The HTC Star Trek: Thin is In

By Jason Dunn on Thursday, June 8, 2006

Product Category: Windows Mobile Smartphone
Manufacturer: HTC
Where to Buy:Will be sold in different markets as the I-Mate SmartFlip, the Qtek 8500, and the Dopod S300. HTC Str Trk (or "Star Trek") is the codename.
Price: n/a (pre-production hardware)
System Requirements: n/a
Specifications: Windows Mobile 5, TI 850 200 mhz OMAP CPU, Quad-band GSM, GPRS/EDGE, USB 1.1, Bluetooth 1.2, microSD memory slot, 98.5 mm x 51.4 mm x 15.8 mm in size, 99g in weight.

  • Thinnest Windows Mobile Smartphone to date;
  • Impressive use of the outer screen;
  • Appealing, consumer-friendly design.
  • Proprietary connector point for power and audio;
  • Uses microSD for memory, slot is under SIM card;
  • Uses old technologies: Bluetooth 1.2, USB 1.1.
This phone is a significant step forward for the Windows Mobile platform. It combines a sleek design, easily the equal of other popular consumer phones such as the RAZR, with the powerful functionality of Windows Mobile. The hardware feels high quality, the build quality is impressive, and it makes excellent use of the outer screen. The phone lacks WiFi, which makes it a poor choice for some users, and HTC also made some curious decisions regarding the sync/charge port on the phone, the choice of microSD for storage, and several other issues.

Read on for the full review!
Pre-Production Hardware
I don't soft-peddle my reviews, and will point out each and every flaw I see to inform the reader. Reviewing pre-production hardware is always a bit tricky though, because it's hard to know what's a pre-production glitch that will be fixed/adjusted in the final product, and what's a genuine product flaw that will still be around when the final product ships. Whenever possible I'll point out which type of flaw I think it is, so when the first reviews of final shipping hardware start to appear, you'll know what to look for. This review focuses mostly on the hardware and design, not on the operating system or bundled software, because the software will change depending on which version of the phone you purcase (I-Mate, Dopod, Qtek, etc.) For similar reasons, I'm not focusing on performance or attempting any benchmarks. I will make comments about how fast the phone feels in day to day use where appropriate.

Figure 1: The HTC Star Trek is a very impressive-looking phone. The casing is plastic but feels solid. The bottom-most portion of the phone is rubberized, while the rest has a shiny textured finish that hides smudges very well. You can pick up this phone and not need to wipe it all down immediately (the same cannot be said for most Motorola phones). The large circle on the front is a fingerprint magnet though. Click the image above for larger version (100 KB).

It's Like a Beautiful Woman with 10 PhDs: Sexy and Smart
This phone is all about looks – the design is simply killer. There are no illusions here: it was certainly inspired by the Motorola RAZR from top to bottom. I don't see that as a bad thing though – you use what works. It's easiest to cover the design and hardware in a series of photos.

Figure 2: A close-up of the front of the phone. On the bottom left we have two LED lights: one for phone status, the other for Bluetooth status. On the bottom right we have the speaker, and above that the three media player buttons: previous, play/pause and next.

Figure 3: The top right of the phone has the camera button, and a shiny cap on the edge of the hinge. The hinge feels very sturdy: there's no backwards flex, and the phone springs open and closed with a satisfying amount of snap. Hopefully it stays tight, unlike my Jasjar (also HTC-designed) whose hinge has gotten mushy after only a few months.

Figure 4: A right-side profile of the phone. Click the image above for a larger version (103 KB).

Figure 5: The bottom right portion of the phone. Notice the strange port?

Figure 6: A close up of the only port on the phone. It's used for synchronization, audio, and recharging. More on that later.

Figure 7: The top left portion of the phone. The small camera lens provides the quality you'd expect (as in, nothing impressive). There's a hole for a lanyard if you want to carry the phone around your neck, though I'd be surprised if any vendor included a cord in the box. The top button activates a voice command function on the pre-production unit I have. It's bizarre that there's no easy way to re-map the phone buttons to other functions, unlike on the Pocket PC.

More Pictures

Figure 8: The bottom left portion of the phone, showing the voice activation button, and the volume up/down. The buttons have small bumps on them to make it easier to know where to press.

Figure 9: The HTC Star Trek opened up.

Figure 10: Look at how thin that is!

Figure 11: The rear of the phone. Click the image above for a larger version (96 KB).

Figure 12: The Star Trek's keypad is strongly RAZR-esque. There are no individual keys, only one big touchpad. The keys are large enough for me to use with my thumbs (great), unlike the SP5m, which required me to use my fingernail (awkward).The usual assortments of buttons are there, with the softkey buttons having strong placement. The D-pad is more of a mixed bag – it can be hard to press without accidentally pressing the middle selection button. I often found myself opening up an email or contact when all I wanted to do was scroll down.

Figure 13: The back of the phone with the slide-off battery cover removed. The 750mah battery proved to be sufficient for several days of power, though it's hard to judge the battery life on a pre-production unit.

In an ideal world, everything that required power would have one common plug. Everything that output audio would have one type of port, and every type of headphones and speakers would have the same matching port. Every device would take the same sort of removable storage. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, so the best we can hope for is common standards that a majority of devices use. On HTC Pocket PCs and Smartphones, that has been a miniUSB port for power/connectivity, and a 3.5mm or 2.5mm jack for headphones. It's easy to get miniUSB power cables – entire industries have sprung up to create retractable USB cables of various types. A small adaptor was all you needed to use your 3.5mm headphones on a device that accepted 2.5mm plugs.

With the HTC Star Trek, they've gone their own way entirely. There's a single port on the device, and it serves the dual purposes of recharging and audio output. You've got a great collection of miniUSB cables and power accessories? You can't use them here. You have a $200 pair of Shure headphones you want to use to listen to music? You can't connect them to this phone. And as Dave Conger pointed out in our recent ThoughtCast about this device, some people like to plug the phone into power and keep using it with a wired headset. That scenario is no longer possible. It is mitigated, however, by Bluetooth headsets and headphone solutions.

Will this new flatUSB (I have no idea what it's called) be standard on all future HTC devices? I don't know the answer to that, but I certainly hope not. Why did HTC switch to this new connector? I can think of two possible reasons, though I have no data to back this up. First, miniUSB is, to my knowledge, unable to be used for audio. In order to get a Windows Mobile phone crammed into such a small frame, odds are good that they had to move from two connector jacks (power, audio) down to one. I haven't seen this flatUSB connector on any other devices yet, but perhaps the entire industry is moving this way. The second reason might be that HTC created a wholly proprietary connector that they will license out to cable and accessory manufacturers. I certainly hope the latter isn't true, but it's certainly possible.

Another issue is the curious location where they put the power/audio jack. It's on the lower left side of the phone. That means you can forget about anyone making an aftermarket cradle for this phone. I find that unfortunate, because I don't like the look of stray cables lying around on my desk. I've used retractable miniUSB cables to solve this problem with other devices that lacked cradles, but that's not yet an option with this phone.

Figure 14: Once you remove the SIM card, you can access the microSD card slot.

The last way this phone breaks with other Windows Mobile Smartphones is the inclusion of a microSD slot (formerly known as Transflash). Most of the PDA/phone enthusiast market is still getting used to ditching their SD cards and using miniSD cards (which are finally reasonable with regards to price and storage size), and here we have yet another new and smaller memory card form. Worse, it's under the SIM card, which means you have to remove the SIM card to get at it. That might not be a problem if the phone had USB 2.0 for fast media synching, because you could leave the microSD card in the phone and sync your music directly to it. It doesn't, however, and only offers up meagre USB 1.1 speeds.

So in summary, you have a consumer-focused, media-centric phone with Windows Media Player buttons on the front and that supports wireless Bluetooth music headphones. It has an extremely slow connection for transferring media, no standard headphone jack, and a memory card that's impossible to get at without disassembling the phone and removing the SIM card. Who planned this?

Compared to…
The HTC is a slender phone, though it feels more slender in your hand than the numbers would seem to indicate when compared to an SP5m.

Figure 15: The HTC Stak Trek compared to the I-Mate SP5m, front view. I threw a CD in there for added size comparison.

Figure 16: The HTC Stak Trek compared to the I-Mate SP5m, side view. The Star Trek is 15.8 mm thick when closed, while the SP5m is 17.3 mm thick.

Figure 17: Although the HTC Star Trek is only 1.5 mm thinner than the SP5m, if feels much thinner in your hands.

Figure 18: This is where the HTC Star Trek "goes big". When opened, it's almost twice the total length of the SP5m. It's almost too big – it's quite a bit taller than the RAZR when opened, and that's not a small phone by any means.

Wireless Functionality
The HTC Star Trek is a quad-band GSM phone, meaning it supports 1800, 1900, 900 and 850 bands, making it a true world-phone. The 850 band is particularly important to North American users, as our carrier networks are building out the 850 band to enhance coverage inside buildings, in tunnels, etc. It has an EDGE radio for data, and while EDGE is faster than GPRS, it's still painfully slow. I did a bandwidth test from my laptop (connected over Bluetooth at 115.2 kbps) and according to the test it was 137 kbps downstream and 21 kbps upstream (strange that it benchmarked faster than the Bluetooth connection). That's almost triple the speed of the GPRS connections I normally get, but with the latency factor, it still feels extremely sluggish. That said, it's better than having no connection at all, and when I'm in locations that have no WiFi access (like my local public library, where I wrote this review), having any sort of connectivity is awesome. Even after using the phone for several hours of constant connections, the battery didn't seem to take much of a hit. Bluetooth 2.0 would have been nice to see as it's now being offered on more and more laptops. A2DP is supported, which is important for those with stereo headphones.

What this phone lacks is WiFi, and for some that's a deal breaker. It was a watershed moment for Smartphone enthusiasts when the first Windows Mobile phones started shipping in 2005 with 802.11b WiFi, because it was always the one thing that Smartphones lacked from their bigger Pocket PC cousins. If you find yourself using WiFi on a daily basis with your current Smartphone, the HTC Star Trek is not for you. Myself, even though I had an SP5m with WiFi that I was using regularly for several months, I turned on the WiFi exactly once to test it out. And the other time it turned on by itself and drained my battery. So for me, the lack of WiFi is fine. For some, it will keep them away from this phone completely.

The other form of wireless missing from this phone is infrared – it's becoming more common for phones to drop IR now that Bluetooth is more common, and to get the phone to this size I'm sure they had to drop everything that wasn't absolutely necessary. IR seems to have fallen into that category.

External Screen Goodness
If you're a clamshell phone lover like me, you know how handy it is to be able to pull our your phone, and without opening it up, check the time, date, etc. I don't wear a watch, so my phone is my timepiece. The HTC Star Trek makes superb use of the external screen. Some of the things it displays include:

Figure 19: Media Player: pressing the play button on the front of the phone will start up Windows Media Player 10 Mobile in the background (if the buttons are unlocked, you may need to press the camera button first to unlock it. It takes about three seconds to load, and that's with no music files in the library. You can control the volume level of the player, pause and play the song, and select next/previous songs.

Figure 20: When someone calls, the external screen will display the phone number, or the name of the person if they're in your contact list.

Figure 21: It will also display a caller ID photo if one is attached to the contact in Outlook. Unfortunately, the image is so tiny on the screen it's almost useless. My wife is far more beautiful than that silly picture shows. Wink. I estimate it's around 80 pixels wide and 60 pixels tall. It would have been nicer to see the entire screen used for the photo, and the name or number overlaid on top of the image.

Figure 22: There are three different analog clock choices, and two different digital clock choices. Speaking of that clock, believe it or not, that photo was completely random - I didn't wait until that time to take the picture. Shortly afterwards, my eyes started to burn. Wink It also shows the year, month, and day (in that order). What's strange is that it doesn't seem to pick up these settings from the Regional Settings in the control panel like it should. In Canada, we do month/day/year, and the external screen should respect those settings. The screen also shows "09:00" instead of "9:00", what I'd prefer to see. No AM or PM icon is shown, so if you've been kidnapped and stuff in the trunk of a car, you can't use this feature to know whether it's day or night. It also shows battery level, signal level, ring/silent mode, Bluetooth status, and EDGE/GPRS status (a small "E" or "G").

Figure 23: Email & Text Message Notification: it shows a small notification of the number of email or text messages you've received. No email content is shown.

Figure 24: Appointment Reminders: it shows you the duration of the appointment (9:30am to 10:30am) and gives you the option to either dismiss the reminder, or snooze it. Showing the first 30 characters of the reminder description would have been helpful.

Unfortunately there's no way to keep the external display powered up continuously, likely because it's colour and would be a huge battery drain. The good news is that the forward and back media player buttons will activate the screen – they're much easier to find and press than the small side buttons.

Software Glitches That Will Hopefully Be Fixed
The HTC Star Trek contains the typical glitches from Windows Mobile applications - settings not configured properly. For some odd reason, Microsoft doesn't set a cache size limit for Internet Explorer Mobile – they leave it up to their OEM/ODM partners to set a reasonable limit. The net result? No one sets a limit and you have an Internet cache that grows and grows, eventually grinding the device to a halt, and the end user has no idea why his device is so sluggish. After two weeks, the cache on my phone was at nearly 4 MB. You definitely want to have a cache on bandwidth-limited phones, but 1 MB would be plenty. Can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine with Windows Mobile?

Another glitch that I assume will be fixed in the final shipping product is that pressing the power button briefly should bring up the profile selector – this is the only fast way to put the phone into silent mode. On the HTC Star Trek, pressing the power button has no effect. So in order to get the phone into silent mode, you have to go Start > Settings > Profiles > Silent. This issue would be eliminated entirely if Microsoft finally adopted the universal standard for adjusting the volume of the ringer: the volume buttons. On every phone out there, if you're not in a call, the volume buttons change the ringer volume, and allow you to turn the ringer off or put the phone into silent mode. On Windows Mobile Smartphones, the volume buttons change the earpiece volume…when you're not even in a call. It's not logical, it's not normal for a phone, and in the case of a flip phone, putting the phone into silent mode requires you to open the phone and likely use two hands. Sure, Smartphones have sophisticated profiles that go beyond what "dumbphones" can do, but my wife can put her simplistic Samsung phone into silent mode a lot faster than I can with my fancy Smartphone.

So What's It Like As A Phone?
First and foremost, Windows Mobile Smartphones are designed to be phones. How does the HTC Star Trek perform in this regard? I'd say very nicely. The ring volume is loud enough, it answers quickly when you open the flip, and you can see who's calling and punt the call directly to voicemail without even opening the phone. It does seem to be slightly quieter than other phones in terms of microphone reception, but I haven't had people complain they couldn't hear me. I don't use a Bluetooth headset, or Bluetooth headphones, so I can't speak to the functionality of this phone in that regard. It's nice to finally see support for Bluetooth stereo headphones come in a phone out of the box and not be a "wait months for it" scenario all previous generation phones offered.

I haven't talked about the screen much, but it's bright and vibrant with strong contrast. It's 2.2 inches in size, and when combined with the 320 x 240 resolution, displays text and graphics very crisply. Fonts are smooth, almost as nice as the VGA screen on my Jasjar - icons look a bit jagged though. The backlight is the high-power, maximum brightness variety that sucks battery life, so thankfully you can configure it to time out after 5, 10, 15, 30, 60 seconds, or never. The display will go from low power (dim) mode to completely off after 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 30, 60 minutes, or never. There's also a light sensor that turns on the keyboard backlight – this can be turned off in the settings if you never want to have it come on.

And The Camera? Well, More of the Same
I've yet to be impressed by any camera in a phone, and this phone is no different. It's 1.3 megapixels, resulting in images 1280 x 1024 pixels in resolution, but as you can see with this sample picture I took indoors under fluorescent lighting, the quality isn't great. There's a saying that the best camera you have is the one you have on you, but I honestly don't feel like I'm carrying a camera when I have the HTC Star Trek on me. It lacks a flash, is essentially useless in low light scenarios, and has a very slow shutter lag, making it horribly awkward to take photos of people with.

I will say that the camera software has evolved nicely, allowing for adjustment of exposure by +2/-2 stops, a self timer (though I can't imagine how you'd use this), several photo modes (greyscale, sepia, cool). There's also a "frame" mode where the camera will wrap a cutesy frame around your image. I've read announcements from Samsung boasting of a 10 megapixel sensor in a camera phone, but this is much less about the megapixels and more about the sensor size (camera phones have small and noisy sensors) and optics. Until the quality of the image is improved, making it bigger just gives you a bigger poor-quality image.

All Sweetness and Light? No, But I Still Want One
This review had a lot of negative points in it, but I still want to buy one of these. Why? Simple: every phone has trade-offs, and the key to finding the perfect phone for your needs is to decide what you care about and what you don't. The things I want in a phone are a clamshell design, a slender profile, great battery life, Bluetooth, EDGE, a bright screen, great keypad, and a slick design. The HTC Star Trek delivers on all of those requirements in spades. The use of the external screen is basic, but it's a great start. I also have a lingering concern about dust under the screen, because every single HTC phone I've had has gotten a significant amount of dust under the screen. No phone this expensive should get dust under the screen, so I sincerely hope HTC has finally put some effort into sealing the phones against dust.

Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys mobile devices, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, his sometimes obedient dog, and he was sorry he had to send the HTC Star Trek back.

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