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Verizon HTC Imagio review

October 13, 2009

in All Articles,Cellphone reviews

The HTC Imagio is a great phone.

There. I’ve said it. Now I’ll tell you why. In the tradition of techies everywhere, I’ll do so by making a list.

There are three significant features making the Imagio a quality phone: Microsoft (Microsoft?! …Yes, it’s true, but keep reading), the HTC hardware and Verizon:

Microsoft (and the lack thereof)

Microsoft is better when they provide the foundation, and then get out of the way. Thankfully, finally, it’s happened here. The HTC Imagio operating system is Windows Mobile 6.5. I didn’t realize this at first – I actually did a double-take when I saw this nicely-performing, smooth-looking phone had the Windows Mobile menu and taskbar at the top of the screen.

I think HTC and others realized this too. In my opinion, native Windows Mobile is clunky and ugly. It’s a poor attempt to squeeze Windows PC behavior and style into a cellphone, when the proper implementation would’ve been to build an OS from scratch, taking advantage of the platform’s capabilities while finding proper solutions for any shortcoming. It’s worked for many others, including Palm, BlackBerry and Apple.

Here, HTC has skinned the classic Windows Mobile interface, and given users an interface that’s very much like the iPhone and the Palm Pre. The Imagio’s interface is called “HTC TouchFLO 3D”.

(Andy’s meaningful digression: I have a theory. The iPhone set the current standards for not only performance but user interface. The “flick and scroll” technique, the “inertia” of a scrolling screen, the “quick zoom and zoom out” for web browsing… these are arguably popularized and implemented wonderfully by Apple on the iPhone. So what we get is every other company out there copying the interface and style. What this means is that we are getting fewer and fewer “iPhone clones”, and more and more phones using that same interface because the iPhone has created a new smartphone standard. The HTC Imagio, Palm Pre and others are simply following that standard.)

So Windows Mobile is hiding its head – we don’t see it operating until we look at Windows Mobile tools for memory, applications or battery, or use Microsoft-specific apps, like Outlook Mobile or MS Office document editing. Very good.

Even more proof that HTC is working around Microsoft is the browser: this Windows Mobile device is not using Internet Explorer! It’s using the (free) Opera browser, which I know from direct experience works much better than Windows Mobile’s Internet Explorer. This is a small change which says a lot. Again, very good.

I personally don’t like Windows Mobile. I appreciate what Microsoft is trying to do, but feel WM is poorly designed: it’s bloated, it’s far more complex than is necessary, and the non-intuitive interface frustrates users and adds needless clicks. The HTC Imagio is the very first Windows Mobile cellphone I’ve seen where I don’t think Windows Mobile is a hindrance, because Windows Mobile itself now has a completely new interface. Very, very good.

The hardware

The Imagio has processors and memory capable of proper performance. When a screen is supposed to scroll, it actually scrolls, with a minimum of skipping and lagging. Same with other multimedia functions, from zipping around the user interface to watching Mobile TV to browsing the web. In the screenshot below, you see the picture library interface, where you flip from picture to picture. It’s smooth, whether you use the preview method (pictured), or the full-screen view.

Previous incarnations from Verizon are adequate, but some phones felt like they were being overtaxed by the weight of the operating system. The Imagio doesn’t feel like that. It can handle the workload.

If you really like the iPhone, the Imagio will not impress you. But if you’re still deciding on what phone to buy, the Imagio is a valid iPhone competitor. It doesn’t perform as smoothly as the iPhone, but it performs better any other iPhone competitor I’ve seen so far. More and more, this says less about the competitors and more about the excellent iPhone system design.

Yes, there are the many crossover features in the interface and style between Imagio and iPhone, but…

Verizon brings capability and functionality

Verizon made sure this phone has more to offer, and made sure it supports all the cool Verizon applications. These include V CAST (media and MP3 purchase and management), VZ Navigator (voice-enabled, real time, turn-by-turn GPS), V CAST Mobile TV and Video (TV channels and video on your phone), a 5MP camera, and of course the massive, powerful Verizon network. And as of 4Q 2009, Verizon will open the virtual doors of its V CAST App Store. This will vastly increase the number of applications available to the Verizon lineup.

(As of this writing, V CAST Mobile TV channels include: Bravo, CBS, CBS College Sports, CBS News, CNBC, Comedy Central, ESPN, ESPNEWS, ESPN Radio, FOX, FOX News, FOX Sports, MSNBC, MTV, MTV Tr3́s, NBC, NBC Sports, NBC News, and Nickelodeon.)

The Imagio also has features not always available on smartphones – It supports WiFi (802.11 b/g). It’s a global-capable phone. (It supports many cell standards, including Quad-band GSM 850/900/1800/1900/2100 HSPA and CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A 800/1900 MHz).

There are additional small features I really appreciated. These include how the phone will automatically unlock itself when you remove the stylus. The camera is a great-quality 5MP. Look at the Settings -> About section, and find credits to scads of open license, third-party, and non-MS software. HTC did what was needed to put the right tools into this OS.

The Imagio also has a little “kickstand” on the back – flip it out by depressing a button, and you’ve got a way to prop up the phone as you watch TV. (The word “television” becomes less meaningful every year, doesn’t it?)

Imagio problems

There weren’t many. Just one. Maybe two, depending on how you categorize them.

In testing this phone, I briefly used it side-to-side with an iPhone. And as I mentioned earlier, the iPhone still wins in terms of performance. I also noticed the Imagio screen display didn’t perform well in bright sunlight. In comparison, the iPhone was easily readable. With the Imagio, I had to shade the screen with my hand and bring my face close in order to read it.

I’m also not very good at virtual keyboards. I prefer physical keypresses. I think the Palm Pre has the right idea, with a thin physical keyboard that can slide out on demand. But the Imagio, like many in its class, is virtual keyboard only. I actually typed pretty well on the Imagio. The interface is a little small for my big fingers, so I had to be careful, but the predictive input helps.

HTC Imagio review conclusion

I showed the Imagio to another tech at my office. His opinion was that it’s so much like the iPhone, but is not as good as the iPhone (in terms of performance), that if he had to choose, he’d just get the iPhone. I can appreciate that. Personally, though, I don’t know if I’d do the same. Verizon’s network would be a big factor in my decision.

My own opinion is that HTC, Microsoft and Verizon have done it right. The Imagio is a great phone. I’d be happy to own one. Though it’s in a competitive and crowded market, I think the Imagio stands out from the crowd.

The HTC Imagio is available from Verizon Wireless for $300 – customers will receive a $100 rebate with a new two-year customer agreement.

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