HTC Surround: Solid Windows Phone, Laughable "Boombox"
At a Glance
The Surround is another solid smartphone offering from HTC. If you like the Windows Phone 7 experience, this handset will not impede that experience in any way (you need the Windows Phone 7 Connector for Mac software to use Windows 7 Phones with your Mac.).
I will focus here on the phone itself, discussing elements of the OS where appropriate. For more on the software that runs the Surround, see our complete primer and review of the Windows Phone 7 operating system.
The Surround is meant to be a WP7 smartphone built to play music--out loud. It features a pull-out speaker console with a pair of small speakers inside where you’d normally expect a physical keyboard to be. From the promo material: “the HTC Surround blurs the line between home and mobile entertainment.” HTC even goes so far as to call it a “boom box.” Really?
The Surround expends a lot of design effort trying to do something that isn't yet possible in a device of this size: make it sound good--without headphones.
The pullout console has a little button on the side that switches the sound quality from tinny radio sound to supertinny radio sound. Now that’s two modes of high-fidelity audio power! HTC uses other names for these modes: Dolby and SRS WOW surround sound. Of course if you like annoying people on the bus, torturing dogs, or ridding your basement of roaches, the innovation might be just what you've been looking for.
That said, Surround owners will have plenty of music and video available to them at the Zune service, which you can access through a dedicated hub on the phone’s home screen.
Another Solid HTC Phone
Aside from the failed surround-sound gimmick, I found the Surround to be a solid phone, and very much in the admirable HTC design tradition. The phone weighs 5.82 ounces (with battery), felt sturdy in my hand, and had a nice, substantial heft to it. Its dimensions are 4.71 inches tall, 2.42 inches wide, and just a hair over 0.5 inch thick. The phone has a brushed metal housing around the front, backed with black matte plastic. A standard headphone jack occupies the top left edge, while up and down volume buttons sit on the right edge, with the camera button below, near the bottom. On the bottom edge you’ll find a standard mini-USB port.
The phone also carries three hardware buttons that Microsoft requires on all Windows phones: 'back', 'Start (home screen)', and 'search'. I barely used the search button, but the other two buttons, which I used extensively, covered my navigation needs just fine, in combination with the onscreen navigation features that Windows Phone 7 provides.
Inside the phone is a 3G cellular radio that can handle top data transfer speeds of 7.2 mbps down and 384 kbps up on AT&T’s network. With such a low upload speed ceiling, good luck playing games with friends or uploading large files to the cloud. You also get a normal GPS radio, a Wi-Fi radio (which supports 802.11b/g/n), a compass, a proximity sensor, and an accelerometer.
The voice speaker on the Surround sounds almost as good as the ‘hi-fi’ pullout speakers. In our test calls, the voice on the other end sounded clear and crisp and even had a little body to it, beyond the usual “radio voice” sound. The voice microphone was equally impressive. Not only did my voice sound similarly clear and full-bodied to the person on the other end, but the noise cancellation circuitry cut out almost all of the noisy traffic whizzing by me during the tests. My testing partner said it sounded as if I were calling from a quiet room.
I have offered similar praise for the speaker and mic used in the iPhone 4. The Surround doesn’t quite match the iPhone in voice quality, but it comes very close.
When I used the included bud headphones-talk mic combo, the other person's voice sounded clear. But since I was no longer using the voice-canceling microphone inside the phone, my voice sounded small and tinny to the person I called.
Photos and Video
I was impressed with the photos and video shot by the Surround. In image quality, they seemed to be a step up from the content I shoot with my HTC EVO 4G (on Sprint), which serves to document a moment, but is nothing you’d want to watch more than once. The Surround sports a 5-megapixel camera with autofocus and flash, and it captured crisp still images and sharp, smooth video in my hands-on testing (click on the thumbnail to see the full-size image). Also, HTC made a great move by putting a dedicated physical button on the outside of the phone. This alone made the Surround's camera far easier to use than the camera on my EVO, which requires me to hit a spot on the touchscreen to activate the camera.
On the other hand, the Surround lacks the front-facing camera of the EVO, suggesting that videoconferencing is not a core interest of the music lovers that HTC and AT&T hope will buy this phone.
The Surround comes with a 1MHz processor that the phone uses to full advantage for media playback. Watching HD video on the Surround's 3.8-inch, 480 by 800 pixel WVGA screen was a pleasant experience: Movement in the video flowed smoothly, and the details seemed sharp.
Since HTC dedicated its slide-out area to speakers, there’s no room for a physical keyboard on the Surround. So you have to make do with the touchscreen keyboard. I found that typing was at least as easy on the Surround as on the iPhone 4. When you hit a key, that key pops up in a larger size so you can easily tell whether your finger or thumb hit its mark. In a two-line text message that I typed at normal speed without making any allowances for the keyboard, I made a total of two errors.
One thing perplexes me though: With the keyboard in landscape mode, it’s easy to see that HTC didn't use the whole width of the screen for the keyboard. About 4 millimeters of unused space appears on each side. This could have been used for key width, which would have made typing on the Surround’s virtual keyboard that much easier.
I’m being pretty hard on HTC’s “boom box” vision for the Surround, but I just can’t see why users wouldn’t be better off with another HTC WP7 phone that put a physical keyboard in the pullout-out panel. In other words, the Surround’s main gimmick subtracts something and adds nothing to the value of the phone.