- Review Date: 2/25/11
- Bottom line:
HTC rewrites the feature phone playbook with the Freestyle, a powerful multimedia device for AT&T with a beautiful user interface.
Surprisingly slick UI for a feature phone. Expansive, responsive touch screen. Svelte aluminum design.
Mediocre camera. Evil bloatware. MicroSD card slot buried under the battery release mechanism.
We've been predicting the eventual end of obstinate, crippled feature phones for some time now. But the HTC Freestyle could change that—or at least delay the inevitable. It's the first in a volley of BREW MP cell phones long promised from AT&T. The Freestyle's slick HTC Sense UI layer makes this a feature phone like no other. AT&T has also refrained from its usual practice of requiring a data plan with the Freestyle, meaning that the Freestyle can serve a wide berth of customers with varying needs. All of this adds up to an easy Editors' Choice win for AT&T feature phones—but hold that thought, as the picture is a bit more complicated than it appears.
Design, Screen, and Call Quality
Let's start with the basics. The HTC Freestyle's svelte aluminum housing inspires confidence. It measures 4.2 by 2.2 by 0.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.5 ounces. The unibody design doesn't extend to the removable battery; in this it's actually better than the iPhone, which seals the battery in place and requires service at Apple for eventual replacement. The 3.2-inch glass capacitive display sports a healthy 320-by-480-pixel resolution, which is typical for Android phones but luxurious on a feature phone like the Freestyle. Three hardware keys below the screen handle Send, Back, and End duties, and there's a thin fourth key to the left that acts like a Menu key on an Android phone.
There's no accelerometer, but the Menu key has a landscape shortcut button for the browser and SMS. You get on-screen QWERTY keyboards in both portrait and landscape modes. Typing was accurate and relatively quick, given the slightly cramped screen size. Dialing numbers was also easy and fast.
The Freestyle is a quad-band EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) and dual-band HSDPA 7.2 (850/1900 MHz) device; that means it can hit 3G data speeds here in the U.S. but only 2G data speeds when roaming overseas. There's no Wi-Fi. Voice quality was good, with a caveat; callers sounded reasonably full and clear in the earpiece. But on two separate calls, there was plenty of hiss and static, where a nearby Samsung Captivate didn't have the same problem to the same number. Later calls sounded just fine on both devices; I'll give the Freestyle a pass on reception quality, since it could have been a momentary glitch.
Calls sounded fine through an Aliph Jawbone Icon ($99, 4 stars) Bluetooth headset. Sadly, there's no voice dialing of any kind; a preloaded Vlingo voice control app costs $3 per month. The speakerphone wasn't great, with plenty of hiss and a thin, distorted tone at top volume. Battery life was excellent for a 3G phone on AT&T at 6 hours and 46 minutes of talk time.
User Interface, Apps, and Multimedia
HTC developed a version of its Sense UI for BREW MP, and I'm happy to report it's sleek, responsive, and easy to navigate. There are seven customizable home screens that you can swipe between. The main menu consists of three screens of 12 icons each; on-screen fonts were sharp and crisp. Combined with a 528MHz Qualcomm MSM7225 processor—insufficient for Android, but fine in this application—the Freestyle's UI works nicely in day-to-day use.
The Freestyle's Friendstream app aggregates status updates for Facebook and Twitter; you can also set up background polling for each. HTC's own WebKit-based browser served up accurate WAP and desktop HTML pages, with smooth scrolling and pinch-zoom functionality. AT&T Instant Messaging and Mobile E-mail hook into most major services aside from Google Talk. But the IM client dings your messaging plan, while the e-mail client costs $5 extra per month. (Tip: use the browser and check e-mail with each service's mobile Web site for free.)
The only major downside software-wise comes courtesy of AT&T. On each of the three menus, roughly half the icons are slow-loading links to AT&T AppCenter, which offers downloads and deceptive extra-cost services. For example, some of the icons lead to free downloads with prominent "Upgrade: $0.00" labeling, but they're actually trials that automatically lead to monthly charges if you don't cancel in time—often before you even get to test out the app. That is just evil.
The standard-size 3.5mm headphone jack was a welcome bonus. Getting at the microSD memory card slot was tough, as it's buried behind two separate covers (one rubber, one plastic); opening the second one disconnects the battery. My 32GB SanDisk card worked fine, and you can sync media with a PC or Mac via USB instead. HTC claims 256MB of internal memory, but I couldn't figure out how to find how much is available for users.
Music tracks sounded clear over Motorola S9-HD ($129, 3.5 stars) Bluetooth headphones. Interestingly, the Freestyle seems to contain circuitry that automatically limits volume to prevent hearing damage. I couldn't figure out how to defeat it for testing purposes, but I approve of the concept. Cueing up music tracks was easy from the My Stuff icon, but the AT&T Music icon was a link to yet more slow-loading bloatware. There's also a built-in FM radio. Standalone MP4 and 3GP videos (but not WMV) played smoothly in full screen mode at up to 30 frames per second.
Camera, Comparisons, and Conclusions
The 3.2-megapixel camera lacks auto-focus or an LED flash. Test photos were just okay, with a soft focus and shadowy darker areas. Outdoor shots weren't particularly colorful either. Shutter speeds were a bit below average, but the Freestyle saved photos quickly. Recorded 480-by-320-pixel videos were smooth at 21 frames per second, but an unusually low bit rate precluded any sense of detail and too much pixelation in spots.
All told, the HTC Freestyle is a fine voice phone with a much smoother and more attractive interface than other feature phones on AT&T. The problem is, that competition is tough—and doesn't always cost more. For example, the Apple iPhone 3GS ($49, 4.5 stars) is a natural choice for someone on a budget who wants more power than the Freestyle offers in a similar form factor. The iPhone offers Wi-Fi, better music playback, and access to over 300,000 apps. It's also a stellar gaming machine. Another great option is the HTC Inspire 4G ($99, 4 stars), which delivers the same HTC Sense UI, but with a 4.3-inch, higher-resolution screen, a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, HSPA+ network speeds, free GPS navigation, and the ability to run over 200,000 apps from Android Market.
Both the Inspire 4G and the iPhone 3GS these require at least a $15-per-month data plan from AT&T. But you may already be considering a data plan with the HTC Freestyle. See the problem? The good news is that you win in all three cases, because these are three great phones.
Continuous talk time: 6 hours 46 minutes