When you pay a premium to get cell phone service all over the globe, there’s something undeniably silly about using the same expensive minutes to make calls from your house when there’s a perfectly usable Wi-Fi connection sitting around. You could hop on Skype and make calls for cheap, of course, but the inconvenience of that process compared to just dialing a friend means that most people never take advantage of it.
The latest version of T-Mobile’s Shadow cuts the complication out of the equation by automatically connecting to available Wi-Fi networks, and offering customers unlimited minutes through it (as long as they’ve paid $10 a month for the premium Unlimited HotSpot Calling package). While it’s not the only phone with this functionality, it’s the first Windows Mobile device to do it. Together with a larger screen and more curvaceous profile, T-Mobile hopes to sell old Shadow fans on a new “official phone of fun.” But is this modest upgrade enough to revive a so-so model from 2007? We put the 2009 model to the test to find out.
Features and Design
Like its predecessor, the Shadow adopts a narrow-but-deep candybar form factor, measuring a little over four inches long, two inches wide, and 0.6 inches thick. It fits neatly into a pocket, but a relatively heavy weight of 150 grams definitely won’t let you forget it’s there.
The screen on the 2009 model remains at 2.6 inches, with relatively standard QVGA resolution. It’s seated above the usual array of basic cell buttons for starting and ending calls, jumping to the home screen, and making menu selections. The main control, though, is a spinning scroll wheel that can also be depressed at its edges to work as a four-way directional pad.
Despite the strikingly similar look, fans will note that HTC has reworked the outside to take on a less angular shape than the original Shadow, knocking off the corners to complement the gentle curve of the top and bottom. The face slides away vertically to reveal a 20-key keyboard, which mimics a full QWERTY by shoehorning two letters onto each key (similar, for instance, to the BlackBerry Pearl). Predictive text capability allows the phone to figure out which of the two letters you intended to press.
The edges of the new Shadow have a healthy number of controls discretely recessed in, including a top power button, side volume rocker, dedicated camera button, and an info button that can basically be customized to do whatever you want it to, making a clean shortcut to your most-used applications. Despite all the controls, HTC didn’t bother to include a dedicated headphone jack, which is a major faux pas on any modern smartphone. Instead, you’ll need to use an included USB adapter.
Inside, the Shadow has a faster processor than the original, but a meager 128MB of RAM means multimedia fans will need to rely on the side-loading microSD slot for storage, which can accommodate cards up to 8GB. Sadly, Internet speeds have also remained stagnant between generations, giving this model rather sluggish EDGE access.
Currently, T-Mobile offers the phone in “White Mint” and “Black Burgundy.” We really liked the finish on our white model: It has a pearlescent shimmer to it at an angle that reminded us of the Cadillac Escalade’s signature paint scheme, with a matte finish and even more obvious green gradient on the rear battery door.
The box for the Shadow feels like it’s loaded with gold doubloons, but as we disappointingly discovered when we opened it, most of that weight comes from near inch-thick pile of paper documentation, including a quick-start guide, user manual, and limited warranty. Fortunately, T-Mobile hasn’t really skimped on the real accessories, either. You get a standard USB data cable, charger, USB headphones, and even a sturdy-feeling clip case with a magnetic clasp. The USB adapter that offers both 3.5mm and 2.5mm headphone jacks makes a fine inclusion, but we wish we didn’t need it at all.
Operating System and Software
Though the Shadow uses Windows Mobile 6.1, HTC has tweaked the user interface to better jive with the phone’s signature scroll wheel. A handful of major options (browse, manage connections, media, etc.) run down the left side of the screen, which can be clicked to using the directional pad, then navigated quickly within on the right hand of the screen using the scroll wheel. Though it’s an improvement from the default Windows Mobile home screen, which is more suited for a stylus, it’s also quite a thin coat of plaster, since clicking past it will send you back into default Windows menus, and many options require using the clunky Start menu. Like a lot of customized Windows Mobile phones, this one also seems to act like a bit of a slug when asked to leaf through menus quickly or open apps.
Technically, the Shadow has a browser that’s able to handle full HTML pages, but the speed of EDGE Internet and its atrocious rendering make it pretty much the kind of tool you would only tolerate to retrieve vital information in a pinch. Routine Web browsing for fun ended in utter frustration, even after we connected it to Wi-Fi, because of how poorly it formats pages that don’t have a mobile version available.
Even ignoring the lack of a dedicated stereo jack, the Shadow feels just plain clumsy as a media device thanks to Windows Media player, which technically works but doesn’t feel very inviting or easy to use for the novice user. Sound output to the included headphones could be called modest, at best. Full volume sounds just about right in a quiet room, but encounter some background noise and you have no extra volume to lay on. Surprisingly enough, the built-in speaker kicks out a more-than-adequate amount of volume for most situations, even if does suffer from the unavoidable tinny sound quality that marks every cell phone speaker.
The scroll wheel turns out to be a mixed blessing for the Shadow. It works well for loose tasks like zooming in and out of a picture, or skipping down a long list, but feels too imprecise for routine tasks like picking the right icon from a grid. Fortunately, it works as a four-way directional pad too, but having both functions built into one button can cause accidental “spin-click” as you attempt to click and end up imparting an accidental spin on the wheel as you press down. The slide-out keypad feels quite cluttered, and although the semi-QWERTY keyboard makes entering long texts and e-mails faster than on a regular number keypad because of predictive texting, having to clarify which of the two letters you meant to press for e-mail addresses and proper names can be a drag.
Call Quality and Reception
Setting the phone up to make Wi-Fi calls is surprisingly simple: Just let it scan for your network, plug in the password, and it does the rest. A pink Wi-Fi icon appears where your cellular reception normally does to indicate that you’re ready to make calls over a router. Afterwards, you can make calls exactly as you would normally. Parties on the other end noted that our voices sounded better on Wi-Fi, but to us, the difference in caller voice quality was indiscernible. However, moving to the edge of our Wi-Fi coverage resulted in warbled voice, and some noticeable breakup, so the handover from Wi-Fi to cell towers isn’t completely seamless. In general, voices sounded perfectly fine on both networks, we would just be wary of using it in areas of spotty Wi-Fi coverage.
The included 2.0-megapixel camera goes a bit above and beyond your average camera phone in options. You’ll be able, for instance, to choose between different white balance options, resolutions, brightness, and even a self timer, all from an easily accessible menu. Though pictures looked presentable, save for the usual caveat of digital noise in low light and blown out highlights, the entire process camera-taking experience seems to strain the phone to its limits. The screen has considerable lag time, the delay between shutter press and picture taken is huge, and saving a photo to memory after snapping it takes an eternity while the Windows “busy” pinwheel spins in the foreground.
HTC advertises a battery life of seven hours talk time and 160 hours (about seven days) standby time, which seems to reflect our own experiences using the phone. Even with considerable fiddling, it seemed to hold onto a charge quite well, and a quick 15 minute trip to the charger was always enough to revive it for another day of use. We would certainly call battery life above average for this class of device.
For “the official phone of fun,” we couldn’t find a whole lot to get excited about with the new T-Mobile Shadow. Unlimited HotSpot Calling may prove to be a boon for homebodies, but the $10 monthly fee might easily negate any savings for people who don’t use it frequently enough – that cash can buy you another 300 to 500 minutes when applied to your basic plan, after all. If you don’t even plan to use the HotSpot technology, we can’t really find another truly compelling feature to recommend this phone. For anyone who can tolerate slow EDGE Internet, we far prefer the identically priced, smaller and sexier BlackBerry Curve 8900. And for another $50, the T-Mobile G1 blows it out of the water.
- Unlimited Hotspot calling
- Attractive finish
- Solid accessory bundle
- Acceptable camera images
- Above-average battery life
- Slightly sluggish OS performance
- Half-QWERTY keyboard
- No built-in headphone jack
- Slow EDGE Internet
- Scroll wheel can be tricky
- Camera lags
- Call quality breaks up on the fringe of Wi-Fi signal
- Heavy for its size