Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
The HTC Surround, is one of the new Windows Mobile smartphones ushering in Microsoft's new OS . It has all the specs that matter like a 1GHz processor and a receptive 3.8 inch screen but also adds some of the best sounding surround speakers on any mobile device today.
Herald of a New OS
There's an indescribable excitement that comes when unboxing a new device, specially one like the HTC Surround which heralds an entirely new smartphone operating system. We've been counting the days for Windows Phone to come to Canada as we have been impressed by our early previews of the new OS and its slick, vertical scrolling Live Tiles interface as well as the fresh approach it has taken to smartphone OS.
The HTC Surround runs Windows Phone very smoothly, no lag is perceptible and smooth-scrolling and fast app launching has been the norm so far. Call quality was above average and we were surprised to find that the device held a signal in some of our familiar dead spots. Battery life seemed to be average for a smartphone (you need to charge it daily) but we need more time to determine how it performs during day-to-day usage.
Out of the box, the HTC Surround possesses unlikely lightness for a device with a 3.8-inch, 480x800 screen, specially if you consider that it has slide out stereo speakers which require their very own built-in kickstand to tilt up for an optimum viewing and listening position.
Build quality is unflinchingly solid all around. HTC has spared no expense in designing the HTC Surround. It looks more austere than ostentatious but high quality materials abound. The back case is rubberized but with a satin finish and with very good grip while the section surrounding the screen is made of brushed metal, polycarbonate and chrome. The overall look is stylish and subtle, yet understated. We like how the home, back and search buttons are touch sensitive yet really receptive.
The HTC Surround has a dedicated camera button as well as a volume rocker and the power on/off button. The overall design is clean, functional and sleek. Thankfully, we don't see any of that tacky glossy plastic that other manufacturers like to clad their devices with so the HTC Surround does not attract smudges and fingerprints and has a nice grip to it.
On the downside, it is a challenge to open up the rear case in order to insert or remove a SIM card. You do need a substantial amount of force to pry it open.
The speakers deliver as promised and offer sound that's as clear and loud as what you could expect from a premium smartphone, that HTC has managed to cram Dolby Sound enabled surround speakers into a skinny handheld device is staggering and shows how far we've gone with speaker technology.
We like listening to podcasts and music during the day but don't relish the thought of using headphones all the time, so a solution like this is perfect for this use scenario.
We also tried gaming, which Windows Phone does surprisingly well, and thoroughly enjoyed playing Star Wars: Battle for Hoth with the iconic John Williams score booming in the background.
As for using the speakerphone feature of the Windows Phone, the dual, noise-cancelling microphones keep call quality good and if you want to use the speakerphone, the big speakers really help. HTC has once more flexed its design innovation muscle, once you hold the surround in your hand and flip out the speakers, you really do wonder how they managed such a fluid and successful design.
With 16GB storage, you can carry a lot of music on the HTC Surround. Thankfully, the speakers are good enough so you can enjoy this music anywhere you go. Its a novel concept that may not be for everyone and some users may not even use, but for watching movies and enjoying music on the go, it is really convenient.
Quick Notes on Windows Phone OS
Windows Phone's OS approach is refreshing. Unlike iOS and Android, which require you to flip through screens full of buttons that lead to apps, Microsoft only gives you two main screens to work with.
The first screen where the main Live Tiles interface can be found can be managed by your thumb.
Click a tile and "boom" you're in the application. Nothing seems to be loading or installing, it just appears as the information floats in. When you're done simply tap the Windows logo and your're back to the Live Tiles.
The second screen is where the settings, preferences and apps can be found and this too can be managed with one thumb.
The lack of multitasking and cut-and-paste ( the latter a heavily requested feature that is coming soon, according to Microsoft) does pose some limitation to functionality. We find, however, that of all the smartphone operating systems today, Windows Phone is the easiest to pick up and learn.
The Windows Marketplace offers a surprising number of applications, many are available for free to try before you buy, which is great. The problem is the pricing seems to be all over the place for these apps. In a world that's been spoiled by .99 cent apps mobile apps, its just weird to see a range of $5.99 - $8.00 applications on a spanking new OS.
The HTC Surround will be available on November 8 on Telus for $99 on a three-year plan and around $500 no contract price which is today's ballpark for a premium Smartphone handset.
After spending a week with the HTC Surround and Windows Phonewe realize that it is a Mobile OS that grows on you and one that we wouldn't mind using on a prolonged basis. If your smartphone demands are meager and limited to surfing websites, managing mail and calendars as well as light gaming and music and video, you'll be satisfied. If you depend on apps, need to cut and paste information and require multitasking, things get a bit dicey.
We do like the feeling of stability that this infant version of of Windows Phone offers as well as the stellar user interface that tack sharp, precise and predictable. We haven't been this impressed by a new mobile OS since Palm's WebOS hit the market two years ago.
Sure, Windows Phone has a long, long way to go in order to really pose a threat to Android or iOS but new users who aren't beholden to either of those popular smartphone platforms might gravitate towards Windows Phone as their first smartphones and grow with the platform.
Growth, really, is the keyword here. If Microsoft can get ample developer backing, continuously improve the OS and the experience as well as convince handset makers like HTC to continue creating stellar handsets, it could thrive.
Remember how Microsoft patiently waited out the browser war until it overtook Netscape? How about how its stubborn foray into the console gaming market where no one believed it would succeed? Microsoft stuck it out (and spent billions of dollars to sustain its efforts) but it eventually emerged victorious.
They need the same tenacity with their mobile strategy. WP7 is good, has potential and is a fresh approach to the mobile experience. It can work but can they please get cut-copy-paste, multitasking and tethering working at the very least.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5