HTC Scores an Advantage

The new mobile device does just about everything but iron your shirts, but it's still too bulky for everyday use

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Compact design, fast Web access, worldwide cellular network coverage

The Bad: Pricey, only middling battery life, cheap stylus

The Bottom Line: The cutting-edge Advantage offers a tantalizing preview of the future of mobile devices

When I first spied it at a cellular-industry trade show earlier this year, HTC's new Advantage X7501 really captured my imagination. A combination cell phone and minicomputer, the Advantage's unusual design and versatility made we wonder whether the final version would live up to its promise. After several weeks of testing it, I'll say the Advantage pretty much delivers many of the things a mobile professional might want in such a device, though its price and some drawbacks I'll get to later may limit its popularity.

The first thing you notice about the $900 device is its unique design. At first blush, it looks like a miniature, touchscreen tablet PC. But the device also comes with an innovative keyboard that attaches to the bottom with magnets. What's more, it sports a full-featured mobile phone that's compatible with GSM networks such as those used by AT&T (T) and T-Mobile (DT). It's also equipped with Wi-Fi and next-generation cellular technology for wireless Web browsing, as well as GPS satellite-mapping capability that costs $10 a month to enable.

Multiple Functions Artfully Integrated

Some consumers would no doubt be overwhelmed by the idea of such a gadgety device. But HTC did a great job in designing both hardware and software, making virtually every one of the device's functions simple and intuitive to use.

Much of the credit goes to Microsoft (MSFT), which has vastly improved its operating system for handheld devices with the latest edition of Windows Mobile 6. These enhancements include an improved screen layout for browsing and opening programs, as well as support for touch-screen technology, making it possible to interact with the large display without a keyboard or mouse. Indeed, I found I could do two-thirds of the things I wanted to do with the Advantage simply by tapping the screen with a fingernail.

The device itself, weighing 13.1 ounces, is about half the size of a giant candy bar, measuring 5.3 by 3.9 by 0.6 inches. The casing is a solid-feeling metal with a black finish. You might not want to touch it on a particularly cold day, but the substantial feel made me confident it would survive an occasional drop without serious damage.

Learning Your Way Around

For such a compact device, it offers an impressive array of navigational tools, quick-launch buttons, and indicators. The front is dominated by the large, five-inch display. To the left of the screen, there's a tiny joystick coated with a rubberized material that's extremely tactile. This joystick is used to navigate the menu and launch applications. Below it is a button, labeled "O.K.," which brings you back to the Windows start menu. Another button below bearing the Windows logo helps you dive deeper into the applications suite.

On the right side of the screen are three LED indicators: one for the GSM cellular signal; another to denote Bluetooth and Wi-Fi activity; and a third that alerts you to missed calls, a low battery, or pending e-mail, text messages, and voice mails. Below those lights is a quick-launch button for the Opera Web browser.

On the right edge of the device, you'll find the power button and a quick-launch button that takes you into a communications suite to use the phone, grab e-mail, and turn the cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth wireless signals on or off. Finally, there's a quick-launch button for the 3-megapixel camera. On the left edge, there's a stereo headphone jack, a USB charging port, and a VGA-out port to view photos and video you've shot on a TV or computer screen, or to show PowerPoint presentations through a projector. The camera and flash, located on the back, take very good pictures if you can hold the device perfectly still.

The Advantage also supports a miniSD memory card, which fits into a slot on the bottom edge, behind a slide-down panel. That same compartment holds the SIM card that authenticates your cellular account. Copper plates on the bottom link the keyboard to the device.

For some, the keyboard may take getting used to. Powerful magnets connect the main unit to the keyboard, which is too small for regular typing with all your fingers, but works surprisingly well when holding it in two hands and using your thumbs. I was afraid the magnets wouldn't hold tight if I moved the device, but they kept the keyboard in place even as I tipped the Advantage to and fro to see if it would slip off.

Too Much Heft for a Handheld

One downside with the Advantage is that, compared with a true handheld, it can get uncomfortable holding such a large device after just a few minutes. Whereas you can type with just one hand on a BlackBerry (RIMM), Palm's (PALM) Treo, and Apple's (AAPL) new iPhone, you really do need to use two hands with the Advantage.

Of course, you could simply leave the keyboard at home and use the touch screen. But the nice thing about the keyboard is that it doubles as a cover for the Advantage, and it has a nifty plastic window that will alert you to incoming messages and calls, show the battery-life indicator, and give you the time of day, all while protecting the main unit.

Well Equipped

The Advantage is built with a fast 624MHz processor, 256 megabytes of flash memory, 128MB of memory for factory-installed applications, and a 8GB hard drive. Going a step further to help justify the steep $900 price tag, the Advantage features a neat motion-sensing technology called VueFlo, which lets you scroll through Web pages simply by tilting the device. One can imagine HTC, which also manufactures mobile devices for other brands, offering this as a fairly standard feature for digital books or mapping software.

As a Windows Mobile device, Advantage is also equipped to play music and video. You can also install applications such as SlingPlayer to stream content to the device over the Internet from a DVR at home (thanks to a dedicated ATI graphics chipset that makes video look pretty good on the crisp, DVD-quality display).

Great for Short Trips

All these functions can be a drain on the battery, which lasted through a typical workday in my tests, although I didn't use it for always-on e-mail. Another gripe: The clear plastic stylus, which you can stow in a slot on the right side of the device, felt a bit flimsy in my hands (though you rarely need it with a touch screen, joystick, and keyboard at your disposal).

All in all, it was hard not to like the Advantage. The biggest problem I could find was not with the device itself, but in trying to determine its target market. It's simply too big to be an everyday cell phone since it will not fit into even the largest of pockets, and it's too small to be used regularly as a PC. And as with many mobile Internet devices, you can't open some Web applications. Still, for those who often take short trips and would like to consolidate the electronic baggage we seem to tote around with greater frequency, the Advantage is a great find.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.