Take a look at the top tier of Android phones right now and you might notice something. They all kind of look the same. Black front fascia, large touchscreen, minimal waistline. Boring, right? Well that's just the way things are going. Alternatives to the slate way of living are becoming increasingly rare, which puts the HTC Desire Z with its hardware keyboard in an intriguing light. With its metallic accents and suave grey pallet, the Desire Z cuts a different path. So how do I mean rare? If you want a top-level QWERTY Android phone in the USA you have a fairly limited selection to choose from: Sprint has the Samsung Epic 4G, Verizon the Motorola Droid 2 and T-Mobile the HTC G2. The first two there are CDMA which leaves only the T-Mobile handset in contention for GSM customers, unless your carrier happens to stock the Motorola Milestone as well. On either side of the Atlantic, QWERTY sliders appears to be a dying breed whichever way you look at it, so I was curious to see whether or not the added bulk and complexity of a hardware keyboard was worth it. Having had the phone for a couple of months, let's take a look at this device from a hardware perspective, pertaining to both the HTC Desire Z and T-Mobile G2.
There are certainly other GSM Android phones with hardware keyboards, but the only one to compete with the Desire Z on specs is the Milestone 2, which is hardly a commonplace sight. Two lower-tier QWERTY devices for the more budget-minded buyer are the Motorola Charm and Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro. Even disregarding the form-factor differences, there are few similarities between the keyboard of the Charm and that of the Desire Z. On Motorola's candy-bar handset, the keys are laid out in a strictly grid-shaped pattern, taking up the entirety of the bottom of the phone with their dome-shaped squishiness. By contrast, the Desire Z's board is comfortably wide, with firm, staggered keys that are nicely separated. This may seem to all be in favour of the Desire Z, but one thing you may notice if you've gone from the Charm to the HTC slider is that it's not possible to type by "rocking" your fingers. That is, if you have your finger on one key, it's not possible to hit others simply by flexing your thumb joint and pressuring an adjacent key from the side. The QWERTY slider form-factor of the DZ makes for fairly flat keys, and coupled with the firmer mechanism, each letter requires a quite deliberate press. Looking on the bright side, this does lead to less "mis-presses".
If the compact and mushy keys of the Charm are one end of a keyboard spectrum, the X10 Mini Pro's are certainly at the other. Like the Charm, the X10 MP has a straight grid layout, but on the other hand has even firmer keys than the Desire Z, and (relatively) wider spacing. The Desire Z clearly fits in somewhere between these two extremes, and its compromise between the other two experiences makes for a better over-all performance than the two cheaper handsets provide.
The Desire Z is no great leap in hardware specs compared to the shift that its predecessors the Nexus One and Desire represented. In fact, the previous generation had a 1 GHz CPU compared to the Desire Z's 800 MHz. Hertz fanatics need not worry, however, with the MSM 7230 proving its worth with a smooth overall experience. In terms of graphical power, the DZ's Adreno 205 provides a direct upgrade to the Adreno 200 of the previous generation, pushing more than thrice the polygons per second. This leads me to the screen. Some may lament the loss of AMOLED from the Desire family, but for all intents and purposes the 3.7" Super-LCD in the DZ acquitted itself admirably. In fact, sharpness was greatly improved over the preceding PenTile matrix experience. This was most noticeable with small text, rendering zoomed out websites more legible than before, even with the same WVGA resolution. Of course, the SLCD can't touch AMOLED for black contrast levels, but I've seen far worse LCD implementations. Another area where the screen surprised was viewing angles, providing reasonably accurate colours at all but the most extreme of perspectives.
The Desire Z's S-LCD can't quite compete on colour vibrancy or black levels, but acquits itself well in a viewing-angle faceoff
One small issue that was encountered occasionally was striping on the screen, with semi-transparent vertical bands appeared on the screen in bright-light situations. It's difficult to tell if this is from the panel itself or is some form of adhesive residue, but its presence is nonetheless a concern.
If this is your first hardware keyboard phone, as it was mine, you might notice that typing is not immediately dramatically faster, if at all. Particularly thanks to the wideness of the Desire Z's keyboard, moving your fingers around to press keys can seem to be quite cumbersome compared to a compact onscreen portrait keyboard. However, this wideness eventually rewards with its reliability and accuracy. Given time, typing speeds eclipse anything found on a touchscreen and make the return to even something like Swype quite slow and painstaking. Having basically had the phone as my sole device for so long does lead to withdrawal symptoms when forced to resort to a touchscreen, and the lack of physical feedback can be somewhat unnerving.
That's not to say that the keyboard and button layout is perfect. An initial issue I encountered was the positioning of the double-width Shift keys, placed in the extreme bottom left and right corners. Coming from the Android virtual keyboard or indeed a keyboard on a computer, your brain is trained to expect some kind of Control or Alt key in this position, with the Shift key above. However, given time with this layout the positioning does make finding the Shift key easier in general: simply aiming for the bottom-left corner will generally do. Of course, once you're used to this it conversely makes it very awkward when switching back to a touchscreen Android phone. Using the DZ for a month and then switching back to my Nexus One resulted in quite a few words beginning with numbers. Not much of an issue if the DZ is your sole portable device, but if you're the kind that always has a few phones or touchscreen PMPs on-the-go at the one time, it can make switching between devices less facile than you might like.
The keyboard includes several shortcut keys besides the standard letters and punctuation symbols. There are Menu and Search keys present, but no Home or Back button. In a situation where you are wearing gloves, you might think that having real buttons would be a great boon, but those last two omissions make navigating extremely difficult. Two user-programmable shortcut buttons are found in the bottom right of the keyboard but these can only be mapped to launch applications or system shortcuts. It is understandable that the back key would be left out for fear of accidental presses, but the ability to add it back in using the shortcut buttons would be invaluable for those of us compelled to wear gloves outdoors. Even more puzzling is the positioning of the four capacitive action buttons on the front face of the device. Despite the lack of a back button on the keyboard itself, the capacitive equivalent is placed third from the left, making it a chore to press in landscape orientation even without gloves on. Above the capacitive buttons is a trackpad which thankfully uses an optical sensor rather than capacitive touch, and proves quite useful. This trackpad has a white LED surround which does not quite match the RGB LED trackball of the Nexus One etc but is better than nothing.
Taking the phone in your hand for the first time, the heft of the device is immediately noticeable. The device is solid and the weight does lend a certain assurance of quality. This phone should (and has) survived a few minor drops without any trouble. As for the heaviness, it doesn't prove to be an issue in day-to-day use. Coming from a purely slate device, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Desire Z is overweight. But given time with the phone, you become accustomed to the feel, and subsequently slimmer touchscreen-only phones start to feel somehow light and frail.
Of course, this weight comes from the presence of the previously discussed hardware keyboard. The keyboard also produces another issue you might have heard about... the Z-hinge.
The hinge has received plenty of coverage in its time. From overboard praise at launch to now near infamy following its release into consumers' hands. It was quickly realized that the hinge mechanism was of the loose variety in a great number of units, and such was the case with my own. Holding the phone by the top half resulted in the keyboard section dropping beneath and swinging about freely. This might not seem like such an issue, and it's not a situation you find yourself in frequently, but it's symptomatic of the general looseness of the mechanism. Even with the phone closed there is wobble between the two layers of the keyboard and screen sections, and tapping the screen can result in some shakiness if you are not gripping the sides tightly. On the plus side, the Z-hinge does fulfil its intended purpose in that the Desire Z is beautifully thin when opened, with the two L-shaped layers sliding and nesting quite wonderfully.
The camera of the Desire Z is based on a solid foundation, with the Desire and Nexus One being capable cameras in their own right. The Desire Z still has the same 5 MPx max resolution, but there does seem to be something of an increase in quality. Sharpness and saturation are particularly improved over the previous generation. The Desire Z also has a dedicated two-stage camera shutter button. This might seem like cause for celebration, but its implementation is somewhat lacking. The button is located above and right as you'd expect, and is a thin sliver of shininess on the top half of the device, ie the screen layer. Because of the looseness of the hinge, pressing this shutter button results in some wobbling of both the screen and the device. Further hampering shooting is the issue that the shutter button's mechanism is quite firm, and taking a photo often results in blurriness due to the force exerted just to take the picture. So, while the presence of a camera button might seem like a positive, photos taken using the touch-screen were generally superior in sharpness. Focussing can also by done by simply tapping the relevant object on screen, or by Face Detection.
Another disappointment came with the discovery that the infamous "pink cloud" that has plagued so many other HTC devices is alive and well on the Desire Z. In moderate to dim lighting you may notice a pink circular blur tinging the centre of your images, a problem found on the Nexus One and HD2 also. See the blurry shot in the middle row above for an example of this.
The Desire Z records video in 720P at 30 frames per second, standard for top-end phones nowadays. Quality is acceptable but isn't going to win any meaningful awards. Unfortunately the relatively low framerate can result in tearing when panning and the all too familiar jelly-cam effect.
Rated at 1300 mAh, the Desire Z's battery is quite compact, which is understandable considering the device is already fairly large. However, you should be able to manage a full day of use quite comfortably, something that can't be said for the Desire Z's monolithic brother, the Desire HD. The phone also has quite impressive stand-by time. In airplane mode, with WiFi switched on, it survived on my bedside locker for nearly a fortnight without conking out. Of course, the Desire Z also features HTC's fast boot feature, so you can always shut down your phone temporarily when not in use, then power it back up near-instantly when so desired.
On the subject of the battery, the Desire Z's battery lid is somewhat problematic. The cover itself is nicely machined out of metal, but the release mechanism appeared feeble and often caught when trying to open the phone. There was also a slight gap around the edge resulting in some movement of the cover when closed.
So, after this extended period of use, how to summarize? If you're into wearing tight jeans, the relative chubbiness of the DZ may not fit your wardrobe. Should you be a media person, there are larger, brighter screens. But if you're a worker, a typer, a "power-user", this is one just for you. The Desire Z is unashamedly dedicated to the best typing experience, and proves without doubt that a hardware keyboard is still the way to go. Personally, I hope that the Desire Z stands as an indication by HTC that they don't plan to abandon their high-spec QWERTY slider tradition any time soon, because when it comes time for my Nexus One to retire, that's what I'll be looking for.