HTC Titan II Review: Sometimes A Win-Win Is A Lose

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Short Version

I’ve been spending some quality time with HTC’s Titan II, and I would never call it a bad phone. But that’s not the question — good, bad, fast, slow, ugly, beautiful… they don’t matter unless I feel that I’d put down money and live my life with this device. And even though I expected this to be one of my favorites, I walk away from my review certain that I wouldn’t exchange cash for this handset.

HTC is great at building quality hardware and Microsoft’s new mobile platform is fresh, different, and intuitive. But the way that the duo comes together leaves me unimpressed and disappointed, namely in the camera and the display. Past that, the thickness of the device paired with poor battery life does nothing to make up for these more minor disappointments. In essence, it’s simply not good enough.

Let’s talk about why:

Pros:

  • Loving the hardware quality and design
  • Windows Phone is smooth as butter
  • The camera is excellent

Cons:

  • Pixel density is awful
  • It’s pretty thick
  • Battery life didn’t satisfy me

Features:

  • 4.7-inch 480×800 S-LCD display
  • AT&T 4G LTE
  • Windows Phone 7.5 Mango
  • 1.5GHz single-core S2 processor
  • 16-megapixel rear camera (720p video capture)
  • 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera
  • MSRP: $199.99 on-contract

Long Version

Hardware/Design:

I go back and forth on my favorite hardware vendors all the time, mostly because they wander back and forth from a premium feel to a plastic-y disaster, but HTC has always been a constant favorite. They know hardware.

The Titan II lives up to these expectations. Even with the downgrade from metal on the original Titan to plastic on the second-gen version, the phone still feels great in the hand. It’s well balanced, has a nice soft-touch finish to it, and has just enough heft to feel like a piece of gadgetry and not a toy. On the other hand, this phone is a bit thick for my taste. I’ve seen HTC put out equally solid and thin phones, like the HTC One S, but the Titan II is simply too fat to hang around with the cool kids.

I am impressed with the way that HTC figured out how to make a 4.7-inch display comfortable. I normally draw the line at 4.3 inches, but somehow the HTC Titan II still feels usable with its massive 4.7-inch display. This is likely because the screen takes up much of the entire front of the phone, with very little bezel to get in the way on either side. Kudos on this, HTC.

Unfortunately, the Titan II doesn’t have any external memory. You can pop off a little panel on the back to access the SIM, but there’s no slot for microSD storage and no access to the battery. The 16-megapixel rear camera is square in the middle of the back of the phone, in usual HTC fashion, with a small speaker grill to its left. The volume rocker and a shutter button are on the right, and microUSB is on the bottom of the left edge.

Software:

As I’ve said over and over again, I’m a Windows Phone fan. The platform is really easy to understand, streamlines things like messaging and social networking, and each time I use it I find something new that I like. But, the platform still lacks the app variety found on other OSes.

For example, big name apps like LinkedIn, HBOGo, Pandora, Flipboard, and Dropbox still aren’t on the platform. Some of these apps are integral to the way I use my phone, and I can’t imagine being without them.

Luckily, the Windows Phone Photo Enhancer app works to balance out the absence of Instagram, another crowd pleaser. It basically offers up filters for your pictures and other little editing tools to make sure each image looks special and unique. The filters aren’t quite as awesome as Instagram’s, but it’ll certainly do as an alternative until the day that slow-moving Instagram heads over to Windows Phone.

There’s also an HTC Hub, which looks a lot like Sense 4 and allows for the Sense clock and weather widgets if that’s what you’re into. You can also build up a little mini-reader for the news sites you enjoy reading.

Past that there isn’t a whole lot that’s different from the standard Windows Phone 7.5 OS, but the good news is that Windows Phone is good enough on its own.

Camera:

One of the most stand-out and attractive features of the Titan II is its 16-megapixel camera, fully equipped with an f/2.6, 28mm lens, backside-illuminated sensor and dual LED flash. It’s a mouthful, but it’s a wonderful camera for a phone. The pictures are great, though I’m not sure color reproduction is perfectly on point. I find my iPhone to take rather “cold” pics, but it would seem as though the Titan II leans on the warmer side.

On the other hand, the shutter button comes in handy for those who prefer shooting in landscape — it’s in exactly the same place as it would be on a point-and-shoot. And the shutter button also works the same way it would on a DSLR in Auto mode, a half-press locks in the focus and a full press snaps the pic.

The camera app also offers a software auto-focus if you tap the area you want to clarify, though it goes a step further and simply takes the picture automatically. Quick and painless, to be sure.

As I briefly touched on before, the marriage between HTC and Windows Phone is where things get less hunky dory. I love the Sense camera app — it has all kinds of bells and whistles presented in clean, easy-to-understand format, which happens to be missing on Windows Phone. Sure, there are various settings to tool around with in the standard Windows Phone camera app, but it isn’t quite as in-depth as HTC’s offering.

This isn’t necessarily a huge deal, but I’m thinking most of you will consider this phone based on its camera. Why HTC didn’t put the best camera software with the best camera hardware is something I don’t quite understand.

Comparison shot between the Titan II (left) and the iPhone 4S (right):

Display:

If you’ve been stoked about the Titan II, you may be a bit disappointed starting right now.

The Titan II isn’t offering HTC’s very best display tech, as its an S-LCD, but it is one of HTC’s biggest displays, at 4.7-inches. That’s actually fine. I’m impressed with the fact that the gigantic display is still comfortable in the hand and I can wrap that thumb around and do just about anything with one hand, despite the phone’s unbecoming stoutness.

The problem, however, is that the partnership between HTC and Microsoft simply doesn’t fit. Windows Phone requires a 800×480 resolution across all partners. HTC is going for the whole “titanic” thing, with a 16-megapixel camera and a giant 4.7-inch display. The problem is that you’re left with a pixel density of 199ppi. For a little context, the iPhone’s retina display has a pixel density 326ppi, so the Titan’s isn’t so great.

To be clear, pixel density is far more important than resolution or size alone, as it measures where these two dimensions meet. A 800×480 resolution will look far better on a 4-inch screen than it will on a 4.7-inch screen, simply because the pixel density is much greater. On the Titan II, the screen might be big, but it’s far from beautiful.

Not only is the display pixelated in many instances, but you can’t even come close to enjoying the images you’re snapping with the 16-megapixel camera on the phone’s display. Sure, you can Facebook share and email and such, but if you can’t show off the pictures from the phone itself it definitely rains on the parade a bit.

Plus, white text on a black background makes a poor pixel density even more obvious, which is the default for Windows Phone.

Performance:

It’s silly to measure the Titan II against the iPhone or Android phones based on the fact that they’re entirely different platforms, at least when we’re doing official benchmark testing. But I will say that AT&T’s 4G LTE network left me satisfied, at least here in NYC. I had no trouble whatsoever placing calls and sending messages, and web browsing was especially snappy (thanks in large part to WP’s IE9 browser).

In Browsermark, the Titan II scored an average of 32,982. For perspective, the Lumia 900 (another one of my favorite Windows Phones) scored a 28,769, so I’m more than impressed with the Titan II performance.

Battery:

On the other hand, I’m not too happy with the Titan II battery life. HTC’s One S kicked ass in the battery life department, yet an LTE radio paired with a 4.7-inch display makes for a difficult task for that little battery.

We test battery life on handsets by running a program that constantly loads Google Image searches. There’s no break, no auto-lock and quite literally no rest for the device, which usually ends up over-heating a bit. At any moment during the program, I can jump out of the browser and load an app, play a game, watch a video, or (thanks to Windows Phone) do some work in Office for mobile.

The official battery test result was that the Titan II can last for three hours and forty-three minutes. Granted, there are things you can do to extend battery life like shutting down various services, but who wants to shut down services?

You also won’t be using the phone for four hours straight, but even in real-world usage you’ll be disappointed. I expect that if you’re a general user — meaning some email, some Facebook, some music, and of course texts and calls — you’ll see that flashing red around dinner time.

To give you a little extra context, the Droid 4 only hung in there for three hours and forty-five minutes while the Droid RAZR Maxx (Motorola’s battery beast) stayed with me for a staggering eight hours and fifteen minutes.

Head-To-Head With The Lumia 900 And One X:

Check out our thoughts on this match-up here.

Hands-On Video: Fly or Die

Conclusion

As I originally expressed at the beginning of the review, I love the idea of a partnership between HTC and Microsoft. In fact, the first-gen Titan is a cool handset, as is the little Trophy. But it seems that with the Titan II, neither HTC nor Microsoft were thinking of the entire experience. The hardware is nice, and I’m still a lover of Windows Phone.

But the screen resolution vs. size thing really bothers me, and I truly wish that HTC’s Sense camera app was interacting with the 16-megapixel hardware, especially since that camera is one of the phone’s big selling features. Those things are somewhat excusable, but when you lop on a fat body and poor battery life (likely the most crucial feature in any phone), it’s nearly impossible for me to recommend this device.

I hope to see more from HTC and Microsoft in the future — I think it’s a match made in heaven. I just think that in this case specifically, a win-win was actually a big lose.

Check out all of our Titan II review posts here.