John's HTC Touch-Diamond review

John Walton – 
Published: October 6, 2008

What's Good: Stunning hardware design and elegant software user interface; front panel is subdued, intuitive and refined; display is bright and sharp with excellent contrast; sensitive touch-screen; amazing orientation and localized haptic feedback capabilities; secondary camera for video calls; easy internet connection sharing; glorious font rendition.

What's Not Good: Stylus is a virtual requirement for accessing certain parts of the user interface; landscape mode is underutilized and landscape QWERTY availability is far too rare; some minor integration flaws between Windows Mobile 6.1 and TouchFLO 3D; no memory expansion options; proprietary HTC USB jack for headphones.

Bottom Line: With its unique body and incredibly sleek interface, HTC's Touch Diamond is a beautiful, distinguished handset. The crisp display is a joy to play with, and the screen is very responsive to the touch. The accelerometers are equally sensitive and accurate, and the localized haptic feedback is the best I've ever experienced. Innovative hard and software interface elements, like the nearly imperceptible scroll ring, are so well-integrated and gratifying that they make you wonder how you ever lived without them. It's an amazing phone, but the occasional behavioral oddity and unfulfilled expectation are evidence that the software needs to catch up with the very capable hardware.

Specs:

  • Make/Model: HTC Touch Diamond
  • Network: GSM/HSDPA: 900/1800/1900 and 900/2100, respectively.
  • Data: GPRS/EDGE/W-CDMA, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, Bluetooth 2.0
  • Carrier: Unlocked
  • Size: 102 X 51 X 11.35 mm
  • Weight: 110 g
  • Form Factor: Candy bar with Touchscreen
  • Display: 2.8-inch TFT-LCD flat touch-sensitive screen with VGA resolution
  • Memory: 256 MB ROM, 192 MB RAM, Internal storage: 4 GB
  • Notable Features: Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional, TouchFLO™ 3D, GPS (A-GPS-capable with additional free software),
  • FM Radio,
  • 3.2 MP camera with auto focus, and a secondary VGA CMOS cam for video calls.

To preface this review, and hopefully prevent some confusion, I need to clarify some differences in the three versions of the Touch Diamond that are available at the time of this writing (thank you, Noah). There is the European 3G, unlocked device, which I used in preparation for this review; there is a North American 3G, GSM unlocked variation, which is identical to the European version, outside of frequency band usage; and there is Sprint's CDMA phone, which does introduce some minor changes in form and function to the Diamond line-up. One of my complaints regarding the European Diamond is battery life, which has been addressed in the Sprint release. A trade-off is that the secondary camera for video calls is missing from Sprint's phone.

You can catch Noah's full video review of the Sprint Diamond here: Part 1, and Part 2.


Introduction

HTC Diamond GSMThe Touch Diamond is HTC's keyboard-free follow-up to the Touch and predecessor to the Touch HD. I think the Diamond represents a sort of standard for the product line; a package of features we can expect to see refined and built upon, rather than revolutionized, as the Diamond did with the features of the original Touch. It embodies some truly original concepts in design. This is not a teenager's messaging phone, or a boring work device, or a limper into the touch screen game; it is status gear, and will satisfy the technical urges of the most discerning consumer who lusts after elite tech booty. Still, the friendly interface and sensational design will attract a broad range of users.

Media hounds may balk at the inability to increase their storage via SDHC media, but with 4 Gigs of internal space, the average person's on-the-go video and picture collection will fit comfortably. HTC's use of a proprietary USB interface, rather than the standard, 3.5 mm headphone jack, is another possible detractor for A/V fiends.

In the race to build the most beautiful phone in the touchscreen market, I see a strong contender in the Diamond. The hardware is advanced and high-quality tech. The most prominent problems I've encountered during my time with the Diamond were: a matter of the software's inability to properly utilize the orientation and feedback hardware inside; conflict and some lack of integration between Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional and HTC's TouchFLO 3D interface; and the nearly abject neglect of landscape QWERTY mode(!).

Targeted at an affluent, but otherwise mainstream audience, the phone may lack some media-friendly options. Its niche is the simplification of the smart phone for the masses, wrapping it up in a breath-taking package. Sprint's contract-based offering prices their model for the people, as unlocked versions aren't cheap. The HTC Touch Diamond is a sensationally gorgeous phone, but its beauty is not strictly superficial; despite a few minor (and software update correctable) short-comings, there's still plenty to admire behind the curtain.


Design & Features

This phone is pure sex appeal. The stunning lines and minimal use of visible buttons make me feel like I should be ordering an assassination when I lift it to my ear... In a movie - ordering an assassination in a movie. The face of the phone is flat, its smooth surface interrupted only by a thin slot to accommodate a speaker and by the groove that divides the touch screen from the hardware interface elements below. The sparkling display is framed by a shiny, gunmetal boarder that sits under tempered glass. The screen is, in turn, framed by brushed metal.
HTC Diamond GSM

One of my favorite aspects of the phone's design is the subtle front panel that looks like little sea of mercury under ice, and hosts the hardware navigation buttons. Situated near the centerpiece that is the Diamond's screen, it can easily be overlooked and underestimated. There is only one break in the panel - a circular  ridge that boarders the central, default menu button. There are four icons at the corners of this panel; the standard home, back, send and end points, which light up a hazy gray. The round button in the middle is occasionally surrounded by a slow, subdued light show, much more sophisticated than it is flashy.

The one-piece panel also has up, down, left and right arrows surrounding the default button, which act as a d-pad. Everything about this panel is slick, but what completely won me over was the almost-hidden scroll wheel. There is a very slight line tracing the edge of the ridge around the central button. Unlike the press-and-click panel features I've described so far, this ring is touch-sensitive. Running your finger around the curve offers varied functionality in different applications. It acts as zoom control in Opera and Google Maps, and becomes a jog/shuttle in the music player. Cool stuff.

The edges of the phone are home to a volume rocker, power button, the charge/headphone jack, and a recessed lanyard clip point. There is a magnetically-secured stylus inside the lower-right corner of the phone, integrated so seamlessly that I opened the plastic bag containing the spare before recognizing that I already had one handy. I am not a big fan of styli - I never have been - but I have to admit that the way this one slides into its holster, so the nub on the back-end is incorporated into the irregular shell, is some brilliant, tasty engineering.

You can't help but notice the faceted back cover, where competing triangular slabs interconnect like a corrupted spiral staircase, culminating in the silver triangle that houses the lens for a 3.2 MP camera. For the price, a flash would be nice, but you can't have everything. The pocketability versus battery life dilemma can put engineers on a thin line.

Dull gold Ink on the phone is minimal, providing branding, camera specs, and assurance to those who are looking for an SD slot that the phone does have 4 Gigs of internal storage. The lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack, and it's substitution with a proprietary HTC USB jack, may seem a bit fishy to some users. It looks like a standard mini-USB socket, but with a little notch cut into the corner. It makes me, and probably others, wonder; is it there to lock people in or out?

As a media player, the Diamond performs well and looks fantastic. Whether browsing the cover art of your collection of albums, or watching a YouTube video, the aesthetics of the interface and quality of the display do not disappoint. Other UI elements are more impressive. The animated weather screen is so pleasant that I find myself longing for rain, just so I can see the drops accumulate inside of the screen and get swiped away by the internal wiper blade.

The phone shares the same basic functions and applications as any Widows Mobile Professional phone, albeit with a greatly-enhanced appearance, and a few extras thrown in for good measure. A secondary camera appears on the front of the phone for video calls, and there are some orientation and feedback contraptions inside that I'll cover in a moment. Stereo bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS are included, as well as the ability to capture video.

With smooth, animated interface elements, impressive haptic apparatus refinement, and a one-of-a-kind presentation, the HTC Touch Diamond is a pleasure to operate with for those lucky enough to hold one; and an object of envy and admiration for those who aren't.


Usability & Performance

HTC Diamond GSM versionThe Diamond functions well as a phone. It comes very close to matching the reception of my control phone, which I am convinced would provide a clear call from the bottom of the ocean, after being sent there with a baseball bat. The Diamond sounds fantastic, 95% of the time. I have driven around the city making calls, and put it to the test in an area that is notoriously shady for my carrier - all carriers, really. The Diamond has much better reception in poor conditions than comparable touch screens on the market. The included, wired headset offers great audio on both ends, but for some reason, its use seems to coincide with the reception issues I have encountered - probably because I put the phone in my pocket when using the earbuds.

Now for the fun stuff.  This phone is all about visual stimulation and physical interaction. TouchFLO 3D is an awe-inspiring user interface that sits on top of Windows Mobile Professional, version 6.1. It is beautiful, it is effective, and it is entertaining. Swiping your way through menus, navigating a photo gallery, rotating and zooming; the graphics are upper-echelon, to be sure. It's got fluid animations that rival the best, creative email previews that serve a purpose beyond their role as eye candy, and an overall visual design that is original and tasteful. I love the environment, and it really has me falling in love with the Diamond experience. That said, I need to cover some integration and conflict issues between TouchFLO and Windows Mobile.

Rarely, but often enough to mention, I found the two competing over how to handle unexpected (probably untested) situations. One scenario that exposes these conflicts is caused by entering bad info for your email account during the setup wizard. At the first attempt to check mail, Windows Mobile will bring up a notification screen with two text fields: one for user id, one for the password. TouchFLO responds to this by providing a QWERTY keyboard, which covers up the second text field. No scroll bar or tab button is available, and the keypad is immovable. So, the only way to resolve the issue is to manually go into the mail server settings and change them there. I had to run through this procedure 5 or 6 times, and it would have been much easier to just enter a new password and hit ok, repeating until I could guess it. It's just an example; there are a few more of these bugs crawling around, but nothing too serious.

The primary purpose of TouchFLO 3D, outside of turning heads, is to facilitate the simple navigation of the Windows Mobile software without ever touching the stylus. It is successful in this regard, for the most part. If you don't mind sticking with the default settings, you may never touch the stylus. However, If you have adult-sized fingers, and need to enter accurate text without moderate frustration, it's best to draw thine sword. Same goes if you want to dig a bit deeper into the Windows Mobile settings - to an area that TouchFLO 3D doesn't provide a friendly equivalent for. I don't dislike styli, but using one can be a hassle on the go. I think TouchFLO needs a tweak or two to make stylus use 100% optional.

The department I find the Diamond to be most lacking in is text input options. The Opera Mobile browser is the only application I can find that offers a landscape, full-QWERTY keyboard. With a screen this size, I consider the constancy of this option a requirement. For Email and SMS, the user that prefers QWERTY is stuck with an uncomfortably cramped keyboard that can, at times, be finicky - even with a stylus. There is a registry hack out there that enables landscape mode for these and other functions, but its existence is evidence of HTC's neglect in this area. As I familiarized myself with the phone, I got over the urge to type with my thumbs, but entering an address into Opera in landscape mode still feels like a cruel tease.

Speaking of Opera, browsing the web on the Diamond's somewhat diminutive screen is an absolute pleasure. Use of the touch-sensitive front panel ring as a zoom dial is a brilliant implementation and perfect example of how hardware and software can become one. It works the way I want it to; the way I expect it to.

Browsing the web in Opera, the fonts look amazing (as they do phone-wide), regardless of zoom level. Text re-wraps pretty quickly after zooming in or out, which can also be accomplished with stylus gestures. Working with small links was a bit frustrating at first, as I had to adjust my tap to the software. Some haptic feedback would be a nice addition (Again, hacks available). Moving around a web page was a breeze. The software was extremely responsive in terms of basic browsing and page navigation.

The Diamond's touch screen is so sensitive that I sometimes have difficulty scrolling through long lists of items without selecting something. This is the type of problem many touch screen owners would love to be burdened with. As with anything else a human interfaces with, there's a period of adaptation. Studying the Diamond, I am impressed by all of the hardware. It's high-end, top-of-the-line stuff.

The top-shelf accelerometers aren't properly taken advantage of by the software - as evidenced by the delay and unpredictability in the switch between standard and landscape mode after changing the position of the phone in your hand. I don't think this results from a bogged down processor, as I had the same experience no matter how many other programs were running. On the other hand, I could be underestimating the amount of resources being hogged by Windows under that pretty mask.

The sensitivity of the accelerometers in the Diamond is evidenced in a game called Teeter, which is simply the best display of orientation awareness and physical feedback I have ever experienced. These capabilities are not yet very well integrated into other apps, but It's important to note that I was testing a European version of the phone that has been out for a little while. I hope updates will resolve most or all of my software-related qualms, the first and foremost of which is the landscape QWERTY option, any and everywhere.

Other minor complaints include: a flash-less camera that produces yellowed indoor pictures (the snaps in the sample gallery were NOT taken with a Diamond), and the general vibe that HTC is discouraging text communications. Handwriting recognition seems to me a novelty that just won't die, whereas landscape QWERTY is a requirement, whenever doable.


Conclusion

Utter the words ?Touch Diamond? in a public place, and they will immediately be followed by requests to see, touch, caress and adore this lovely chunk of kit. The graceful beauty of both the hard and software interface elements, contrasted by the bold but classy facets that are responsible for the device's namesake, represent a sort of culmination of form and function. The problem is that, while quite capable in its niche, the Diamond may alienate users that deem some absent tech essential per their definition of function; e.g., an SD slot.

I don't consider the lack of an SD slot insignificant. Many who use their phone as a portable media device regard storage expansion options a foregone conclusion. Like the landscape QWERTY fumble, HTC missed a few easy points here in the eyes of the shopper who's judging the Diamond against the standards of the iPhone.

Media collectors especially are rebelling against the slightest indication of an attempt to lock them into any particular audio/video system via DRM or proprietary hardware/software configurations. That is, unless they've seen a sustainable and vibrant market established for the product in question. While these specific issues don't apply to the unlocked Touch Diamond, the double-whammy lack of a standard headphone jack and SD slot may put some potential buyers on guard and turn others away ? many of whom are in the same crowd that would drool over the aesthetics of the phone.

This is the dichotomy of the Touch Diamond: its appearance drives hardcore geeks wild, but its functionality is aimed squarely at the mainstream consumer. That is not to say that the mainstream phone hunter is immune to gear lust, but that appearances are a bit deceiving in this case. For the cost, and image, the phone could stand just a few more bullet points on the spec sheet. The Diamond's strongest selling point is that it brings some fairly standard, high-demand features to the masses via a drool-worthy display, handsome form factor and delicious interface. Delicious.

TouchFLO 3D makes Windows Mobile less intimidating and more navigable for the unfamiliar, and gives the OS a glossy sheen and appeal it has never known. I think this winning combination could introduce or convert a fair number of users to Windows Mobile that would have avoided it otherwise - users like me. The tiny problems I discovered regarding the way the two integrate and cooperate will likely be taken care of, as should the appropriate exploitation of the cool little cogs that make this gadget rumble.

One spin at the game ?Teeter,? and you'll know you've got something special in your hands. Soon, I hope, the software will accommodate and showcase the shining achievements that live within the Diamond - one of which is a universally accessible, landscape QWERTY keyboard! As I said, hacks addressing this and other problem points are out there, ergo; demand exists. So, if HTC is listening, we will see improved implementation of haptic feedback, accelerometer orientation and landscape mode in software updates.

HTC Diamond GSM

Products mentioned

This Week's "People's Choice Rankings" Best Smartphone

19 Votes
×
16 Votes
×
10 Votes
×
8 Votes
×
7 Votes
×