Side buttons aren't overwhelming: the left holds the volume slider and a key that launches Comm Manager (the triple wireless radio manager) and the right has only a camera button. The power button up top (used to turn off the phone, put the phone in flight mode or change profiles) is a small target but manageable enough. Better that it's small than an easy target for accidental presses, but not so small and weirdly designed as the Cingular 2125 power button. The IR window is located up top and the mini USB sync / charge port and the headset jack are on the bottom. The battery lives under the large door on the phone's back, and both the SIM and Mini SD card slot are under the battery. . . so much for hot-swapping memory cards. As with most camera phones, the lens and self-portrait mirror are on the back above the battery door.
Phone Features and Reception
Very, very nice... good call quality even in areas of weak reception, fast EDGE for data and good RF. Call volume through the handset is average and bests the mousy Audiovox SMT5600 Windows Mobile Smartphone which was hard to hear in boisterous locations. Call volume through the included stereo earbud headset is very loud even with the headset's slider set midway and quality is excellent. The phone's reception isn't as good as the Cingular 8125 or the Motorola RAZR but is good enough for those who use their phone in areas of moderate to excellent signal strength.
The SDA has high end call features such as a Bluetooth Hands Free support, a speakerphone, support for call forwarding, call waiting, call barring, network selection and voice dialing. The phone uses voice tags rather than true speech recognition so you'll need to record tags for each phone number you wish to dial. The upside is that voice tags are very accurate, the downside is you must take the time to record them. To initiate voice dialing, press the center of the volume rocker until the phone tells you to speak. Voice dialing, like speed dial, isn't limited to phone numbers; you can assign a speed and/or and voice tag to programs on the Start Menu. And yes, you can voice dial using a Bluetooth headset or car kit: press the call button briefly to initiate voice dialing, then speak the tag. Yay!
Data and WiFi
And for even faster data, there's the SDA's built-in WiFi 802.11b which is a true pleasure to use. T-Mobile's revised unlimited data plan costs $29.99/month (up from $19.99) but adds unlimited use of T-Mobile HotSpots which are commonly available at Starbucks, Borders and airports among other places. That's a great deal, assuming these HotSpots are conveniently located; but clearly not so hot if your town doesn't have HotSpots. You can use your T-Mo HotSpot account on any device, including your notebook, so you're not limited to your small-screened device. The phone comes with a HotSpot finder application and an app to manage your login.
To enable WiFi, use the Home Screen shortcut or Comm Manager, which allows you to control and manage all three of the SDA's wireless radios. Once the radio is on, the Windows Mobile Connection Manager (a part of the OS) will notify you of access points in range and automatically connect you to those in range which you've used before. The device supports WEP encryption and WPA for security. The SDA handles transitions from EDGE to WiFi and back automatically, and will prefer a WiFi network if the WiFi radio is on and a viable access point is within range. We surfed for an hour and were surprised to see that less than 25% of the battery was consumed. That's pretty good battery life by WiFi standards since WiFi is power-hungry. That said, if you're not using WiFi, do turn it off because the battery will drain more quickly with the radio on and you'll be annoyed by the constant WM Connection Manager notifications of new available access points if you're moving about the average metro region.
Horsepower and Performance
The SDA is a phone first and a PDA second, which means we're somewhat (but only somewhat) less concerned with processing speed. It may lack a PDA's touch screen, more powerful data entry methods and overall skillset but it does support many of the same applications including Smartphone versions of the TCPMP media player, action games, news readers, eWallet, Office document viewers and more. The Smartphone runs on a Texas Instruments OMAP850 processor with a dual core: one core handles the PDA-like features and the other is basically a DSP which handles voice and phone chores. The device is peppy and responsive in most all tasks including viewing MS Office documents, browsing the web, moving from screen to screen and launching applications.
The phone has 64 megs of RAM and 64 megs of flash ROM. Approximately 30 megs of RAM are free to run programs (RAM functions the same way in WM5 as it does on your computer). Of the 64 megs of flash ROM (which functions similarly to the hard drive on your computer), just under 20 are available for you to store programs and data. After installing the included Westtek ClearVue suite from CDROM, the device had 11 megs free. If you're a power user intending to install several 3rd party programs, invest in a Mini SD memory card. Certainly if you want to use the MP3 player to its fullest or store videos on the SDA, you'll need a card.
Display, Sound and Multimedia
The display is a thing of beauty to behold. If you've owned prior generation MS Smartphones, the new Windows Mobile 5 QVGA resolution will blow you away. That's the same resolution as the Smartphone's bigger brother, the Pocket PC and is up from the 176 x 220 resolution of older generation models. Big is great but the display itself must be up to snuff and the SDA's screen is sharp, bright and color saturated. The same can be said of all the HTC Tornado variants, and though they're not quite as vibrant as the HTC Wizard Pocket PC phones (T-Mobile MDA, Cingular 8125, i-mate K-JAM), they're some of the nicest you'll find on a device with a phone rather than PDA design. The screen measures 2.2" diagonally and though that's small given the resolution, Microsoft has done a great job sizing the fonts to maintain readability. You won't need a magnifying glass by any means and you will see almost as much on screen using Internet Explorer on the SDA as you would on the MDA Pocket PC phone.
System sounds, MP3 and video playback are very, very loud though the ringer and speakerphone volume are of average volume by comparison. The startup sound (the T-Mobile tune) is raucous, so mute the phone or place it under your jacket when booting it up during a business meeting. Should you play MP3s through the phone's speaker rather than the included stereo earbuds, the music will be plenty loud and about as good as you'd expect from a mono speaker. Plug in the headset to get very good music playback quality, and confirm that the phone lives up to its "music phone" moniker. The dedicated forward, rewind and play/pause buttons work with the included Windows Media Player 10 Mobile which can sync to Media Player on the desktop and supports Microsoft's DRM for purchased tunes (and videos). Though there's no dedicated Media Player launcher button, hitting any of the playback control buttons will launch the application. You can creates playlists, loop or shuffle and play music in the background with the screen turned off. Media Player can automatically pause music playback when a call comes in and resume when the call ends. These features aren't unique to the SDA; you'll find them in all Windows Mobile devices, but the dedicated music buttons are unique to the HTC Tornado models.
Video playback was a disappointment on first and second generation MS Smartphones but the third generation Windows Mobile 5 models offer improvements including a much better screen, fast CPUs and an improved OS and media player. The phone can handle videos encoded at QVGA resolution at 300 kbps fairly well and supports Windows Media formats (ASF and WMV) out of the box. If you wish to watch DIVX, AVI, MPEG and other popular formats, get the free TCPMP video player.
Want to use a Bluetooth headset, car kit, Bluetooth folding keyboard or transfer files wirelessly? Perhaps even use the phone as a wireless modem for a notebook or PDA? The SDA is up to these tasks and has a reliable Bluetooth radio and software stack which performed well in our tests. As we noted above, you can use the included voice dialing solution with Bluetooth headsets and we tested this feature with two headsets using the Hands Free profile: the Motorola H700 and the Plantronics Discovery 640, both of which worked like a charm. Range, voice clarity and volume were also good with both of these headsets.
While camera phones won't be replacing your digital camera in the coming year, photo quality on 1.3 megapixel models such as the SDA is good enough for personal web site use and capturing special moments you'd have otherwise missed. The camera can take still JPG photos up to 1280 x 1024 resolution which look quite decent when resized down to 640 x 480 or less using your favorite desktop image editor. The photos have some noise under moderate to low light settings and will white out in bright sunlight, making it best suited to partly sunny day shots and well lit indoor locations. The camera can take photos at a variety of less resolutions, and has presets for handy things like taking a photo caller ID contact, shooting MMS video and more. Video quality is average by camera phone standards, and is good enough to send to other phones for MMS.
The SDA has a large capacity 1150 mAh battery that provides long life equaling that of feature phones. Not bad, given the SDA's power-hungry additional functionality including a large color display, camera, Bluetooth, WiFi, EDGE and a fast CPU. In fact, the full-sized MDA and Cingular 8125 only have 100 mAh more capacity. Under average usage, the phone should last a few days on a charge, even with Bluetooth on. If you have the phone set to check email every 15 minutes throughout the business day, surf the web for hours per day or play lots of video and action games, you'll get less. WiFi is a big power consumer, but we were impressed that it had only a moderate impact on battery life, but as we noted, turn the WiFi radio off when you're not using it or the battery will drain more quickly for naught.
All Windows Mobile Smartphones, including the SDA come with Mobile versions of Internet Explorer, Outlook (comprising of Messaging, Contacts, Calendar and Tasks but not Notes), Pocket MSN (MSN Messenger, Hotmail and MSN Mobile Home), Pictures and Videos (to view photos and watch video through Media Player), Games (Solitaire and Bubble Breaker), a voice recorder, Call History, Speed Dial, Calculator, Windows Media Player Mobile and ActiveSync on the device and on CD for Windows Desktops. The SDA adds video recorder and camera applications, an instant messaging client that supports AIM, Yahoo and ICQ, a Java Runtime, T-Mobile Hotspot apps, Clear Storage (wipe out the contents of the device to factory settings), File Manager, Task Manager and Westtek's ClearVue Suite which includes viewers for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF documents.