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Two Years Later: The Amazing HTC HD2

Two Years Later: The Amazing HTC HD2

It’s hard to believe just how much the smartphone space has changed since that phone, the HTC HD2, was released in November 2009, two years ago. It was one of the last Windows Mobile devices, but it eventually got ports for both Android and Windows Phone 7. With this active developer support and a thriving community, it went on to become the most popular device in xda-developers history, and was voted as the best HTC device of both 2009 and 2010 in our forums.

Now, it’s November 2011, exactly two years later. Time to recapitulate the story of this extraordinary smartphone.

How it came to be

The HD2 was the latest in a line-up that HTC established in 2008, and as a main differentiator from other Windows Mobile devices included its custom TouchFLO 3D (codename Manila) interface. It started with the original Touch Diamond released in May, featuring a strikingly elegant design; later, in November, the Touch Pro added a dedicated hardware keyboard for the business type; finally, the Touch HD, released in December, had a (for that time) huge 3.8″ screen and was targeted at enthusiasts.

This line-up was continued in the first half of 2009, with the successors predictably named Touch Diamond2 and Touch Pro2. The successor to the Touch HD, though, didn’t arrive until November, and it dropped the “Touch” in its name, to be called just HD2. And that name change was significant: The HD2 was the first Windows Mobile device with a capacitive touchscreen, and that screen was a massive 4.3 inches – the biggest of any smartphone at that time –, and it was only the second smartphone (after the ill-fated Toshiba TG01) with the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, clocked at a massive 1 GHz. In the US, where it was released in March 2010 exclusively on T-Mobile, it sold out within four hours.

Even today, the HD2 is still quite usable and reasonably fast, as opposed to the other Windows Mobile devices of old. But the hardware, however impressive, is not the main reason.

Development and hacking

This site wouldn’t be xda-developers if not for custom ROMs, and the HD2 is no exception. After HSPL was released in early Jauary 2010, custom ROMs started to appear with just about any build of WM 6.5, 6.5.1, 6.5. and 6.5.5. And, among all those Windows Mobile devices, the HD2 was the most popular one, with a combined 235.000 posts in its WM 6.5 ROM development sections, compared to almost 220.000 for the second one, 2007′s HTC Kaiser (also known as TyTN II). But, again, this is not the whole story.

It was all clear from the beginning that the HD2 would be crippled, because it shipped with the Windows Mobile operating system, which, even with improvements in version 6.5, simply wasn’t designed with finger-use in mind. The iPhone had taken the smartphone world by storm, and Android, though promosing, wasn’t yet ready for prime-time in late 2009. HTC had no choice but to use Windows Mobile – so it dressed it up in an beautiful interface called Sense (especially awesome with the excellent CHT mod). It went much further than the old TouchFLO versions, providing an incredibly well-designed homescreen with fancy weather animations, replacements for most of the stock apps and settings, and even multitouch support in the browser and photo apps. It also spurred a frenzy of custom themes and skins in our forums. But still, as Engadget put it:

The experience was a quick and painful reminder that no matter how pretty the window dressing is here, HTC has staged its fashion show in a building that should be scheduled for demolition.

Porting Android

Being open source, Linux had always been popular among developers for ports to other devices, and among power users for its sheer flexibility and customizability. Consequently, people wanted “Familiar Linux” ported onto 2002′s Wallaby, sold as the O2 XDA, the device that started it all (well, this site, at least). Ports of Linux never gained widespread popularity, though, since Linux was a desktop OS: it didn’t even include phone functions.

Then, in 2005, Google purchased Android Inc., a startup founded two years ago, and released the first beta version and SDK of Android, the operating system, in November 2007 (more information can be found on the Wikipedia article on Android). This finally gave Linux ports a real purpose – Android was designed as an operating system for smartphones, to be used with fingers instead of styluses, and it was based on Linux. So, even without any actual Android devices released yet (the first one, the HTC Dream, only arrived in late 2008), ports of the SDK build started popping up; the most actively supported one of those early ports was for the HTC Touch.

The aforementioned line-up of devices, specifically the Touch Diamond, Pro, HD, Diamond2, and Pro2, also got their own Android ports, beginning in 2009, most notably through the XDANDROID project. However, the HD2′s Snapdragon processor was quite different from the CPU used in those other devices; it always crashed when trying to load HaRET.exe, the tool used to boot from Windows Mobile into Linux. On June 25, 2010, this issue was finally solved; barely three days later, Android was booting on the HD2, and in June, the first Android builds were released (visit this thread for a more detailed overview).

Development didn’t stop here, though; aside from the usual assortment of bug fixes and other incremental improvements from various developers and cooks, another breakthrough happened in the last days of 2010: MAGLDR. It allowed people to boot directly into Android, erasing and thereby completely bypassing Windows Mobile. With this kind of native NAND support, development accelerated once again: ClockworkMod Recovery was released a few days later. Since then, all major Android (Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich) and Sense (3.0, 3.5) versions have been ported to the HD2.

But still, this is not the whole story. Barely two weeks into the new year, something else happened.

Windows Phone 7

Let’s take a step back first. As we all know, the HD2 shipped with Windows Mobile 6.5, to the disappointment of many. But what had caused Microsoft to fall so far behind in the smartphone space? In hindsight, it’s clear that Microsoft didn’t see the progress early enough. They eventually saw it, and realized that another pimped up version of the same, old interface wouldn’t take it anywhere – so, Windows Mobile 7 “Photon”, was canceled, and instead Windows Phone 7 was born. These decisions probably happened sometime in late 2008, but work on the new Windows Phone would take another two years. They needed something to hold them over – and that something was Windows Mobile 6.5, introduced at the Mobile World Congress in February 2009.

A year later, at the MWC 2010, Microsoft finally unveiled Windows Phone 7, at the time called “Windows Phone 7 Series”, though that “Series” was dropped later. Initial reactions were quite controversial – journalists and bloggers praised the slick Metro design language, while we at xda-developers thought it was too locked down, missing features… and beautiful.

With an emulator dump and a leaked Mondrian ROM available, developers scrambled to port the new OS to the HD2; a donation fund in May reached a whopping 1350$. But several things complicated this process: WP7′s ROM system was quite different from that of older WM versions, and it wasn’t open source, like Android. A proper port would probably have been impossible, if it weren’t for the fact that the HD2, along with the Toshiba TG01, was used internally as a testing device (which is also why the TG01 got a port as well). This meant that Microsoft and HTC created Windows Phone 7 drivers for it, which (thankfully) got into the hands of the Chinese DarkForcesTeam.

So, coming back to the new year of 2011: On January 12, the DarkForcesTeam released the first working Windows Phone 7 port for the HTC HD2 on their website, but it wasn’t publicly accessible yet. One day later, the ROM was posted on our forums as well, and people were all over it. This original ROM had a lot of bugs; for instance, you weren’t able to log in with your Windows Live ID to set up marketplace access. As fixes were discovered, though, these were cooked into new custom ROMs.

But when the first Windows Phone 7 update, NoDo, which brought along speed improvements and copy-and-paste, rolled out in March, there was no port in sight. Only after two months did an enterprising forum member, YukiXDA, who’s since left xda for personal reasons, take it into his own hands to figure out how to port NoDo. He even managed to do things that are impossible with real WP7 devices, like fully rooting and unlocking the ROM.

Things were different, however, when the second update, version 7.5 “Mango”, rolled out in September: YukiXDA and xboxmod had already developed a ROM that could be updated all the way to Mango, using Zune, a full month before the official update.

Still, a few bugs remain with Windows Phone 7 on the HD2 – for instance, pictures taken with flash have a green tint, and multitouch is spotty. And they probably won’t ever be fixed, since they’re all related to low-level drivers, which are practically impossible to implement without any documentation.

What else

So, we have one smartphone that’s able to run four different operating systems – Windows Mobile 6.5, Android, Windows Phone 7, and desktop Ubuntu. There’s even been work on a MeeGo port – but since Nokia jumped ship to Windows Phone, that project is on hold, though there’s still the (distant) possibility that MeeGo Harmattan, as used on the Nokia N9, could be ported over.

Anyway, with the latest Android and Windows Phone versions working on the HD2, it is surprisingly up-to-date, whereas other Windows Mobile devices have long faded into obscurity, even here on xda. Sure, development has slowed, but now, with over 1.1 million posts across all its subforums, the HD2 has over 100.000 more posts than the second most popular device, the EVO 4G. Remarkable, considering how Windows Mobile was already outdated when the HD2 was released.

Maybe there’s something special, tragic, about it, just like with the N9: It’s both ahead of its time and outdated, all at the same time. The HD2 was essentially the blueprint for the EVO 4G, HD7, Desire HD, and all those other 4.3″ devices from HTC; yet, none of these can be considered as a real successor – even though they came out later, their hardware was pretty much the same. And even though the Android devices also got lots of attention and development here on xda, they never got any meaningful ports of other operating systems. Probably no future device will, as the smartphone space is now consolidating around iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, which are all miles ahead of the old Windows Mobile in terms of usability, so there isn’t the same kind of desire, from both users and developers, to port over other operating systems.

The HD2 pushed the limits on size, speed, and industrial design for smartphones: When it came out, many found it too big, but now, there are even bigger devices; the Snapdragon went on to be included in lots of other devices; the industrial design, with impossibly thin bezels, soft-touch plastic and metal on the back, was, at the time, a class of its own. The HD2 was a great device all by itself, especially being one of the last ones to feature Windows Mobile; what made it this special, though, was the support it got from developers and our community, which refused to let it die and tweaked and hacked it until it became the most popular device in xda history.

I also have an HD2, bought in November 2010, exactly one year after it launched. If it weren’t for this community, it wouldn’t be half as awesome: it’d be stuck with Windows Mobile. Heck, if it weren’t for this community, I probably would’ve gotten another phone altogether. I’m glad I didn’t.

With this, let’s say thanks to HTC for this magnificent piece of hardware, Google for Android, Microsoft for Windows Phone, and: everyone who made the HD2 the device it is today. Normal users, themers, tweakers, hackers, developers – thank you. You’re brilliant.

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