The HTC Titan is exactly the sort of Windows Phone Microsoft wants to see from its hardware partners. It’s a big and beautiful slab of technology that invites great debate while still conforming to the chassis specs coming out of Redmond. The main question stirred up by the arrival of the 4.7-inch Titan is, inevitably, how big is too big? Ever since HTC’s own HD2 established 4.3 inches as a viable form factor for smartphones, that’s been considered a sort of ceiling for comfortable use, but this year Samsung has strayed beyond it with the 4.5-inch Infuse and Sprint Galaxy S II, and LG’s looking to do the same with the 4.5-inch Optimus LTE.
The age of the extra-large smartphone may be upon us, whether we’re ready for it or not, but that’s not the only new wave that the Titan is cresting. Along with the 3.7-inch Radar, the Titan is HTC’s contribution to the new generation of Windows Phone 7.5 devices, which are gradually making themselves known to us as we build up to the holiday buying season. Thus, a less obvious yet equally pertinent query we must answer is whether the moderately improved internal hardware is worth the upgrade over a Mango-updated first-gen WP7 handset.
Hardware / design
HTC has clearly refined its production techniques and the Titan is a better phone for it
At 9.9mm (0.39 inches) thick, the Titan is merely average, but when you take the rest of its dimensions (131.5 x 70.7mm / 5.18 x 2.78 inches) into account, it actually looks and feels rather svelte. Its large frame also carries the 160-gram (5.6 ounces) weight well, with an almost perfect balance between the top and bottom of the phone. Exactly as with the Android-powered Sensation before it, the Titan’s sides and back are composed of one, easily removable, aluminum shell. It houses the phone’s antenna in a small plastic compartment and has its periphery decorated with a dedicated camera button, volume rocker, power / lock key, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a MicroUSB port. Perforations are made at the front for the earpiece and round the back for the dual-LED flash and loudspeaker, which sit either side of a protruded section surrounding the camera lens. In other words, as close to standard issue HTC design as you can get. It merits noting that the single-piece aluminum case feels extremely sturdy and rigid, while fit and finish between it and the Titan’s internal components is simply flawless. HTC has clearly refined its production techniques and the Titan is a better phone for it.
As phones move to ever-larger form factors, they start to become dominated by their screens and the Titan is no different. HTC deserves credit for filing away as much bezel as it can from around the 4.7-inch Super-LCD; the bezel measures approximately 3mm on either side of the display and the top and bottom are just big enough to fit the HTC logo, a front-facing camera, and the capacitive Windows keys into their usual places. The overall effect, particularly when the Titan is turned on and the screen’s beauty shines through, is a feeling of technology stripped to its bare minimum.
The Titan offers no surprises when it comes to ergonomics. The curved back and good weight distribution make it easy to hold, but the overall feeling is akin to using a smartphone with a massive case attached. Reaching the power button in single-hand operation is a chore and although the Titan will fit inside your trouser or jacket pocket, you’ll be constantly aware of its bulging presence. It’s not as awkward an experience as you might expect, but it definitely falls a step short of the ease of use offered by phones in the 3.5- to 4.3-inch range.
Blacks are deep, whites are uniformly lit, and colors retain their vibrancy even when viewed from the side
The 4.7-inch Super-LCD inside the Titan is simultaneously its biggest strength and its most glaring weakness. On the plus side, this phone’s great appeal (and the reason it makes an awesome first impression) resides in the wonderful color reproduction and viewing angles it offers at such an outlandish size. You may have seen the same display technology already harnessed in the likes of the Desire S, Incredible S, and even the HD7S, but until you witness it on the Titan’s scale and framed by such a minimalist design, you can’t appreciate just how terrific it is. Blacks are deep (almost a prerequisite for a good Windows Phone experience), whites are true and uniformly lit across the screen, and colors lose very little of their vibrancy as you start to look at the phone from oblique angles. Watching videos and browsing and composing photos on the Titan’s display is a delight. Qualitative differences between Super-LCD screens and the Super AMOLED Plus from Samsung or the LG-built IPS display inside the iPhone 4 can only be identified in side-by-side comparisons and will certainly not be tangible in regular use.
Where the Titan’s screen lets us down is in its most basic of specifications: resolution. We found WVGA (800 x 480) inadequate for the screen size when reviewing the 4.5-inch Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch and now that we’re looking at it on a 4.7-inch phone, it feels even more so. The Windows Phone tiles are so large they appear cartoonish and everything else about the Titan’s UI has a similarly magnified appearance. Importantly, the pixel density isn’t so sparse as to let you recognize individual pixels, but Windows Phone already has a number of intentionally oversized UI elements whose additional enlargement on the Titan starts to look comical. This detracts from the phone’s theme of efficiency, as the user is forced to scroll through huge chunks of blank space and excessively large text, whereas he might have reasonably expected that buying a larger device would grant him a more comfortable viewing experience.
While the typical smartphone user may scoff at the Titan’s mismatched resolution and screen size, we shouldn’t neglect this phone’s potential utility for those with poor eyesight. It may seem laughable to buy the latest 4.7-inch smartphone for your ailing grandmother, but this really is one of the most accessible handsets we’ve come across. Information on the lock screen is presented in a large and readable font, the dialing pad is absolutely gigantic and, thanks to Windows Phone, you can pin contacts as tiles on the Start screen.
Battery life, reception, and audio
The Titan runs Qualcomm’s MSM8255 Snapdragon system-on-chip at 1.5GHz. It’s been a very popular chip in Android phones this year, with Sony Ericsson’s full 2011 Xperia line relying on it and HTC inserting it into the Incredible S and Desire S, among other devices. What’s become abundantly clear over that time is that this second-generation Snapdragon SoC represents a massive leap forward in terms of power efficiency. That’s important when comparing the Titan against the first-generation Windows Phone devices as they, appropriately, ran on the first-gen Snapdragon. It’s because of the S2 chip’s power frugality that HTC’s felt confident enough to hitch operational speed up to 1.5GHz. The astonishing thing is that combining that aggressive clock speed with the huge backlight required for the 4.7-inch LCD doesn’t nuke the Titan halfway through the day. It consistently lasts beyond 20 hours of regular use (Gmail with push notifications enabled, occasional browsing, photography, video capture and playback, and GPS use) and if you go easy on it, you should have little trouble going from breakfast on Monday to lunch on Tuesday without recourse to the charger.
Calls made with the Titan were loud and typically crystal clear. The phone was very consistent with the number of bars produced in different areas of London (which has notoriously patchy 3G coverage), suggesting that the times it dropped to EDGE were down to my network rather than its own difficulties in obtaining a signal. The Titan even managed to pull down a couple of Gmail messages while I was boarding an elevator on my way out of an underground station. That may be only anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate a good ability to reconnect when faced with only a weak signal. One physical issue I encountered when making calls, which is rather inescapable with this new breed of all-screen handsets, is that the natural way of holding the phone during calls places the earpiece (positioned at the very top edge of the Titan) behind your ear. A small adaptation may, therefore, be required.
The loudspeaker round the back is surprisingly good… for a smartphone. Until we figure out a whole new way to generate sound waves, the laws of physics demand that smartphone speakers can only aspire to inoffensive mediocrity and the Titan reaches that plateau comfortably. By the time you hit 13 on Windows Phone’s standard 30-stage volume control, you’ve got enough sound to fill a small room, which is handy since anything beyond that only adds distortion.
Astonishingly, the combination of a 1.5GHz processor and giant screen doesn't result in horrible battery life
The Titan produces stills of a consistently high quality
HTC goes above and beyond Microsoft’s chassis specs by endowing the Titan with an 8-megapixel, backside-illuminated camera sensor. The wide-angle lens in front of it reaches a max aperture of f/2.2. Those specs are an exact match for the camera on the MyTouch 4G Slide and I wouldn’t be surprised if HTC is reusing the same hardware in the Titan. Either way, pictures shot with the company’s new Windows Phone are of a consistently high quality, offering a good balance between noise reduction and detail retention. Well-lit shots can even be used at the full 8-megapixel resolution, although for best results you wouldn’t want to use anything more than half of that. Shrunken down for web use, most of the images coming out of the Titan look splendid.
Windows Phone 7.5 doesn’t make any major alterations to the way the camera software works — you can still jump straight into composing a picture by holding down the camera key on the phone’s side, and captured stills can be pulled into view from the left side of the screen. The seamless transition between image capture and gallery browsing remains unchanged, which is a good thing considering how brilliantly it’s always worked.
720p video recording suffers from motion blur and isn't among the best in class
The one issue typical to smartphones that the Titan hasn’t been able to overcome is a limited dynamic range. Strong highlights, such as Peter Chou’s face or the daytime sky in the sample pictures, tend to be blown out, taking any useful detail with them. Additionally, though HTC is keen to emphasize the Titan’s low-light performance, I’d describe it as merely good, not outstanding. The front-facing 1.3-megapixel imager is predictably mediocre, don’t expect it to give you usable images beyond the occasional 400-pixel Twitter profile pic.
Video can be captured at resolutions up to 720p and generally looks attractive and detailed. I’m unsure whether HTC has implemented some form of digital image stabilization or if the Titan’s just easier to hold steady than other phones, but the videos I recorded with it lacked the usual wobbliness of smartphone recordings. The one thing that disappointed me was the presence of motion blur on subjects that weren’t moving all that quickly across the frame.
Windows Phone 7.5 is impressive, but the Marketplace still lags the competition
All you need to know about the Titan’s software and performance can be boiled down to just one sentence: it runs Windows Phone 7.5. Responsiveness, screen resolution, and the vast majority of preloaded capabilities are identical between the Titan and any other handset running the Mango update. HTC throws its own Hub into the mix, which of course includes a weather app with full-screen animations, but all the features that it adds (photo enhancer, notes, stocks, and news apps) are also available on all of the company’s Mango-updated smartphones. The one novelty to the Titan is its inclusion of the HTC Watch app and integrated movie store. Until now, Watch was only available on Android devices like the Sensation and Flyer, so the Titan is expanding the number of devices capable of plugging into the service and I consider its handsome and oversized screen ideal for doing so.
As to the experience of using Windows Phone 7.5 itself, it’s highly impressive. From its inception, Windows Phone has been wonderfully responsive and the update hasn’t changed the feeling of brisk and agile operation. Email threads — called "conversation view" by Microsoft — are a major advance for what was already a very attractive email client, Twitter integration throughout the OS keeps Windows Phone right up to date with the competition, and the new visual multitasking overview is a triumph. Ever since I first saw this sort of multitasking implemented in the Nokia N8, I’ve thought it was the way to go and Microsoft has done a great job of making it work smoothly and seamlessly.
The tiles have been made more intelligent in what they can display to the user and you can now pin items from within apps on your Start screen, though I’ve yet to find any particular apps that make really great use of either option. Microsoft was first to introduce a smart lock screen that provides time, date, alarm, and calendar information alongside unread messages and missed calls, and its toast notifications remain among the best that the mobile industry has come up with yet. The foundation remains as solid as ever, Microsoft has just spruced it up with small but neat additions like the new quick entry option for the calendar, which makes the process of adding a new item to your schedule stupendously brief.
Internet sharing, or the ability of your phone to function as a mobile hotspot, has also been added in Mango and works perfectly on the Titan. You can share your data connection with up to five wireless devices and choose whether to secure it with a password or just keep it free as a bird. Speaking of the internet, the Titan’s browser (IE9 in Mango) is again indistinguishable from that on any other Windows Phone 7.5 handset. That means fast and nimble operation, with pinch-to-zoom and page scrolling looking delightful, however even the upgraded Titan fails to add antialiasing on zoomed-out pages. Jaggy edges can be spotted on both text and images even before you zoom out to see the whole page, which is somewhat more of an issue on the Titan than it would be on other phones. Because of its essentially magnified 800 x 480 resolution, you’ll be able to see and read webpages at a more zoomed-out level than you would on a more compact device, so the fact that they’re not rendered perfectly in those circumstances is a concern.
If your favorite band decides to offer an app to help fans track its next tour, what platforms do you expect the app will be available on? The most app-savvy users (both in number and awareness) are running iOS and Android these days, so it’d make sense for Xander and the Peace Pirates to target its mobile software efforts toward that audience. Thanks to consistently strong market share, RIM could until recently expect BlackBerry to be among the number of obvious development candidates as well, but recent times haven’t been so kind to the Canadian phone maker and the BB star is now on the wane. Windows Phone has the fundamentals in place to leap up and grab that position previously occupied by BlackBerry — what Nokia’s Stephen Elop famously described as becoming "the third ecosystem" — but it isn’t there yet.
Moving to Windows Phone requires that you first accept there’ll be apps for other platforms that you won’t have access (or an equivalent alternative) to. Microsoft has the clout and budget, as evidenced by its acquisition of Skype, to ensure that big names won’t stay absent from the Windows Phone Marketplace for too long, however the fruit of its current labor is unlikely to be felt for a while to come. Moreover, the beauty of a thriving app store is in finding the small, obscure, disposable apps, such as the tour tracker example above, that you know you won’t care about in a month’s time, but which provide an excellent convenience today. Windows Phone lags the competition on this front and it’s questionable that you’ll see it catch up before it comes time to upgrade away from the Titan.
True to its form over the past couple of years, HTC has delivered another thoroughly competent device with the Titan. Build quality is as good as — if not better than — any other phone in the company’s recent portfolio, while the improvements in Mango have pulled Windows Phone 7 right up alongside the best in the mobile business in a number of important aspects. The Titan’s 4.7-inch Super-LCD is a major step forward for watching video on your phone, though that move probably shouldn’t have been made without a commensurate increase in resolution.Ergonomics issues do arise due to the Titan’s sheer size. Only a limited demographic, likely dominated by professional basketball players, will find this smartphone a perfect fit, with most of the rest of us struggling to adapt to its atypical dimensions. App-crazy smartphone users might also be better off looking elsewhere, as the Windows Phone Marketplace still has some catching up to do to match its more illustrious and mature competitors. Ultimately, the verdict on the Titan depends on your priorities: if multimedia consumption is paramount for you and the idea of a more limited third-party app selection and a little extra bulk in your pocket doesn’t fill you with dread, the Titan’s an easy recommendation.