My best PDA/phone ever! (it's a HTC Touch Cruise)

For the last few years I’ve had a phone that made people gawk in awe… In awe of why on earth I dragged it around mostly, not because it was a thing of beauty. It was an O2 XDA Exec, or HTC Universal.

The universal ran Windows Mobile 5, had a huge touch screen (640 x 480 – even iPhones don’t have screens that big), covered all my PDA needs (synchronising via Outlook to our office diary system), covered my mobile internet needs (running a cut down version of Internet Explorer that mostly worked well enough on most web sites) and of course worked as a phone. It did all those things but it was never a pleasure to use. It was a jack of all trades, master of none. It meant I could check my email at home over Wi-Fi but would be forever trying to get it to connect to my bluetooth car kit. It meant I would always have my phone and diary with me, rather than leaving one of them in the office (my palm was a better PDA, my nokia was a better phone, but the Universal was better simply by combining those devices – albeit with quite a few compromises).

Those days of aggravation and compromise have disappeared. For the last 2 weeks I’ve been playing with a new “HTC Touch Cruise”, also known as the “Polaris” for a while while they developed it. My computer still thinks it’s called a HTC P3650 when it synchronises.

Let’s run through some of the differences;

  • How about the size! The touch cruise is smaller, lighter and a lot more pocket friendly.
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    It has Windows Mobile 6. I’m pretty sure this is one of it’s biggest improvements over the Universal. Bluetooth now connects seamlessly to my car kit…. well almost, occasionally it connects to the car kit thinking it is in mid phone call. At least I don’t have to get the phone to recognise the car kit each time. I’m guessing that WM6 improved the bluetooth functionality.

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    The screen is SMALLER, I think this is a good thing. At least because it fits better into the pocket but also because I think the phone processor has less work to do. The universal had a rotating screen and if you opened it to see who was calling the phone would ‘hang’ for a few seconds and not answer the call when you pressed the button. I’m thinking that a smaller screen = less processor work = faster phone reaction time. The slow response was one of the biggest drawbacks of the Universal for me, though something I preferred over not having the flexibility

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    It has a better camera. I’ve joined the world of 3 Megapixels on a phone. My ‘proper’ camera is still an Olympus 2.1 Megapixel. First impressions are the photos aren’t quite as sharp as that camera produces and it doesn’t have an optical zoom, so perhaps the old camera will be saved from the scrap heap for a while yet. This photo (you can click on the picture to enlarge it) was taken at the weekend at the Kent and East Sussex Railway’s Thomas the Tank Engine Day. If you look at it full size you’ll notice the graininess of the picture. I printed it via our laser printer at work (not known for it’s photo print abilities) and I’m more than happy with the output. I didn’t buy this phone for the camera afterall

  • It has GPS built in! This wasn’t a key feature for me buying the phone. Nice to have, but far from essential. It came with TomTom Navigator and my choice of free ‘city map’. City Map really means ‘Area Map’, so I’ve been testing it over an area half the size of Kent. It’s been working surprisingly well. I expected the phone to not have enough processing power for it to be effective but it chatters directions away as well as any specific GPS unit I’ve tried. The maps move on screen just like the TomToms we have in the office. The only downside is that it takes a few minute to find any satellites (the GPS only turns itself on when requested to save battery power I guess). Oh, and I’ll need to buy a cradle for it in the car if I decide to use it. Actually, the only thing that I think will stop me using it as a GPS is the cost of maps – 80 or so if I remember correctly and I just don’t do enough travelling to make it worthwhile. The few times a GPS has been useful I’ve taken the one we share in the office.
  • It has the “Touch Flo” interface and some other software improvements. For the universal I ended up buying SPB Mobile Shell to make the windows interface slightly more practical and faster for me to use. The Touch Cruise has a similar interface built in – but much improved. The Touch Flo interface comes into play when you wipe your finger from the bottom to the top of the screen. It brings up a special screen of big buttons with your chosen 9 phone numbers and some shortcut keys. Drag your finger to the side and you get other shortcut menus. I’m not sure if HTC have added to Windows Mobile, or Windows Mobile has improved a lot, but the interface for the Music player is more fluid and responsive than it used to be and the photos in the “Camera Album” can be ‘dragged’ off to display the next one in a way I would associate with an iPhone more than a Windows Phone. I’ve only played with an iPhone for two minutes though, so I’m not best qualified to compare between the two.
  • The phone also came with SPB GPRS Monitor and the Opera web browser. The Opera browser is something I always considered buying for my Universal – It’s a lot better than Internet Explorer Mobile. In fact, I’m surprised IE Mobile didn’t improve more in WM6. Opera allows you to open different tabs so you can have more than one web page open at a time which I find most useful. Other differences are relatively minor, both struggle with some web sites, neither cope with the Web 2.0 Ajaxiness so I can’t post to this blog from my mobile at the moment. Anyway, Opera was a nice addition
  • Both have a stylus (necessary for writing lots into my diary, on a word document and so on) and I made the decision I’m happy not to have a small keyboard (there is another similar HTC device that has a slide out keyboard) having gained the advantage of a smaller device. The Touch Cruise has gained a ‘wheel’ on top of the Universals 4 way direction pad. The wheel works really well allowing you to scroll through contacts list then click to activate (or click to one side to expand, click the middle button to do something else). I don’t have a big iPod but I’m told the iPod ‘wheel’ is actually a sensor that detects you making a circular movement, whereas on the touch cruise it is really a moving wheel on the surface. I’m told the iPod wheel is more effective and I bow to that persons knowledge of having played with both devices. Having not experienced the difference first hand I’m finding the Touch Cruise wheel great to use. Perhaps if I get an iPod i’ll return to being less satisfied!
  • Finally, the choice of ring tones is better. I was never quite happy with the “ring” of the Universal but it appears WM6 has introduced a few more normal phone like rings. A small detail I know, but there nevertheless

There was another phone that compared on specifications and would have been available to me 1 month sooner, the E-Ten X800 glofiish. Actually, it has a 640 x 480 screen so in some respects would have been better. I think the camera was 2Mpixels (not that I was worried about the camera). The key reason I chose to wait was that the user forums on the E-Ten web site are only accessible if you own an E-Ten product. The few reports I could find on similar E-Ten phones elsewhere suggested problems with a lack of support from E-Ten in the UK. The problems all looked manageable (the first phones shipped with an out of date software ROM which could be patched by downloading from the E-Ten website) but without seeing what the problems were it gave me a bit of a confidence problem. At least with the HTC I had already had one of their products and had found plenty of information on their web site and other places which allowed me to fix or work around things which cause me problems – even if most other users were happy with it.

That brings me neatly onto the problems with the Touch Cruise. So far they are all superficial.

  1. The slide button on the top left that controls sound volume appears a bit cheap, plasticy and likely to break. I hope it’s just an impression and the phone will comfortably last the 3 years I’m hoping for, but it does make me nervous.
  2. The button above the slider – used to activate voice dialing, and the camera button on the opposite lower side, are hard to activate. They have to be pushed just the right way in the right position to activate them. Perhaps that means it’s me pushing them weirdly in the first place and everyone else is using them without trouble. They certainly feel solid and durable enough.

In summary, this is the best phone I’ve ever had, doing everything I need it to do well, and lots of other things well I really didn’t need it for.