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Windows Phone 7- HTC Surround

You really can't go wrong with any of the 4 initial launch Windows Phone 7 smartphones in the US. Thanks to Microsoft's high minimum requirements and the quality of manufacturers on board, each smartphone is very fast and solidly built, features a 5 megapixel camera with HD video recording and has a high resolution 800 x 480 capacitive multi-touch display with accelerometer, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor. All have a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU, lots of storage, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth and a GPS. In fact, since manufacturers stuck with Microsoft's basic specs, variation comes in form-factor tweaks and display improvements. The Samsung Focus on AT&T has a 4" Super AMOLED display and a super-slim design, the HTC HD7 on T-Mobile has a huge 4.3" display and chic design, the LG Quantum has a slide-out hardware keyboard (the only carrier-offered Windows 7 Phone with a hardware keyboard) and the Surround's claim to fame is its slide-out speaker bar with Dolby virtual surround and a kickstand that turns the phone into a baby boom box.

HTC Surround

The enhanced audio features make sense since this is a Zune phone-- all Windows Phone 7 smartphones sync with the Zune desktop software and can partake of all Zune music and video offerings. That said, the speaker bar's slider mechanism makes the Surround as big and heavy as landscape QWERTY sliders, and while hardware keyboards have proven utility and consumer demand that offset detrimental added bulk, we're not so sure about speakers. Especially in a $199 with-contract smartphone that's priced more for adults than tweens and teens who are the likely candidates for out-loud music and video sharing with friends.

HTC Surround

Happily, there's lots to like about the HTC Surround beyond its capable if not miraculous audio system. HTC has a strong fan base because they've made quality Windows Mobile and Android phones, and we know a lot of you will buy the HTC as your first Windows 7 phone even if you could care less about the speakers. In terms of build quality, the HTC is excellent: metals and plastics are solid and the slider is sturdy. The non-gloss back is a welcome escape from Samsung's fingerprint loving high end Android phones and the Focus: the HTC Surround looks professional and understated rather than glossy and plasticky. Unlike the HTC HD7 on T-Mobile, we wouldn't say the Surround is beautiful, and its design is utilitarian rather than sexy. Even the HD7 suffers a little since it's a recycled HTC HD2, but HTC's surface and materials tweaks have kept the design appealing.

HTC Surround

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That said, the metal mesh speaker grille looks very cool and the design is clean even if not lust-inducing. We've also come to count on HTC call quality, and here the Surround falters. Incoming call quality is decent but outgoing call quality is weak with sometimes indistinct audio that lacks crispness and clarity. Noisy environments exacerbate the issue and we suspect the Surround's DSP and noise reduction aren't tuned as well as they could be. The speakerphone is simply excellent thanks to the stereo speakers in the sound bar. Just slide the phone open and the front-facing speakers turn the HTC into a better than average voice conferencing system (assuming you're in a quiet environment so outgoing audio quality isn't hampered).

HTC Surround

When playing music, push the button on the speaker bar to turn Dolby virtual surround with SRS Wow on and off. This makes for significant sound improvements in some songs, but not others-- go figure. Music does sound fuller and much louder than most phones, though you won't mistake it for a bona fide boom box. As noted in our earlier Windows Phone 7 reviews, the Zune player and marketplace are a pleasure to use on the phone and on the desktop. Top it off with 16 gigs of storage, and you've got an excellent music player.

Video playback worked well too, both with my own content loaded using the Zune desktop software and Zune Marketplace video (music videos, movies and TV shows). Given the 3.8" LCD display, the Surround won't wow you with Super AMOLED technology like the Focus or a huge display like the HD7, but it's nonetheless a good experience. The display is sharp and more vivid than the HD7 which uses older technology, and it's sharper and larger than the LG Quantum's. But it can't compete with the 4" Super AMOLED Samsung display-- beyond better outdoor visibility and incredibly vivid colors, the extra .2 inches makes on-screen typing a bit easier. That said, 3.8" makes for an adequate typing experience and Windows Phone 7 has one of the best on-screen keyboards among mobile operating systems.

HTC Surround

The Surround has headset, handsfree and A2DP Bluetooth stereo so you can listen to all those Zune tunes (and your own music burned from CDs or imported from iTunes) on Bluetooth stereo speakers and headphones. Sound quality is good via Bluetooth for both music and calling. As a multimedia phone, it's hard to fault the Surround.

Games? We have to say that games rock on Windows 7 phones, including the Surround. You'll definitely get louder and more expansive background music and sound effects with the Surround thanks to the speaker bar. The smartphone's fast CPU, optimized OS and XBOX Live platform with tier 1 titles are the first serious competition the iPhone has seen. Granted, Windows Phone 7 is only a few months old, so you won't see many thousands of game titles yet, but from what we've seen so far, you won't be at a loss to find quality games that sell for 99 cents to $6.99. Titles include popular puzzles and brain teasers like Bejeweled, Sims 3, Need for Speed Undercover, The Harvest and Assassin's Creed.

Those of you who've used HTC's older Windows Mobile 6 and 6.5 phones with HTC Sense might be looking for heavy HTC customizations in the Surround. Given Microsoft's strict guidelines for protecting the standardized user interface experience and the newness of the platform, HTC hasn't done much to tweak the Surround or HD7. You get the HTC Hub live tile which is really just a shortcut to the Windows Marketplace with highlights for HTC's free apps and utilities like stock quotes, notes and sound enhancer. The Hub does feature HTC's beloved flip clock with weather for those of you who are Sense fans.

Again, since Microsoft protects the Windows Phone 7 experience, carrier bloatware is a no-no. That means you'll get mostly useful products like AT&T Navigator, AT&T Family Maps, AT&T U-verse Mobile streaming video ($10/month) and AT&T Radio but not Mobile Banking or YP Mobile. Yay. If you don't want to pay a monthly fee for AT&T Navigator, Bing Maps does an excellent job of maps and POIs, but it lacks spoken directions.

If you want to learn more about the Windows Phone 7 experience and applications, check out our Windows Phone 7 video review.


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