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HTC EVO 4G Mega review: The Gift & The Curse

May 27, 2010 | by Andrew Kameka

Featured post, HTC, Sprint

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In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that this review was written based on an HTC EVO 4G that was given to me for attending Google. The FTC requires that journalists and bloggers be upfront about freebies, but I can assure you that this disclaimer is pointless. Regardless of how I obtain the phone, I still would have reached the same two-prong conclusion: wow, this phone is amazing; dang, it’s still not the killer device I’ve always wanted.

The HTC EVO is one of the most powerful phones on the market. It features a massive, gorgeous 4.3-inch screen perfect for gaming and media consumption; there’s a fast-churning 1GHz processor that handles tasks well; and it has enough storage space and polish to satisfy anyone who likes Sense UI. As for that HTC keyboard that users rave about, it’s never looked better and been more responsive than when typing on the EVO’s gigantic screen.

However, Sense UI is the gift and curse of the EVO – much like almost every other HTC phone. While the design changes, widgets, and proprietary features of Sense UI make the EVO such an incredible phone, it’s also what’s holding the device from getting updates. Froyo has already debuted before the EVO has even reached stores, setting-up what’s sure to be another months-long saga of broken promises and frustration for users demanding new features that their Nexus One and Droid-wielding friends can flaunt. If you are someone unprepared to deal with Android’s inescapable fragmentation issue, stop reading now; this is not the phone you’re looking for. To all others, I give you Sprint’s flagship device.

HARDWARE

The EVO 4G is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak hand. The device is probably larger than any modern smartphone you’ve held – save for the HD2 – and its girth all but requires two-handed operation for the tiny-fingered. The phone is deceptively thin and becomes easier to handle after one or two sessions of adjusting to the larger screen.

As daunting as that may sound, the transition to a larger screen pays off once you watch video or play games. Remember all of those times where you held a G1 or myTouch and said, “I wish I could watch this on a bigger screen” or held a laptop and wished for a smaller one? The EVO is that happy medium between the two. Smaller than a tablet but larger than the average phone, the screen makes it easier to read eBooks, format web content in the browser, and is without question one of the best for consuming video. Gaming is fantastic thanks to the large screen that’s very responsive to the touch.

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There are often tests arguing that one phone displays pixels with more density and colors are warmer or brighter than another, but the average human eye will never notice the difference unless told. Everyone will notice the difference in consuming media on such a large screen. Don’t let anyone tell you that bigger isn’t better (in this case at least).

The EVO’s physical build is slightly less encouraging. The microSD slot has an odd placement that can lead to the card being jarred loose, and the back cover latch always feels as if you could easily snap it without taking proper care. Thankfully, the back cover is built from a comfortable material. That’s crucial because the EVO will spend a great deal of time in your hands. The phone begs to be touched because of its unique size and the benefits it offers to gamers, media junkies, and web browsers.

Then the gift/curse theme reappears as battery life on the EVO is less than stellar. While I applaud the phone for having features that encourage me to use it more often, the 1500 mAh battery doesn’t keep pace with the increased activity. The EVO was able to play a one-hour video podcast, 2 hours worth of music, and browse the web for about one consistent hour before the battery neared depletion. That’s not bad in comparison to some other battery woes on Android, but it’s disappointing that a device so obviously built for massive consumption didn’t get a battery strong enough to better accommodate heavy use.

THE CAMERA (s)

The EVO has a great camera that Sprint may have oversold. Once again, the camera is great. However, video recorded in non-optimal settings can be grainy and the quality doesn’t look like HD when viewed on a computer or television. Much like “megapixels” has been used to trick consumers into thinking that more pixels means better photos, Sprint’s insistence on calling this “HD” video sets lofty goals that a relatively top-notch phone camera doesn’t quite reach.

When you are in optimal settings, the EVO takes incredible photos and videos. Video recorded in sunlight or well-lit rooms is fluid and looks as good as or better than many phones on the market. Audio can get a bit choppy when the wind picks up, but watch this short clip to see how the EVO performs when recording in 720p.

Snapping photos on an EVO 4G can be troublesome at times. Digital zoom makes photos appear like water-colour artwork and should be avoided at all times. Complicating matters is the amount of time that the camera can occasionally take to capture an image. As I tried to take a photo of my bashful waitress, the EVO took so long to focus that she was well out of frame when the shutter finally took a photo of what became empty space.

At least the final product is strong. The EVO features a few controls – like changing brightness, contrast, and saturation – that can optimize photos taken in otherwise poor settings. Both the 8MP camera on the rear of the phone and the 1.3MP front-facing camera produce images passable as taken with an entry-level point-and-shoot camera or webcam. The front-facing camera is truly unnecessary, but so is most modern smartphone technology. Gimmicky as this feature may be, it’s something that someone will find a use for, and that person will be pleased. Actually, Fring’s inclusion of Skype has already made it very useful.

Browse the EVO gallery to see test-shots.

SOFTWARE & UNIQUE FEATURES

In many ways, this a remix review. If you’ve seen the Incredible or have the Éclair version of Sense, you already know what to expect: large graphics, integrated contacts and social networking management, and the ability to create multiple collections of apps, shortcuts, and widgets called “Scenes.” It’s one of the many personalization options that have long attracted users to Sense, despite the dreadful effect that using this UI can have on getting new OS updates. As I stated in our fragmentation article, this is a choice you make when purchasing an HTC phone. You either love the intuitive experience or hate the design and don’t want to wait on updates; make your decision now and live with it.

HOTSPOT and 4G

The Sprint Hotspot may help you decide whether you want to make the leap to an EVO. I won’t delve into the $29.99 monthly charge for the Hotspot because that’s a decision each consumer makes with his or her wallet. I can only speak on the reliability and usability of the feature, which can make the EVO serve as a wireless hotspot for up to eight devices. Tests in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Miami ended with favorable results in all three cities. Network performance will depend on your local market but the hotspot will chug along if the connection remains strong.

Reviewing 4G is a little more complicated. I don’t live in a WiMax market yet, so I can’t speak to its reliability. Sprint did show us simulated speeds at a NYC launch event, but real-world speeds can only be validated in your local market. And while we’re on the subject, I must reiterate that 4G is a misnomer. Sprint’s WiMax network may be slower than T-Mobile’s 3G HSPA+ network in markets with both services.

HDMI OUT and YOUTUBE HQ

Did you ever think you’d see the day when you could connect your mobile phone to a television’s HDMI port? You should have, because that day is today. The EVO 4G can send video to your large HD television through a micro HDMI cable that does a good job of quickly sending sound and video. That means you can record your daughter’s recital at 11 am and have the entire family watching it on a large screen by noon. HDMI out is limited to only showing video compatible with the EVO, so this may not be a practical way to store videos and pipe it to the large screen. Practicality aside, it adds another “wow” factor that works well.

Media is also improved with the high-quality streams in YouTube HQ, one of the reasons Sprint charges a $10 “premium” for using the EVO. This isn’t just a matter of pixel density and colors like I mentioned earlier. Turning on the high-quality mode is like watching a completely different video file. While regular YouTube videos can often look like a cloudy mess of compressed images, the high-quality streams add a picture quality that can rival locally-stored video on other phones. It’s a welcome improvement for anyone who uses the YouTube app once a day or only once a year.

FINAL CONCLUSION

When I dream up the perfect phone, the EVO 4G is as close as it gets on paper. But dreams were made for dreaming, not life. I strongly advise that no one purchase an EVO expecting the Great White Buffalo of Android. Realize that you will purchase a device that’s both a gift and a curse; flawed but truly amazing. The 8MP camera doesn’t produce a real HD experience, but it still takes phenomenal video and photo in the right settings. Sense UI may put up a roadblock to speedy access to Froyo and Gingerbread, but the daily experience of using it will provide more than adequate enjoyment to people who appreciate the interface.

Owning an EVO essentially comes down to one question: do I want to wait for the best phone on my carrier or do I want to get the best phone? Other than update-phobia and an aversion to Sense, there’s really no excuse not to own the EVO if you’re eligible for an upgrade to Sprint. Anyone obsessed with stock Android can opt for an AT&T or T-Mobile Nexus One, but there’s no other 1 GHz phone guaranteed to get updates within a reasonable timeframe. If you’re going to forsake promptness for the sake of day-to-day enjoyment, you might as well do it on the EVO powerhouse.