Today, when we think of smartphones, the brands that first come to mind are likely to be Samsung and Apple. Former market leaders, such as Nokia and Motorola have mostly taken a back seat to these juggernauts, in a rather sad way. High-Tech Computer Corporation, better known as HTC, also belongs to this category having fallen on hard times recently, announcing extensive workforce cuts and being bumped off the FTSE TWSE Taiwan 50 Index.
Up to this point, some of the younger readers might not appreciate the significance of HTC, which holds a place dear in my heart. They were founded in 1997 as a manufacturer of phones and PDAs and single-handedly designed a good majority of the Windows Mobile phones and PDAs, such as many sold under the HP iPaQ, Palm, O2, Dopod, i-mate brands amongst others. My first four smartphones were all designed and manufactured by HTC underneath. In a string of firsts, HTC was first to market with an Android smartphone, a Microsoft smartphone, and a 3G Microsoft phone. They were truly the “daddy” of the smart-device era, so it’s rather unfortunate to see the company in dire straits.
Anyhow, lets not dwell on the unpleasant, and instead take a look at a milestone for HTC – the i-mate Smartflip, known as the HTC Startrek which was HTC’s first clam-shell smartphone.
The i-mate Smartflip
The i-mate Smartflip was introduced in February, 2006, over a year before the first iPhone was to debut. The smart-device market consisted of mostly Windows Mobile based PDA-phones which were abundantly available, but not very compact with their resistive touch screens, and were mostly adopted by mostly business users due to expense, mostly being about the AU$1000 mark. Interestingly, nowadays, users seem to balk less at that pricetag …
In order to “break” the monotony, and possibly with inspiration from successful flip-phones such as the Motorola Razr, released two years earlier, HTC delivered a phone that was unlike most PDA-phones of the era. It distinguished itself by being small, light, while still offering Windows Mobile 5 as the operating system. Other nifty features included a dual screen, so the outside screen could display a watch-face, a contact image, caller ID information or even a “selfie” camera display. Media control buttons were provided so that you could control your music without opening up the unit. A 1.3MP camera was also included.
Sadly, this was not without compromises, as the input was only via the keypad with no touch abilities. The keypad itself felt quite spongy and not very pleasant for serious use. The performance was notably limited due to the use of a TI OMAP 850 @ 195Mhz with 64MB SDRAM and 128MB flash, so the number of running apps was limited and text entry was somewhat laggy especially for those who could text on a multi-tap keys at a decent rate. Wireless connectivity was limited to Bluetooth 1.2 only when 802.11b was commonplace on PDAs. USB 1.1 connectivity was provided via a proprietary port, made to be more compact than regular USB ports. The small size also meant a smaller battery, which limited battery life.
Rather pleasantly, the unit had prevision for removable/replaceable battery of 750mAh, along with microSD card expansion, up to 2Gb (due to no SDHC/XC support at that time). External antenna connection was also catered for, with a relatively capable quad-band EDGE/GSM capable radio being standard. The unit weighed in at about 109 grams.
We can see that the codename for the unit is STAR101 for the unit, with STAR-160 appearing on the battery. The unit proudly proclaims that it is Made in Taiwan, HTC Innovation. It seems that the unit wasn’t entirely unpopular by Windows Mobile standards, but the market was still mostly dominated by feature phones at the time.
Sadly, it seems that these units did have a problem with durability with people complaining of units failing with no damage. I had received a batch of six units several years back at next to nothing, of which only three batteries and two units functioned, and they were marked with permanent marker. The battery itself was branded Sanyo and has a four pin connection. I had wiped off the permanent marker in the two shots below. The battery is very similar to the cells used in some thin iPaQs, although mechanically interchangeable, they don’t charge when swapped.
A trip down memory lane … or not.
Seeing the two units in my hands, I really wanted to give them a last run. Sadly, that idea came to a crashing halt moments later when neither unit would power on, and neither unit would charge. A quick examination showed that both Li-Ion cells had fallen below their minimum voltages and was no longer being boosted by the trickle mode, making it potentially dangerous to force charge the battery.
Thus begins a teardown of one of the units to take a look inside at just how things were. Starting with the battery, since it’s already here. Peeling off the label exposes the cell with its stamped markings, and removing the frame allows us access to the raw cell inside. The voltage was measured as 2.669v under no load, which is quite low.
The protection PCB seems to have very few components for its size. Modern phone batteries are a little more complicated than that, likely for improved safety, gas gauging and DRM reasons.
Inside the Phone
Undoing a few screws and prying away the plastic cover shows us the first glimpses of inside the phone. The motherboard PCB only occupies a small area in the back black plastic panel, indicating significant minaturization. A shielded thick flex connector is seen going towards the hinge, carrying the camera, buttons, power and video signals for both screens. A flat flex is seen on the right which carries numeric pad signals.
The antenna can be seen at the bottom of the image – the pressed metal forms an antenna for the GSM signals, whereas a ceramic chip antenna is used for the Bluetooth.
Under the shielded can, we can see the CSR Bluetooth solution on the left, some RF amplification and filtering components for the GSM on the right.
Flipping the PCB over, we can see the other side is also obscured under a can, with adhesive metallized tape grounding the shielded can and the flat ribbon.
Underneath the can, we find the main SoC – the TI OMAP 850. Above that is an “outdated” form of embedded flash memory, made by M-Systems corporation, known as a “Disk on Chip“. This used to be one of the most common solid-state storage options for embedded applications, but since M-Systems acquisition by Sandisk, this product has been discontinued (and no longer relevant). Near that is the TI TWL3027, which is the GSM baseband processor.
Taking off the front of the phone was more of a challenge. Interestingly some glue gave way, which led to the metallic trim “falling off” the front. We can see the front square LCD, along with foam rubber tape to try and seal out the dust.
Once removing the plastic, we find the vibration motor is housed in the top cover, and the LCD screen assembly is housed in a hefty shield. Flipping it over, we see the larger internal screen. The camera module is also visible, along with the speaker.
A fairly sophisticated flat flex arrangement is used to accommodate both screens, buttons, and other features.
One of the challenges with a back to back display is limiting the thickness – and this particular implementation was rather interesting as the screen wasn’t really any thicker than a single screen. Part of the reason may have been the use of a “shared” backlight for both screens.
If we look at the camera PCB, we find something interesting – what appears to be a small back-up battery which has leaked. In earlier Windows Mobile PDAs, such cells were used to keep the RAM refreshed, as all the user data was stored there. Removing and replacing the rechargeable battery would cause all data to be lost if not for a back-up cell.
We can also see the camera itself, which makes use of a coated glass lens.
Finally, we see the keypad, which is an abomination. A thick, self-adhesive plastic label with metal mesh reinforcement is used to provide the appearance, but this is backed by a flat flex and “metal buckle and adhesive tape” style button pad. This has a tendency for heavily used buttons to go mushy over time, and doesn’t provide sharp tactile feedback. I suppose damaged exteriors can be replaced simply, by adhering a new outer “label” on, but it is also relatively easy to remove these labels improperly.
In all, I received these phones many years ago for next to nothing in an “as is” bulk lot sale. While it was sad to see only two of six functioning, my intention was to have them as spare phones. They never fulfilled that role, mainly due to their sluggishness, limited I/O, and fairly limited battery life. After rediscovering them in an old drawer, sadly, I wasn’t able to get them to function any more – so one was torn down for fun, and the other will be “preserved” despite their well-used appearance. It’s rather interesting to see the level of miniaturization that was achieved.
Despite not functioning, it was still an interesting find, as it reminds us of how important HTC was to the smart-device revolution, and what HTC innovation was in terms of trying something new. It may not have been too successful, and it definitely had its own compromises, but it definitely made the list of “best flip phones” at one stage. Will HTC survive to see another hit, or will it become an AMD and sit on the side-lines for the most part, we can’t tell for sure, but here’s hoping.