This unique and very exciting form factor is a real attention grabber to anyone that sees it being demonstrated. I had the opportunity to play with a pre-production version of the HTC Universal that was in the booth at Microsoft’s Mobile Embedded Developers Conference and at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo. People would stop immediately after their eye caught the 180 degree swiveling VGA screen in action revealing a QWERTY thumb keyboard. The hinge design allows the screen to be protected by folding flat over the keyboard (Fig 1.)
This was running Microsoft's recently announced Windows Mobile 5 software. (See fig 4) This latest version of Windows Mobile has lots of internal changes to the software but the obvious ones are the look and feel. It is now more uniform to what you have on a Windows Mobile Smartphone so that one handed operation is more easily accomplished.
Unfortunately the device didn’t have a functional SIM card so I wasn’t able to test phone or data connections. The design idea is that you can still answer a phone call without opening the cover by simply pressing the talk button on the hinge (Fig. 1 again). There is a speaker accessible through the cover for your ear and the microphone is located at the bottom near the SD slot.
Lift up on the cover to expose the QWERTY keyboard and the beautiful VGA color screen automatically starts in landscape viewing mode. The screen looked amazingly bright, matching the brilliance of the Dell X50v’s VGA screen. PowerPoint presentations viewed on this screen were stunningly sharp and clear.
The keys were plenty large for my fat thumbs to handle but it did take a little time to adjust to the flat feel of these keys. In addition, I had to adapt to the position of the keys. Although it is a QWERTY layout, the keys are aligned on a horizontal/vertical grid—different from the vertically staggered alignment of a traditional keyboard. I think they could have made the keys a little smaller and staggered them, or raised them a little for a better tactile feel (like you find on the Samsung i730).
The clamshell mode with the landscape display above the keyboard is ideal for managing e-mail, documents or simply browsing the Web using the Wi-Fi or 3G/UMTS data connections. It’s also probably the best way to take advantage of the video conferencing capability of the device. The Universal has two cameras built into it. The one on the back of the unit captures pictures and video, which can be attached to e-mail and sent to friends or associates. The small built-in flash to the left of the lens (Fig. 2) helps improve picture quality.
The second is a VGA-capable video camera which can be used for video conferencing. It’s located on the front of the device adjacent to the display and navigation pad (Fig. 3). It’s well positioned for video conferencing with the Universal in clamshell mode sitting in front of you on a desk or table. The Universal has a camera application built into it, which lets you switch between and control either camera. Although the camera on the front of the device is designed primarily for video conferencing, it can also be used to take pictures or video.
Fig. 3: The HTC Universal in clamshell mode fits easily in the palm of your hand. Note the small black circle next to the lower right corner of the display. This is aperture of a VGA-capable video camera that can be used for video conferencing.
Again, since I didn’t have a SIM card, I couldn’t test the video conferencing. However, I did test the Universal’s Wi-Fi capability. It was easy to find and connect to the Wi-Fi network at the show. But because so many people were using the network, the data transfer rate was a little slow.
As mentioned, the display can be rotated 180 degrees and folded back over the keyboard, allowing you to use the Universal as a more traditional Pocket PC. The screen automatically switches to portrait viewing mode when you do this.
A little larger, but packed with power
Opened in clamshell mode, the HTC Universal is larger than most Pocket PCs. And weighing in at 10 ounces, it’s one of the heavier Windows Mobile devices around. But we’re talking inches and ounces here. Close the clamshell or fold the screen into portrait viewing mode, and the size difference isn’t that striking (Fig. 4).
The truth is, the HTC Universal needs the extra room to accommodate two digital cameras, a QWERTY keyboard, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth transceivers, and a 3G-capable GSM/GPRS phone. All in all, an extra couple of ounces is a small price to pay for the features built into this baby.
As is usual with new HTC phone devices, the Universal will be marketed overseas first. T-Mobile will release it as the MDA IV, Orange will release it as the SPV 3G), and Vodaphone as the VPA IV.
No word yet on which U.S. wireless carrier will offer the HTC Universal. When we find out, we’ll let you know.