The HTC Surround is Microsoft's latest mobile software, and I can honestly say that as soon as I turned on the Surround for my review, I was sold. Windows Phone 7 made its debut on AT&T here in the US on November 8. After digging deeper into the operating system and getting into the nitty-gritty, I wasn't so gung-ho about Windows Phone 7. The user interface is very sleek, quick to respond, and laid out in a very simplistic fashion, but this is hardly the high point of the Surround. Between the very high-quality build and design of the Surround, the extraordinary speaker, and the crisp display, it's hard to say which exactly sets the Surround apart the most.
Design & Features
When you first pull the Surround out of the box, the first thing that will cross your mind is how well built it is. When you have sliding parts, you generally expect some rattle or wobbliness at the joint. This definitely isn't an issue with the Surround. The speaker only slides out about 1/3-inch and that could be the reason the joint is so solid. Remaining in the box, you will find a 3.5 mm headset with a clip, a USB AC adapter, a data transfer cable for charging and syncing your music, and the typical manuals.
On the face of the device you will find a speaker at the very top, the 3.8-inch LCD (480 by 800 pixel) display encased by a defining aluminum trim, and three touch buttons at the bottom: back, home, and search. On the right edge of the device you will find the volume rocker and dedicated camera button. If you slide the back of the device to the right you will uncover the Dolby Mobile and SRS surround sound speaker with a toggle button. On the bottom edge of the device you will find the microUSB port, a blank slate on the left edge, and the top holds the 3.5 mm headphone jack, the microphone, and the power button. You will find the 5 megapixel camera on the back with the LED flash and a speaker for speakerphone. Overall, the hardware is very nice and high-quality with brushed metal accents and a rubberized back. It feels sturdy and great in the hand.
Usability & Performance
The UI of Windows Phone 7 is very simple. The left panel is your list of tiles that you can rearrange while the list of all of your applications is on the right panel is hidden off-screen. Transitioning between these two panels takes a simple swipe from your finger, and is always quick. Basically launching anything native is quick. The issue of lag and long loading times comes from third-party applications. I've also had a few issues with the responsiveness of the display, having to tap two or three times to launch an application. I think this may be due to the undefined spaces (plain text) instead of designated icons. I'm also not fond of how your status bar at the top of the page (battery, signal, etc.) automatically hides itself. You have to swipe your finger from the top down just to see something that should be on hand in the first place.
My biggest gripe thus far with WP7 is how much of a headache getting applications on the device was. The way it's arranged, it should be as simple as creating a Live account (or logging in if you already have one) and it self-activating on the device. After that, you should theoretically be able to download applications.
This was not the case for me. An error message popped up on the screen prompting me to contact my carrier for assistance in activating my Live account (this is a common issue). I tapped the “Call support” link on the pop-up message and after about 6 transfers and getting hung up on twice, I finally got in touch with the right person through Microsoft. That representative directed me to support.microsoft.com which pointed me back in her direction. It was then that she learned how to solve my problem. An hour and a half later, I was off of the phone with an active Live account on my device, but I still couldn't download applications. I eventually had to wipe the handset and start over. Two hours after I had originally started, I had successfully loaded the Facebook application on my Surround.
Once I had all of that out of the way, I started loading the Surround down with applications. Installs went quick and there's already a surprising amount of applications in the Marketplace. The problem is, if you search for a specific application, music entries will flood your result page. As for third-party applications, They took anywhere from 5-10 seconds to load. You press the icon and a splash page will appear, but you will have to wait for the actual app to load. After that if it's an application that pulls data information (i.e.: Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, etc.) it would take anywhere from 5-15 seconds to load the information, even on a very strong Wi-Fi connection. This is something that is definitely going to have to be fixed. Also, some applications bombard you when you try to exit the app. If you try to use the back key and exit out of Facebook, a pop-up will appear and ask you if you're sure you want to leave the application. This grew very annoying and I started avoiding applications like that as soon as it happened a few times.
One caveat of the Surround is that it the Surround has no microSD card slot, which means once you fill the internal 16 GB memory, you're going to have to start deleting things. In actuality, 16 GB of internal memory should be ample room for applications, pictures, music, videos, etc., but not being able to expand your memory is a slight setback since most other devices out there either come in higher capacities or are expandable up to 32 GB.
The 5 megapixel camera is decent but definitely nothing to write home about. The auto-focus is quick to act and the pictures look great on the device; they look sharp and have great contrast on the small display. After transferring them to my computer, I changed my mind quickly. They were very pixellated and blurry for far-off shots. Up close shots were fuzzy, and the flash wasn't quick to react to low-light settings. For a phone, the camera is decent, but I've used other phones with 5 megapixel cameras that capture at much higher quality than this.
My least favorite aspect of this device is the poor battery life. Whether in use or laying on my desk, the battery seemed to drain about the same speed. I blame that on all the constant updating Windows Phone 7 does. Sometimes I don't need it to be updating, like when the screen is off. The Surround packs an underwhelming 1300 mAh battery, while its counterparts carry 1400 mAh, 1500 mAh, or higher capacity batteries. For something that is unnecessarily background updating so much, it needs a higher capacity battery than 1300 mAh. I could make it through a day with light use, but I didn't even get to test heavy use with the device since I couldn't download applications until last night, and by then I had a migraine from all the transferring and hanging up that went on with technical support.
One undeniably pleasing aspect of the Surround and Windows Phone 7 is browsing the Internet. Not only did the pages load rather quickly (Wi-Fi and 3G), they rendered well too, very well. Panning and zooming wasn't an issue for the Surround either. Scrolling from the bottom of a page to the top via mobile will generally result in some white-outs for a few seconds no matter the operating system. With the Surround, after the page finished loading I could scroll from top to bottom and back again as fast as I wanted and the white-outs would only occur every now and then, just momentarily. The one thing Windows Phone 7 does need to focus on a little more is landscape mode, not only in the browser, but throughout the OS. In the browser, if you turn the phone to landscape, the address bar is nonexistent. If you tap in the address bar in portrait mode and rotate to landscape, nothing happens. While the pages still render well, you'll have to turn your phone to portrait mode if you want to browse a different page.
Typing on the Surround was actually a pleasure. Even with the 3.8-inch display, which I normally can't cope with, I felt just fine with the tiny keyboard. It resembles the stock Android keyboard quite a bit, and isn't quite as easy to type on as the Android keyboard, but it was surprisingly easy to get used to. The auto-correct works okay as it will fix punctuation errors and add apostrophes when needed, but overlooks quite a few misspellings and typos. Regardless, typing on the Surround came with ease.
Call quality is very good on this device and remains decent through various signal levels. Even with varying signal throughout the three calls to Microsoft, I never dropped a call or had any trouble hearing what was said or with anyone hearing what I said. However, the speakerphone was a different story. The sound coming from the speaker was definitely not an issue. The speaker is loud and clear, but people on the other end had trouble hearing me, even in a quiet room with no background noise. I was talking fairly loud, just under yelling, and people would still ask me to repeat what I said (this was with good signal).
Since the highlight of the device is the speaker bar on the right edge of the device, I will add that it doesn't exactly live up to the hype. It's loud, that's for sure, and retains its sound quality through whatever volume you set it at. However, the claims were that it will produce surround sound, which I never actually felt I was hearing. Personally, I think it's great for a loudspeaker in a phone, you can't expect much more out of something that size. There is a toggle button on the top right corner of the speaker bar that is supposed to switch the speaker mode between Dolby and SRS surround, but there is no indication of which mode your in, and when you press it, it just sounds like you're switching on and off an EQ mode.
The email on the device is set up in a user-friendly manner, and it was actually pretty simple to use. The issue I encountered with it was with Live. There are more issues with the Live accounts right now than I can shake a stick at, but I set up my Gmail accounts in a breeze and it automatically synced my email, contacts, and calendar entries. I did have an issue with some of my emails sending right away, but that was resolved by navigating to the Google Mail tile, opening up and syncing manually.
Being part of the first-generation of Windows Phone 7 devices, the HTC Surround sets some pretty high standards for generations to come. Unfortunately, between the very long load times and headache of getting everything setup the first time, I'm not sure it's “...designed to get you in and out and back to life,” as Microsoft claims it to be. I was in love with the operating system at first, but the more I used it, the more the rough edges started to show. The animations were just a bit much, and made it feel bloated by making me wait a few second for animations on every single page. I think after an update or two, a tune-down of animations, and a little more working out the kinks, Windows Phone 7 will be a great contender in the current market. As for the Surround, it's a great device. It's perfect for those who want to listen to music aloud or watch movies with higher-quality sound, and those that want something a little different from the norm. It is all very modernized and intuitive. For $199.99 with a two-year agreement, it isn't a bad choice, but if you're looking for something fast and polished you might want to stick to the more refined operating systems like iOS or Android...for now.
What's Good: Build quality is top notch; loud, high quality speaker; beautiful display; slick user interface; kickstand for watching videos and projection when listening to music through the Dolby speaker; one of the best mobile web browsing experiences to date.
What's Bad: No microSD card slot or room for expandable memory; bloated with animations; apps can take up to ten seconds to launch, sometimes more, then you have to wait on the information to load; hard to locate settings for apps sometimes; poor battery life; difficult to find some apps in the Marketplace; initial setup can turn into a major pain; auto-hides signal and battery status info.
The Verdict: The HTC Surround is a solid device, hardware-wise. The issue I have with it is Windows Phone 7. I want to like the OS, I really do. Out-of-box, it's great. But once you start using it, you have to slow yourself down, or you will get frustrated. Between the overused visual animations, painful setup process, and extended load times, I don't think Windows Phone 7 was quite ready for public eyes. The good thing is, you never have to worry about your Surround being left behind when updates start coming out, even if it is first-generation hardware. For $199.99 with a two-year agreement, the Surround is a great device, but keep in mind that you're an early adopter, and sometimes that can be risky. If you don't mind a few glitches here and there and overall roughness of first-version software, the Surround is a new contender in AT&T's smartphone realm.