Of all the Windows Phone 7 launch devices, AT&T’s HTC Surround is likely the most curious. It’s a landscape slider built on the same basic internals as the rest of its platform siblings, but there’s no keyboard under that screen — the quarter-inch slide reveals an aluminum speaker bar and integrated kickstand, which combine to create a tiny little stereo system of sorts. Mix in Windows Phone 7’s heavy Zune integration, add in a dash of Dolby Mobile and SRS Wow “virtual surround” audio processing, and top it all off with 16GB of internal memory, and you have what might be the ultimate phone for on-the-go media consumption. But does the Surround live up to all that promise? Read on to find out!
At first glance, the Surround is pretty nondescript — it shares some obvious design DNA with other HTC devices like the Desire, the Nexus One, and the Trophy, with a gray front and a soft-touch matte black black. Look closer and you’ll see it’s a little bit thicker and heavier, owing to the slider mechanism within — at .51 inches thick and weighing at 5.82 ounces, it’s about .05 inches thicker and an ounce heavier than the other HTC sets in this family. It’s not much on paper, but definitely noticeable in person — and compared to the Samsung Focus, also on AT&T, it’s a big .1 inch thicker and 1.6 ounces heavier. Considering the fundamental Windows Phone 7 experience will be virtually identical on every launch device, the Surround’s speakers have quite a burden to carry — they have to sound amazing enough to be worth the size and weight penalty. But we’ll get to that.
Up front, the Surround has a 3.8-inch LCD with the same 480 x 800 resolution as every other WP7 launch device. While the display is commendably bright and vibrant — we actually thought it was a bit too bright at the lowest setting — it’s still not up to the standard set by the iPhone 4 and Samsung’s Super AMOLED devices. On a phone built for video playback, that’s sort of an issue, and it’s one that’s on Microsoft to solve — WP7 doesn’t support higher resolutions yet. It’s also telling that even Microsoft refers to the Samsung Focus as having the best display of the Windows Phone 7 launch lineup — side by side the Surround’s screen is more color accurate, but somewhat more washed out. Obviously HTC has had its share of issues with OLED availability recently, but we’d like to have seen an SLCD display here — a serious video playback device needs more than just a pretty good screen.
Volume controls and the camera shutter button are on the right side, while the sleep/wake button and headphone jack sit up top and the requisite micro USB is located at the bottom. Round back you’ve got the five megapixel camera and flash, and tolerance between the two halves of the slider are pretty tight, although there is some variance here and there.
Sliding the phone open reveals the speaker bar, which hides a pair of drivers and houses a lone button, which engages the various surround modes. The kickstand is integrated into the display side of the casing and flips out horizontally. It’s a unique and interesting design, if not the most stable — navigating the phone while it rested on the kickstand resulted in a few topples. You also can’t really grab the phone and go when the kickstand is out — you can sometimes get the stand to close by sliding the phone closed, but it never feels quite safe, and we usually closed everything manually first. Not a huge deal, but a definite consequence of this design.
Speakers, surrround, and software
Obviously the main attraction with the Surround is the speaker bar and the promised “virtual surround” audio. Like we’ve said, there’s a lot of promise here, but unless the phone delivers the extra size and weight simply won’t be worth it. Unfortunately, we’re here to report… that they’re simply not worth it. We’re certain the good people at Dolby and SRS did their best, but we don’t think any amount of audio postprocessing can make tiny phone speakers sound good, and we can’t say we ever heard anything approaching “surround sound” from this thing. What’s more, the only indication of what surround mode you’re in comes from opening HTC’s Sound Enhancer app — pressing the button while playing back music or video in the Zune player doesn’t provide any visual feedback as to what setting you’re selecting. After a while we just started thinking of it as switching between “tinny” and “muffled.” We heard slightly more of a difference when we plugged in headphones, but no more than any other automatic EQ setting we’ve tried on other devices in the past, and hey — if you’re using headphones you’re kind of defeating the purpose here.
On a more positive note, the speakers do get nicely loud without distortion — we had no problems listening to music in the back of a Manhattan cab. But keep in mind that these are the only speakers on the device, so in the closed position they’re heavily muffled by the screen. That means you have to open the slider anytime you want to listen to anything, really — again, not a huge deal, but a consequence of this design that bears mentioning.
Even if the speakers sounded amazing, we’re still not sure the added size and weight would be worth it, since the Surround’s kickstand effectively defaults it to landscape orientation when placed on a desk, and there’s virtually no landscape support in Windows Phone 7. What little there is seems half-finished: the browser doesn’t have so much as a back button in landscape — let alone a URL bar — and the mail client does something wonky with the soft keyboard. Thankfully, the video player worked fine in landscape, but there’s no landscape navigation of the Music and Videos hub — it’s all portrait. That means if you’re playing songs on the Surround with the kickstand open, you’ve got to tilt your head 90 degrees to change tracks, adjust the volume, or hit pause. Same with video, outside of actual playback — all the navigation is done in portrait. That’s a pretty big oversight for a media device that’s designed for use in landscape mode, and while we can’t blame HTC for the limitations of Microsoft’s brand-new OS, we can say we don’t think carrying a landscape slider that just barely supports landscape display is such a bright idea.
We had high, high hopes for the 5 megapixel autofocus camera on the Surround — when we first started using it all of our shots looked gorgeous on the built-in display. Windows Phone 7’s camera app is amazingly fast and responsive, and the Surround wears it well — we snapped all manner of quick shots with no problems. It was when we pulled the images over to a computer that some of the bloom came off the rose — literally, as you can see above. Most of our shots were far less vibrant at full res than they appeared on the phone’s display, and we also detected some softness, white balance and shutter speed issues here and there. Don’t get us wrong, for a phone camera it’s a solid effort — it pops right up and focuses quite fast — but we’d say the iPhone 4 and (obviously) the Nokia N8 provide better overall image quality.
Well, what can we say? The HTC Surround does a fine job running Windows Phone 7, and if that’s the only criteria by which you’re going to measure it chances are you’ll be quite happy. But Microsoft is launching 10 devices this month, and there are two other choices on AT&T alone which do an equally fine job of running the OS. The Surround needed to bring a lot to the table in order to justify being bigger and heavier than the Samsung Focus while lacking the QWERTY keyboard of the LG Quantum, and we just don’t think a pair of average speakers and a kickstand provides that justification — especially since Windows Phone 7 doesn’t take full advantage of either. We’d love to be more positive about what is fundamentally a fine piece of hardware, but if you’re looking for a Windows Phone 7 device on AT&T at launch, we think you should (cough) focus your attention elsewhere.