Test Center review: AT&T Fuze sparks Windows Mobile

The AT&T-branded HTC Touch Pro smartens up the Windows phone with an expansive touch display, full keypad, and 3-D interface

If you're ready for a Windows Mobile smartphone with a large, VGA (480 by 640 pixels) display, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and quad-band radios for worldwide use, the Fuze is an excellent option. Thanks to the Fuze's bigger screen and keyboard, I prefer it to two other very good Windows Mobile 6.1 phones I've tested, the Palm Treo Pro and the HP iPaq 910c.

The AT&T-branded hardware I tested is almost identical to the HTC Touch Pro ($799, unlocked), Verizon HTC Touch Pro ($350), and the Sprint Touch Pro ($300, locked). It's a large and heavy device, measuring 4 by 2 by 0.7 inches and weighing in at 5.8 ounces. The size and weight are welcome trade-offs for the bright 2.8-inch LCD touchscreen and solid keyboard that pops out sideways from under the handset.

[ Take a tour of the AT&T Fuze. And don't miss InfoWorld's guide to next-gen mobile and Test Center reviews of the iPhone 3G, T-Mobile G1, BlackBerry Storm, Palm Treo Pro, and HP iPaq 910c. ]

The biggest difference among the AT&T, HTC, and Sprint models is the keyboard layout. AT&T opted to use the top row for symbols, then overlaid numbers on the right side of the backlit keyboard. Therefore, you must press the function key while entering any numeral. Though I didn't have an issue with the generous key spacing, the flushness of the keys to the faceplate might cause errors when you're typing quickly.

With the keyboard closed, you control the Fuze with a circular, backlit control pad along with home, Back, and phone buttons that are also positioned under the screen. For working with applications, the touchscreen is very responsive to finger presses or taps with the included stylus.

I liked the dedicated power switch at the top of the case, plus the push-to-talk key and volume controls on the side. But you need to plug a dongle into the mini-USB port to use a wired headphone.

Windows dressing
HTC's TouchFlo 3D is a slick interface that masks Windows Mobile 6.1 from users. Overall, the interface design is very good, but needs a little more thought. There are often several, inconsistent ways to do the same thing -- unnecessary complexity that might confuse inexperienced users.

[ Find out more about Windows Mobile 6.1 by reading "Microsoft takes big step in managing enterprise handhelds." ]

The home screen, with keyboard closed, gives you essential information, including time, calendar, and call status. The bottom of the display has a scrolling ribbon for accessing most applications -- from messaging to multimedia. You swipe your finger to slide along the menu and press any of the large icons to perform tasks or reach more applications. The response is a little sluggish despite the Qualcomm MSM7201A processor running at 528MHz, but it's certainly tolerable and a bit faster compared to the unlocked HTC Touch Pro.

Managing memory, as on the Palm Treo Pro, requires just two clicks. From any screen you can display a drop-down menu to stop an application. Also, I found that by turning off TouchFlo, the Fuze performed about 10 percent faster.

As you get deep into some settings, such as Wi-Fi configuration, you're dropped from TouchFlo into standard Windows Mobile screens. Again, this shouldn't confound experienced Windows Mobile users, but it breaks the interface paradigm and might baffle novices.

You'll find two ways to access audio, via the nice TouchFlo player or the standard Windows Media Player Mobile 10 program. What's more, when you slide out the keyboard and switch to the landscape screen orientation (which the built-in accelerometer handles automatically and quickly), there's a different home screen; this provides yet another way to access a subset of applications.

At home at work
This quirkiness aside, the meat of the Fuze experience -- making phone calls and getting daily work done -- doesn't disappoint. As with other Windows Mobile devices, making calls is simple with the on-screen keypad; when you start to dial, there's a quick lookup of numbers from your contact list. Alternatively, you can dial (and execute other commands) using Microsoft's built-in Voice Command software.

Call quality on AT&T's HSDPA (High Speed Download Packet Access) network was constantly clear during my tests, and I didn't experience any dropped calls. Talk time is rated at up to 7.4 hours; I got about 6 hours in real-world testing.

The Fuze includes the standard Microsoft Mobile Office suite, which benefits greatly from the large screen and keyboard. It's a snap to edit a Word document or update an Excel spreadsheet. Similarly, connecting to a corporate Microsoft Exchange server for e-mail was seamless. For those not using Exchange, AT&T includes Xpress Mail, which gives you easy access to any POP e-mail server. AT&T indicated that Good Mobile Messaging and BlackBerry Connect compatibility will be offered by the end of 2008.

Using the Web was generally a pleasant experience for several reasons. The included Opera Mobile 9.5 browser rendered most sites accurately, the chief exceptions a consequence of no Flash support. The scroll dial lets you zoom in on pages, making them very readable. And you can move around a zoomed page by touching the screen and sliding your finger, but there's no multitouch-style zooming like on the iPhone. Similar to other parts of the interface, responding to scrolling and zooming took 1 to 2 seconds. On a 3G connection, most pages downloaded in 15 to 20 seconds.

Multimedia bonanza
The TouchFlo 3D media player matches the HTC's TouchFlo 3D shell. I scrolled through audio files by swiping my finger vertically -- though it's not as smooth as Apple's Cover Flow on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Unlike the renowned Apple iTunes experience, I found it confusing to get music from the AT&T Mobile Music service and to sync my local music library. Granted, for business users these points may not matter. Conversely, video playback (as might be required for a training session) looked great on the large screen.

Image and video quality from the 3.2-megapixel camera is very good. Photos shot outdoors, even on a cloudy day, were clear and showed broad color range. The autofocus locked in fast, but there's about a 1-second delay in taking shots. You can scan through photos with TouchFlo 3D, view as a gallery, or create a slideshow.

My biggest gripe with the Fuze is all the software AT&T adds (much of which can't be removed) at the expense of keeping the user experience enjoyable. In fairness, that's usually the case with locked devices from Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, or what-have-you.

GPS is a perfect example. You can pay $9.99 a month to use the preloaded AT&T Navigator software. But to use Google Maps, I had to download and install the application. And even then, I needed to go into the heart of Windows Mobile and futz with the GPS settings to make it work. In contrast, free GPS functioned without any of these steps on the HP iPAQ 910c and Palm Treo Pro.

Nevertheless, TouchFlo 3D is a very good attempt at isolating users from Windows Mobile. When combined with the well-designed HTC Touch Pro hardware, it represents the current pinnacle of a Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone for anyone needing a big screen and physical keyboard.

I feel that AT&T's Fuze incarnation of the Touch Pro is packed with too much demo and extraneous software. But with a significant price discount on the hardware compared to the unlocked version, I'd bet many users will put up with this inconvenience.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Usability (20.0%)
Networking (20.0%)
Messaging (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Multimedia (10.0%)
Extensibility (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
AT&T Fuze (HTC Touch Pro) 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.5

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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