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AT&T's HTC 7 Surround Windows Phone 7 smartphone review

Review by Todd Haselton on Wednesday October 20, 2010.

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Usability usability: 4 of 5 score

Windows Phone 7 is fresh, exciting, colorful, quick, and informative. Unlike with Windows Mobile iterations that came before it, Windows Phone 7 is all about delivering information quickly. It's consumer friendly. Standing in line at the grocery store? Pop the HTC 7 Surround out of your pocket and you'll be able to see a friend's Facebook status update, your calendar, your music player, and more all from the home screen. Gone are the days of digging through menus. In fact, there isn't really a menu screen on the phone. Instead, you have a home screen with live updating tiles, and a swipe to the right reveals a scrollable list of your installed applications. That's it. No folders. No digging. And I dig that.

The phone's lock screen can be customized with a wallpaper of your choice and shows the time, date, your signal, and battery life. The time and date are large and easy to read, and if you have an upcoming calendar event, that's showed also. There are also small icons that alert you of missed calls and the number of new messages waiting for you.

The start screen, or your home screen as I like to refer to it, is filled with tiles that represent contacts, applications, shortcuts, and other items that you've "pinned" there. It appears that you can have unlimited tiles on the home screen, and a simple flick down the screen shoots you down the length of them. The tiles all update automatically, so a message inbox will have a large number representing the number of new messages. A contact's tile will move and show the name, the picture associated with their account, and their latest Facebook update if you've configured that. I love the tile interface and think it's much more exciting than the drab icons you'll find in iOS. Still, it's not as exciting as opening your Android home screen and seeing various widgets for sports scores, the weather, or what have you.

The main menu, as I said earlier, is more like a list and can be accessed by swiping from right to left across the home screen or by tapping a small arrow in the top right corner. It's a list of everything on the phone, including settings and applications. You can't tweak it, but it's easy to scroll through. On the Surround, there are five AT&T applications preinstalled (they can be uninstalled, too), and those icons are orange in color to signify their AT&T ties. The menu is efficient but boring. There aren't any live updating tiles here and there's room for improvement.

The application user interface is very cookie-cutter. That is, many of the applications look and feel the same. That's because they use the same pivot (swipe) based interface that the Zune music player uses. While each app naturally has different features, colors, and themes, the menus are all similar. Games, of course, break from that mold a bit, as does Microsoft Office. But my experience with Seesmic and Foursquare is that the apps were the same house, just with different interiors. It's great for users that want a simple interface, but it takes the uniqueness out of a specific application.

WP7 doesn't offer a task manager feature. If you want to leave one application and head to another, you'll have to tap the Start button and head to the home screen. That means there's a lot of back and forth going on. It's a bit strange considering Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS, and others all allow multitasking. There isn't background app support, so every time you load a new app it has to refresh itself. Applications such as Slacker Radio also can't run in the background.

The status bar at the top of the display generally only shows the time, and must be tapped to show Wi-Fi, 3G, and battery status. While Michael Oryl found that feature to be annoying, I actually liked it. I hate stressing about my remaining battery life; I generally expect a few bars of signal unless I'm in the boonies, and like the clean look with just the time displaying.

There can only be four application specific buttons at the bottom of any application's screen. Users can access more options by tapping a "..." button on the bottom right-hand side of the screen. Long pressing on some items, like the large font text at the top of many screens (like People), will provide access to settings, but that's not always the case and it is far from obvious. I didn't know how to change the default background in the Photos application until I asked around. It turns out that holding the Photos text at the top of the page reveals a new menu; that's something I'm not so sure new users will be able to figure out.

Microsoft has integrated support for Facebook and Windows Live into the phone, and can pull contacts from there or from Gmail or Exchange email accounts. Sadly, Facebook Calendar sync isn't offered. The People (contacts) app also provides a view to the social networking status feeds. It's a beautiful interface and it allows you to comment on your friend's status updates, too, but Microsoft left out support for Twitter and MySpace. It's easy enough to search through your contacts quickly, just tap the search soft button and a keyboard and search box pop up.

Aside from shifting around the home screen tiles or changing the lock wallpaper, there's not much customization or theme support on the phone. You can choose between a black or white background, and there are just ten different accent colors. Accents change the text message bubble color, the color of your tiles, and more, but they're all going to be the same. It'd be a bit more fun if I could set my messages to be lime, and my home screen tiles blue, for example, but you can't. Voice search and command is present, and effective, but profile support is lacking. The same volume setting is used by notifications, call ringtones, and music/media playback. It's not possible to have a loud ringer and a quiet game, for example. Another problem is that not all apps, or even core OS features, run in landscape mode on the phone. That was especially odd for the Surround, which sports a kickstand on the back for landscape usage.

Windows Phone 7 is probably the easiest OS to use out of the box, and that's great for first-time smartphone owners. It does have a bit of a learning curve, just like webOS or Android would, but it's generally very easy to find what you're looking for. Thanks to the 7 Surround's first rate touchscreen and responsiveness, users won't find themselves poking the screen repeatedly, either.

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About the author

Todd Haselton
Todd is a senior editor at MobileBurn and works out of his home in New York City. He covers news for us and also writes reviews. You can follow him on Twitter at @RoboTodd

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