The HTC 7501x: A True (but Hard to Describe) Alternative to the iPhone

Rob Enderle

My wife and I went and saw Stardust over the weekend, kind of a combination fantasy/sci-fi movie that I really enjoyed. It's one of those movies that leaves you with a big smile on your face, and has been getting rave reviews, but is really hard to talk about because it is so different.


I've been reviewing a phone that is very similar to that in the HTC 7501x. It is kind of wonderful, but man is it hard to describe. Kind of the anti-iPhone on steroids, but it helps suggest that we may not be far away from devices like these replacing laptops in much of the world.


Ever since I started getting comments from people who are using iPhones and think they'll be able to soon abandon their laptops, I've started to wonder if this is Apple's strategy -- to move around Microsoft and gain dominance as phones replace notebooks as portable media devices.


Granted, the first-generation iPhones aren't quite up to replacing notebooks, but the users I know indicate they are amazingly close. I think by this time next year, Apple will have at least two iPhones, at least one of which will be a strong competitor for RIM and a possible replacement for a laptop.


The HTC 7501x


I've been carrying the HTC 7501x now for the better part of two weeks, and it is closer to a laptop replacement, though not yet perfect, than the iPhone is. In many ways its feature list reads like the reverse of the iPhone shortcomings.


It has a removable battery; it is full 3G (though getting 3G service in the U.S. remains almost impossible); it has a keyboard; it will sync with Microsoft Exchange native and with Lotus Notes using Goodlink (full sync, not just e-mail); it has built-in GPS; it has a light source for the camera (which is also a flashlight); it has a built-in 8 GB micro drive and a miniSD slot for expansion; it doesn't require iTunes; and it ships unlocked, so you don't have to use AT&T. It has a VGA dongle for presentations and supports stereo Bluetooth (the iPhone doesn't) so you can use it with radios (home and car) and wireless headsets that support that standard. Finally it has a unique browsing feature that lets you navigate a site by tipping the device -- this is kind of weird at first but also kind of wild once you get used to it. And it's hard to describe.


On the other hand, the iPhone's advantages play to the HTC 7501x's faults. It's about twice the size (giving it a 5" rather than a 3.5" screen), it doesn't look as sexy, it doesn't have the "touch" interface, it doesn't support iTunes at all, and if you use this you are either using a headset or risking knocking yourself out. It's a lot heavier, too.


Still, if you were going to live off this and leave the laptop at home, some users could actually do that, and it reminds me of the old HP Jornada clamshell pocket PC a large number of women were actually living off of in the late '90s until HP abandoned that platform and moved to the more common, but increasingly obsolete, tablet-like PDAs.


The generic Microsoft Mobile 6 interface actually seems to work well with this phone. I've noticed that the bigger the screen the better this interface works, and this is the biggest screen on a phone, by far, I've ever had. You learn to live with a headset with the phone -- it has one of the best speakerphones I've ever seen in a cell phone (desk quality) but in a noisy room or meeting it is fundamentally unusable. Also, the phone does not have a vibrate mode, which means you either suffer through the meeting disruption or just do the polite thing and ignore the calls.


I tried several headsets, including the stereo headset from Plantronics, a new multi-microphone mini headset from BlueAnt wireless (Z9) and a Jabra BT5010. The Plantronics headphone was great for listening to stereo. Problem is, on a plane you aren't supposed to use wireless headsets, and that was when I wanted to listen to music. The BlueAnt was tiny, I could leave it on all day, and it would ring if the phone rang. The Jabra would actually vibrate when the phone rang, so if it was in my pocket I knew if my phone was ringing without disturbing anyone else. I also had with me a set of the new Ableplanet Clear Harmony headphones (the iPhone has a recessed headphone jack which makes it difficult to use third-party headphones with it). These were better than my Bose headphones I normally carry and great for watching movies and listening to music.


With any smartphone that you are going to use for media I recommend either a spare battery (well, that doesn't work with the iPhone) or an external battery booster. The one most often recommended is the Macally External Li-ion Battery pack, and it works with any USB-ported device. If you don't have one of these, you'll likely find you enjoyed a movie or two and then don't have a working phone when you land. A real life saver.


Wrapping Up: The Once and Future UMPC


I don't normally rave about products, but this thing is really cool, and what makes it special is it isn't just a rewrapped iPhone or clone of anything, really. It actually looks like HTC took a hard look at the iPhone and then built something from the ground up that better addressed business needs for improved security, higher bandwidth and better connectivity.


This is the precursor to what Intel has been talking about with their UMPC platform. Imagine a device in this class, at a similar price, that would be able to run full copies of applications, not just mobile copies. It is worth bringing one of these in house just to get a feel for where the technology is and confirm that we are likely within two years of a relatively massive change.


Change is an amazing thing, but it is one hell of a lot less painful if you are ready for it. Devices like the HTC 7501 and iPhone are coming; I doubt you'll be able to stop them, so you might as well enjoy the experience.

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