Review: HTC Shift

An excellent UMPC but limited by price and technology. (July 4th, 2008)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: HTC

Price: $1,599 (3 yr. Rogers), $1,499 (US unlocked)

The Good

  • Good overall ergonomics, including controls.
  • SnapVUE is genuinely helpful
  • Very simple, always-present 3G and Wi-Fi Internet access.
  • Surprisingly fast for a Vista-based UMPC.
  • Good expansion, including a bundled USB hub.

The Bad

  • Prohibitively expensive to buy and maintain.
  • Very short battery life with few options to extend it..
  • Long load times for Vista and some apps.
  • Relatively heavy; unwieldy for some purposes.

HTC has been a veteran of smartphones but has only just recently ventured into handheld computers, and the Shift represents its first full-fledged attempt at an ultra-mobile PC. The system promises to take all of HTC's experience with handsets and translate it into a full-fledged Windows computer that happens to have the conveniences of a cellphone; but its real challenges may be both to compete with a new wave of notebooks as well as extra-capable cellphones like iPhone 3G.

design, touch, and the keyboard

The Shift isn't the first UMPC and takes advantage of this fact in its basic design. The core handheld has a rounded (but not slippery) casing which is more usable than some sharper-edged equivalents. HTC also goes so far as to include a very convenient (if not animal-friendly) leather wrap-around case that makes the Shift much more totable without having to shop for a case.





Display-side buttons fall to hand quite easily, including the mini-trackpad: it's surprising how persistently comfortable and usable the trackpad is despite having a fraction the surface area of the same input on a notebook. And where tap-to-click is often something of a nuisance on normal portables, here it's more of a convenience; if there's a fault in this aspect of control, it's that the dedicated left and right mouse buttons are slightly counterintuitive.

The 7-inch touchscreen, which is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Shift, actually works surprisingly well given HTC's past reputation. Where the Touch smartphone requires too much pressure and often isn't very usable, the Shift's requires gentle presses and works well with fingers. Despite some signs of imprecision, the screen is accurate enough that it's possible to type reasonably quickly using the onscreen keyboard without any forced mistakes.



The screen is also sharp enough at 800x480 to be workable for most tasks you'd expect to use on a small portable, although at 800x480 it's often just smaller than the 1024-pixel width assumed by many modern websites and apps.

However, the display is also a potential deal-breaker for some users. Quite simply, the display is (almost) unusable in bright sunlight. Most detail is washed out, and it often becomes necessary to use part of the leather case as a hood to create shadow. In most other conditions the Shift is entirely usable, but it can be disappointing to take a pass on using the Shift in the park on a bright summer day, even if many portable devices suffer similar problems.

There's also no doubt that the size contributes to potential problems toting the Shift. The Shift is small compared to a notebook, but it's very large compared to even a very large smartphone and absolutely needs a bag or briefcase if it's to be carried for anything more than short trips. At just shy of 1.8 pounds, it's also fairly heavy for its size. There are times when a smaller, five- or six-inch screen would definitely have been preferable.

It's in the keyboard that some of the Shift's strengths over other UMPCs, but also its weaknesses against other devices, become the most apparent. HTC's keys are quite large compared to some UMPCs and are surprisingly comfortable; mistypes are rare as long as you don't expect a full-size keyboard. This is is especially true for the Shift's trademark tilting keyboard: the Shift is one of the very few UMPCs that can be usable for typing on a desk without an add-on, and there are no doubt some mobile professionals (or just well-heeled students) who will abandon a notebook in favor of the Shift for meetings or class lectures.



That said, the keyboard doesn't escape the fundamental flaw of UMPCs: trying to type in handheld mode. While the keys are again large, any input that requires a key combination (including, ironically, the Shift key) becomes cumbersome and requires a hand free as well as a steady grip with the other. In that sense, the Samsung Q1 Ultra and UMPCs with a split keyboard on either side of the screen make more sense, although it can be argued that the key size and logical layout of the Shift do ultimately trump whatever convenience their is in the Q1 and similar devices.

This does raise the question of whether the Shift is truly appropriate for frequent typists; for those who depend heavily on writing and not just reading content, mini notebooks like the ASUS Eee PC or HP Mini-Note could well be better choices with either larger keyboards or an existing and more adjustable keyboard angle than on the Shift, which has to lock into one of two positions.

Windows Vista and performance

In part thanks to the well thought-out controls, Vista is surprisingly usable on the Shift. Heavy-duty work isn't practical on this device, but most apps you'd expect to run on an ultraportable computer can be controlled without the frustration that's all too easy with such a small control set. The storage space also allows for many of these apps as well: a 40GB hard drive is built-in, and even with both Vista as well as other preinstalled apps, about 20GB is free. A 60GB drive is also available in some editions.

What's less helpful with that space are load times. By using a very small 4,200RPM hard disk, HTC has virtually guaranteed that software can take a long time to load, particularly with Vista's notoriously long startup time. Taking the system out of standby mode can take upwards of two minutes. That's enough time that smartphone owners could wake their phones, perform basic tasks, and put the phones to sleep before the Shift has finished logging in. Load times are generally better inside the OS and with many apps, though they're not better than with full notebooks using a similar hard drive. A future version would be helped greatly by a switch to faster flash memory, even if it drops the capacity versus rotating storage.

There's also little software preloaded in Vista that isn't provided by Microsoft; the primary inclusions are the utilities necessary to setting up the Shift as well as a trial version of Microsoft Office. As much as this minimizes wasted space, more apps to take advantage of the UMPC format would have been appreciated.



Performance is at least pleasantly quick; although the Shift is running a now-obsolete, 800MHz Intel A110 mobile chip (versus the improved Atom), Windows Vista appears to defy logic on the Shift and runs well in the one- or two-app situations it's clearly designed for. The clearest signs that it's not a fast PC are signs of graphics tearing when dragging a window quickly across the screen (a sign of the integrated Intel video) and the need to run the Aero Basic visual interface rather than the more elaborate Aero Glass reserved for faster video chipsets. Still, combined with 1GB of RAM onboard, the perceived speed is enough to overcome initial reservations about performance versus Windows XP, although those who dislike Vista's frequent permissions requests or other quirks won't change their minds.

SnapVUE

Apart from design, HTC's key differentiator among UMPCs is SnapVUE. It's essentially the TouchFLO interface from the Touch and other, pre-Diamond HTC phones writ large and gives both an at-a-glance view of new messages and the date as well as some simplified tools for contacts, e-mail, SMS, and weather.

Here, it's dramatically more useful than on the Touch. The screen size gives HTC more room to provide meaningful information and an interface which is easy to use, although it's uncannily similar to the Windows Mobile version when checking mail or editing contacts.



More importantly, SnapVUE is fast -- so much so that it's faster than HTC's own Windows Mobile phones. Rather than simply tack it on as a software app for Vista, the company has put aside an extra set of RAM and ROM just for this interface to be turned on without booting Windows itself. Startup is virtually instant and ultimately helps the Shift's appeal over other same-size devices; when it's only necessary to quickly check for an urgent message or reply to one, there's no need for the lengthy wait to reload Windows.

Even so, SnapVUE is also potentially self-defeating precisely because it's so useful. Anyone who depends very heavily on it without booting into Windows would likely be served by a smaller and more focused device than the Shift.

wireless and expansion

Both 3G cellular Internet access and Wi-Fi are onboard the Shift, and the two let it almost always pick up an Internet connection as long as it's not in relatively remote areas or inside where even Wi-Fi can't reach. Signal strength was never an issue in testing, although much of the appeal of the Shift will be lost without a full-speed connection. A connection using solely EDGE (2G) or GPRS largely neuters HTC's device outside of offline work; this isn't a device for a camping trip, but for data it works well as an urban companion.

Bluetooth is also onboard and certainly helps for users who want a keyboard and mouse without occupying the valuable USB ports of such a small computer, though in practice it was more a helpful bonus than an important addition.

HTC could nonetheless have given users more control over how to manage that connection. It's appreciated that users don't have to think about which connection they need to choose, but the method of changing settings is somewhat counterintuitive: 3G and Wi-Fi have to be switched on or off in SnapVUE rather than through Windows.



There isn't much to choose from with the Shift for expansion, though HTC does go to great lengths to accommodate the system to more than just basic needs. A VGA output, an SDIO slot, and a USB port are about all owners can expect if they use the device by itself. HTC does, thankfully, bundle a three-port USB hub that turns the UMPC into a makeshift desktop after plugging in optical drives and external input.

battery life

The running time of the Shift may be its ultimate downfall. Even in its official claims, HTC gives its portable just two hours of battery life with all wireless turned on. The test unit managed to exceed that claim by almost exactly 15 minutes, but it remains the case that the Shift is closely tethered to a wall outlet. Those same businesspeople and students hoping to use the Shift as a notebook substitute will invariably have to tote the included power brick with them if they expect to use the UMPC for more than an average-length meeting or lecture. It's telling that HTC packs in a cloth carrying case for the brick, as the company itself clearly expects the adapter to follow the user more often than with a notebook.

And while it's possible to decrease the screen brightness in darker rooms or use Vista's battery life settings, the truth remains that there's little that can be done to meaningfully extend the Shift's lifespan when it's completely detached. Intel's Atom processor should extend this life in the future, but that won't help prospective buyers today.

a note on wireless data fees

An essential part of using the Shift properly is constant access to 3G, and one's experience hinges almost entirely on how affordable that can be and whether enough data is available to make it useful.

Americans using the Shift will likely have to use an AT&T DataConnect plan. This is expensive at $60 per month, but it gives 5GB of data that should be practical enough for regular use, including a small amount of heavy data transfer; as long as 3G isn't being used as a replacement for a regular Internet connection, the Shift is paired up well.

On Rogers Wireless in Canada, that becomes slightly more problematic. The closest solution is a $100 monthly plan that offers 6GB; for the same $60, a customer gets just 1GB of data. That's still feasible for the Shift given its role as a computer for lightweight tasks, but it does definitely curb the potential of the UMPC as a go-everywhere device. Many are more likely to find the security of a Wi-Fi hotspot rather than use the computer wherever it happens to be convenient, and some will have to think twice given the extra costs.

All the same, if this question had been asked of the Shift just weeks ago, the device would have been largely unusable on the Canadian provider's network with very low transfer limits (into the megabytes) for even the more expensive plans. Now, at least, the Shift can be usable with at least a mid-grade service tier.

wrapping up and the question of system price

As a design exercise, the Shift is a definite success. It's one of the most sorted designs and appears to have learned from more than one mistake made by its ancestors in the UMPC trade: it's comfortable, easy to use, and relatively fast. SnapVUE in particular is a saving grace and may tilt some purchases in favor of the Shift simply by eliminating wait times from the equation for e-mail.



But HTC's computer isn't just competing against UMPCs, and it's here that the Shift struggles. Most mini notebooks can accomplish many of the same tasks as well or better, as long as handheld use isn't on a user's checklist. They're often not much larger (if at all) but frequently have more comfortable keyboards, run faster processors, and last three hours or more on battery. All of these are important considerations and could easily steer some users away, especially as many of these same systems can make up for the lack of 3G through a USB or (for the HP Mini-Note) an ExpressCard adapter.

Moreover, the Shift's pricing could very well be fatal to its success. With Rogers, the device costs $1,600 even with a three-year contract, and costs $2,100 without any service; these prices easily put the handheld into the price class of faster and much more capable ultraportables, defeating some of the point of the device. Even at the lowest price of $1,360 found at the time of this writing, the Shift is roughly three times more expensive than computers that can often do a similar job.

As such, it's hard to truly recommend the Shift to most except for those for whom the handheld form trumps most any price, especially with the limitations of the battery life, bulk, and screen. The Shift is well-built but gives the impression that it's an invention whose release has come too soon. Switching the device to the Atom or a similar processor, improving its usefulness outside, and paring down its size and weight would make this a powerhouse of mobile computing; until then, it's more of an interesting experiment than a must-have.

by Jon Fingas


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