Imagio is Impressivio

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 3:35 AM

The Imagio is a phone that would be easy to overlook. After all, not only does it face the usual opponent, the iPhone that clearly influenced its design, it also faces the Motorola Droid, which is Verizon’s most newsworthy phone in years – and deservedly so. That the Imagio has been somewhat lost in the dizzying lead up to the Droid’s launch is too bad; the Imagio deserves some attention of its own.

The Imagio makes an impressive first impression. Out of its box it is immediately apparent that it is an exceptionally sturdy, sleek phone. The pieces fit together very firmly - without the usual give that plastic components often have. The design is not particularly different from other keyboard-less phones, but its particular layout is pleasing and functional.

The Imagio is a “Windows phone” (the new branding for Windows Mobile 6.5), but other than the start menu and physical Windows logo button, it wouldn't be immediately apparent. HTC has taken the base OS and covered it almost entirely with its own proprietary TouchFLO 3D interface. Most typical tasks on the phone - dialing, calendar, contacts, weather, etc. - are all quickly accessible from TouchFLO's home screen, which moves from category to category using silky smooth transitions.

The Imagio's home screen.

As critical - if not more so - than the beautiful effects used to make the phone flow from point to point is having powerful enough hardware to do it quickly so that the interface enhancements actually enhance the experience. The Imagio is fast.

It is the little, unique things that make the iPhone the iPhone, and the Imagio enjoys many unique touches of its own. For example, the weather shows up in addition to a clock on the home screen. This weather widget uses the phone's location service to display the right forecast for a given locale. A small touch, but a handy one when traveling - doesn't one usually want to see the weather for the current location, after all? Subtle animated touches on the weather icons make viewing the forecast fun - even on gloomy days.

Subtle touches are what differentiate a superb UI from a mediocre one; HTC has done a heroic job of crafting a superb interface on top of a mediocre base interface - Windows Mobile 6.5.

HTC's extremely polished variant of its interface that appears particularly on the Imagio is so well crafted that even iPhone users will find something to be jealous about. And that is saying something that can be said about very few other phones. The only disadvantage to the system, with its well designed proprietary “face,” is that there is something of a split personality on the phone between the beautiful applications HTC bundles and other, generic Windows Mobile apps that look, well, like Windows Mobile apps.

As HTC (and Verizon) appear to increasingly be moving towards Android, this point may become moot, since HTC is taking its enhancements to an already much more modern feeling platform (our HTC Droid Eris review will be forthcoming). Nonetheless, even with Windows Mobile underneath, for the sorts of things one is typically going to do on the phone, HTC delivers the interface goods with TouchFLO 3D.

Beyond the interface's polish, basic functionality works well. Phone reception was excellent, showing off well Verizon's robust 3G network. Voice quality was not as good as that of some phones we've tested, but it was nothing to sneeze at. Additionally, the phone sported an extremely good speakerphone nearing, although not besting, our current favorite speakerphone - the LG enV Touch. Signal strength was good, as we've come to expect on current Verizon 3G phones; the Imagio performed better than the Motorola Droid in this regard.

Neil Cavuto's Your World program on Fox News plays live via Mobile TV.

Perhaps one of the most “gee-whiz” features on the Imagio - and one made substantially better by the beautiful screen - is the phone's built in support for live mobile TV. The back of the unit has a small flip out antenna that pulls in a dozen or so channels and also serves as a support that keeps the phone at a comfortable TV watching angle when set on a table or desk. Verizon is quick to note how handy this is for entertaining children while traveling, particularly since it includes channels such as Nickelodeon; however, it is also perfect for news junkies, with three major news networks included (Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC). Picture quality is impressively good for mobile TV too.

As I noted earlier, both Verizon and HTC seem to be sensing momentum behind Android, certainly a trend enhanced by Windows Mobile's stagnation as a platform. With the somewhat more robustly designed Motorola Droid now available for the same $199, and a very similar HTC Droid Eris retailing for $99, why should you choose the Imagio?

For the business user in a Microsoft-friendly enterprise, the answer is rather simple: Imagio is better equipped for integration with other Microsoft systems with a full bevy of Microsoft apps on board. But, many consumers may also want to give the Imagio a serious look: its UI is truly a work of art, its built in weather, stock and multimedia apps are more polished than those on the Droid (although similar to the ones on the Droid Eris) and the mobile TV is a nice touch.

On the other hand, looking forward, Android appears to have more of a future than Windows Mobile - unless Microsoft pulls off something really great with Windows Mobile 7. The fact that the beauty of the Imagio does not follow into standard Windows Mobile apps inevitably makes the Imagio somewhat of a mixed interface bag, particularly for users who prefer direct touch over stylus input. Moreover, Google Maps Navigator makes the Droid significantly cheaper over a two-year contract if you would otherwise subscribe to VZNavigator on the Imagio.

We also prefer the cross platform synchronization support of Google's cloud services, which avoids the need for third party solutions to get a phone to sync with a Mac or Linux box. (However, it should be added, one can use Google Sync's ActiveSync support to sync a Windows phone with Google too.)

Does that mean we hesitate to recommend the Imagio? By no means! The Imagio is an incredibly well designed phone that reaches a point in design that few other phones have reached. Within the realm of HTC TouchFLO 3D, we would suggest only the iPhone and Palm Pre are in the same interface league. As odd as it may sound, some of the smart design decisions make the interface simply… exciting.

In a hardware comparison with the Droid, the Imagio feels slightly more solid to this reviewer, but the Droid is more flexible and both its onscreen keyboard and slide out mechanical one beat the Imagio's onscreen keyboard. Given the increasing importance of typing on a phone, that is significant.

Which device is better depends on your needs, however. If you need a Windows phone or you are intrigued by some of the Imagio's unique selling points, such as mobile TV, it is a solid device that will not disappoint. Android may ultimately be the future, but the Imagio brings a bit of future with it, right now (HTC/Verizon, $199,