Review: Hands on with the Telus HTC Surround & Windows Phone 7

I’ve been pretty excited about the HTC Surround since it was officially announced back in October. I mean, what’s not to like on this device? Powered by Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 and loaded with some pretty awesome specs like: Quad-Band GSM/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900Mhz), Dual-Band UMTS/HSPA (850/1900Mhz), a 3.8 inch WVGA capacitive screen at 480×800 resolution, a Qualcomm 1Ghz processor, 16GB of internal storage, 5 megapixel camera supporting HD video (720p) with autofocus and flash. It weights in at 165 grams and measures up at 119.7mm x 13mm x 61.5mm. And of course, the feature that gives the device it’s name – Surround, slide-out dual speakers powered by Dolby Surround technology!

I’ve been very critical of popular music focused phones that have horrible external speakers on them. So I was really excited to see HTC step up and make a smartphone with an external speaker that is powered by Dolby Surround technology. At the same time I was concerned that the speaker might not live up to it’s billing, and that would be a huge disappointment. So the first thing I did once I had the HTC Surround in my hands was load up some music and let it rip!

The speaker is actually pretty loud – much more than I was expecting. It’s hard to describe how loud something is, and I don’t have a anything to read the decibel levels produced. You’re not going to walk into a night club and overpower the DJ or anything like that. You will find it to be more than enough for sitting in the office or in your room doing homework while listening to the music. And of course, the built-in kickstand makes it really easy to prop up the phone while you sit back and enjoy the music.

The bottom of the phone slides just a little to the right, exposing the speakers. On the back of the front piece, there’s a little kickstand that you can use to prop up the device while watching video’s or listening to music. The sliding mechanism is smooth, but it doesn’t do a great job of snapping into the open or shut position. It doesn’t require much force to start the slider moving, as a result, a number of times when I reached into my pocket to grab the phone, I would find that it’s not fully shut anymore. It reminds me a lot of the slide mechanism used on the original Touch Pro form HTC.

Having a speaker is nice, but what about the audio quality? As many of you may already know, I’ve been pretty critical of the audio quality from the external speaker on the best selling music phones on the market. Surely the Dolby powered speaker on the Surround would do better, and it doesn’t disappoint. The sound quality on the Surround is easily the best I’ve heard on a mobile device to date. The built-in sound enhancer allows you to change the audio and video streams from Nothing, to Dolby, and then to SRS. I found the best audio quality was enjoyed on the Dolby setting. You can quickly cycle through the different options by pressing the button on the top left corner of the speaker. Each press of the button will move to the next mode – No Effects, Dolby Mobile, SRS Enhancement, and then it will start over at No Effects again. After listening to each different mode, Dolby sounds the best to me. It’s so refreshing to have an external speaker that’s actually worth using.

Enough about the speaker, let’s move on to the rest of the phone. The Surround looks a lot like the Touch Pro 2 – without the QWERTY keyboard, obviously. At 165 grams, the phone has some solid weight to it, so there’s no forgetting what pocket you placed it in. The battery is listed as 1230mAh, which seems a little small considering the size of the phone and its weight. The slide mechanism and the speaker must be adding a fair amount of weight to the device. In terms of battery life, I had a pretty bad first day with the device, as it didn’t even make it to 9:00pm. However, everyday after that has been good. I have it loaded with 5 email accounts, Facebook, Windows Live, and I use it to play music on my drive to and from work and the battery typically has about one third left at the end of the day.

Across the top of the device, you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and the power button. Down the right side is the volume up and down rocker and the camera button. The charge port can be found in the center along the bottom of the device. The left side is completely free of any buttons or switches – mainly because this bottom when you have the speakers slide out and the kickstand is open. On the front of the device are the main 3 buttons for Windows Phone 7 – Back, Start, and Search. Just like the other Windows Phone devices, these aren’t real buttons. They are capacitive buttons – so the screen sense your touch instead of actually pushing in a button. I was a little disappointed with the physical buttons on the Surround as they seemed a little mushy. A number of times I would be pushing the volume or power button only to see that the device didn’t recognize that press. It could just my big fingers, so check it out and see what you think.

The screen on the Surround is a nice 3.8 inch that is great to look at. It doesn’t have the brilliance of the Super AMOLED screens we’ve seen on other devices. However it certainly works well and is easily viewable indoors and out. On occasion I did find the capacitive nature of the screen to be a little lacking. Sometimes it wouldn’t correctly capture my gesture and I would have to repeat it. A simple example is the upward swipe to unlock the device, sometimes it wouldn’t capture the entire swipe and I would have to repeat it to unlock the device. It’s not something I’ve noticed in using other devices. However, it could just be that I need a little more time to get use size and weight of the device and how it fits in my hand.

HTC added a number of applications to the phone. While some are required – like the Sound Enhancer, to control the unique hardware features, others are simply there for your fun and enjoyment. You’ll find the following apps preloaded – HTC Hub, Sound Enhancer, Photo Enhancer, Notes, Stocks, and Converter. Plus, if you go into the Marketplace and look in the HTC section, you’ll find other free apps available like Flashlight, Love, Calculator, Attentive Phone, and Connection Setup.

The HTC Hub gives you a “sense” like interface where you have the date, time, location, and weather information displayed at the top of the screen and then shortcuts to other HTC apps below. The Photo Enhancer allows you to select an image and apply a lens filter to it. So you can easily apply Sepia, Overexposed, or any of the other filters to an image. It doesn’t allow you to do any zoom and cropping, which would have been a nice addition.

Overall, I think the HTC Surround is a great phone, especially for someone who is looking for the best possible music and video experience on their mobile device. Of course, the extra’s that HTC have included are a nice touch as well.