Review: AT&T HTC Surround – Does this Windows Phone 7 handset rock?

AT&T HTC Surround

After all the hype and hoopla about Microsoft needing Windows Phone 7 to be a hit to stay relevant in the computing market of the future, we’ve finally been able to spend some good time with the premier launch devices. As the resident music fan, I was tasked with reviewing the speaker-toting HTC Surround for AT&T. Does this smartphone rock?

HTC Surround with Windows Phone 7

The Windows Phone 7 AT&T HTC Surround has Dolby MobileAvailable November for $199 on a two-year contract with AT&T

Specifications (Specs-sheet)

  • 3.8″ WVGA display (480 x 800)
  • 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon
  • 5 Megapixel camera with LED Flash
  • 720p HD video capture
  • 16 GB internal memory
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
  • HSDPA 3G – it’s also an AT&T World Phone
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR + A2DP stereo
  • Windows Phone 7
  • Slide-out Yamaha speaker with Dolby Mobile, SRS surround sound

The Good

  • Well-constructed piece of hardware
  • Windows Phone 7 is a blast to use
  • The Yamaha speaker pumps out high-quality sounds
  • The processor and the OS combine for a slick, smooth experience

The Bad

  • Windows Phone 7 is not as mature as Android or iPhone – it’s missing some key features
  • The Yamaha speaker sounds good but it’s questionable if it’s worth the extra weight
  • There’s definitely a learning curve for Windows Phone 7
  • Voice quality was not the greatest
  • No expandable storage – especially troubling with a multimedia-centric phone like this

Dobly Mobile, Yamaha speaker comes with the AT&T HTC Surround Windows PhoneHardware

It’s easy to look at the HTC Surround and think, “WTF?” I’m still not convinced I know why the slide-out Yamaha speaker is really needed but it is still a high-quality smartphone when it comes to the hardware.

The design aesthetics of the HTC Surround kind of remind me of the HTC Hero but highly evolved. There’s a similar speaker above the screen, the back covers have a nice feel to them and there’s also the microUSB port on the bottom with a silver finish.

The Windows Phone 7 device has a 3.8-inch capacitive display and it’s quite nice and responsive. The colors really shine and it’s a joy to watch videos on this small screen. It’s still not quite as nice as the Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Focus but it’s by no means a bad screen.

Directly below the screen are three capacitive buttons (standard for Microsoft’s platform: back, home and search) and these were nice and responsive with a teeny bit of haptic feedback. Along the lower right spine of the device is the camera button (more on that later), then a needlessly large volume rocker.

The power/unlock button and standard headphone jack rest on the top. The back reveals a subtle camera module, speaker and a crapload of branding: “HTC,” “Windows Phone,” “Dolby Mobile,” and “SRS” are all on the back of the phone. Inside, you have a 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and all the things you’d expect from a device of this class.

Enough about those minor details, as most people who are attracted to this device will want it because of the slide-out Yamaha speaker. Like the EVO 4G, the Surround even has a kickstand to let you show off what that speaker’s capable of.

The speaker does sound fantastic – I guess you’d expect that with Dolby Mobile and SRS surround sound on board but I was still a little surprised at how much it rocked. It wasn’t just volume though, as the depth of the audio came shining through.

It’s a great speaker in general but fantastic for a mobile phone but I still question why it’s there and if it’s worth the added weight to the phone. At about 5.82 ounces, the HTC Surround is not super heavy but it definitely has some weight to it. That slide-out speaker also makes it thicker than other devices in this class – it’s not G2 thick but it’s not a super sleek phone.

Even worse, I showed the handset to a non-tech friend and they said, “That’s cool but when would I ever use it?” I was stumped to find an answer.

I listen to music all the time on my smartphone and I’ve even watched full movies or NBA games while commuting on a train. Not once did I wish for a huge speaker to enjoy this because I was using headphones. I don’t need a smartphone with a huge speaker on my desk either, because I have a computer with its own setup.

I could see very random cases where you want to show off a song to friends or a YouTube clip but I don’t think those opportunities come up often enough to design a whole phone around it. Maybe it could be useful for watching TV shows in your bed before you sleep. Maybe. Is that what the kids do in dorm rooms nowadays? Am I just not with it?

Overall, the HTC Surround is a well-constructed Windows Phone 7 handset with a killer speaker but I question the real-world usefulness of its entire design. I guess it would have been tough to differentiate from the Mozart if this device ditched the speaker but that’s not my concern.

Software

The AT&T HTC Surround with Windows Phone 7
I was licking my chops when I heard that I’d get to review this phone because I’ve been quietly excited about Windows Phone 7 for a few months now because it looks like an exciting new take on how we should interact with our smartphones. Microsoft hasn’t gotten everything right with its smartphone platform but it is an excellent starting point.

We have our full review of Windows Phone 7 here so I’ll try and not repeat too much of that and focus on what I gathered from using the HTC Surround.

This is going to sound weird but I think Microsoft took many of the best elements of the KIN, combined it with a new user interface and injected some smartphone brains in it to create Windows Phone 7. For all it wasn’t, the KIN phones were very cloud-friendly devices and so are the Windows Phone handsets.

There is an elegance and flow to the platform which permeates throughout each app. It’s visually pleasing and once you’ve gotten over the learning curve, it’s a delight to use. Microsoft got most of the big things rights and even seemingly small details like the fonts are nice to look at.

The Metro UI is a somewhat shocking departure from Windows Mobile but it is not dramatically different than what Microsoft has done with its Zune software. The phone is very “swipe-tastic,” as you’ll learn that nearly every app and screen has additional content by swiping left and right.

As you may know by now, the new operating system uses a series of live tiles, or “hubs,” as the main method of interaction. These hubs can always be pulling in information from a variety of online sources – the People hub lets you view and respond to Facebook postings without having to dive into a separate app.

You are able to adjust your homescreen to fit your needs by rearranging the tiles or by pinning new hubs to your start screen. It’s not quite as configurable as I’d like though, as some hubs have to take up two spaces even though there’s no need for it. Additionally, the two-pane setup may require you to scroll down a lot once the application ecosystem gets rolling.

Like the other AT&T Windows Phone 7 handsets, the Surround comes with multiple carrier-specific apps pre-installed like AT&T Navigator, U-Verse Mobile and others. Since I can’t get U-Verse where I live I can’t take advantage of downloading shows, I didn’t find much use for these apps besides the myWireless one (which lets you track and pay your cell bill on the phone). Thankfully, these are easily uninstalled if you don’t want these programs taking up space.

I could probably write 10,000 words on just the OS alone but I’ll leave most of that to our Windows Phone 7 review. Here are some of the things I liked and didn’t like about the OS on the HTC Surround.

The Good

I’m a huge fan of ambient information and the Surround delivers on that. Without unlocking the device, you can see what appointments you have coming up, who you missed calls or texts from and what e-mails you may not have looked at. This was also in Windows Mobile 6.5 and I’m glad it’s still around.

The e-mail client is rock solid too, as it can quickly tie in to your Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo or Exchange accounts. You’re not going to get as good of a Gmail experience as you would on Android (I miss threaded conversations) but it’s more than capable of handling multiple accounts. The same goes for the Calendar.

The virtual keyboard is also sweet. It’s a breeze to bang out messages and the software is intelligent enough to auto-correct when I do mistype. There’s even a “.com” button when you’re in the browser, which is always appreciated.

The Not-So-Good

The visual appeal of the HTC Surround’s OS is very much up for debate. I do think that it could be seen as over-designed by some – there are lots of flashy transition animations, seemingly random tile movements for visual panache, and swirling fonts. These are pleasing to the eye but I don’t know if it actually adds value.

I’ve long said that Symbian’s problem is a lack of visual polish but I don’t think that just means eye candy. The real beauty lies in a visually-pleasing interaction metaphor where all the parts make sense in helping the user accomplish their goal.

The bells and whistles in Windows Phone 7 are cool but I don’t know if they’re all needed or if they’ll get old. Instead of a splashy transition animation when I open an app I’d rather the app just launch quicker.

The HTC Hub is actually a perfect example of flash over substance. We spotted this earlier and felt it may have been a bit too over the top with splashy animations and the final version is. I don’t need weather clouds zooming at me all the time.

The HTC Hub does let you get some HTC-specific apps like an excellent on-device photo-editing program but each time you back out of an app to its Hub, you have to watch the same snazzy intro scene. This is a slight annoyance, I admit.

The Bad

Do you want cut and paste? Well that’s not going to be there until early 2011. We also don’t have word on when or if tethering will come.

The lack of true multitasking is also quite noticeable when you’re diving in and out of multiple apps with splashy transition animations.

As for the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, I’m not too concerned about the relatively sparse offerings. I only really use a few non-core apps on a daily basis anyways (Facebook, Netflix, Twitter) and it has most of those bases covered. I just have minor beefs with the store itself: the discovery is a nightmare and I hate that it says I’m “buying” a $0.00 app.

HTC knows how to make phones with accelerometers but Windows Phone 7 was obviously designed for the portrait mode. Dell has even said that’s why it designed the Venue Pro the way it did. Some apps and programs wouldn’t rotate quickly or at all – I don’t even know how to bring up the URL bar in the browser when you’re holding it in landscape mode.

I’ll discuss the Zune media software below but know that the music player doesn’t rotate to landscape mode. That’s just stupid when you consider the optimal position for this phone is in landscape on a table with the speaker pushed out.

Overall, Windows Phone 7 is impressive and is probably the best 1.0 version of a smartphone platform I’ve seen. The problem is that the competition is not at 1.0, as Android, BlackBerry, iOS and even Palm have more mature operating systems. Microsoft’s smartphone OS will only get better over time though and it’s still a solid contender despite the expected immaturity.

Web Browsing, Multimedia, & Camera

HTC Surround with Windows Phone 7 comes to AT&T

Web browser

The HTC Surround comes with Internet Explorer and I wouldn’t quite call it a home run, but Microsoft definitely had a solid double with this thing. Most pages rendered well (some heavy sites could cause some slowdown), the kinetic scrolling feels just right, double tapping intelligently formats the content, the pinch-to-zoom is awesome, and you can easily bookmark pages or pin them to your start page.

I only knock it because of the aforementioned accelerometer issues and the occasional slowdown bugs I hit on a few sites. Also, videos from ESPN weren’t working on this thing and even with the YouTube app in the marketplace, a Flash Player option would be nice – I still can’t believe there’s no Silverlight support out of the gates.

Multimedia

That Yamaha speaker means this phone should be a killer multimedia device and it pretty much delivers. If you’ve ever played with the Zune HD or its software, then you know what to expect from the HTC Surround.

Like the KIN, the Surround can use the Zune Pass subscription service for unlimited tunes for a monthly fee. Depending on your tolerance for bitrates, this could be the perfect thing to soothe your music fix.

As I mentioned before, the Yamaha speaker delivered some head-banging audio but don’t expect it fill a full room. It is loud enough to be very, very annoying on public transit, though.

As I mentioned before, it’s absolutely silly that the music player doesn’t rotate to landscape mode. It’s not a deal breaker but it’s another sign that this platform isn’t quite what it should be yet. Movies and videos do rotate and these looked pretty nice on the 3.8-inch screen.

Of course, that Zune software also means you have to have the Zune software on your PC. It’s actually not too bad when you compare it to iTunes (on a PC) but I would have just preferred the option to drag and drop – the Surround needed new drivers that I didn’t want to download.

Camera

HTC Surround hits AT&T with Windows Phone 7
Like many phones on the market, the HTC Surround comes with a 5-megapixel camera that can record 720p hd video. There are a few OS-specific features which help the camera stand out though.

The coolest part is that you can hold the camera button to quickly launch the shooter, even if the phone is locked. This helps you not miss those magic shots. Some may see this as insecure (as it bypasses the password) but you cannot do anything outside of the camera app

The camera app is cool too, as shots will slide almost completely off-screen as you fire them – this lets you fire rapid shots but still get a glance at each picture. There are also multiple effects for the videos and photos, as well as multiple audio recording capabilities.

Like the KIN (again), you’ll have the option to automatically upload all of your photos to online depositories like Microsoft Skydrive. Cool stuff.

As for the pictures themselves, I found them to be good but not the greatest. I’ve seen 5-megapixel cameras with a bit more sharpness to them but it’s not a bad way to capture some memories.

I do hate that you can’t use the volume keys as a way to zoom. That’s just dumb. The flash works well for what it is but still don’t expect too high quality of shots in low lighting situations. I also miss touch-to-focus.

The HD video recording is pretty solid, although there are issues with the focus and playback can sometimes be a little choppy.

A few examples of the standard 5-megapixel photos:

Windows Phone 7 AT&T, HTC Surround sample shot
AT&T HTC Surround Windows Phone 7 sample shot
Windows Phone 7 AT&T, HTC Surround sample shot

Sample video caught with 720p HD:


Call Quality, Battery Life, Connectivity

The AT&T HTC Surround with Windows Phone 7 gets reviewed

I was a little bit disappointed with the actual call quality of the Surround, as many of the people I talked to sounded faint and said my voice was full of hisses. I did use Google Voice for a handful of those calls but I do expect a bit higher quality coming from HTC.

The AT&T 3G network is widely reviled in San Francisco but I didn’t have too many problems maintaining a consistent 3G connection. Data speeds were generally pretty high (over 1 Mbps on average) and I didn’t drop a call in my time with the device.

I also had a heck of a time trying to hook up a Jabra headset to the phone via Bluetooth. It took me three times of turning Bluetooth on and off before I was able to make a successful connection.

Even though the Surround and all Windows Phone 7 devices are constantly hitting the cloud for information battery life was decent for a smartphone. That means you can expect a full work day off a single charge but you’re better off with a second charger at work if you plan to use it all night.

The preloaded Bing Maps is actually pretty darn cool. You’ll get a map view of what you’re looking at but as you zoom in that will transition to a satellite view. It’s done seamlessly and quite well.

Maybe it’s the hardware, software or a combination of the two, but I have never had more accurate GPS on any other device. Most phones will get my location but be off about a block or two – no big deal really – but this one has my location right down to the position on the street. Impressive.

As impressive as Bing Maps is, I still long for some of the features in Google Maps like public transportation directions and, of course, Google Navigation. I’m fairly confident Microsoft will let that app get on its platform but it won’t be the same because it won’t be deeply integrated.

The Final Take: Does the HTC Surround rock?

We review the AT&T HTC Surround with Windows Phone 7

The HTC Surround is a unique device that sports a good operating system that will only get better over time. Unfortunately, I think it will reside as a novel footnote in the history of smartphones and don’t see many people having a real need for this device.

Like Android in its infancy, Windows Phone 7 still needs to grow up a bit. Not as much as the iPhone or Google’s mobile platform but you’re still going to be missing some features you’d expect from a top-shelf smartphone.

Still, the visuals, user interaction metaphors and the overall elegance of the platform may be enough to sway those who aren’t just early adopters. If that’s the case, I still can’t highly recommend the HTC Surround unless you’re a hardcore music fan who wants to publicly blast your tunes everywhere you go.

I’d go with the beautiful screen of the Samsung Focus or the massive display of the HD7 if I were jumping to this platform.

  • dr oz

    iphone doesnt have expandable storage so why are people complaining and camparing to iphone?

  • http://www.fowlfables.com Jason

    I’m going to get the HTC Surround for speakerphone usage and to show off my WP7 game I will be releasing to the marketplace this winter. Mostly, I’m hoping to convince others to take a look at the OS by showing off something unique, which this model does well.

  • http://twitter.com/cge11 CGE10

    Because unlike iPhone this only has 16GB, which is a hell of a lot better than 32GB MicroSD for speed.
    What is better the LG Optimus 7 or the HTC surround, i always have music blasting in my ear

  • visitor

    What on Earth GPS phones you have been using to state that it is amazing to get your location pin-point on the street? That kind of functionality is not impressive, it’s expected.

  • sunil

    i want to know about price list all about this phones

  • sunil

    i want to know about price list all about this phones

  • sunil

    i want to know about price list all about this phones

  • Rdgdz

    lack of screen transitions and animations would not make apps and hubs load any faster. its based upon an effort to make the phone appear faster instead of a blank screen for a split second.

  • Sheaxphillips

    can you save pictures off the internet or facebook to put in your phone?

  • oldmansimpson

    This phone is penny on amazon now, though probably no one cares anymore, still if you are new to smartphones this could be a fun starter(like me)

  • Mithoosri

    how i can connect htc surround with my laptop

  • Ephya Serwaah

    have an error code on ma htc after i was trying to restore back to the previous version

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