Introduction
To be fair, HTC was developing the Touch long before Apple's iPhone hit the market. But iPhone came to market first and quickly became the gold standard for a new breed of mobile devices marked by giant touchscreens and smartphone functionality combined with mainstream usability. As such, it's really impossible not to consider iPhone when using or reviewing Touch.

So I'll do my best to look at the Sprint-branded Touch both as a next-gen Windows Mobile smartphone built with a finger-friendly touchscreen and refined UI, and as an "iPhone alternative" in the newly burgeoning world of mainstream-friendly, multimedia-centric handsets. As the former, Touch is one of the best, easiest to use Windows Mobile devices around so long as you don't need to type on it. Touch fits easily in one hand, and the combination of a flush-mounted hard plastic touchscreen and the Sprint-enhanced TouchFlo UI makes it much easier to use without a stylus than any other WM device I've ever tried - including the GSM Touch previously released as an unlocked device by HTC. Beware, however, Touch's virtual QWERTY board. While it's better than the standard WM onscreen layout, it isn't really all that usable for thumb typing - I wound up reaching for the stylus every time I tapped out a message.

From the iPhone alternative perspective, Touch is less expensive and more extendable than iPhone but it really can't hold a candle to Apple's darling when it comes to overall hardware and software design. iPhone's multitouch screen and user interface are head and shoulders above Touch when it comes to touching, typing, flicking, and pinching your way around Web sites, Inboxes, and multimedia content. Still, Windows Mobile offers things that Apple's OS X doesn't, and Sprint's 3G network offers speed and accessibility that AT&T's Edge network can't (even backed by iPhone's WiFi capabilities). So Touch is worth a look whether you're considering an iPhone or a more user-friendly Windows Mobile experience.

And I should say, it's funny ... I've read a review or two written by folks who swear Touch bests iPhone for usability, specifically in the realm of using the touchscreen. I disagree. Wholeheartedly, even. But, hey, I mention it just to say that we all have different preferences and usage patterns - so what I prefer about iPhone's screen design and response might be exactly what draws you to Touch instead.

Design
HTC has made a name for themselves building solid smartphones with imminently usable QWERTY thumbboards and business-ready feature sets. But where their last Sprint device, the Mogul, put a button just about everywhere you could possibly want one no matter how you were using the phone, there's nary a button to be found on Touch. Departing from the tried and true formula of a touchscreen combined with a horizontal slide-out QWERTY board and softkeys everywhere, Touch instead is sleek and simple. You get a D-pad and Call/Cancel keys on the front, a couple of buttons on the edges, and that's it. No QWERTY board, and no oodles of programmable softkeys.

Measuring just 101 x 59 x 14 mm, Touch was also built with a shorter, wider, slimmer body that fits comfortably into the palm of one hand and can be used one-handed with your thumb manning either the D-Pad or touchscreen. Weighing only 114 g, Touch is also plenty light enough for extended one handed use. A side-mounted rocker switch controls volume and there's a power button along the top edge. A mini-USB port on the right edge and the camera lens and speaker on the back round out Touch's minimalist design. Unfortunately, the microSD memory card slot is hidden beneath the back panel by the battery. While you don't have to remove the battery to get to the card, a side-mounted port would have made life with Touch much easier.

The compact, rubberized body is sleek and easy to hold, and the black and dark grey color scheme definitely sets Touch apart from the pack when it comes to WM devices. Where other HTC handsets like Tilt and Mogul are all business in a high-tech executive sort of way, Touch has more of a mysterious executive bent to it. You can pull Touch out of a breast pocket and check messages or view a document with a few swipes of your thumb - advanced functionality demands two-hands and/or the stylus, but many tasks can be accomplished on the down low with a single hand.

On its own merits, Touch deserves praise for its style, innovation, and user interface (which we'll get to in a moment). And then there's the iPhone comparison. Touch's flush-mount, hard-plastic display is far more finger-friendly and scratch-proof than the standard soft-membrane touchscreen but it's not on par with iPhone's hard glass display in terms of performance or durability. Tapping and sliding work pretty well once you get used to the handset, but there's no pinching, zooming here and while two thumbed typing can be a reality on iPhone with practice, it ain't gonna happen on Touch. You'll be hunting and pecking on Touch's virtual QWERTY pad - I found typing with the stylus much less frustrating than trying to do it with my thumb, in fact.


Features

Touch is, in some ways, the most advanced Windows Mobile 6 smartphone on the market. I say this because the extensive functionality of WM6 Professional is added to by the utility of the TouchFlo interface and the addition of Sprint's multimedia offerings. Honestly, Touch would be all the more useful if it had a physical keypad of some sort for time when the touchscreen just doesn't cut it - primarily for text input. Word is a GSM variant - the Touch Dual - will soon address this issue with a slide-down keypad. Whether or not the Dual with make it to Sprint remains to be seen.

But Touch is here now on Sprint and it's got a lot going for it. The benefits of WM6 Professional - from HTML email to mobile office document creation to enterprise support for syncing and device management - have been well documented elsewhere, so let's look instead at what makes Touch unique.

TouchFlo is basically a customized layer of user interface optimized for stylus-free use on a touchscreen. A revamped home screen provides a clean, attractive grid with a giant clock arrayed above one-touch access to messages, call lists, application shortcuts, and weather info. You can touch various items to dig deeper into their menus and features, or place a finger or thumb at the center of the screen's bottom edge and drag straight up - this activates a cube-like 3D interface. From this screen, you swipe left or right to cycle through three menus: Applications, Contacts, and Sprint Power Vision, the latter offering access to the carrier's premium subscription services including Sprint TV and Sprint Music.

The interface is great - a huge step up in terms of usability and simplicity from the standard Windows Mobile install. Clean grids with big icons and readable text make for easy access to the stuff you use most - messaging, Web, and phone settings. Where Touch lacks a bit is what happens once you get into those applications. While tapping and finger sweeping work well (though I had to be deliberate when it came to sweeps), touchscreen typing or even clicking on smallish icons or Web hotlinks is just a bit more difficult than it should be on this device - all the moreso (here it comes) if you've ever used an iPhone.

Since I invoked the i-word just then, let's be fair and talk about all the things that Touch does that possibly no other touchscreen-centric handset in the world can do. If you're willing to pay for it, you can download music and watch TV and movies over Sprint's Power Vision network. The Music Store is soon to get a much needed visual overhaul (or so rumor has it), but offers an extensive catalog at great prices nonetheless. And you can download music right over Sprint's cellular network - no need for an open WiFi signal. And speaking of networks, Sprint's made it easy to use Touch as a broadband modem to get your laptop online via EV-DO - try doing that with an iPhone. Yeah, you can't.

Sprint TV is cool, but I'm still not a big fan. Quality is usually so-so, and I had particular problems getting the service to work on my Touch loaner. Whether it was the device or Sprint's coverage in the Berkeley-Oakland area, I spent an entire twenty-minute bus ride home from work trying to load some programming and never watched a single frame. I have used the service on other Sprint devices in the same neck of the woods with better results, but I'm still not sold on mobile TV just yet.

The On Demand service, on the other hand, is excellent. I've written about it before, so I'll spare you the long version here. On Demand provides quick snippets of info customized to your locale (set by entering your zip code). It's excellent. And oh yeah, there's integrated GPS as well, for optional navigation and other LBS services.

And then there's all that 3G-enhanced data goodness. The promise of free, open WiFi whenever you go has not yet been fulfilled, and as such there's a lot to be said for smartphones with 3G compatibility. Sprint's EV-DO network is generally excellent for Web browsing and email use, and the WM6 operating system underpinning the TouchFLO enhancements supports full HTML Web browsing and Email. For best results I recommend installing Opera Mobile (or Opera Mini) and using it for Web browsing instead of the pre-installed Internet Explorer. Opera provides a far better browsing experience than IE, hands down.

HTC built Touch with a two megapixel camera with a self-portrait mirror but no LED assist light. The camera’s performance was lacking a little, despite such accoutrements as 5x zoom and a bunch of image settings. Still images captured in natural light and well-lit indoor conditions looked okay, but many shots suffered from strange tints and less than accurate colors.

Video capture on Touch worked fairly well for a camera phone, but also suffered from some image quality issues. Videos may be captured with or without sound in MPEG 4, M-JPEG, or H.263 formats and one of two resolutions. Images and video clips are easily attached and sent off with Emails or MMS messages over Sprint's network.


Display & Audio

Touch features a 2.8” touchscreen capable of 240 x 320 pixel resolution at 65,000 colors. The display has a hard plastic surface that's meant to be poked and swiped with fingers and styli alike - it's more scratch proof and durable than standard membrane-based touchscreens, if not quite on par with iPhone's hardened glass display surface.

Touch's display specs are pretty middle of the road by current smartphone standards, but I found the screen to be sharp with good color saturation and plenty of brightness in almost all lighting conditions. Text, graphics, and images all displayed clearly and accurately, and issues I had with playback of Sprint TV video seemed to have more to do with my connection to the network and service than with Touch's display or processing power. Videos played from a memory card via Windows Media Player looked much better.

Mogul’s touchscreen sensor also worked well, though again I must draw two comparisons: Compared to other Windows Mobile touchscreen devices, Touch is a revelation for everything except text input. The combination of a revamped UI and a finger-friendly display works very, very well - it's a pleasure to be able to pull the device out of a pocket and quickly swipe and tap to read a new message or check weather or news updates. While this is technically possible on a standard WM6 handset like the HTC Mogul for Sprint, Touch is made for it - the difference shows in large menu choices that respond to fingertips, as opposed to tiny links that respond only to fingernails wielded with surgical precision (or, of course, the stylus). One thing you can do on Touch that you can't do on other WM touchscreens is sweep to scroll - Touch recognizes the difference between a tap and a sweep, which comes in handy for quickly moving up and down Inboxes, long messages, and Web pages.

Compared to iPhone, however, Touch sports yesterday's technology. Swiping, in particular, is where Apple's tech outdoes HTC's. Flicking a finger across iPhone's display works every time. Touch requires a more careful touch - I had to get the hang of a more deliberate "press and move" motion to consistently garner the reactions I wanted from the TouchFLO UI.

The other area in which Touch lags is the onscreen keyboard. Touch features a 20 key virtual QWERTY board that's similar in layout to the SureType keyboards found on BlackBerry phones and the new HTC Juno (aka Shadow to you T-Mobile fans). The virtual keys are large enough to hunt and peck at with fingertips, but I pretty quickly grew frustrated with that method and reached for the stylus. iPhone's keyboard isn't perfect, but I'm able to two-thumb type on it with pretty good success, which I attribute to the multitouch display, the predictive text software, and practice. I'll never get there on Touch - the display simply isn't responsive enough for two thumbs to fly around on. Writing a message on Touch meant using the stylus, either with the virtual keyboard or in handwriting recognition mode.

If you're not used to an iPhone, you'll likely neither notice nor care about the comparison I just drew - Touch's interface works well and, again, is a big step up from other WM6 devices in terms of intuitive ease of use. But it's definitely a noticeable step behind the current state of the art.

I tested the CDMA Touch in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Voice calls were generally loud and clear with a little bit of fuzz here and there but no notable reception problems or dropped calls. The internal speaker was plenty loud for voice calling, and people I talked to all said the quality of my voice end on their end was excellent.

Unfortunately Touch's speakerphone leaves a lot to be desired. It's neither loud enough nor clear enough, and was basically useless. Okay, you can make do with it in a pinch, but a phone like Touch is not supposed to be about merely making do.

A set of wired stereo earphones with an inline microphone is included. The phones connect to Touch via a mini-USB plug, and a USB-to-2.5mm adapter is also included. I used the earphones quite a bit for handsfree calling and found them to be a bit better than your run of the mill stock earbuds in terms of both comfort and audio quality. The earphones also make for decent music listening, though a 3.5mm jack/adapter would make it much easier to plug a good set of stereo phones into the device.

Touch supports mono and stereo Bluetooth audio, and I had no trouble pairing headsets with the device. Audio quality over Bluetooth was very good, both for voice calling (mono) and music playback (stereo).


Messaging, Internet & Connectivity

Messaging on Touch was a mixed bag. While the speed of Sprint’s EV-DO network made sending and receiving Email quick and easy, writing messages on Touch wasn't quite so quick or so easy. If you're looking for a device on which to regularly write emails and texts, you might want to wait for Touch Dual and it's slider keyboard to make it to the states. At the least, try Touch out for yourself and see how you like the virtual keyboard before you buy one.

Windows Mobile 6 provides support for multiple POP and IMAP email accounts and while there’s no ultra-friendly setup wizard, I was able to configure a few of my accounts - including server options and signature files - with no trouble. Outlook Mobile features good integration between messaging accounts and contacts, and Windows Mobile 6 upgrades Outlook to support full HTML email. Email attachments are also supported, and as mentioned, Touch ships with pocket versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint which allow for document creation and editing in addition to viewing.

Web Browsing using the included Internet Explorer browser was okay, but things perked up considerably when I downloaded and installed Opera Mobile. The TouchFLO system made it easier to click links and scroll through Web pages on Touch than on other Windows Mobile phones I've used, and the D-Pad may also be used for navigating around Web pages.

There's no WiFi antenna on Touch, which some will see as an oversight but probably contributed to HTC and Sprint being able to offer an exceedingly small, slim device that combines good power and good battery life. Apple chose to leave 3G access off of the first-gen iPhone in the name of battery life - HTC seemingly opted for 3G over WiFi for the same reason. In any case, Sprint's Power Vision network is fast enough that I really didn't miss having WiFi when browsing the Web or retrieving Email.

Touch may also be used as a cellular modem, and Sprint’s new Internet Sharing app makes the process even easier. You will, of course, need to subscribe to a data plan to access all of this high speed Web goodness.

The HTC Touch for Sprint is locked to the Sprint network in the United States. It combines a CDMA cell phone with EV-DO data services for Email, Web, and other Net-based applications. The device ships with 151MB of onboard memory accessible to users, and the integrated microSD card slot allows for expansion up to 4GB per card.

HTC built Bluetooth v2.0 into the Touch, and file transfer, information synching, voice dialing, laptop tethering, and both mono and stereo (A2DP) audio are supported. The integrated mini-USB jack can be used to connect to a computer for synching, file transfers, and use of the Touch as a cellular modem. The USB jack is also used for charging the device and for connecting to the included stereo earphones. A dual port-replicator/2.5mm headphone port USB cable is also included..


Conclusion

Sprint's CDMA version of the HTC Touch is an upgrade from the unlocked GSM version of Touch, and is in many ways a step up from every other Windows Mobile device available right now. The TouchFLO UI adds a huge layer of improvement and usability to the WM 6 platform upon which it rests. Commonly used applications and services can be launched via big, clear - and attractive, even! - icons on the home screen, and a swipe of the finger launches an easy to navigate 3-D gateway to second-level features like your Contacts list and Sprint's multimedia offerings. TouchFLO really makes Touch a lot more fun to use than your ordinary Windows Mobile phone.

Beyond that, Touch is cool to look at and great to hold, use, and put away in your pocket. It's small, light, well-proportioned, and easy to hold and operate. And Sprint's network has always been reliable in my testing, and offers great data speeds and a music store that's on par with anyone's when it comes to selection and pricing (though it really needs that UI update). If you're willing to pay the various service fees, you can use Touch for everything from staying in touch with the office to surfing the Web to downloading music and streaming video.

The problem with Touch lies in trying to write words on the thing. While the virtual keypad is better on this Touch than on the original GSM variant, it's still not that great - at least, I had problems using it. Tapping icons and swiping lines on Touch with your fingertips works pretty well, but typing on the 20-button QWERTY layout doesn't. Heavy text and email users looking at Touch should try it out for themselves first, and consider the benefits of a device like Mogul which adds a physical keyboard at the expense of bulk and weight.

Touch begs an iPhone comparison because Apple set the current gold standard for feature phone usability and Touch's display and interface improvements are clearly meant to address Windows Mobile's usability issues. In my view, Touch isn't in Apple's league when it comes to usability, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Windows Mobile offers a lot of things to a lot of people that no other mobile platform can, and Touch makes it all a lot more usable. And a lot more attractive. If you're in the market for a new smartphone and considering Sprint as your carrier, Touch is definitely worth a look ... and a touch.

HTC touch


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