Review: HTC Touch Diamond

An improvement over the first Touch but still short of rivals. (August 24th, 2008)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: HTC (Telus as carrier)

Price: $150 (3 yr. contract)

The Good

  • Exceptional 640x480 screen; more responsive than the original Touch.
  • Much better media player and overall TouchFLO interface.
  • Opera Mobile a clear edge over other Windows Mobile phones.
  • Above average battery and call quality in its category.
  • EVDO Rev A and Wi-Fi support.
  • Better 3.2MP camera; 4GB of built-in storage.

The Bad

  • Still a "confused" UI: requires switches between d-pad, finger, and stylus input.
  • Removable storage dropped from previous design.
  • Just one expansion port with no 3.5mm earphone jack.
  • Camera is just a resolution upgrade, still has mediocre image quality.

When the original HTC Touch launched, critics charged that it had conflicting personalities: it wanted to be a home user's device, with a simple touchscreen interface, but was really too attached to its business-like Windows Mobile side to truly work. The Touch Diamond not only reflects lessons learned from those year-old quirks but is also HTC's first real chance at developing a product (almost) from the ground up to fight the iPhone. We take a look at the Diamond not only to see how well it fares against its US-designed counterpart but whether HTC was focused on interface or specsmanship.

design and the ultra-sharp screen

Ergonomically, the Diamond is an admission that the original Touch's shape was slightly awkward; gone is the squat, rounded shape in favor of a longer bar shape. It's more comfortable to hold and has more hardware control than the original Touch had, at least in practice. One appreciated function is the magnetic grip on the stylus; while it would preferable never to have to rely on the stylus, putting it back is faster now that a less-than-precise move is needed to put the pen back in its slot.

HTC has thankfully resisted the urge to enlarge the 2.8-inch screen of the first Touch simply for the sake of one-upping the iPhone or other devices stretching out to 3.5 inches; because of this, the Diamond has a much smaller surface area than its rival, and seems suited to smaller pockets on the whole. That said, this isn't as ideal a video playback device as the iPhone. Movies and TV shows are better-suited to increases in sheer screen size, and the difference is unmistakable.

It also comes at the expense of thickness. To reach the smaller shape, the Diamond bulks up slightly to 0.55 inches thick versus the iPhone's 0.48. On paper, this should matter little, but the tapered edges of the Apple handset certainly make it feel more substantial. The Diamond may not be as thick as the N95 8GB, but it's just thick enough that a tight pocket might feel more strain than it would with the iPhone, which still stands as one of the thinnest smartphones to date.





Where HTC wins an unambiguous victory is in screen resolution. The 640x480 display is one of the very first for Windows Mobile to push past 320x240 and is simply gorgeous to view. The pixel density is so high that fonts are crisp and at times print-like. Many of HTC's custom visual effects come alive, photos are vivid and even standard TV-grade video loses none of its crispness on the smaller display. It's especially handy for web browsing, where the resolution is just high enough that it's easier to read text without zooming too far into the page. Virtually the only flaw is its glossy nature, which shows smudges much more than with some other touchscreen phones.

Importantly, it's also easier to use. The screen is much more responsive to touch input than the original and so works more effectively without having to apply the large amount of pressure that was all too often necessary with the original. It's now possible to register quick swipes instead of slow, deliberate movements. Even so, HTC ought to jump from resistive touchscreens to a more sensitive capacitive display like that of the iPhone; while patents likely stop HTC from using multi-touch, it's still too difficult to use flicking motions or other more intuitive gestures.



The praise given to the body can't be given to the directional pad. In an attempt to embrace minimalism, HTC has done away with the raised borders that served as the original touch's arrow keys and instead tucked the buttons underneath the outside edge of the circular center button. It's more pleasing to the eye, but it also makes non-touch navigation a pain. There's now a certain amount of guesswork involved in remembering where to push, and more than a few times a press on the appropriate spot wouldn't immediately trigger the right action. Form has actually trumped function here in a questionable design move; Apple may not have as many physical buttons, but it's better to have strong touch-only input than lukewarm physical controls.

the TouchFLO interface and web browsing

The original TouchFLO interface was really just a minor adjustment at best to the core Windows Mobile interface. While there were a few shortcuts, their scarcity and the difficulty of pulling up the full interface ultimately didn't have much bearing on the interface; it may as well have been Microsoft's reference design.

The Diamond's interface has been completely overhauled and is infinitely more useful. In part helped by the 640x480 screen, virtually every common function has some level of simplified, visually appealing interface. It's such that users can finally perform some functions without a jarring switch to the plainer Windows Mobile controls. HTC's desire to bolster its standing in media playback is especially apparent here: the photo browser bears an uncanny resemblance to the iPhone's Photo Library, while the music player has a Cover Flow-style interface that supports browsing music by 3D album covers as well as by a far more intuitive list view than Microsoft's still-dreadful mobile Windows Media Player interface. The change is enough that the Diamond really can work as a media phone, albeit still not quite on par with the iPhone or N95's sheer level of control using playlists, podcasts, and other more advanced audio playback.





All the same, it's still clear that HTC has a long way to go. There are still a number of areas in the interface where users are bumped unceremoniously into the Windows Mobile interface, even for tasks that should be relatively casual. The mail client is a particularly bad example and lets you preview some of a message in TouchFLO, but won't let you read the rest or delete the new message from the top level; checking messages becomes an inordinately complex affair where it's always necessary to switch interfaces.

HTC also hasn't escaped what's likely its most glaring problem: its indecision over input methods. Paradoxically, the surface level of the TouchFLO interface is actually quite clumsy when used with the touchscreen instead of the directional pad; the former sometimes results in accidental input or no input at all. Accessing the camera is an awkward multi-step process guaranteed to miss target-of-opportunity shots. And while the situation improves in the deeper levels of TouchFLO, Windows Mobile itself effectively requires a stylus with too-small menu items and on-screen keyboards. It's not uncommon to switch between physical buttons, finger input and the stylus all in a single session. Combined with an at times sluggish response time, the flaws are enough to actually slow input rather than speed it up and make a convincing case for the simplicity of its American-made challenger, even if it lacks a few conveniences.

Web browsing is at least much better than for most smartphones we've tested lately, and especially Windows Mobile devices. HTC has chosen to pack the Diamond with Opera Mobile by default instead of using Microsoft's comparatively slow, limited Internet Explorer. It lacks the quick navigation of a multi-touch interface or the sheer volume of web support that make web-based apps a pleasure on Apple's device, but it does render website accurately and quickly -- basic feats that most mobile browsers still can't manage. The stylus is also thankfully unnecessary as it's possible to both double-tap to zoom the page and to pan around using one finger.



Notably, this is also one of Telus' first phones to ship with EVDO Revision A cellular data access out of the box. It ultimately has only a small impact on browsing speed versus normal EVDO, but it's appreciated and is backed up by Wi-Fi for those times when the 3G connection is tenuous or non-existent.

call quality and battery life

CDMA-based phones often receive a poor review for call quality on this site compared to GSM phones, which are often (though not always) clearer and have the benefit of using 3G for the calls themselves. The Touch Diamond bucks this trend to a slight degree: while not outstanding, there's no immediate evidence of the muffled sound that has affected several of the CDMA devices tried here. Calls came through clear on both ends and didn't require excessively high volume to be understood, although the microphone is sensitive enough to pick up a moderate amount of wind noise; that's more than with some other phones.

Battery life is also just above average and is mainly impressive for what's managed given the unusually bright and sharp display. While calls and heavy data use will quickly wear down the Touch Diamond, it was realistic to have about two days of light-to-moderate mixed use with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi switched off. That's better than both the iPhone and N95, though in fairness those latter devices also use their 3G networks for calls and take a hit in battery life as a result.

expansion

For all of HTC's interest in reworking its Touch series into true media devices, the company has unfortunately fallen a few steps short when it comes to expansion. The Diamond has just the company's proprietary connector on the bottom and doesn't include an adapter for 3.5mm earphones; without looking for an accessory, users are stuck with HTC's strictly basic earbuds and have to use an included splitter if they want to handle more than one task at a time, such as charging the phone while listening to music.



The absence of a microSD slot for storage is equally a problem. That's no different than with the iPhone or N95, but those two competitors have at least 8GB of flash memory to use. The Touch Diamond has just 4GB and is likely to fill up fast, especially for users who have media sync utilities, such as Mark/Space's Missing Sync for Windows Mobile. Moreover, it's a regression from the original Touch that feels arbitrary, even if there may well be a technical reason for the move. HTC is often known as the go-to phone maker for users who want the features the iPhone lacks; when those features go away on HTC's phones as well, customers are likely to turn somewhere else.

camera

A sharp camera is increasingly regarded as a staple feature of a good all-around smartphone, and HTC doesn't disappoint with a 3.2-megapixel sensor replacing the two-megapixel unit of before. If nothing else, this improves the quality of downscaled shots and assists in cropping images without losing detail. HTC also has a thoughtful autofocus feature that gives it a clear edge over the iPhone and other less photo-capable handsets, although there is little control over the choice of which subject is put into focus.

To call it a complete visual upgrade would be misleading, however. At full size, it's still very apparent that HTC is using strictly average cellphone hardware and lenses: images have relatively washed-out colors and the distinctive hazy, smeared look that comes from a plastic lens. The "purple fringing" that comes from a small, very curved lens is similarly on show. Any of Nokia's 3.2-megapixel or sharper Nseries smartphones will typically serve more serious phone photographers much more capably than the Diamond, particularly given the quicker access to the camera and more advanced image settings.





wrapping up

If compared in isolation to 2007's Touch, the Touch Diamond would be a resounding success; outside of accessible storage and the questionable directional pad, it represents an upgrade in virtually every category. The Diamond is the first Touch phone, if not the first Windows Mobile phone anywhere, that can be recommended as a substantial music phone.

Taken out of that vacuum, it starts to falter. No user should have to constantly rethink the interface from screen to screen, and in a few cases HTC complicates matters more than it helps. Some of the blame for this can be lain at Microsoft's feet: Windows Mobile just isn't well-suited to non-business touchscreen use, and HTC can't change this short of redesigning the operating system itself.

Versus the iPhone, the Diamond also appears to be a somewhat misplaced effort. HTC understood that a smartphone for the masses has to have a visually uncluttered interface, an attractive hardware design, a true web browser and a good media player. What it lacks is the cohesion and integration that makes the iPhone hum. Beyond the inconsistent interface, the hardware isn't sure whether it wants to be a media phone or a business phone; it has a home user's aesthetic, but most of the storage and port limitations of a corporate device. There's also no equivalent to iTunes to give real control over media, contacts, and other data all from a single app, even if Missing Sync and similar apps come close.

That isn't to say the Touch Diamond is a sub-par phone; if expectations are set ahead of time, it can work particularly well. It's nonetheless not the jack-of-all-trades HTC wants it to be. That role may be left to the upcoming Touch Pro, which supplies a full keyboard -- and less dependence on the touchscreen for more serious tasks.

by Jon Fingas


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