It's not every day that a featurephone is released by a company that typically only makes smartphones and features a UI that's only been seen on those smartphones. The Freestyle is unique and in a good way. It's made by HTC, one of the leaders in the smartphone market, and runs HTC's Sense UI, a popular and much-loved user interface. I have to admit, I was excited about this one, but I still had my reservations. Is it a dumb smartphone or a smart 'dumbphone'? The latter scenario would make this one of the best featurephones on the market and answer the prayers of kids and teens alike who have been dying for a phone that their parents will agree to buy but that isn't poorly constructed. The former scenario, on the other hand, would probably spell doom for the future of featurephones. 'If we can't make them better, then why make them at all?' At least that seems to be the consensus among manufacturers these days.
The Freestyle did not disappoint. It is now rated number one on PhoneDog's Top Messaging Phones list for AT&T and recently topped my list of the best featurephones from the top ten U.S. carriers. It's not without its faults, which I'll cover in this review, but overall, I'm very impressed by the Freestyle.
Design & Features
HTC is known for making beautiful and solidly-built phones. I'm impressed that they didn't abandon these principles when designing the Freestyle. Originally, I was under the impression that the Freestyle was built out of plastic. However, after using it and doing some research, I found that it's actually built with a "metal alloy body" - aluminum, I'm assuming. Because of this, the phone is very solid and looks like an expensive phone. It measures 4.2-inches tall, 2.2-inches wide, and .49-inches thick. It is a smaller device, something even I noticed with my tiny hands.
The small design translates into a small-ish display though I don't personally see this as a downside. The 3.2-inch display was large enough and I never had problems with reading text or typing. (The typing experience using the virtual keyboard will be discussed further later on.) The resolution of the display is slightly higher than most featurephones, coming in at 320x480 pixels, and I enjoyed it. Pictures and graphics were very clear and bright. There's a clarity to the display that you simply don't see on most featurephones.
The front panel has four main buttons for navigation. Send/Talk, Back, End, and a Menu button. Pressing the Menu button will bring up a menu related to the program you are in. It functions similar to the Android menu button. Along with a 3.5mm headphone jack and dedicated camera button, the phone also has a microSD card slot. It's difficult to get to, as you have to remove the battery door and fold down a plastic hinged panel to access it. This slot supports up to 32GB of additional storage with a card. The phone has 150MB of internal memory.
Usability & Performance
The Freestyle runs on the Brew Mobile Platform and uses HTC Sense UI, a UI generally reserved for HTC's smartphones (one reason why the Freestyle is often confused as an Android smartphone). Sense UI is what really makes the phone so great. Popular features like HTC's weather widget, calendar, and Friend Stream app are included with the Feestyle. The notification system is also top-notch. If you miss a call or receive a text message, you are notified with a symbol on the unlock screen, at the top of the homescreen clock, on the Messages icon at the bottom of the homescreen, and on that person's contact icon if it is added to the optional People page. The Freestyle even has a notification bar similar to what we see on Android devices. Dragging down from the top of the display reveals a list of missed calls, texts, or any calendar events you set reminders for.
Sense UI also adds a lot of customization features. You are given ten options for home pages. These options include People, Messages, Friend Stream, Weather, and more. Though these widgets resemble their smartphone counterparts, they all by default take up the entire page and this cannot be changed. Some of these features require a data plan. If you do not have a data plan, the Sense clock on the homescreen that includes the current weather will simply display the time.
I mentioned earlier that the display was small, 3.2-inches to be exact. I initially thought that this would cause problems when using the virtual keyboard. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't. The reason is because the Freestyle is equipped with one of the best autocorrect functions I've seen on a featurephone. I could type fairly rapidly and not have to be too careful to press the letter exactly on its key. Most words were corrected and I rarely had to go back and fix a word. The keyboard can be used in landscape mode as well, which is helpful, but I could use it just as effectively in portrait mode as I could in landscape mode. The phone doesn't have an accelerometer so you have to press a button to make it switch from portrait mode to landscape mode. The phone also features threaded text messaging.
One question that I've been asked a lot about the Freestyle is whether it supports WiFi. The answer is no, it doesn't. This may seem disappointing, but it's not surprising. Most featurephones do not support WiFi, that's what differentiates them from smartphones. Despite not having the added speed that a WiFi network can offer, the web browsing experience was still exceptional. Page loads were pretty quick and the display even supports multi-touch for pinch-to-zoom. This feature worked very well. I assume that if you're going to be doing a lot of web browsing, you're more than likely going to buy a smartphone; however, if you only need to do a minimal amount of web browsing or will only need it on rare occasions, then it's nice to know that it's there and is actually useable, something I can't say about most other featurephones on the market.
The Freestyle is equipped with a 3-megapixel fixed focus camera. In short, picture quality was nothing to shout about and should not be one one of the incentives to buy the phone. The quality of the camera was sub-par and most pictures came out blurry or rough, looking like they were taken by a simple camera on a flip phone. Additionally, there is no flash and the video capture quality and resolution are so low I don't know that you would ever use it for anything worthwhile. However, such has become the norm for featurephones so I wasn't expecting anything better from the Freestyle.
I've heard several complaints about the battery performance from others who have the Freestyle so I gave this area special attention while testing the phone. Here's the conclusion that I've come to: compared to other featurephones, the Freestyle's 1300 mAh battery does not last very long, but it's still not horrible. Yes, most featurephones can last for three to four days or maybe even longer if it's not being used heavily. The Freestyle will generally last about two days on a charge. This may seem weak, but the important thing is that you can easily make it through a full day on one charge. Will you have to charge it every night? It would probably be safer to do so, yes. However, even if you don't charge it, you may be able to get another day of use. So it's not as good as other featurephones, but it's certainly good enough.
I approached this device with high hopes and HTC did not disappoint. All the way from the physical design of the phone right down to the notifications and customization features and everything in between, HTC gave this phone their all and it really shows. The Freestyle is beautiful, well-equipped, useful, and sets a new standard for featurephones. If you don't want a smartphone but you don't want to settle for an "okay" phone, then the Freestyle is for you. Even if you don't want to buy a monthly data plan, the phone still functions very well. Some features will not be usable, but even without those, I can see this phone as being very useful and money well-spent.
What's Good: Sense UI; excellent build quality; responsive capacitive touchscreen; best virtual keyboard on a featurephone.
What's Bad: Slightly weak battery life; low-quality camera.
The Verdict: If you've always wanted a smartphone but can't afford or don't want to pay for the monthly data plan, then get the Freestyle. It's simply the best featurephone available from AT&T right now.