When HTC released the Touch last year, Windows Mobile had an imperfect champion. It was no iPhone killer, but it was certainly ready to put out a hit on Apple's handset. Ultimately, though we liked the HTC phone's first take, we found a couple of minor issues that kept it from scoring high. Enter the Touch Dual, a quad-band GSM phone that adds a slide-out keypad and other improvements on its predecessor.
I was dying to see how the keypad would improve my experience. On the Touch Dual, the button arrangement resembles a normal phone keypad layout. Over the numbers, letters are set in a semi-QWERTY format. As you start typing, the device uses predictive-text software--the same as the original Touch uses--to guess the next word. A few letters in, a small bar pops up likely words. Before long, it'll catch on to your style.
The keypad design should be familiar territory to anyone who has used the BlackBerry Pearl. Look, I know some people find the Pearl's compact keyboard incredibly handy--but I'm not one of them. The same goes for the Touch Dual: I thought the virtual keys on the Touch were too scrunched together, and the Touch Dual's real buttons were even harder to use with my beefy sausage stumps for fingers.
Another downer: Adding that hard keypad forced the phone's designers to sacrifice screen size. The Touch Dual's screen is 0.2 inches smaller than the 2.8-inch screen of the original Touch. It may not seem like much of a difference, but I found myself missing the extra room while watching videos or reading articles in the Web browser.
Thankfully, some of the Touch Dual's design changes were for the better. For one thing, the MicroSD Card slot is now on the bottom-left side of the device. Popping in new cards is much easier--good news for anybody with loads of files.
Beyond the design changes, the Touch Dual provides a very similar experience to that of the Touch. Inside lies Qualcomm's MSM7200 400-MHz processor, 256MB of ROM, and 128MB of SDRAM. It has the same 2-megapixel camera as the Touch does, with the same shutter-speed delay between shots.
The phone runs Windows Mobile 6.1, an incremental improvement over the Touch's Windows Mobile 6.0. It also comes with a slightly tweaked TouchFLO 3D interface. For those unfamiliar with it, TouchFLO is simple-and-sweet HTC software that runs on top of Windows Mobile to provide an easy-to-navigate touch interface. What's new is that the second you slide out the keypad, the screen pops up a series of shortcuts to create appointments, notes, contacts--the usual chores. Personally, I find TouchFLO a mixed bag of gussied-up shortcuts. My beef is that you can't reprogram the buttons unless you hack the phone's registry. Really, HTC, would it have been difficult to add a little applet to change the shortcut links?
One interesting new feature is Audio Booster, which sits in the settings folder to give your music a kick in the bass. It provides simple treble/bass/3D sound adjustments on the surface--even a couple of presets. Or you can tweak a ten-band equalizer. Granted, the music still goes out to a pair of earbuds, but it's not too shabby for a cell phone, especially one that isn't billed as a music powerhouse.
We're still waiting for the final results from our PC World Test Center battery-life tests; we'll update this review as soon as we have the numbers. Since the previous version of the Touch worked on Sprint, a different network could result in different performance and battery-life scores.
In the meantime, some good news: This GSM phone comes unlocked, so you aren't held hostage by any one carrier. The bad news: That freedom comes at a high price--US$550, to be precise. Fans of the BlackBerry Pearl's tiny keypad might consider this alternative, but I'm desperate for a good set of keys to type up thoughts on the go. If you're a keyboard junkie like me, I recommend waiting for the recently announced HTC Touch Pro. That handset seems like a logical evolution of the T-Mobile Wing design, but it won't be available until sometime "before the end of 2008" (according to HTC).