It’s an almost imperceptible trend, so slow has it been, but make no two ways about it: phones are getting faster – and bigger, not smaller. While Apple has been content to stick with a 3.5-inch screen on every iteration of its iPhone, rivals have been slowly and surely pushing the limits of acceptable ergonomics, in a bid to find their own niche away from the sector of the market Apple has sewn up tight.
Take HTC: back in summer 2009, its flagship smartphone, the Hero, packed a screen that stretched 3.2-inches across. By the winter of that year, it had crept up to 4.3-inches, with the HTC HD2, a popular Windows Mobile device whose design formed the basis for the smash hit HTC Desire HD a year later, a beautiful slice of smartphone designed perfectly for large hands.
Which brings us to the present, and HTC’s latest effort, the HTC Titan. True to its name, its display measures a Behemoth-like 4.7-inches across. The LCD equivalent of two king-size beds taped together, it’s not just the biggest Windows Phone yet, it’s also one of the biggest smartphones ever made. That size could be off-putting, but married to a sleek, thin 9.9mm chassis and the latest version of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system, Windows 7.5 “Mango”, it’s more stretch limo than monster truck for off-road use only.
This phone is epic: in fact, likely the only reason it wasn’t named that was because Samsung beat HTC to the punch. But to be clear, it’s not a return to the briefcase bricks of yesteryear: the 16million colour screen may be vast, but the overall body is impressively slim at just 131.5×70.7×9.9mm – barely thicker than an iPhone 4S, and even more curvaceous. Spread over such a large surface area, its 160g weight feels very light, and the aluminium case feels reassuringly premium.
In day to day use, we found the Titan comfortably fit into trouser pockets without a problem, but we struggled to reach across it and use it with one hand (when walking, say), an issue exaggerated by the inability to install third-party keyboards on Windows Phone, such as Swype. With two hands though, the on-screen QWERTY keyboard proved a revelation. It was responsive on the HTC HD7, but with more real estate per button, it’s now untouchable with two thumbs. We raced through messages at blinding speed, never making a typo: if you find an iPhone too cramped to text on, it’s well worth investigating on this basis alone. Despite the lush appearance of the front face being all screen, you’ll find all the prerequisites packed in.
Below the display, the three capactive Windows Phone buttons, including the back button which now triggers multi-tasking with a long press. On the top, 3.5mm audio and the power button, while the right hand side plays host to the volume keys and a camera shutter button: this can be used even when the phone is locked. Inside, there’s just enough space for a 1600mAh battery, which provides a solid day’s worth of heavy calling and internet use, even with screen brightness at maximum, but only 16GB of storage space – Windows Phone doesn’t support external storage via microSD right now.
Above all, the HTC Sensation makes a compelling video proposition. When connected to Zune, or Windows Phone Connector for Mac, you can side load MP4 video files to watch at your convenience. Or you can watch back the impressively smooth, not too compressed 720p HD video it films with the eight megapixel rear-camera. There is also a front-facing camera, but until Skype for Windows Phone arrives, it will be of little use. On the broad, bright screen, videos are a delectable treat: rarely have tiny phone screens provided anything resembling an enjoyable viewing experience, but movies and TV shows were a delight, with bright colours and wide viewing angles.
The Titan has an exclusive string to its bow too: movie rentals. You’ll find a service called HTC Watch pre-installed, which is set to offer a good selection of blockbuster movies to download. It’s an important step in addressing the iTunes+iPhone gap: it’s all very well having a nice screen, but what’s the point if you’ve got nothing to watch on it?
HTC Watch is the result of HTC’s acquisition of Saffron Digital earlier this year. It’s been available on many new Android phones from the company for a while now, and we’ve been thoroughly impressed by the array of big new releases to watch, image quality and ease of use. It’s a genuine lifesaver ahead of a long plane journey, and the tech works just as smoothly on Windows Phone. At the time of review, there were only trailers available to view on the Titan, but we’d expect this to change shortly and reach parity with Android HTC Watch pretty quickly.
There is however, a drawback to that great big display. Windows Phone only supports one screen resolution, 480×800 pixels. On a smaller phone – 3.7-inches, say – this looks perfectly sharp and acceptable, but stretched to the epic proportions of the Titan, simple physics dictate that each pixel must be larger.
We couldn’t detect this in images or video, but the low pixel density is all too apparent when viewing websites and reading emails: there’s a soft fuzzy edge to every letter which iPhone 4 users particularly won’t be used too, and may even find off-putting. Though HTC can do little about this, at a time when rival phone manufacturers are about to jump to 1280×720 resolution screens, it seems quite a way off the bleeding edge, and is one sacrifice you’ll have to make – the other is with the software.
The Titan is one of the first phones running the new Windows Phone 7.5 update, Mango, an update the platform has been crying out for. Although on first look, little has changed, there are many commendable hidden features: you can now switch between apps without killing them, add a group of friends as a live homescreen tile and even share your 3G connection with a laptop or tablet, or both. The rapid fire camera now saves your settings, and is complemented by the respectable, if unspectacular stills the 8MP sensor grabs.
Added to these are a few exclusive HTC apps, including HTC’s drab Hub, which serves up weather and stocks after a very long pause, and Connected Media, which allows you to stream media from other devices – a nice touch, but we had little luck going the other way however. Neither is as essential as HTC Watch.
As soon as you’re logged in, the tile-based design of Windows Phone feels elegant and fun to use. The iPhone’s static menu screens seem drab by comparison, and that feeling of “Oh, what’s it done now?” most Android users will grudgingly admit to now and again is gone.
But there is an elephant in the room – or rather, there isn’t: the Windows Phone Marketplace still lacks the killer apps that are almost taken for granted nowadays. BBC iPlayer isn’t here and we’re waiting for big name apps to join the party. Just like Palm struggled with webOS, so Windows Phone feels like a great platform that just doesn’t have the critical mass it needs for those all important apps just yet. As we speak, this is changing (hello Spotify) but you should keep a look out for your fave apps when considering a switch to Windows Phone Mango and this gloriously big screen hardware from HTC.
If you can look past the lack of quality apps on the Marketplace, there’s a lot to love about the user-friendly Windows Phone. With the Android-powered, similarly sized HTC Sensation XL on the way, you don’t exactly need to but this is a phone for those who demand size, power and style over everything.
WHAT MOBILE TEST VERDICT: 4/5