Ah HTC.

One of my favorite manufacturers.

From the early days of the iPaq, to devices like the PPC-6700 (which was re-branded as an Audiovox), to your emerging self branded Windows Mobile phones, to your championing of the Android platform, you’ve rarely put out a bad device.

Now, as you begin your foray into Windows Phone 7, you bestow upon us one of the most interesting (and potentially controversial) smart phone designs ever created: A horizontal slider, not hiding a keyboard, but a giant speaker.

Is it good? Is it a gimmick? Is it a good gimmick?

Read on to find out what we thought of it!

At first glance it would easily be mistaken for any other HTC product, and it does look quite a bit like the Nexus One. Grey, black, and gun metal colored plastics with chrome accents lend the device a simple sophistication. The back of the phone is a soft touch, grippy material, which feels pretty good in the hand.

Build quality in general is outstanding. It’s got a pleasant weight to it, which helps it feel solid. Even though it’s a horizontal slider, there’s very little case flex (more on that later), and the charging and headphone jacks have a solid clicky action to them. If I had to levy a complaint, it took me a long time to figure out how to take the back battery cover off without feeling like I was going to break the thing. There’s a trick to it.

The phone sports a 3.8” WVGA (800×480) LCD screen. Color saturation and blacks are decent enough. Not outstanding in this class, but you’d only ever be disappointed in the color saturation of this screen if you sat it side by side a Samsung SAMOLED screen. Next to my Epic though, the LCD is a little brighter, easier to see in sunlight, and text is ever so slightly crisper than the pen tile arrangement of first generation SAMOLED.

A 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon paired with 512MB of RAM and 16GB of user accessible storage space, makes easy work of Windows Phone 7. WP7 really is a pleasant OS to use, and aside from a few usability concerns (like easier shortcuts to radio management, no mass storage mode for file transferring, and better app organization) it’s a refreshing change of pace from the dying days of Windows Mobile. The phone slides through transitions, windows, and tiles with ease, and really only gets bogged down when it can’t get a good data connection. No small concern as the Surround is only available on AT&T. In my area, I would much rather be using it on T-Mobile’s “4G”-ish network , if I had to pick a GSM carrier…

The battery is only 1230mAh, which I thought would be a bummer, but I typically had similar or slightly better battery life than my Android powered Epic 4G with a 1500mAh battery. The phone could make it the day if I didn’t hammer it with data or processor intensive apps, but expect to charge it every night. That said, WP7’s lack of multi-tasking (like the iPhone) really does give it a battery life advantage over Android.

I was pleasantly surprised by the phone’s standby time. I accidentally left the phone on for three days without using it, and came back to find about 20% left on the battery. WP7 handles down time (power management in general really) MUCH better than Samsung Android phones will. It should easily give Motorola a run for its money (currently the kings of Android battery life)

A 5MP camera with LED flash (AND DEDICATED CAMERA BUTTON! YAY! ALL PHONES SHOULD HAVE A DEDICATED CAMERA BUTTON JUAN SMASH!!!) takes decent enough pics. Samsung has an edge here over HTC, where I prefer the shots from the Focus over shots from the Surround (though neither compare to shots taken by the Epic with Vignette).

Video quality is also par for the course, and the phone will support 720p recording. One annoying quirk though, the WP7 camera app will ALWAYS default to VGA (480p), so to get more resolution you will need to reset that setting every time. Microsoft calls it a feature…

So there you have it.

It’s a perfectly capable phone in every respect. It compliments Windows Phone 7 nicely, and perfectly follows the reference design set forth by Microsoft to guide all WP7 manufacturers. Easy as pie. Done and done.

Then you notice the Dolby logo on the back.

And then you slide the phone’s screen ever so slightly to the left.

And there it is.

A big ole speaker.

Under the screen you will find a kickstand, which when flipped out, allows the phone to stand up and offer one of the best media experiences on a mobile device to date.

Microsoft wont let manufacturers mess with the internal hardware for WP7, but this speaker is where the Surround stands apart. The slider action is smooth and slow, like it’s on gears. It feels ruggedly solid, and there’s no wobble when fully extended. It’s not like the Epic’s keyboard, which has the tiniest bit of screen wiggle. Most of the phone is still connected to the screen when extended, so the pieces lock into place satisfyingly. HTC pioneered the horizontal slider, so it’s really no surprise to see them nail the design here.

On first impression it’s loud. Uncomfortably loud. “Where could I possibly use this in public without annoying lots of people” uncomfortably loud. Once you acclimate to it though, you quickly realize that nothing has ever sounded as good coming out of your phone. Since this is a phone that can stream Netflix, it really does raise mobile media to another level.

I had to test it against my Epic, really listen to how much it was going to trounce the speaker built into the back of the Galaxy S.

The funny thing was, the Surround wasn’t louder. While turning the Epic screen away from my face, and pointing the speaker towards me, the Epic speaker was actually louder than the Surround’s. The Surround has a better speaker, much more detailed, better mids and highs than the Epic, but it’s not louder.

Unfortunately, for the Epic to win that comparison, you can’t see what’s on the screen, and if you lay the phones on a table, the Surround will greet you with a speaker standing upright and pointing right at your face, while the Epic will point it’s screen up to the ceiling and fire its “louder” speaker right into the table top.

So while the Surround SEEMS louder, the revolutionary aspect of the phone isn’t measured in pure decibels. The revolutionary aspect of the phone is that HTC took a cue from EVERY OTHER DEVICE THAT GENERATES AUDIO, and finally gave us a device that points the speaker in the right direction. Not even Apple can claim a victory on that front.

So would I buy one?

If I had to pick SOLELY from the WP7 landscape, then yes.  I like the Focus a lot, but the Surround is just so much more interesting. WP7 levels the playing field among manufacturers, so there’s very little difference between the phones in general operation. The hardware will be where one makes their purchasing decision.

When compared to the rest of the smartphone landscape it gets a little trickier. Support is becoming more and more important to me. HTC is one of the better companies out there at updating their phones, but we’ve yet to see a major update leave Microsoft. A substantial update is scheduled for March, so that will answer a lot of questions on how WP7 will be supported.

If you value media playback over games and other fun apps, then the Surround is an easy recommend, even over an iPhone. If you use a lot of Microsoft services like Live, Bing, SkyDrive, Exchange, Zune Pass, or view a LOT of Office docs and spreadsheets, then the Surround is a really easy recommend.

If you don’t fall into one of those two camps however, it faces extremely tough competition from iOS, Android, and WebOS from a variety of manufacturers (HTC included), so a “try before you buy” approach would be my recommendation.

 

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