HTC Touch Cruise (unlocked) review:

Navigation capabilities on smartphones are becoming an increasingly popular feature, and it’s almost gotten to the point where a handset is scoffed at if it doesn’t include GPS. Well, HTC is taking the concept to another level with its HTC Touch Cruise series by shipping the smartphone with full navigation software and maps. The first model debuted back in November 2007, but in January 2009, the smartphone manufacturer unveiled a revamped version of the HTC Touch Cruise, complete with an updated, and thankfully, slimmer design, and new geotagging software called HTC Footprints. The North American version of the Touch Cruise also ships with U.S. maps and comes with CoPilot Live navigation software, which includes your standard turn-by-turn voice directions, points of interest, and other useful extras.

The Touch Cruise proved to be a reliable navigator, and the Footprints app provides a great way to document and share your travels. As a smartphone, it was middle of the road, offering plenty of features but coming with the typical Windows Mobile sluggishness. The Touch Cruise definitely isn’t for everyone; it will be most useful to those who travel a lot, either for work and play, and want to minimize the gadgets they carry on the road. The HTC Touch Cruise is available unlocked for around $500, which is pricey. However, remember that for the price, you’re getting maps and full navigation features and won’t be required to pay a monthly subscription fee to use them.

The revamped HTC Touch Cruise thankfully sheds some of the weight and bulk of its predecessor. The smartphone is much more manageable and pocketable at 4 inches tall by 2.1 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and 3.6 ounces (compared to 4.3 inches by 2.2 inches by 0.6 inch and 4.5 ounces). While being incredibly light, the handset has a solid construction and feels comfortable to hold as a phone or as a handheld navigation device and comes with a soft finish on the back. In addition, the Touch Cruise is a more attractive handset with its updated look and rounder edges.

The HTC Touch Cruise is much more compact and attractive than its predecessor.

Despite the smaller design, there weren’t any sacrifices made to the screen size, which still comes in at 2.8 inches. The touch screen shows 65,000 colors at a 320×240-pixel resolution. While clear and bright, it’s not as sharp as some other smartphones we’ve seen, such as the HTC Touch Diamond. Also, the screen tends to wash out in bright sunlight, which is common with most cell phones, but it posed a problem when using the Touch Cruise as an in-car navigation system since we couldn’t see the maps very well. The smaller display size doesn’t help, either, but this is mitigated in part by the voice-guided directions. Still, the Touch Cruise is better suited as a handheld GPS.

As part of the Touch series, the Cruise uses HTC’s TouchFlo 3D interface that presents an aesthetically pleasing and easier way to access your information and applications. A toolbar along the bottom of the screen allows you to scroll through and launch applications, such as your e-mail, contacts, Web browser, and multimedia. As a GPS-centric phone, the Touch Cruise also adds tabs for the HTC Footprints geotagging app and Map Search.

Like HTC’s other Touch devices, the Cruise offers several methods for text entry. You can choose from a QWERTY, a compact QWERTY, a phone keypad, Block Recognizer, and more. Most of the time, we used the full QWERTY mode but even then, we found it to be quite cramped. We couldn’t type messages with just our thumbs, so we often had to use the stylus, which slowed us down. We encountered the same problem while entering destinations into CoPilot.

The Touch Cruise’s navigation controls include shortcuts to the device’s GPS apps, Talk and End keys, and a navigation wheel.

Below the display, you get a navigation array of Talk and End keys, shortcuts to the CoPilot and Footprints, and a navigation wheel with a center select button. The wheel is similar to the one on the original Touch Cruise; in addition to pressing it up, down, left, and right, you can rotate the wheel clockwise or counterclockwise to move through the menu items. It provided fairly good control, even though the wheel felt quite loose.

On the left spine, there’s a volume rocker, but it’s quite thin and a bit difficult to use when you’re on a call and need to adjust the sound. The camera is located on the back, and behind the battery cover, you’ll find the microSD expansion slot. Finally, there’s a reset hole and a mini USB port on the bottom that also serves as the power connector and headset jack. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again; the use of a nonstandard headset jack is quite annoying, and we hope HTC moves to a standard 3.5mm jack on future devices.

The HTC Touch Cruise comes packaged with a healthy amount of accessories, including an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 2GB microSD card preloaded with maps, a wired headset, a protective pouch, a vehicle mount, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

The HTC Touch Cruise continues to run Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Edition, so you get the same productivity suite and e-mailing capabilities as well as some extras, including the Opera mobile Web browser, a dedicated YouTube app, and MP3 Trimmer for creating your own ringtones.

The biggest draw, of course, are the built-in GPS and navigation abilities. The North American version of the Touch Cruise uses CoPilot Live for turn-by-turn guidance instead of TomTom’s navigation software, which is still available on the European version. While we’ve experienced ease of use and accuracy from TomTom, CoPilot is no slouch in the navigation department, and in fact, it offers a couple of helpful extras.

CoPilot Live’s user interface is intuitive and attractive. The menu pages offer large icons with clear identification, so most people should be able to pick up the device and start navigating right away. The application offers text- and voice-guided directions as well as 2D and 3D map views, day and night map colors, detour routing, and support for multidestination trips. It includes a fairly comprehensive points-of-interest database, including all the major categories and more specialized interests (e.g., event facilities and marinas). In addition, you can conduct local searches. For example, you can simply type in “pizza,” and the app will look for pizza places close to your location. You can also do this with the Map Search tab on the TouchFlo interface without having to launch CoPilot.

The aforementioned extras include weather updates for your current location, destination, or any U.S. city. You can also let your friends and family know where you are with a Send Location feature that will send a text message of your location or destination and ETA to said destination.

As we noted in the Design section, HTC ships the Touch Cruise with a 2GB microSD card that include U.S. maps. This is great, since the first model only offered one city map for free and required you to purchase additional regions. The one trade-off is that this restricts your expandable memory. With all the maps, you only get about 846MB of user-accessible storage on the memory card. You can always switch out memory cards when you’re not using the navigation features, but it’s still a bit annoying. Onboard memory is 512MB ROM and 256MB RAM.

The smartphone’s expansion slot is located behind the battery cover. HTC ships the Touch Cruise is a 2GB microSD card preloaded with U.S. maps.

To expand on the GPS capabilities, HTC also added a new app called Footprints. The application not only lets you geotag photos that you take using the device’s 3.2-megapixel camera, but you can also add notes and audio clips to these digital “postcards.” In addition, Footprints will automatically name each postcard with its general location or area, so you have all the information as you flip through the images at a later time. You can also plot a saved location to Google Maps and then navigate to it by pressing the navigation key.

The Touch Cruise’s 3.2-megapixel camera did an OK job with capturing locations and other images. You get all the standard camera options, including different picture qualities, white balance and brightness controls, effects, and more. The camera also offers video recording capabilities.

Without a dedicated camera button, we had a hard time capturing clear photos.

There’s no flash but by adjusting the white balance, we were able to get pretty good coloring in our pictures. Our biggest complaint is that it’s hard to get a steady shot. Without a dedicated capture button on the outer spine of the smartphone, we had to use the center select key or the onscreen capture button and this caused a bit of movement while taking the picture, so we often ended up with blurry shots.

Switching gears to voice features, the HTC Touch Cruise offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dial, smart dialing, voice commands, three-way calling, and text and multimedia messaging. The address book is only limited by the available memory, and each entry can store multiple numbers, home and work addresses, e-mail, IM screen name, birthday, spouse’s name, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can pair a contact with a photo, a caller group, or a custom ringtone. Bluetooth 2.0 is also onboard for use with support for mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, object push, file transfer, and dial-up networking.

The Touch Cruise is 3G-capable, supporting AT&T’s HSDPA 850/1900MHz bands, while T-Mobile users will be left to EDGE since the carrier’s 3G network runs on the 1700/2100MHz bands. The smartphone does have integrated Wi-Fi, however, so that provides an alternative.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) HTC Touch Cruise in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was decent. Initially, we had problems dialing out but that was more of an AT&T network issue as we only had one bar of service. For the most part, conversations sounded clear but there were a couple of occasions where the audio would cut in and out. Meanwhile, friends didn’t report any major issues. We also had no problem using an airline’s voice-automated response system. Speakerphone quality wasn’t the greatest, since the volume was a bit low, even at its highest level, so we had a hard time hearing our callers in noisier environments. We were able to pair the Touch Cruise with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

The Touch Cruise is equipped with a 528HHz Qualcomm MSM7225 processor, but we experienced a bit of the typical Windows Mobile sluggishness–no better, no worse than most. We saw a couple-second delays when trying to open pictures or e-mails, which doesn’t seem like a lot. However, there were times where we’d tap an image or message, and there would be a long-enough delay where we questioned if the smartphone even registered our command. That said, we didn’t experience any significant delays or system crashes during our test period.

The Touch Cruise shines where it counts most–navigation. We used CoPilot Live to plot a course from CNET’s downtown office in San Francisco to the Marina District. From a cold start, it took the smartphone about 3 minutes to find our location, and then it was then able to quickly calculate a route based on the fastest preference. We set out on our journey, and the Touch Cruise did a good job of tracking our location. It would be nice if the voice prompts were a smidge louder (we had it at the highest volume) and text-to-speech directions were supported, which announces specific street names instead of more generic directions, especially since the smaller screen size made us rely on the audible prompts more.

We also purposefully missed a couple of routes along the way to test the route recalculation rate. CoPilot Live was very fast to get us back on track, but we didn’t always know it. The app didn’t provide any audible notification that it was rerouting us, so we weren’t sure initially if it even realized we were off route. Still, we followed along and the Touch Cruise was able to get us to our destination with no problem. The local search and Send Location features also worked flawlessly. HTC Footprints also worked as advertised. More useful to leisurely travel, it’s really a nice way to document highlights of your trip for later reference or for sharing with friends and family.

The HTC Touch Cruise features a 1,100mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 6.6 hours (GSM)/6.25 hours (3G) and up to 13 days (GSM)/16 days (3G) of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the Touch Cruise gave us 9.5 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge.