Windows Phone 7 is capable of and whether or not it stands a chance in this uber-competitive smartphone market. With a fresh and ultra-fast user interface Microsoft’s new entry in a market that it once-dominated might make more waves than many would have thought just a year ago.

Context

There are as many usage patterns as there are people. We all have our unique way of using the electronics that makes our lives better, that’s why it is often impractical to write a dogmatic review that says “buy or not”. I found it much more useful to tell you what I do with these devices and how they worked for me. From there, I’m sure that you can figure out how things will work for you.

I check my email very often with Exchange, and I reply moderately because virtual keyboards are not as productive as physical ones. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites or to search for stuff, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I run some apps: mainly social networks and a tiny bit of games. I don’t call much: maybe 10mn a day, max. This usage pattern will affect the battery life and my (and yours) perception of what features are important or not. Now you know, let’s move on to the good stuff.

Technical highlights (versus Droid Incredible)

Droid IncredibleHTC Surround
Android 2.1 + HTC SenseWindows Phone 7
3.7″ AMOLED 480×8003.8″ LCD 480×800
Qualcomm 8650 SnapDragon, 1Ghz[Unknown] 1Ghz
512MB RAM512MB RAM
8GB of internal storage + microSD slot16GB internal
8 Megapixel camera5 Megapixel camera
Wifi b/g, BT 2.1+EDR, aGPSWifi b/g/n, BT 2.1+EDR, aGPS
FM Radio?
TV Out (microUSB)No TV Out
Carrier: Verizon, 3GAT&T, 3G
4.6 x 2.3 x 0.47″, 4.6oz4.71 x 2.42 x 0.51″, 5.82oz
1300mAh battery1230mAh battery

Physical Design


This video shows what it looks like in the real world
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The HTC surround has a very “classic” HTC clean look

The HTC surround has a very “classic” HTC look. It’s clean and the logos are relatively discrete. It is otherwise an ordinary-looking phone, and I don’t expect people to jump on it just because of its “good looks”. The earpiece is big and looks like it is hosting a good speaker and the on/off button is placed at the top-right of the phone, which is a convenient location in my view. There are volume and camera shutter buttons on the right side. The USB port placement at the bottom/center of the phone is great because you can use it with both hands (typing vertically) while it is tethered. It’s a very personal take, but I found myself using the phone vertically most of the time simply because I can see more data on the screen. The back of the phone has that “leathery” plastic that is so common to smartphones these days. It provides a very good grip but it doesn’t look as classy as glass or metal. Talking about the back, there’s a 5 Megapixel camera with a flash and more logos (HTC+dolby+Windows Phone) – how many HTC logos does HTC need on their phones?

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Thank you HTC – the ON/OFF button is conveniently placed

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Did we mention the kickstand?

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The display is good, but not extraordinary

Display: The display is a plain LCD that boasts a high resolution (480×800). It looks very good in most instances and the pixels are tiny, but it won’t look as good as OLED when watching movies in the dark, nor does it look better than IPS LCD (the iPhone 4 display) in direct sunlight – it’s close though. This is not a bad screen at all, but I want to make sure that you know where it stands when compared to two of the best mobile display technologies in the market.

htc surround review 51 sunlight
In direct sunlight, the HTC Surround does OK, but not as good as the iPhone 4

On the tactile side, the display is very sensitive to light touch, like most just-released phones on all platforms. It seems that capacitive displays have conquered the smartphone market once and for all. The bottom-line is: a high-resolution, but otherwise ordinary display.

htc surround review 18 wp7 buttons
All Windows Phones will have these three buttons

Windows 7 buttons: All Windows Phone 7 devices will come with three hardware buttons: Back/Home/Search. Back, really brings you to whatever screen you were on before. The operating system (OS) keeps a fairly long history, so you can have fun going back. The Search button will trigger a search that is (mostly) relevant to the context. For example, if you’re in “contacts”, it will open a contact search box. If you’re on the home page it will go to Bing. There is no universal search for now.

Basics (very good)

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You can place shortcuts of people that you call often: here Eliane and the Ubergizmo office

Dialing (two taps minimum): by default, the phone app goes to the call history instead of the dialer. I’m not su
re how odd it actually is, but it’s unexpected to say the least. From the phone app, you’re one tap away from the contacts, dialing pad and voice messages. If you really have a few favorites, it’s probably better to pin their contact card to the home page. I found that to be a great way of having my most dialed numbers at hand. There’s no direct dialing shortcut, so it takes at least *two taps* to call someone. Overall, it is very easy to call someone, or a number (there is a dialpad too).

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After tapping on the contact, you need a second tap to take action and call

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Searching a contact is really simple – and fast!

Searching for a contact: Searching for a contact isn’t hard at all: you just need to go into the People screen, press the Search button and type a name. If you have few contacts, you might get away with going into the People screen and scrolling a little. As I suggested above, you can also add contact shortcuts to the homepage.

htc surround review 23 reception

Wireless Reception: I always point out that the quality of the network mostly depends on where *you* live/work. It doesn’t matter if a network is “the best” on average if you live in a “dark spot”. Before you choose a network, get some real information by asking your friends and people around you. This time around, I had almost no issues with receiving calls and fetching data over the 3G network. I say almost because there were times when it was hard to get the data to work. Again it depends on where you are, but in downtown San Francisco the AT&T network is known to have a few holes.

htc surround review 24 call audio
The sound quality is good, no problem there

Call audio quality (good): The sound quality of this phone is better than average for this class of smartphones. The sound is clear (not muffled) and loud enough for most usages. I’m not sure how that would work in the very loud restaurant or club, but other than that you should hear things very decently.

htc surround review 25 virtual keyboard
Microsoft has the best virtual keyboard – good job on that one!

Virtual Keyboard (excellent): The Windows Phone 7 virtual keyboard looks minimalistic, but it is *excellent*. First of all, it is extremely responsive and that means that you can type faster: the phone will keep up with the pace at which you enter letters (many phones don’t follow if you’re adding spaces or characters very quickly). People don’t typically type very fast on a sustained basis with a virtual keyboard, but it is frustrating when the phone doesn’t react fast enough when do you type very fast, in short bursts.

Secondly, my error rate is lower than with the iPhone 4, which I considered to have the best virtual keyboard until now, for its size (4.3″ displays do help a lot with typing speed). Finally, Microsoft has integrated a good word suggestion feature that doesn’t think that it is smarter than me. I can select a proposed word, or simply continue to type. On the iPhone 4, the phone insists on being smarter than you are, which is very annoying if you use technical words, slang or a foreign language.

Bottom-line: this is the first virtual keyboard that is clearly better than the iPhone 4′s in my opinion. Now don’t get me wrong, I like things like Swype, but I just haven’t got myself used to “swyping” and it is more natural and productive for me to use the traditional “tap”. If you don’t know what swype is, you have to try it at least once.

Windows Live ID: WP7 is a Microsoft product that is connected to many Microsoft web services. Because of that, you will need to create a Windows Live ID. Note that you don’t have to get a new email on live.com or hotmail.com. I’ve created a Live ID using an existing email.

Windows Phone 7 User Interface (excellent)


A quick view of WP7 to illustrate how fluid it is
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Home screen: WP7 has a genuinely useful and well designed user interface

Because this is the first generation of Windows Phone 7 handsets, it is important to go through some of the core elements of the operating system (OS) and its user interface. I personally like the WP7 design very much. It’s a matter of personal preferences and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like iOS’s design too, I do. However, having something that is clean and readable can be relaxing. Of course, others might find it a bit depressing, but at least there’s something for everyone now.

Home screen: Microsoft has built the interface with the goal of being clear and “clean”. Here there’s no shiny buttons, but instead you have Live Tiles that are spaced to maximize the screen real estate usage. Did I say “live” tiles? Yes, by “live”, Microsoft means that the tiles can display dynamic information so that you might not have to launch the app, for example to know how many news emails you got. It’s up to the developers to find compelling usages for those. At the moment, they are more like fancy icons. However, they are big enough to hold real information, and have true potential.

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All the apps are in one page, listed by alphabetical order

Apps: all the apps are sorted by alphabetic order in one big list. If there are apps that you use often, you can add them to the Home screen. I’m not sure how this will scale if you really have a large number of apps. For one, it might be nice to have some sort of alphabetical shortcut. Secondly, some sort of tree structure might be nice as well. At the moment, Microsoft is probably more preoccupied by the regular users who don’t have 800 apps on their phones.

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The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the font is very readable. Good choice

Font: Microsoft has been known in the past to have custom-built font for its Operating Systems, and I have to say that the font here is very readable and looks great. It’s one of those things that end up being *everywhere* so I’m glad that someone made the right choice.

Back button: WP7 keeps a history the apps and ap
p screens that you have visited. Whatever you did, you can step back exactly in the same way (Using the Back button). Stops at the home page don’t seem to be recorded.

Copy/Paste (none): Windows phone 7 does not have copy/paste. It’s not a secret but it’s a pity. I miss the feature and I really wish that it was there, but to be realistic, copy/paste doesn’t work properly on most Android phones (except for HTC – to their credit) too and I haven’t seen Angry crowds in the streets. It sucks when you have to type a 128bit wep key that you could have copied from an text document, but fortunately, there was only a couple of moments where I really missed this feature.

The good news is that Microsoft will release a copy/paste operating system (OS) update early next year. It will be up to each carrier to test and release the update to their customers. Let’s hope that this will be faster than the Android 2.2 update that is still missing for so many handsets.

htc surround review 29 cursor
If you need to place the cursor at a precise location, press and hold, then drag.

Text cursor: if you want to place the cursor precisely in between two letters, you can press and hold while editing text. A text cursor will appear and you will be able to place it easily where you want in the text. It’s pretty accurate and a good substitute to the “lens” used by Apple.

htc surround review 30 search
Bing powers the search on Windows Phone 7

Bing Search: Microsoft has done a good job of adapting the Bing search results to the small screen, and by swiping to the left and right, you can change the type of search from Web to News, for example. The switch is fast. Now if you prefer the Google search results, you’re out of luck. I have to admit that Bing is not my favorite search engine because it tends to favor big companies. The net result is that if you search for a recent forum post about a hack, Google is probably better at that. However, it’s just the way I use search.

htc surround review 31 search results
The search results are listed clearly.

Too minimalist?: As I said above, I do like the minimalism, but there are weird things. For example, when I’m in the “People” HUB, there’s no “refresh” button. Instead, I need to press and hold to make a Refresh dialog appear. Why not allocate a 16 pixel band at the bottom for that? That’s how the email and calendar work. Plus, it’s really not intuitive.

Wish list:

  1. Copy paste
  2. More font-size control
  3. Remove these transition animations in between screens. Windows has the option for a reason: it’s more productive without the animations.
  4. I would also love to have that little button that deletes all the text of an edit box, without having to press and hold Backspace for 10 seconds.
  5. Less press and hold to see what I can do at any given time
  6. A universal search, or at least, a quick search for my contacts

Web Browsing (good)

htc surround review 32 web browser
Web browsing is on-par with some flavor of Android, but is still a bit behind iOS

For a few years, Internet Explorer Mobile has been booed as the most horrific mobile browser. We’re glad to report that this era has come to an end.The new browser offers a web experience that is comparable (but not better) to what you would get with Android and the iPhone, although the iPhone keeps the lead because it has better image filtering (there are no “jaggies” when a big image is reduced) and its higher-resolution display makes the smallest font readable. In the end, I’d say that web browsing in Windows Phone 7 has reached a point where it is “good” and doesn’t get in the way, and I expect smaller details to be polished in the near future. The iPhone and the best Android phones are still ahead here.

Flash: at the moment there is no support for Flash, but Microsoft made it clear that it has nothing against Flash and that it is working with Adobe to address this. The company wouldn’t comment any further, but I take it that down the line, we will see Flash on the Windows Phone 7 platform – but I would not hold my breath. Flash content is simply designed for PC, and even on Android 2.2 its usefulness is fairly limited in my opinion. It it a bummer that Flash isn’t supported? Yes. Do I realistically miss it? No.

Google Docs: just like with virtually every other mobile platforms, Goodle Docs is read-only.

Email / Account Sync (email/contacts)

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Only select services are supported. By chance all of mine are

Microsoft Exchange & Outlook Mobile: if there’s one thing that I expect to run impeccably, it’s my Exchange-based email. This is our main workhorse and my favorite way of hosting emails across all my devices. As expected, Microsoft has an impeccable implementation of Exchange and Mobile Outlook, but unfortunately, you still cannot use categories and “flags” are only local and won’t sync back to the Exchange server. You can also sort your emails by Unread, Flagged and Urgent, which can be pretty handy. When flipping from one sorted view to the next, there’s no lag, no waiting time. This is really cool.

htc surround review 34 email inbox
I’m more productive with WP7 than with iOS or Android when it comes to email

Email user interface (very good): I found the email user interface very clear, readable (including in direct sunlight) and well done overall. The font is very legible and the icons are clear – so much in fact that I would like to make email titles smaller so that I can see more items from the email list. Regardless of what you do, the email interface never experiences hick-ups or slow downs. It is only when you start downloading attachments that you have to wait. However, if you touch the Back or Home button, you will immediately go to the next screen.

Another thing that’s unique to Windows Phone 7 is the ability to batch email action. Let’s say you want to move or delete a bunch of emails. on iPhone, you would need to slide+delete once per email. On WP7, you can select many emails, then hit Delete.

It would have been great if there was an option to get threaded emails and a unified Inbox, but that’s for another update, maybe.

Popular email services: Microsoft Live, GMail, Yahoo Mail are services that are supported out of the box. If you use another email service, you can try entering your name and password and Windows Phone 7 will try to retrieve the settings for you. At worse, you’ll have to enter all the parameters by hand, but I think that most popular services can be automatically setup.

Social Network(s): Facebook has been integrated directly into Windows Phone 7, and just by entering your account login and password, the OS can retrieve and sync your contacts. You will also get the news feed and if you want to, you can like (unlike) and com
ment directly from Windows Phone 7 — no Facebook app required. This is pretty handy and very well done.

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This is the “I’m late” icon. It sends message to all meeting recipients in 2 taps

“I’m late”: If you run from meeting to meeting, you’ll appreciate the “late” button which sends a message to all meeting attendees with an “I’m late” message with only 2 taps. It’s so simple that you wonder why no-one has done it before. Love it.

GMail gets castrated: if you life revolves around GMail, it won’t be fun on WP7. Sure you can access GMail, but many of the coveted functions like stars, labels and so on are missing. Do you think that Google will create a decent GMail app on Windows Phone 7? Maybe not anytime soon.

Computer Sync (files/content)

htc surround review 50 zune software

To Sync your computer, you have to do it through the Zune software. It’s the equivalent of iTunes if you are familiar with Apple device. If you are not, Zune will serve as the main HUB for you phone. It will help you sync media files. Contacts and emails will be synchronized over the air un like previous Windows Phone 6.x where you could sync with Active Sync. I personally think that over the air synchronization for contact and email is a good thing, although I understand that many people are still using outlook express. Maybe it’s time to do the jump. Web email has gotten really good and it’s actually easier to deal with than offline clients.

Zune Software (WP7′s iTunes): I bet that most of you have not tried the Zune software, it’s Microsoft’s iTunes, the main interface between your WP7 phone and your computer. I used it for music rental and to be honest I really like the design and how fast it is. However, as beautiful as it is, the user interface is not the world’s most intuitive and can be confusing at times. That said, iTunes isn’t that great either, but it’s good enough. Synchronizing is just a difficult thing to do – there are a lot of corner cases, so it’s hard to make it super-simple. In my opinion, Zune gets the job done and it is Microsoft’s equivalent to Apple’s iTunes.

No USB mass-storage (I miss it): If you are still wondering, your phone won’t appear as a flash drive in Windows (or Mac). Personally, I think that this is a bummer. USB mass storage is very convenient for a bunch of stuff. I do understand that it would make things difficult for the Zune software if we could add/remove stuff behind its back, but why not let us access files in read-only mode? Even the iPhone does it.

Tethering (nope): At the moment Windows Phone 7 does not have a tethering feature. Microsoft has said in the past that Carriers would decide if they want it or not, but as of today, it’s not an option even if a carrier would say “yes”. Microsoft did not say if it would actually do it, but we think that it would if there was end-user demand for it. I bet that it will show up in future versions.

Sync to the cloud

Windows Phones users also benefit from web services directly related to their handet. At windowsphone.live.com, users look at photos uploaded from their phones. But in case the phone is lost (or stolen), they can also use:

  • Map it: this is supposed to show you where your phone is on a map. We could not get it to work.
  • Ring it: if the phone is nearby, you can get it to ring, even if it is in silent mode.
  • Lock it: locks your phone with a 4-digit code and displays a message on the lock screen
  • Erase it: well, I’ll try that one later…

The good news is that the service is free. iPhone users have to pay an annual subscription to MobileMe to have some of those functionalities.

Photo and Video capture (above average)

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The camera is very decent, but not the best out there

Microsoft realized that more and more people take photos and videos with their phones because 1/they have their phones with them 2/because they can share the content immediately.

Photo: The HTC Surround has a decent camera and in broad daylight, photos look fairly good – but it’s relatively far from the best smartphones on the market. In a darker setting, things get a little tougher, and the Surround behaves like an average smartphone. Right now, I consider the iPhone 4 to lead the way in terms of photo quality versus phone size.

Video: Again, the HTC Surround does OK – This is a decent camcorder in broad daylight, but it will suffer in dark conditions, so that video during a dinner, or a party might exhibit low (perceived) framerate.

htc surround review 37 camera roll
Left: the last picture taken. Right: the live camera view: love it!

But wait, there’s more than just raw optical performance here. First, if you hold and press and hold the camera shutter button, it will launch the camera app, even if the phone was in standby. After taking a photo, the freshly saved image is immediately accessible by scrolling the live view to the right. This is extremely handy if you want to quick check the last few images. you can continue to scroll left, and if you come back to the right, you’ll find the live view – ready to take another shot.

Performance

Because this is the first batch of Windows Phone 7 devices to come out, so it is hard to compare relative performance, but there are nonetheless some very interesting things to read, because the perceived speed and performance is excellent.

User interface: in any kind of touch-enabled device, the speed at which the user interface reacts is the first form of perceived performance. because we are so used to the fact that physical things react immediately to a touch or gesture, we expect the same thing to happen with a tactile computer.

And Microsoft is delivering a great deal of performance here. The user interface is amazingly responsive. It never slows down and everything moves at 60 frames per second (or more) at the touch of your finger. We’ve been impressed by this type of speed ever since we played with the Zune HD. Fortunately, it looks like all Windows Phone 7 device (so far) exhibits the same responsiveness. Is is great and I would even say that Windows Phone 7 is more responsive than iOS who held the title – until now.

Games (few): I’ve seen a bunch of Windows Phone 7 game demos and some do look great, but today there’s not a whole lot that is available. It will take a number of months, but it’s probable that great games will come out of this platform.

Multitasking (none): At this point, Windows Phone 7 does not allow 3rd party (non operating system) applications run in the background. When you leave an app, you actually shut it down and exit it. That’s my definition of “multitasking” in this review. Of course, the OS itself can multi-task and do several things at once (they all do).

It’s clear that being able to multitask is a great thing. You can use an internet radio app while sending emails, or you can track your GPS location. Those are two basic examples that are obvious. However, despite being fairly geeky, I don’t really use multitasking that often. The reason is simple: leaving stuff running in the back
ground depletes my battery, slows down my system and I am very careful with that. Now, it would be great to have the option to use multitasking, but tell me, do you consider this omission a death sentence for WP7? Drop a comment.

Mac compatibility (minimal)

Yes, you read that right, Windows Phone 7 can and will work with Mac computers at launch. However, the tool named Windows Phone Connector for Mac will only be in (public) beta stage at the end of this year. It will allow Mac users to synchronize select content like non-DRM mp3 files, but contacts and emails seem out of reach for now. Actually even on PC the contact and email synchronization happens over-the-air. If they choose to, Mac users can buy music from the Zune Marketplace, directly from their phones.

The most compelling reason to get a Windows Phone when you’re a Mac user is probably Xbox Live — assuming that mobiles add a new dimensions to games. This is far from being proven at this point.

Apps / Marketplace (small, for now)

There is arguably not a whole lot of apps in the Windows Market place right now, but we’ve seen quality apps like Netflix or Foursquare, and the Marketplace is currently getting hundreds of submissions daily. Of course, the fact that a ton of developers are very familiar with Visual Studio and that the SDK is excellent can only help. Besides the fact that there are not enough apps, I think that browsing the store is too slow, even over WiFi. I hope that Microsoft will beef up the cloud that powers it. Also, the discoverability of apps doesn’t seem as good as in the Apple App Store.

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Being able to “try” apps is great

Try apps (great!): Have you bought apps on iPhone only to realize that they were not as cool as they seemed? Well, I did and I was disappointed a couple of times. It’s no big deal but the net result is that I probably consume less apps than I would if I could try the app for a day or two. That’s exactly what you can do with Windows Phone 7: you can try any app for a short period of time (how long is up to the developer). This is remarkable, and if Windows Phone gathers steam, I’m pretty sure that Apple will have to implement something like that down the road. The idea is that with a trial, all subsequent apps sales are final, which reduces the billing efforts.

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Bing Map is really cool, but Google Maps is faster

Bing Maps (very good): Microsoft’s Mapping software looks pretty darn good. Overall, Google Maps still leads, but the Bing Maps are clean and readable (unlike Yahoo’s) and searching for directions as simpler than it is with Google Maps. After getting the step by step directions in WP7, you can click on each step and see where it is on the map. Overall the user interface is very fluid, and the only wait time is caused by the map tiles or directions download.

Points of interest on the map will give you information like phone number, rating, and even the website of the business along with the opening hours — this is quite convenient, and I have to say that I’m pretty impressed because all of this is accessible without any further download. Car and pedestrian modes are available, but there’s no public transportation option… that’s too bad. Google has that one.

I found that the map tiles were loading relatively slowly, even over WiFi, which is a little worrisome if you’re driving. Also, I hope that in the future you’ll be able to share data with the desktop version of Bing Maps.

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One Note is probably the most used Office App

Mobile Office (very good): most of the time people want to simply be able to look at office documents, and most modern smartphones have ways to do that properly. However, it’s not hard to imagine that Mobile Office is probably the best set of apps to manipulate and edit office files. If Office documents, editing capabilities in particular, is important for you, Windows Phone 7 is probably the best option. This could be a big deal for business users – we’ll have to wait and see. It’s just outside of my turf.

Entertainment

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The photo roll is very fluid, just like everything else

Photo gallery: the photo gallery is fairly simple and displays photos very much like other smartphones. It can accommodate large pics shot with my DSLR without any problems, although when each pictures is 5MB big, the phone sometimes stops for a second while crunching the next set of thumbnails.

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WP7 can download my Facebook albums

Because I have entered my Facebook info, WP7 has also shortcuts to my Facebook photos albums (photos are still hosted on FB). That’s kind of handy because I tend to upload my favorite photos up there anyway, but it’s really slow to download the first time. WP7 seems to keep a local copy for subsequent views. The cool thing with FB photos is that you can like/comment/share directly from the gallery.


The HTC Surround playing a 720p WMV video that we created
Video Playback (great 720p playback, but not MP4-friendly): I have a bit of good news/bad news in this section. The good news is that the HTC surround can play a 720p movie (.wmv, 5Mbps) without any problems. The thing looks really good, so expect great movie rentals etc… the bad news is that Windows Phone 7 is not compatible with any of my MP4 movies that I have accumulated from my PSP (+other) days. This is a bit too closed in my opinion and if all you do is rent movies or use .wmv (windows media video), it’s OK. But if you have created your own mp4 files or bought non-DRM content, you might be out of luck for now.

htc surround review 43 music player
The music player looks just like the Zune HD’s. Here with speaker slided out!

Music Player: If you have ever played with the Zune HD, you will be right at home. It’s basically the same interface. However, given how many they sold, the odds are that you’ve never played with it. The user interface is very consistent with the rest of Windows Phone 7, however the music control are not so intuitive in my opinion. For example, some controls are hidden: you have to tap onto the album photo to see the Repeat, Like and Shuffle icons. Also, if you want to fast forward, you have to press and hold the Next Song icon. I think that the Zune folks can do better here.

One thing that I love is the controls on the lock screen. You c
an go to the next/previous song and fast forward/backwards without unlocking the phone. Of course, you can pause and change the volume as well.

htc surround review 44 music store
With the Zune Pass, you can access millions of songs via streaming/download

Commercial music: If you have to know only one thing about Zune, it’s the Zune Pass. With it, you can access all the Zune library (download or streaming) on an “all-you-can-listen” basis. You can try it free for two weeks, and beyond that it’ll cost about $15/mo. http://www.zune.net/en-us/products/zunepass/default.htm

eBooks: At the moment, there’s not much to use, but Microsoft expects Amazon’s Kindle app to be available by the end of the year. There’s currently no reason to think that it will look any different from the iPhone and Android version, but today- it is missing.

Speaker Quality: I guess that when you name your phone “Surround” you’d better have a really good speaker. Fortunately, that’s the case. I just named the rear speaker of the Samsung Epic 4G the loudest that I’ve heard, but the HTC Surround pretty beats it handily not only because it is even louder, but also because it’s oriented facing the user (it works best on a table). This is critical.

The speaker has a button that toggles between different modes and special effects, adding echo or simulating different environments. I have to admit that I found the idea of a “speaker-phone” a bit curious, but I’m listening to good quality audio (for a portable speaker) as I type this review, so I can certainly imagine that there’s a niche for it.

YouTube: right now, there’s no support for YouTube and I’m not sure if this is a matter of programming (it’s coming) or politics (will Microsoft try to push their own video service?), but I hope that it is just a matter of time. It would be damaging to Microsoft if we did not have access to YouTube in the near future.

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Netflix looks really good, but it is very slow to buffer videos

Netflix: Netflix has a good Windows Phone 7 app that lets you browse and stream movies and TV shows. The quality is very good, and the only thing that could be obviously better is how long it takes for the movie to begin: between the buffering and the license acquisition, it took almost 2mn to start (1mn50s) – and I’m using WiFi.

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Netflix has a good image quality (here, over WiFi)

Battery Life (average)

On average, this phone will get me through the day and die sometime during the night or early in the morning (with my usage pattern described in the “Context” paragraph). The bottom-line is that you have to charge it every day or be without a phone for the next day. With my usage, the best that I typically get with modern smartphones is two days, so this is not the best but to be fair, most smartphone users need to charge daily, so it’s not unheard of either.

There’s no battery utility that tells you what drained power (well, there’s no background apps either) or widgets that allows you to shut down WIFI and other functions when not in use. I found those to be handy, but not critical, on Android.

Conclusion (very good)

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The HTC Surround is born from a curious idea: create a smartphone with a great speaker! In some ways HTC has succeeded, the Surround has the best speaker that I’ve seen on a smartphone. I’m not sure if that will make it a hit, but if you want to put it on a table and listen to music, the sound will be very decent – for a smartphone. Of course, to embed the speaker, the phone had to be a little bigger and heavier. That’s the price to pay.

But in some ways, this review is about Windows Phone 7 more than it is about the HTC Surround. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is starting fresh with a new user interface that is clean and extremely fluid. Overall, I found the phone to be even more responsive than an iPhone 4 and that’s no small feat. Believe me, Android is trying everyday.

Today, Windows Phone 7 still lags in terms of number of applications, but I feel that this will be solved in time. There are a ton of Windows developers that already know how to code for Windows Phone 7. What Microsoft needs right now is to get the most popular apps and a few great phone designs. Windows Phone 7 still lacks things like multitasking, but I think that the user experience is more important than the feature list. Additionally I’m fairly sure that these two points will be solved within a year or so. Windows Phone 7 has a great potential to be a very potent mobile platform not only for handsets, but also for tablets.

I would recomment that you look at the Samsung Focus (upcoming review within 24 hours). It is much thinner and lighter, although it does not have the kick-butt speaker… It is also a very cool Windows Phone 7 handset. That said, if you want a portable speaker that can run Windows Phone 7, the HTC Surround might just do the trick.

Links

HTC Surround homepage, Specifications

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