A closer look at the HTC Shift from Sprint

The last major HTC device I reviewed was the HTC Advantage and since that time I have been a bit excited, as has most of the ultra portable crowd, about the HTC Shift. There are some reviews online for the GSM version of the HTC Shift that is available in Europe, but that is not the version being officially announced in the U.S. next week since there are still legal issues with Qualcomm and their chips. Sprint will be announcing the HTC Shift on Monday, 24 March and this version has an integrated EV-DO/CDMA radio for wireless access on the go.

I've been using an HTC Shift from Sprint for over a week now and as you can see in the more than 140 photos and screenshots found in my image gallery and quick and dirty post yesterday I have had a chance to try out most all aspects of the device. As I said yesterday, I was planning to post my full review next Monday, 24 March, but Amazon posted a pre-order page of the device. The HTC Shift from Sprint has a model designtation of HTC X9000 and a suggested retail price of US$1,499.

A closer look at the HTC Shift from Sprint

The last major HTC device I reviewed was the HTC Advantage and since that time I have been a bit excited, as has most of the ultra portable crowd, about the HTC Shift. There are some reviews online for the GSM version of the HTC Shift that is available in Europe, but that is not the version being officially announced in the U.S. next week since there are still legal issues with Qualcomm and their chips. Sprint will be announcing the HTC Shift on Monday, 24 March and this version has an integrated EV-DO/CDMA radio for wireless access on the go.

What's in the box? I have couple of unboxing photos in my image gallery and as you can see HTC and Sprint did an excellent job in packaging the Shift, which I would expect for a device costing almost US$1500. The black inner box is solid, lined with thick foam and protects the contents. Inside you will find a very compact A/C adapter (great job here HTC) in a cool draw string sack, screen protector, USB hub with 3 USB ports, an ethernet port, and a miniUSB port, and the HTC Shift in brown leather case. There were no recovery disks included with my review sample and HTC later sent along the trial of Microsoft Office that should be included with shipping models.

What is up with the leather case? The device has a leather case made out of the same high quality material found on the HTC Advantage. I noticed that the case is secured with 3 posts to the device and there did not appear to be any way to remove the case. I talked with HTC about this and apparently the case is actually required to pass FCC testing because it increases the buffer zone (distance between the device and your body). The Shift is different than other UMPC/ulta portable computers because it has an always-on component with SnapVUE. It also has a CDMA radio that actually pings the cell towers more often than a GSM device. I guess the test simulated carrying the HTC Shift under your arm like a small woman's handbag and the case was needed to pass this test. I do not recommend you try removing the case because you may never get it back on. Then again, as I will talk about below I noticed the case can get in the way at time too.

Specifications: Here are the hardware specs that I can confirm are on this model, the HTC Shift X9000 from Sprint:

  • Intel Stealey A110 800 MHz processor + Little River (945GMS) + ICH7U
  • 1GB DDR2 microDIMM RAM, 64MB for SnapVUE
  • 128 MB ROM for SnapVUE
  • 1.8 inch 40GB 4200rpm hard drive with G-Sensor shock protection
  • Windows Vista Business
  • 7 inch TFT-LCD with adjustable screen angle and touch-sensitive screen, 800x480 resolution with 262k colors and landscape only orientation
  • CDMA2000 1xRTT/1xEVDO
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • 2700 mAh rechargeable lithium-polymer battery
  • VGA (640x480) digital camera for video conferencing
  • Secure Digital input/output slot
  • 1 USB 2.0 port
  • VGA out connection
  • 3.5 mm stereo headset jack with microphone
  • Biometric fingerprint scanner
  • Stereo speakers

A walk around the hardware: Let's start a tour around the Shift by looking at the sides and bottom since most of the buttons and functions are on the face or keyboard. On the left side you will find a 3.5 mm headset jack up top, the stylus silo in the middle, and mic holes (I think) down towards the bottom. The stylus is decent, but I do not like the way it slides back into itself when I am trying to use it. I suppose you don't really need to use the stylus too much since the touchscreen is very sensitive and vectors like crazy.

On the right side, you will find the DC-in port, USB 2.0 port, power/hold switch, and Secure Digital slot. Along the back (top) you will find the VGA out port so you can easily connect to an external monitor. On the back you will find 3 small vents and the battery cover that takes up the entire width and about half of the height of the Shift.

Starting at the top left of the front of the Shift is the 640x480 VGA camera for video conferencing with the left and right mouse buttons below this, the left stereo speaker and finally the SnapVUE button on the lower left of the display. There is a light sensor at the top right, then the Control Center button, resolution switch button, microPad touch pad, right stereo speaker, and biometric fingerprint scanner.

The microPad touch pad and two mouse buttons work very well together and let you navigate and operate the Shift with ease. I would like to see this touch pad included on other ultra portables too.

A set of indicator lights in a long bar appear along the bottom of the front of the Shift below the display. There are indicator lights for power, battery, CAPS lock, hard disk activity, Bluetooth/WiFi, CDMA data connection, and Email/SMS. They glow in orange, green, yellow, and red for different states.

Hardware - 800x480 display: The 7 inch 800x480 display may have been fine for first generation UMPC/ultra portable devices, but at this time 1024x600 is really the minimum resolution for a 7 inch display. The Shift does have the ability to switch into 1024x600 resolution, but I personally found this mode a bit too "fuzzy" when looking at text. The higher resolution mode was nice for web browsing and may be adequate for many people. The 800x480 resolution is clear and looks good with superb brightness, but this resolution requires you to scroll too much and hides most dialog boxes.

Hardware - 66-key QWERTY keyboard: The QWERTY keyboard is the BEST keyboard I have ever tried on an ultra portable device. It beats my Fujitsu U810 and I have to say I even like it better than my full size Think Outside keyboard because it has a nice solid feel, good spacing, and good key travel. I was actually able to use it with two hands, almost like a full size keyboard and did not have to hunt and peck with my index finger like I do on my Fujitsu U810. I have heard people say it is very similar to the EeePC, but I do not have one of these to compare it with. I started writing this review on the HTC Shift, but the urgent need to finish before I wanted to resulted in me switching to my MacBook Pro for quicker text entry on a larger display.

Hardware - wireless connectivity: One of the major advantages of the HTC Shift over most other UMPC/ultra portables is the inclusion of an EV-DO wireless radio. Unfortunately, EV-DO Rev. A is not included, but maybe there will be a future update that upgrades the radio. Unfortunately, Sprint doesn't seem to have that great of coverage in the areas I travel and I found the HTC Shift had limited connectivity with Sprint. I do have great AT&T coverage so a lower cost GSM Shift would appeal to me more.

The Shift also has the standard wireless features of Bluetooth and WiFi. Range and strength with WiFi was decent, but I have seen better with some devices.

Hardware - accessories included: The HTC Shift comes with the very nice leather case that I mentioned earlier. The A/C adapter brick is very small and I was pleased to see such a small unit included. It takes about 3 hours to charge the Shift's rather small battery though so I guess there is a trade-off for the small size.

A stereo headset, screen protector, accessory pouch, and 4 port USB hub is included with the HTC Shift. The 4 port USB hub has 3 USB 2.0 ports, an ethernet port, and a miniUSB connector. It is very glossy and a fingerprint magnet, but it is a nice addition to extend some functionality.

I was a bit disappointed that there were no recovery disks or disks to take the Shift back to XP. My Fujitsu U810 (I bought it for US$930 with the docking cradle and extra extended battery) came with Vista installed and XP Tablet Edition disks. I understand it may be quite difficult to get SnapVUE and other features running in XP though so not including these disks isn't a major issue.

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Software - SnapVUE: The SnapVUE functionality has been one of the most talked about aspects of the HTC Shift. SnapVUE is a slimmed down version of Windows Mobile that actually may be trimmed down so much it isn't really that useful. The Shift can be completely shut down and a simple press of the SnapVUE button, lower left of the Shift, launches you into a Windows Mobile looking view of the time, date, calendar, messages, and notifications. With SnapVUE you can view your local weather forecast (high and low temps and a picture of what is expected), work with your contacts and calendar, send/receive/view SMS and email messages and customize your SnapVUE settings. I set it up with my hosted Exchange email and it was quite nice to get this email pushed to the Shift. However, hyperlinks do not go anywhere, attachments are not supported, and calls cannot be made even though the call options are shown as available. You can send and receive text messages, but for some reason an error kept popping up and would not go away on the review Shift I was checking out.

SnapVUE main display

While I may not really see the benefit of this slimmed down version of Windows Mobile, Paul at MoDaCo has developed a way to unlock and expand the functionality of Windows Mobile on the Shift with his methods to Liberate your HTC Shift.

Software - Origami Experience 2.0: From what I understand part of the push to use Vista on the HTC Shift was driven by the desire to launch as the first ultra portable running the new Origami Experience 2.0 suite. Origami Experience 2.0 on the HTC Shift consists of three applications, Origami Central, Origami Now, and Touch Settings (scroll bar enlargement and other touch improvements).

While I do find the Origami Now functions a useful way to get quick access to your information like feeds, email, weather, and more, I really didn't use it that much since I could get that info in SnapVUE. The Origami Central application is a nice way to use your media content, but with only about 23GB of available hard drive space you really are not going to store a ton of media on the Shift.

HTC Shift memory

Software - Windows Vista: Vista runs decently on the Shift, but I do notice the device lagging and hanging from time to time. I have had applications freeze as well and have to say I was not that impressed with the Shift and Vista. I am sure XP could have flown and think losing the Origami Experience 2.0 and going with XP would have been a smarter move by HTC since the device would than have flown.

Software - included 3rd party applications: HTC did very well at keeping the bloatware that HP and Dell tend to add to their devices off of the Shift. You get Vista, Origami Experience 2.0, SnapVUE, and Trend Micro security software. I understand you may also get a trial version of Office (HTC send a USB stick with the sample after the package arrived).

Software - additional 3rd party software tried on the Advantage: If HTC really wanted to target the enterprise, then I would have gone with Windows XP Pro and included a productivity application that stands out as being extremely useful and IMHO that would have been ActiveWords. This application lets you set quick shortcuts to apps, text, URLs, and even custom scripts. A product like this reduces the amount of stylus input that is required and helps you save time and thus money.

I also loaded up SlingPlayer, Evernote, and AVG Free (Trend Micro really bogged down the Shift when I tried loading it up).

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Usage scenario - daily commuter and business traveler: I take the train to and from Seattle every day and am on there for 2 hours. The Shift served me quite well as a mobile PC because I could connect via the train's WiFi or via the Sprint PCS network (which again was a bit spotty along the train route). I was able to enter text quite easily using the keyboard with the device placed on my lap and I can't say enough how impressed I am with the keyboard. I also like that the display tilts up since that is better than trying to use a thumb keyboard with a horizontal display. The major issue and Achilles heel though for the mobile commuter and traveler is the very poor battery life while running Vista. Maybe I am now spoiled by the 5+ hours I see on my Fujitsu, but I expect more from the latest and greatest devices and 2 hours isn't acceptable.

Usage scenario - practical battery testing: HTC states the shift should user should see up to 2 hours of usage with Vista, up to 53 hours with SnapVUE and push email enabled and then 10 days in SnapVUE with push email disabled. I never had the opportunity to try out SnapVUE exclusively for that long, but I was seeing just about 2 hours with the Shift and Vista.

Conclusion: The Shift would really have had to blow me out of the water to come up with US$1500 and it did not. There are definitely some impressive and unique aspects (SnapVUE), but too many issues prevent me from making the commitment and then paying US$60 a month for Sprint's service (coverage is too spotty in Puget Sound where I work and live). I don't think ultra portables really have to have huge hard drives since they are companion devices, but they do need to have long battery life or IMHO the device is no longer an ultra portable. This is one reason I go rid of my Samsung Q1 last year and another major reason I love my Fujitsu U810 with 5+ battery life.

I look forward to seeing if HTC comes up with a next generation device that fixes some of these issues and comes in at a lower price. Are you going to pick up an HTC Shift from Sprint?

I will also end this full review with my quick list of the great, good, bad, and ugly:

Great

  • Keyboard is best UMPC/ultra portable keyboard I have ever tried
  • Form factor is great, allows working on your lap or on an airport tray
  • Mouse/trackpad is accurate and serves as a wonderful navigation method
  • SnapVUE always-on capability is very good
  • Quick resolution, communication manager, and SnapVUE buttons rock
  • Stereo speakers rock!

Good

  • Sprint EV-DO connectivity is a nice bonus
  • Biometric scanner offers good security
  • No bloatware loading of apps is awesome
  • Integrated Secure Digital card slot is nice (when will Apple learn this?)
  • Nice leather case included with device
  • Included USB hub and ethernet is helpful
  • Small A/C adapter is a thoughtful feature
  • Origami Experience 2.0 is useful
  • 1GB included RAM is adequate

Bad

  • Stylus is poor since it doesn't stay extended when pulled out
  • 1024x600 software resolution is fuzzy and not good for text entry or viewing
  • Can't remove leather case if you want to travel a bit lighter
  • Vista is too much for the device
  • No recovery CDs are included
  • No portrait mode for eBook reading, etc
  • No storage card in SnapVUE, hyperlinks go nowhere, call support appears in menus, but are not supported while text nessaging is supported
  • Skype is unusable, audio is shaky and video is virtually non-existent

Ugly

  • Battery life with Vista is unacceptable for an ultra-portable
  • 40GB hard drive, 33GB showed as available and then 23GB actually available out of the box is lame
  • 800x480 default resolution on a 7 inch display is too low
  • US$1499 is too much for the device. Then adding US$60/month for Sprint data makes the cost even higher
  • Inking is virtually unusable since the display is larger and very sensittive to any pressure. No palm rejection technology is used and the slightest touch sends it off vectoring bad