Cute and compact, but HTC's new ultraportable is compromised by some poor software and design choices.
HTC is a seasoned veteran when it comes to smartphones and PDAs, and it’s this experience that’s given the company a leg up on other ultraportable notebook vendors. Despite several months of delays in shipping (we were originally expecting it before Christmas last year), the Shift is well worth the wait for road warriors. If you’ve seen the HTC TyTN II smartphone, you’ll find a lot of similarity in the Shift’s design. Like the TyTN II, it has a small keyboard that slides down from behind the screen, and the display can be tilted forward - similar to a notebook. It’s a versatile form factor, but the sliding mechanism feels clunky, and snapping the display back after it’s been tilted forward results in an alarming cracking sound.
The Shift’s compact footprint – almost identical to a DVD case – and 800g carry weight makes it ideal for mobile working. The touchscreen lets you use it as a slate (with the keyboard hidden away) or in standard notebook configuration, but unlike the smaller TyTN, the Shift’s orientation doesn’t swap between portrait and landscape automatically, nor does HTC include a utility for doing this manually. Native display resolution on the seven-inch screen is 800 x 480, but for windows that assume a higher pixel count, a button to the right of the screen switches resolution to a larger 1,024 x 600. This isn’t true 1,024 x 600 – it uses interpolation to artificially scale the resolution up – so everything looks a lot fuzzier .
One of the Shift’s biggest selling points is its integrated keyboard. If you’re expecting it to be notebook-sized, you’re in for a disappointment – the keys are about a third the size of a full keyboard. After a few hours of practice, we were able to touch type at a reasonable speed, making ample use of the backspace key (which is the same tiny size as the rest of the keyboard). Another compromise is the limited number of ports on the Shift, comprising of a lone USB 2.0 port, VGA and an SD card slot, but it comes with a USB adapter that adds three USB, mini-USB and Ethernet ports.
At least it’s well-appointed for wireless connectivity, with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, 3.6Mbit/s HSDPA connectivity (using a SIM card) and Bluetooth. Other features include a VGA webcam, fingerprint reader and 40GB hard drive (with 21GB of available storage).
Thankfully, HTC has configured the Shift with hardly any extra software, so there’s minimal drain on the machine’s limited resources. With an 800MHz Intel A110 processor and 1GB of RAM, the Shift is no speed demon, but it runs perfectly well with a couple of Word documents and browser windows open. Video chat over Skype is too much for the little fella – audio and video is choppy, plus the odd positioning of the VGA webcam in the top-left corner means it only records half of your face.
Unique to the Shift is SnapVue mode: a Windows Mobile-based interface that functions independently of the main Windows shell, complete with its own 400MHz Qualcomm processor and separate memory. This means it can be used regardless of whether Windows is booted, and it’s mainly designed for instant-on access to push email, PIM items, SMS and the weekly weather forecast – none of the other Windows Mobile features are available.
But SnapVue has two main shortcomings: it only works over HSDPA – for some reason it doesn’t see the Shift’s Wi-Fi chip, and it doesn’t interact with any Windows programs, so meetings you’ve scheduled in your Outlook calendar aren’t visible in SnapVUE, and vice versa – unless you’re connected to an Exchange server.
UMPCs aren’t renowned for good battery life, but the Shift isn’t too bad. Using a mix of word processing and web browsing over Wi-Fi (using the power saver plan), we got three hours of run-time. Unlike the MacBook Air, the battery is replaceable, so road warriors can carry a couple of spares for all-day battery life.