First Impressions: U.S. Cellular HTC 7 Pro Windows Phone 7 Smartphone

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I am very fortunate to have landed a review HTC 7 Pro unit from U.S. Cellular. A month or so ago I wrote about the 7 Pro launching as the first Windows Phone 7 device on U. S. Cellular. I will be doing a full review in the coming weeks, but wanted to give a few first impressions on (a) the phone, (b) the operating system, (c) the apps and (d) the service based on several hours of use this weekend.

The Carrier – U. S. Cellular

It probably would have made sense for me to check out the plans in my area BEFORE I got the phone … but of course I only checked it out after! And when I did, this is what I found:

Windows Phone US Cellular Mobile Phones & Gear HTC Dropbox Dell Cloud Computing   Windows Phone US Cellular Mobile Phones & Gear HTC Dropbox Dell Cloud Computing

So my expectations were pretty low. I was using WiFi at home to get everything set up and running, but on Sunday we were taking a family trip to Darien Lake theme park. I thought – what a great way to test the HTC 7 Pro! I grabbed the address to use the GPS on the ride to the park. As for how the app worked … more on that later. But the coverage and GPS kept me connected the entire time!

On the way home my wife’s iPod ran out of battery, so I tossed her the HTC 7 Pro and she loaded up Slacker Radio for some ’80s, 90s and Today’ (hey, with four people in the car it works as ‘compromise music’). It lasted most of the way home before the battery died, without every losing signal.

So for a network without plan coverage in my region, U.S. Cellular did a great job keeping us covered in western New York!

The Phone – HTC 7 Pro

Soon after I first got my Droid when it launched, I found the keyboard lacking and had really wanted to try the HTC Touch Pro 2 as I had tried a demo and it had a great keyboard. I used the Touch Pro 2 for less than a week before returning it, because of the ancient and bloated Windows Mobile 6 OS and the fact that I couldn’t get the system to work with our funky Exchange setup (something I have only managed to do using Touchdown for Android). In short – I loved the Touch Pro 2 hardware, but it was anemic for the tired WiMo OS and the HTC Sense UI felt bolted on and was still sluggish on the system.

There is a line from the game Bop It Extreme when you fail that says “Do It The Same … BUT BETTER”!

And that pretty much sums up my experience so far with the HTC 7 Pro. The biggest concerns for me were the screen, the keyboard and the hinge.

The screen is a bright 3.6″ capacitive touch-screen with three touch buttons (back, home, search) below the main screen. I have seen loads of debate on that size – many think that HTC should have pushed to get a 4″ screen in the space. Since my two other main devices in this size factor are a Motorola Droid Pro (3.1″ screen) and an iPod Touch (3.5″), the 3.6″ screen seems fine to me! And it is a crisp and clear display that had no issues on a sunny day.

The keyboard … well, let me just say that it is the best phone keyboard I have ever used. The size, spacing, and feel of the keyboard are all superb. I definitely love having a row of numbers along the top to directly access rather than using some shifted access. If I had a complaint, it would be that the @ symbol isn’t directly accessible, but rather needs to use the function key to get there. There are symbols for accented keys and smileys, but given how often folks use the @ symbol for emails it seems it should have gotten a featured place – but at least it is in the same place as on a ‘normal’ keyboard!

Finally, one of the cool things about the HTC 7 Pro is the ’tilt’ feature. You can use it as a touch-screen only phone, or slide out the keyboard and use it in landscape mode – which is typical for dual-mode phones. But the HTC 7 Pro goes a step further: when you slide the screen all the way out there is a bar that deflects the screen up at a ~30 degree angle, making it much more ergonomic to look at while typing. The hinge and slide mechanism are very tight and snap very satisfyingly into place on both sides. You can even have it hold in place with the keyboard extended but without tilting to have it seem more like a feature phone. Great hardware.

My one initial negative is that this thing is HEAVY! I handed it to my wife and her immediate response was ‘wow this thing is really heavy’. We did a test, and it is the heaviest phone in the house, and although it is technically half the weight of the iPad 2 due to weight distribution it feels nearly the same in your hand!

The Operating System – Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7 has gotten loads of fanfare for being a ‘ground up rewrite’ and loads of flack for what features it was missing at launch. It was supposed to be the ‘phone that saved us from our phones’, and all of that. While there are many good things going on, based on initial experience I would rank Windows Phone 7 as 4th in terms of providing a satisfying smartphone experience – behind Android, iOS and webOS in no particular order.

I say that because there is very little that I found in Windows Phone 7 that isn’t done better in one of the other mobile operating systems: nobody has yet beat the webOS notifications, Android flexibility and iOS for having stuff just get out of your way and make life easier. In Windows Phone 7 I was constantly asking ‘is there a menu I can access’, ‘how do I change this option’, or ‘how do I …’. There seems to be an attempt to combine simplicity and personalization, but the end I found most things felt stark and bereft of features.

The one real exception was the ‘People’ live tile – the other tiles didn’t feel very ‘live’. But People gave quick and easy social media access with easy access to find and quickly jump to whatever was of interest. The various apps on other systems pale in comparison.

Also, I haven’t felt the system bog down under use or otherwise slow down or become unresponsive. The performance was clean and efficient. Of course, if I accidentally touched one of the virtual buttons under the screen whatever app I was running quite due to no multitasking – and we know that definitely helps performance and stability. But I sadly have to say that my initial impressions of Windows Phone 7 are not all that great. Let’s just say that the Mango update coming late this year has a LOT to deliver to keep Windows Phone 7 afloat!

The Apps

Some people would like to have us believe that the concept of mobile apps was born in Cupertino four years ago – but gadget veterans know better. I was loading extra programs (as they were called back then) on my HP 200LX back 20 years ago, and they were a core part of the experience for me on Newton, Psion, Palm, and Windows CE (PPC & HPC).

What has changed is that rather than dealing with dozens of sites per platform and having to seek out the best programs with limited information, and paying much higher prices (I paid $25 for Call of Duty for my Dell Axim x51v!) … now we can go to a single place to find our apps right from our phones. Well, except for Android which has a strategy to rule the world through incompatibility and fragmentation so I have THREE marketplace apps on my phone! But we now expect to be able to quickly and easily grab loads of high quality apps directly from our phones in seconds and pay a reasonable price (ok, maybe more like an appallingly low price if you are an app developer … but I’m not).

For Windows Phone 7, two of those four things are true. The Marketplace app launches quickly, has integrated search functionality, and also has thousands of apps. Actually – I just have to say that the Marketplace confused me at first since the search icon works in-app, whereas with other apps you are dumped to the OS to use Bing web search. It is this kind of UI inconsistency that really hurts the overall experience. But back to apps …

In spite of there being more than 25,000 apps at last count, I was fairly hard pressed to find much of a selection of my ‘go to’ apps – and many apps I found were 100% more expensive than on iOS or Android. Sure I could find a decent RPN calc, and the MS Office built-in apps are good enough to let me skip Documents to Go, but there were only a few games of interest and things like Plants vs. Zombies were more expensive than on other platforms. Just browsing the market I had hoped for some old favorites like ‘1000 Miles’ to come to the platform … but no luck there. There were no cloud apps like DropBox and SugarSync, mSpot, MOG, Google and Amazon music services are all missing, and on and on and on. So once again as I asked Apple back in 2009, I ask Microsoft now: you have thousands of apps, but how many GOOD ones do you have?

I did promise to discuss app experiences, and in particular the Telenav Navigation system built into the phone and Slacker Radio.

Slacker is a perfect example of what is wrong with Windows Phone 7 and apps. Slacker works well, never crashed, but was an inadequate experience that marks it the worse version I have ever used. I have the premium version, which features ‘on demand’ listening similar to MOG … but with the WP7 client I could only pick a song and then it would launch into an ‘artist radio’. This is inadequate and unacceptable – if I was to stick with WP7 long term I would want a ‘real’ client or would kill my subscription. Also, the user interface is COMPLETELY in portrait mode! As I mentioned, the WP7 OS switches most stuff to proper landscape mode, but when searching Slacker for music I have my head tilted to use the nice keyboard but still see what I type.

The Telenav Navigation system experience was very interesting. I had clicked the link from the Darien Lake site to get the directions, and copied down the address. According to Google Maps it should have taken just over 2 hours … but when we started driving and following the Telenav, it had our time as 2.5 hours! As we got past the one hour mark I had my wife check on my Droid Pro, and sure enough there was a 30 minute discrepancy, mostly based on inefficient routing. I took the exit suggested by the park, and quickly Telenav caught up with the directions – but still maintained a much later arrival. As we got closer and closer the times began to converge, but as we were just outside the park Telenav still had us 11 minutes (and 0.1 miles) away. It refused to yield! Also, there were about a hundred times when we were told we were ‘off track’ – driving down a major highway that hasn’t seen construction in the three years we’ve lived here! Definitely not something that gave me much confidence.

What Next?

There are many things I didn’t cover, from the camera to SkyDrive to (non) expandable storage to call quality to … well, you get the picture! I ended up writing a lot more than I originally planned, but have really enjoyed digging into this phone. My initial thought is that the phone is solid, the carrier has great coverage … but Windows Phone 7 leaves much to be desired – I don’t know how many times I found myself thinking ‘if this just had Android OS it would be KILLER’!

I will be back with my full review after I get to spend more time with the phone and explore more functionality. But until then, I would love to hear from any Windows Phone 7 advocates out there – point out some great apps for me, tips and tricks, anything else I should know?

About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!