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Technology: Sprint’s Answer to the iPhone

In my hands I hold the HTC Touch, a compact take on the touchscreen smartphone. Is it cool? Yes. Does it one-up a certain Apple phone? No. But you can think of this Windows Mobile-based device as more fun than a Blackberry, and more business than the iPhone. But it’s no mere copycat; the HTC has some cool interface tricks up its sleeve that are sure to make other smartphone owners covetous.

In my hands I hold the HTC Touch, a compact take on the touchscreen smartphone. Is it cool? Yes. Does it one-up a certain Apple phone? No. But you can think of this Windows Mobile-based device as more fun than a Blackberry, and more business than the iPhone. But it’s no mere copycat; the HTC has some cool interface tricks up its sleeve that are sure to make other smartphone owners covetous.

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The Touch, which will be available for $249 with a 2 year contract, hits the market on November 4. Its biggest advantage is its size; if you’ve ever lugged around a bigger smartphone, you know they can feel like bricks. The Touch is sized at just 3.9 x 2.2 x 0.5 inches, and weighs a scant 4 ounces — perfect for a shirt pocket or tiny purse. So how well does it actually work?

The Touch runs on Windows Mobile 6, with a few HTC enhancements. The phone’s home screen is a “today” plug-in that shows you everything from calendar appointments to weather conditions to ringer profiles. There’s a lot going on here — when I handed the phone to an unwary friend and asked him to figure out how to actually make a phone call, it took him a minute. But once you learn to interpret the home screen’s layout, there is a surprising amount of information on hand at-a-glance, information which can only be had on a Blackberry or iPhone after a little navigating.

When you do navigate around the Touch, you find it is of two personalities: its more apt, useful HTC facade, and its clumsier Windows underpinnings. To their credit, HTC (and Sprint) have made their plug-in features quite useful: the “Touch Cube,” for example, is a brilliant way to get more real estate out of a smaller screen. Swipe your thumb up the home screen, and you get a Palm-like grid of icons with shortcuts to Internet, IM, Mail, SMS and other useful stuff. Swipe horizontally across that grid and the whole screen rotates like a virtual Rubix Cube, revealing a grid of shortcuts for your favorite contacts. It’s simple, intuitive, and finger-based operation like this that has made Apple’s iPhone so popular.

And yet, buried in the bowels of the Touch are slow, frustrating Windows features that are best avoided at all costs. The phone comes with a stylus (two, actually), adding to the impression that it can’t quite decide what to be. Pulling out the stylus is asking for trouble, as buttons on the Touch’s screen can be impossibly tiny, even for a pen tip (the on-screen keyboard, for example, has individual keys that are no bigger than the “e” at the end of this sentence.) The OS is often laggy, byzantine and visually unimpressive, and the pokey 400Mhz chip doesn’t do much to expedite things.

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Once I disciplined myself to avoid using the “Start” bar (and therefore, the stylus), the phone became a much more friendly and practical companion. The physical buttons, especially the volume slider on the side, have great tactile feedback, and the phone feels meant for quick, one-handed touch operation in a way that bigger phones aren’t. Internet and data transmission over the CDMA connection was reliable, but definitely not fast. The Sprint TV feature, by contrast, was impressively quick and streamed well, but I couldn’t find much to watch.

The camera, while only 2 megapixel, is a surprisingly capable addition to the Touch, with adjustments (like white balance) not oft found on a camera phone. It also has a proficient video mode, the limitation of which depends on the size of the microSD card you put into the phone. Creative options don’t come at the cost of business functionality, however; you still get push Outlook (Exchange-ready) email, Microsoft Office functionality and a mobile Adobe PDF reader. And while this phone can do a lot, it doesn’t do it quickly; processor-intensive tasks like editing documents and photos sometimes make the OS hang.

Battery life was impressive, especially in standby; Sprint claims 250 hours, and while I did use the phone periodically, I was surprised to have it last days at a time without needing any juice. Claimed talk time is 3.5 hours, which my use confirmed.

Unfortunately, I can’t speak to the usefulness of the ActiveSync software that comes with the Touch, as it’s XP and Vista only, and we’re a Mac shop here. However, on its own the Touch has some great interface capability, if slightly marred performance by a clunky OS and a slightly underpowered processor. If you’re a power user or a creative guru, look elsewhere; the Touch might have a full version of Office, but it’s no executive companion, and it’s not super-handy with media. However, if you’re a regular person (with a regular budget) who likes a light, usable phone that can work as well as play, the Touch might be a perfect match.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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