With the rise of Samsung in particular, HTC has been relegated to also-ran status in the smart phone world, with its latest devices causing nary a whisper anywhere but in the most gadget-obsessed blogs, and then only temporarily. In the Windows Phone world, obsessed as we are by Nokia at the moment, things are perhaps even worse for the company. And that’s too bad, because its latest Windows Phone handset, the Titan II, offers some compelling advantages over even the best Nokia devices despite a fairly generic design.

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HTC Titan II

The first HTC Titan shipped in 2011, part of the initial wave of Windows Phone 7.5 devices. It’s claim to fame was its screen, not so much for the quality but rather for the size: At 4.7 inches, it was the biggest screen on any Windows Phone handset, and not coincidentally resulted in the Titan being the biggest of the devices overall, too.

If the Titan’s screen and form factor size was controversial, that was nothing compared to the reaction HTC got in January when it announced it was replacing the device with a new version called the Titan II. It didn’t ship until this month, but the paltry 6 month lifetime of the original model sets a new record, of sorts, and obviously angered those who purchased it. (A one-year lifetime for smart phones is both acceptable and, I think, the norm.)

If HTC had its reasons for the quick turnaround, it’s never voiced them. But the Titan II provides a couple of interesting improvements over the original model, at least one of which is aimed at righting a wrong it had no control over late last year: At that time, Windows Phone 7.5 simply didn’t support LTE wireless networks.

Much of this phone, of course, is unchanged from the original model.

It features the same massive 4.7 inch screen, which is of the Super LCD (S-LCD) variety and not the more generally desirable AMOLED type screen used by Nokia, Samsung, and others. S-LCD was developed by Sony as an alternative to AMOLED, but when you look at the Titan II and Nokia Lumia 900 side by side, with both configured for the same brightness levels, the differences are obvious. The Lumia screen is brighter and more vibrant, with whiter whites, while the Titan II is much less vibrant, with almost light gray whites and a matte-like look. (Some may prefer that, however, just as some prefer matte laptop screens over the now-more-common  glossy displays. This is of course a matter of taste.)

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A big screen has its advantages. Even with the supposedly limiting 480 x 800 that graces/inhibits all Windows Phones—one of those faux issues people who never use the devices love to complaint about—text and photos are crisp, clear and wonderful. If your eyesight isn’t great, the Titan II is a great choice. In apps like Mail where Windows Phone’s typography-based design is used to optimal effect, the type is gorgeous and readable, vastly superior to the iPhone’s eye straining, postage stamp-sized screen.

Big isn’t always better, of course. I’m a big guy, so the larger form factor required by the Titan II’s voluminous screen is OK by me. But more normally proportioned folk may find the device hard to use with a single hand. As I’ve noted before, there’s a happy middle ground when it comes to smart phone size, and the iPhone 4S (tiny) and Titan II (humongous) sit on the extremes at either side of that middle ground. Neither is perfect for everyone.

Looking beyond the screen, the Titan II also picks up its predecessor’s RAM (512 MB), internal storage (16 GB, non-expandable), and microprocessor (a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm). These are all fairly standard for Windows Phone, as is the device’s lackluster front-facing camera, which delivers 1.3 megapixels of resolution.

Which leaves us, of course, with the Titan II’s two big differentiators: LTE support and its incredible 16 megapixel camera.

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I wrote about Windows Phone’s support for LTE in Day 4 of my series about the Nokia Lumia 900. It works similarly with the Titan II, offering support for older 3G and 4G/HSPA-type networks in addition to LTE if you can get it. (I can, where I live outside of Boston.) Internet sharing is available as well, assuming you have the appropriate AT&T data plan. And the Titan II will switch easily between various network types, opting for the fastest available on the fly. I won’t have the device long enough to do thorough real world tests, and I’m not a fan of largely-BS speed tests that don’t really prove anything, given the variances in actual conditions when you’re out and about.

(Call quality is another issue I need to pay attention to. The more I use the Lumia 900, the more I realize that Nokia did something—it could be as simple as turning up the call volume—to improve call quality. It’s just far better than any Windows Phone device I’ve used. The Titan II works more like the Samsung Focus S. It’s fine, but not notable in any way.)

And then there’s that camera.

When HTC announced the Titan II, it raised a few eyebrows, and not just for the timing so close on the heels of the original Titan. The most eagerly awaited feature of this phone, by far, was its 16 megapixel camera, since it offers twice the resolution of competing smart phones. There was some talk that the Lumia 900’s superior Carl Zeiss optics would put it on par with the Titan II, since no one was particularly upbeat about HTC’s ability to deliver a superior camera experience, regardless of the megapixels. And there was talk that, surely, both of these devices would at least compete with the camera in the iPhone 4S, which remains the standard by which all other phone-based cameras must be judged.

As I discovered with the Lumia 900, sadly, the highly-touted Carl Zeiss optics can’t save that phone’s middling camera, which is at best “very good,” and not excellent like that of the iPhone 4S.

But what about the Titan II? Does it rate?

To find out, I devised two sets of tests, one in which the Titan II camera was pitted against that of the Lumia 900, and one in which I compared it to that in the iPhone 4S. I performed these side-by-side tests as I did with my previous Lumia/iPhone comparison, taking two shots of each scene with each camera and using a selection of indoor and outdoor (while sunny) shots in which the cameras were, by and large, using their default settings.

 This last bit is somewhat important because Windows Phone lets the hardware maker create the camera experience and decide which features are included. And compared to the Lumia, the Titan II provides a few unique camera features, which I find a bit vexing. There’s a panorama shot mode which should be on all phones. And a burst shots mode that lets you take three shots, very quickly. The Titan II includes the same set of scenes, but adds a new Intelligent Auto, which is the default, and appears to put the phone into modes like Macro or Portrait automatically. (I guess Auto is really “Dumb Auto”.) And there are other unique settings like smile capturing and face detection. Seriously, this stuff needs to be standardized.

The Titan II doesn’t have any widescreen shooting modes like the Lumia, but it does of course offer massively huge photos: It’s 16M mode is 4640 x 3480, well above the Lumia’s 8MP. (And yes, HTC uses “M” for megapixels while Nokia uses “MP.” Again, it’s just not standardized.)

Anyway, the tests.

Surprisingly, it was pretty close. In about half of the photo sets, the picture quality was comparable. The Titan II, of course, offers much larger resolutions. But when view side by side, or zoomed to roughly the same areas of interest, about 4 of the 8 photo sets were comparable.

In three of the remaining four, the Titan II came out ahead, though rarely by a wide margin. The one exception was some photos of a kitchen-based stereo. Here, the Titan II delivered a level of detail not present in the Lumia shots. In others, the color reproduction was a bit more realistic, but close.

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Nokia Lumia 900 (left), HTC Titan II (right)

In one, an outdoor shot, the Lumia shot, on the left, is clearly superior, with deeper darks and a truer color reproduction. The Titan II shot is washed out, and you can’t see any blue in the sky.

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Nokia Lumia 900 (left), HTC Titan II (right) 

Given the Lumia 900’s poor showing compared to the iPhone 4S, I was expecting this comparison to be a lot more one-sided. So I was expecting the iPhone 4S to handily beat the HTC Titan II as well.

The results were somewhat surprising. Yes, the iPhone 4S still has the superior camera, and it beat out the HTC Titan II overall. But it was closer than expected. Of the indoor shots, the iPhone 4S won two out of three, offering more true to life colors in separate photos of bananas and a tomato.

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HTC Titan II (left), iPhone 4S (right) 

But in a shot of that same kitchen-based stereo, the Titan 2 images were dramatically clearer while offering comparable color quality:

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HTC Titan II (left), iPhone 4S (right)

Moving outdoors, it was no contest. The iPhone 4S won each time, with better details and better colors. Outside, it wasn’t even close.

There is one other Titan II differentiator worth mentioning, I guess. Like Nokia and other Windows Phone licensees, HTC creates its own Windows Phone apps that are only made available to its customers. On the Start screen, you’ll see three AT&T apps—U-Verse Mobile, Navigator, and Scanner—but only one HTC app, the HTC Hub. It’s a strange app, and perhaps a peek at what an HTC-designed Windows Phone might look like, with weather, stock, news, and feature (apps) panes. That last bit also can also launch into HTC’s special area of the Windows Phone Marketplace, where you’ll find other HTC and third party apps, including HTC Locations (directions with voice), a photo editor, and a DLNA-based media streaming app, among others.

Packaging, pricing and availability

The Titan II is available now from AT&T Wireless for $199, which is stunning (the bad kind) given that the more desirable Nokia Lumia 900 is only $99. Given the competition, I expect it to hit the bargain bin quickly.

Like all non-iPhone handsets sold through AT&T—including the Lumia—the Titan II comes in AT&T’s el-cheapo, designed to fall apart the second you open it-type packaging. I wish they’d get over this and let the handset makers design their own boxes. Or at the very least go upscale for the packaging on the higher end devices. This packaging just contributes to a bad initial experience.

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Awful AT&T packaging

Final thoughts

The HTC Titan II is a decent Windows Phone handset and would have offered viable competition to the Samsung Focus S and Flash if those were current generation handsets. Sadly, compared to the Nokia Lumia, the Titan II comes up short, even for those taken with its larger form factor, big screen, and somewhat superior camera. If the Titan II proves anything, it’s that we’re on the cusp of a future with high resolution smart phone-based cameras that are truly excellent. And that with Nokia and its amazing designs now in the market, coming close isn’t enough anymore.