First Look at the HTC Touch

The HTC Touch's home screen features a weather tab showing the forecast. You can change the city as well.
HTC is on a hot streak. The company behind such smartphones as the T-Mobile Dash and the Sprint Mogul has now released a device under its own brand called the HTC Touch. The device is aptly named for its touch-based user interface and 2.8-inch touch screen. Though I like the device's general concept, a few kinks prevent the Touch from being a great phone.

Look and Feel

First, let's review its handsome external design: The Touch has the look and feel of the Apple iPhone; both units are fashionably thin and carry a large color touch screen. The Touch is about the size of a typical men's wallet--3.9 inches high, 2.3 inches wide, and 0.55 inch thick--and weighs about 4 ounces. It's flat on both sides, with the front side consisting of the touch screen, a couple of (very tiny) phone send and end keys, and a square five-way navigation key. The back accommodates a 2-megapixel camera and a speaker.

The Touch comes in a rubbery textured black cover with a silver trim along the sides. Various surfaces of the phone hold buttons for power (top), camera operation (right side), and volume (left side). The underside panel supplies a proprietary connector for the included earphones, a battery charger, and a USB cable for syncing files with a PC. The phone lacks a dedicated headphone jack, but you can use an adapter to plug your headphones into the proprietary port.

HTC's TouchFlo technology lets you swipe the screen to launch commonly used applications--for example, jumping from e-mail to contacts to music playback.
HTC's TouchFlo technology lets you use your fingertips to navigate menus and perform basic tasks in Touch's various applications. Starting at the home screen, I swiped my thumb from the bottom to the top of the screen to launch a slick interface displaying my contacts. Swiping my fingers from left to right turned the page to the media menu for music, photos, and video. Swiping from the left to right again brought up an applications menu for e-mail, Web browser, communications manager (showing my Bluetooth, phone network, and wireless LAN connections, among other things), SMS/MMS messages, tasks, and calendar. The Touch remembers the order in which these menus appeared during your previous session and replicates that look when you relaunch. I could hop between menus swiftly, but launching an application from one of the menus took considerably longer. For instance, I noticed a 2- to 3-second lag when I tried to open multimedia apps like the music and photo libraries.

Though the swiping interface is appealing, Windows Mobile 6 Professional (the operating system that ships with the Touch) isn't especially well-suited for touch-of-a-finger functionality. WM 6's UI design functions better with a small stylus--which, incidentally, HTC includes with the Touch--and a keyboard for data entry. Many WM 6 apps, including contacts, e-mail, and calendar, work best with a keyboard; using a tiny on-screen keyboard becomes tiresome quickly. The alternative is to use handwriting recognition, which worked fairly well for me, except when the program tried to distinguish between my e's and my i's.

No 3G Networking

The Touch is a GSM/GPRS/EDGE phone, but you can't use it in faster 3G networks. It runs on GSM frequencies in the United States and Canada and can handle roaming in Europe and in parts of Asia. I didn't mind the Touch's lack of 3G because it connects to 802.11b/g wireless networks. On Wi-Fi, for example, the Touch loaded the mobile version of NYTimes.com's front page within 4 seconds. On AT&T's EDGE network, the same Web page took about 11 seconds.

It's a pleasure to view Web pages on the Touch, thanks to the full HTML support available on the device's IE browser. In Gmail, I opened a Word attachment easily: After I clicked the filename, the Touch took about 3 seconds to open a 91KB file, and 4 seconds to open a 142KB file. You can view Excel, PowerPoint, and Acrobat files, too. The Touch is compatible with Outlook and Windows Live/Hotmail e-mail, and you can set up personal (POP3 and IMAP) e-mail accounts.

Call volume and sound quality on the Touch were adequate, though I (and the people I called) noticed slight background noise both on the earpiece and on the speakerphone. HTC estimates the Touch's talk-time battery life at up to 5 hours, with a standby time of up to 200 hours. In my real-world experience, the battery lasted for a few days while I made phone calls, e-mailed colleagues, browsed the Web via Wi-Fi, reviewed Word documents, took pictures, listened to music, and watched short videos.

I used Windows Media Player to sync and transfer music tracks from my PC to the Touch's microSD memory card. Tunes sounded okay on the included earphones, but they improved significantly when I listened through a set of stereo Bluetooth headphones. I recommend investing in Bluetooth headphones such as Motorola's S9 ($130) or HT820 ($120), both for the freedom of movement and for the superior audio quality.

The Touch's camera was a tad slow to snap shots. I noted a 4.5-second shutter lag per shot at the high-resolution 2-megapixel quality setting. On the other hand, I appreciated being able to change camera settings (resolution, effects, and so on) via the touch screen.

Availability

HTC's Touch is being billed as an alternative to Apple's iPhone, and it's a worthy one. The Touch will arrive in the United States a bit later than the iPhone, however. HTC plans to begin selling the phone here in the second half of 2007; price and carrier availability have not been determined. The Touch is currently available in the United Kingdom for about $600.

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