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HTC Titan II review

HTC refreshes its massive Windows Phone device

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HTC Titan (1024px)
HTC Titan (1024px)

The original HTC Titan came out last fall, offering some of the best hardware we'd ever seen running Windows Phone. But that was months ago. Nokia's Lumia 900 now leads the pack when it comes to design and build quality, and we've seen Windows Phone's pace of improvement slow while Android and iOS have continued to mature and innovate.

So HTC releases the Titan's successor, aptly named the Titan II, into a very different mobile landscape, where Windows Phone is no longer the exciting upstart and is now just the third-placed operating system. Can the Titan II improve on a good thing from last year's model? More importantly, should your next phone run Windows Phone? Let's find out.


Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Like the original, a phone for basketball players



If we were entering the age of extra-large smartphones when we reviewed the original Titan in November, we're now squarely in the middle of the XXL smartphone era. In recent months we've seen the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, the 4.7-inch HTC One X, and a host of other enormous smartphones. The Titan II fits right in: at 5.2 inches tall and a 0.39 inches (9.9mm) thick, the phone (along with its 4.7-inch display) is absolutely massive. It's cleverly curved and tapered so as to be relatively easy to hold, but you'll never forget this thing is in your pocket. It's considerably thicker than the One X, which is a bit of a problem: huge phones are one thing, but a thick phone becomes harder to hold, and indeed the Titan II is more difficult to wield one-handed than some other large handsets. At 5.18 ounces (147g) it's lighter than its predecessor, but still feels very solid.

I wouldn't call the Titan II beautiful, and it's definitely not as groundbreaking a design as the Lumia 900, but it's a handsome and well-made phone. Its back has a soft, metallic finish, with a single removable panel at the bottom that hides the SIM card — don't remove this for fun, though, since for some reason the phone powers off when you do. There's also a large cut-out HTC logo, plus a slightly raised camera lens and two LED flashes. The bottom of the phone is also slightly curved upward, giving the Titan II the slightest of chins — it's no HTC One V, but I do love phones with chins, so I’ll take it.

The phone's right side houses a volume rocker and a camera shutter button, both of which feel well-made and have a nice travel. The power button rests on the top of the phone, next to the headphone jack. It's a bad place for a power button on a phone this large, and is virtually impossible to reach if you’re holding the phone in one hand, unless you have gigantic hands — it's also barely raised above the edge, so it can be hard to press. On the front there's a notification LED (a personal favorite feature), an AT&T logo, the three capacitive Windows Phone buttons, and the gigantic 4.7-inch display.

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Display

Display

4.7 inches is good, 800 x 480 is not
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Once you turn on the Titan II, it becomes even more indistinguishable from the original Titan. It has the same 4.7-inch Super LCD, and this screen shares all the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor’s. Its viewing angles are incredible, among the best I've ever seen on a phone — colors are accurate and vibrant, even far off-axis. Blacks are incredibly deep, which makes Windows Phone's colorful UI pop even more. It's not quite to the level of the One X's Super LCD 2 (that is the next version, after all), but it's a really great display.

Great, that is, except for the Microsoft-mandated 800 x 480 resolution. That's too low-res for a smartphone of almost any size at this point, and it's exacerbated by the Titan II's gigantic screen. There are some jaggies on text and watching a video is a decidedly lower-fidelity experience than on a 720p phone, or even a smaller 800 x 480 display, but the biggest problem is that everything from text to icons is just too large. The Windows Phone live tiles are massive, and the header text within apps and menus takes up way too much screen real estate.

It's a waste of such a large display, really, to have a low-res experience that prevents you from seeing and doing more on the screen at once. It's not a bad experience by any means, but a number of phones offer better viewing experiences, and given how much time you’ll spend staring at your phone the viewing experience is a crucial one.

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Camera

Camera

The biggest change from Titan to Titan II is the camera — the Titan II sports a 16-megapixel, backside-illuminated sensor that promises fantastic pictures. Along with the dedicated shutter button and the dual LED flash, the Titan II seems like real competition for your point-and-shoot camera.

In use, it's not quite there. If you're in good light, the Titan II takes pictures with excellent detail and color reproduction, but images are soft to the point of seeming slightly unfocused — you'll never really know what to look at, because even the focal point is slightly blurry. Photos look great at web-sized resolutions, but you won't like the results if you try to blow up or crop your photos — that kind of defeats the point of having such a high-res sensor. HTC would have been smart to implement something like Nokia’s PureView oversampling algorithm, combining the many soft pixels into fewer sharper ones so you get smaller but crisper photos.

The Titan II's dedicated shutter button lets you half-press to focus the shot, but I don't recommend that: you have to press pretty hard to make the camera go the rest of the way and fire the shot, which leads to some camera shake that's hard to overcome. Fortunately, you can tap anywhere in the frame to focus and fire a shot — that works much better.

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I have my issues, but as long as I kept my expectations in check this is definitely among the best smartphone cameras I've used. The camera app is good, too, basic and simple but still offering plenty of shooting features and options. It also features a number of scene modes and will automatically apply one depending on what you're shooting; the effect works well, helping exaggerate sunsets or make colorful details pop.

Don't throw out your point-and-shoot just yet, but definitely don't worry about leaving it at home when you're taking shots destined for Facebook or Flickr.

The front-facing, 1.3-megapixel camera is less exciting. It’s fine for video chat or hair checks, but its photos are noisy and dark — it’s also set off-center, so it’s awkward trying to frame your face in a shot.

The rear camera shoots 720p video rather than the increasingly ubiquitous 1080p, which is odd from such a high-res sensor but sadly commonplace for Windows Phone. Quality is mostly the same story: video looks nice at small sizes, with good color reproduction, but get close and you’ll see soft images that lack a sharp focus. The camera does autofocus during video recording, which is nice, but the Titan II’s footage is unimpressive.

Performance

Performance, reception, audio, and battery life

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The Titan II's 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM8255 Snapdragon processor has been around for a while (it’s in the original Titan, for one) and while it's not cutting edge anymore it's still really solid. The Titan II is snappy and quick, and I almost never encountered any lag or stutter. Places where I'm used to seeing lag with Android devices — launching an app, taking pictures, even the keyboard if I'm typing quickly — present no problems with the Titan II. That's true of all Windows Phone devices, and that's a definite advantage of Microsoft's tightly-controlled operating system.

The Titan II also connects to AT&T's LTE network, a nice upgrade over the Titan. The network's still relatively new, too, and it's fast, though not quite as impressive as it used to be, back when we got 60Mbps down on the LG Nitro HD. At the Verge office in midtown Manhattan, I got speeds ranging from 8-13Mbps down and 1-2Mbps up. I tested it side-by-side with a Lumia 900 and got similar speeds on both phones, so it seems like any peaks and valleys in speeds are the network’s doing and not the Titan II’s.

Reception was solid, save for one instance when the phone’s wireless radio inexplicably shut off and wouldn’t come back until I rebooted the phone. Other than that, the phone hung onto a signal well, rarely dropping connection and never once losing a call. LTE connectivity wasn’t as strong, and I dropped to 3G anytime I was indoors without an easy line of sight to a window, but that’s a common problem with AT&T’s LTE.

Call quality was really good, especially the microphone — it’s loud and clear, and people on the other end of the line noticed how much better I sounded. The earpiece is okay, occasionally muffling sound but typically sounding crisp and clean. Speakerphone was only average: other people could immediately tell when I’d put them on speakerphone, which is never a good sign. I sounded okay if I was within about two feet of the phone, but any further and my voice would break up. The loudspeaker isn’t very loud, but it’s clear and doesn’t distort, so it works fine as long as you’re not outdoors or in a loud room.

The 1,730mAh battery inside the Titan II isn’t particularly large, but it does its job admirably: even with an LTE connection and the high-clocked processor, battery life was still surprisingly solid. I spent a full day texting, emailing, taking dozens of pictures, and making a couple of phone calls, and the phone kept on chugging — I got a day and a half of battery life without trying very hard.

Consistent performance is a huge advantage for Windows Phone
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Software

Software

It's still a great concept, but that's not enough anymore
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I've been using Windows Phone devices heavily for the last few weeks, and the frustrations I've encountered have lead me to agree with Josh’s impressions of the Lumia 900: Windows Phone isn't as good an operating system as Android or iOS. At least not yet.

Windows Phone is unquestionably the most beautiful and most elegant mobile OS I've used — I genuinely like doing things with this phone. The text-based horizontal UI is smart and useful, and the self-updating live tiles are one of my favorite pieces of any mobile OS out there. I love being able to pin contacts or single Evernote notes to the home screen and access them easily. I also like that there's both Facebook and Twitter integration, both of which add profile pictures, status updates, and photos to your contacts and your People app — though neither feels particularly deep in the phone’s DNA beyond that.

But when I wanted to get stuff done outside the Microsoft ecosystem — which is really well integrated into Windows Phone, especially Office — the OS falters. A number of apps don't properly multitask, reloading each and every time you open them unless you do it from the multitasking menu. Scrolling performance is consistently odd, with Carbon and other apps occasionally just blanking out the page while they scroll or scrolling different amounts each time you swipe the screen. The email app is beautiful, but for this heavy Gmail user, near-impossible to use because of how it handles organizing and moving conversations and messages.

A number of things aren't necessarily broken, but they don't make sense. Like the search button: wherever you are on the phone, pressing the search button opens Bing. It ought to search whatever app you're in, but inexplicably there's a separate button for that. Or consider the Photo Enhancer app, which adds some cool Instagram-like filters to your photos. Then, it saves them to a Saved Pictures folder that for the life of me I can't find except through the Photo Enhancer app. Again, it's not broken, it's just not efficient or smart.

You also can't batch-upload or share pictures from the Camera Roll unless you’ve enabled it ahead of time, which is frustrating. Internet Explorer has major issues too — it renders a lot of pages poorly and has some real speed and scrolling issues.

HTC’s only additions to the equation are the Photo Enhancer app, plus the HTC Hub, which includes the Tango video calling app, HTC Watch, a compass, and a couple of other apps, along with Sense-style weather, news, and stock widgets. None of them are particularly useful, but I love that they’re all under the HTC Hub app and only take up one spot in the app list. There are also a few AT&T-added bloatware apps, like Navigator and Radio, plus a Yellow Pages app, but it’s a very restrained number, and you can uninstall them all anyway.

The Titan II (and Windows Phone in general) is great for really basic things — making a phone call, sending a text message, reading your email, or checking the weather. That's why "Smoked by Windows Phone" exists, after all. When you start to do more complex and more app-oriented things, though, the gap between Microsoft's OS and those from Google and Apple becomes very clear.

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Who's to blame for the lack of good apps on Windows Phone? I don't know, but the end result is an ecosystem that's missing a lot of important apps (as documented by our own Chris Ziegler), and that doesn't seem to care about its existing apps. On the one hand, you’ll be doing without Tumblr, Hanging With Friends (my new favorite game), and many others; on the other, a lot of third-party apps seem to be awkward hybrids of the app's own UI and Metro that are ugly and kludgy to use. Microsoft can throw all the cash it wants at developers, and that may well jump-start the ecosystem, but until then I'm left feeling like there's too much I can't do with Windows Phone. Trying to find a good to-do list was an exercise in frustration, as was looking for a game more complex than Cut the Rope or Angry Birds.

I want to love Windows Phone — I'm a sucker for beautiful and consistent design, and Metro brings that in spades. If all you want to do is make phone calls and send texts, it's also a great and efficient system, nearly the messaging powerhouse BlackBerry OS once was. But to most users, I can't recommend a phone that I felt like I'd explored every inch of after only a few days.

Whether you're sold on Windows Phone or not, there's a better option for AT&T customers

There are things to like about the Titan II, but it has two fatal flaws: an operating system that’s still a cycle behind... and the competition. If you're in the market for a smartphone, be sure Windows Phone is the OS you need. At the moment it’s still in its infancy, and well behind iOS and Android in some key areas. Unless you're absolutely committed to a still-growing platform, you might be better off with the iPhone 4 or 4S, or waiting for HTC's own One X to arrive on AT&T.

If you're sold on Windows Phone, however, it's still tough to recommend the Titan II; because of Microsoft's stringent requirements, there's little difference in performance from phone to phone. That means it's all about the hardware, and the Lumia 900's build quality and design simply blow the Titan II out of the water. The Lumia also has a number of good Nokia-specific apps available that you can't get on the Titan, like Drive and Transit. The Titan II’s camera is certainly better than the Lumia’s, but it’s not superior enough to make the Titan II a more appealing option — especially given that it costs an extra $100 over the $99 Nokia handset. AT&T has a number of compelling phones, and the Titan II just isn’t one of them.

See how the Titan II stacks up to the competition here

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