Review: HTC EVO 4G

I don’t measure my time spent in grade school by years. Instead of going through first grade, second grade, and third grade, I went through toy fads. I went through the Pogs epoch, the Magic card era, and the yo-yo period, and the Pokemon/Digimon/YuGiOh age seemed to never end. There was a short, but memorable, period of time sometime in the fifth grade when remote control cars were the toy to have if you wanted to be part of the grade school elite. For some reason, this brief moment in childhood fad history stands out more than most. It had more to do with a certain model of RC car that kicked off the trend in the first place. This car was called the XRC Ricochet. If you don’t remember what the Ricochet was, then you probably were comatose (or not watching cartoon commercials) in 1996. It was a two-sided car that could drive on either side. It was fast, furious, and all the cool kids wanted one more than anything in the universe.

After weeks of pestering my parents, and finally resorting to my grandparents, the Ricochet was mine. I humbly unboxed the jewel of child-size eye, unpacked the monstrosity of a plastic cube that was its battery, and brought it to school, ready to leap into the upper echelons of the 5th grade bourgeoisie. I placed it on the blacktop at recess, flipped the switch, and I was the coolest person on the playground. I was ramming into things, spinning wildly, flipping in ways no RC car had ever flipped before, and it kept going. It was everything advertised and then some; I was in grade school nirvana. Twenty minutes later, it died, and it needed an eight hour charge to use it for another 20 minutes.

That’s how I feel about the EVO 4G.

I received my EVO last week, and it was like the Ricochet all over again. When you first pick up the unit, you can tell right away that it’s going to be a different experience than you’ve had with other smartphones. This phone is heavy, big, and isn’t ashamed of it. It struts its 122mm x 66mm x 13mm stuff and looks great doing it. The HTC HD2, which many consider the EVO's spiritual predecessor (it also has a spacious 4.3” screen), clocks in at 121mm x 6mm x 11mm. That’s an extra 2mm of thickness, and, in the world of smartphones, a risky move. HTC managed to make that 2mm feel comfortable, rounding the edges in a way that makes it very comfortable to hold and pocket, including those of you who like their jeans skintight.  The overall large presence of the phone, both in heft and in looks, gives the phone a very solid, powerful, and expensive feel, and makes you feel like you’re handling something that wants to be something more than just the latest iteration of HTC’s forward propulsion of the Android platform.

I wasn’t so impressed with the hardware buttons on the phone. I found the volume rocker tough to work with when holding it with one hand. I guess it may depend on how you hold the phone. I’m slightly ambidextrous, so I switch from right hand to left at random, and it just seemed to me that the rocker was uncomfortable no matter how I held it. The power/sleep button is on top of the phone, flush with the body. HTC has come under a lot of flak for making a design-over-function decision that makes it harder for people to wake up the device without actually looking at the button to locate it. I never had a problem with it. I actually like the fact that the button is unobtrusive and basically not visible when looking directly at the screen. It makes for a cleaner overall look, and I don’t think users will have a problem with it once they use it for a day or two. The Home, Menu, Back, and Search buttons, usually hardware based, are soft buttons on the EVO. It gives some nice haptic feedback when you press one of these, and it’s implemented well overall. The only gripe I have with the soft buttons is that when my small, fat, fingers reach over to the far side of the screen, my hand will activate the Home button (or the Search button, for righties). This wouldn’t have been a problem in a hardware button, but I’m doing it less and less the more I use the phone.

However impressive the physical presence of the phone may be, the moment you press the power button, the real star of the show makes its entrance. The intro screen, a bright white background with black “HTC EVO 4G” lettering, immediately communicates to the user what to expect from this screen. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s clear, and it’s smooth. Some would say it’s too big. I say it’s the perfect size. If I could request any size I wanted for a touchscreen smartphone, this is the size I would pick. It makes typing on the Android 2.1 keyboard easy for my short fat fingers, it’s not a stretch swiping from one side to the other, and you can watch movies on it without getting eye-strain. The kickstand, a new feature that EVO brings to the table, emphasizes the fact that this screen was made for watching, and watching’s what you’ll do, thanks to the kickstand. Keeping your hands free while watching a video on a phone is something you realize you wanted very badly the moment you’re able to do it. While Engadget is reporting that the EVO is running into touchscreen issues while grounded (not in your hands), I found the overall touch responsiveness of the phone to be great. The 1Ghz Snapdragon processor makes touch typing really fast and touch scrolling through hundreds of downloaded apps a smooth experience. As expected, multi-touch works great, and browsing on the phone is a speedy and smooth ordeal.

The cameras, notice the plural, are OK. There was a lot of hype surrounding the 8MP camera and 720p recording, as well as the 1.3MP front camera for video chat. In a nutshell, this won’t be your next DSLR. However, is it the best camera on a smartphone? Quite possibly. In decent lighting, the shots I took with the 8MP camera were very nice. It’s very good for outdoor shooting and well-lit interiors. The video, also in good lighting, doesn’t seem very HD when played back. It’s very compressed, and a standalone 720p HD camcorder does a much better job at making the picture HD quality. It definitely isn’t bad though, and the option to immediately upload to Youtube is nifty. On both picture and video, low lighting seems to destroy quality. The dual LED flashes look pretty, and make great flashlights, but they don’t fare so well as camera flashes. Like I said, it’s serviceable, but don’t expect standalone camera quality from these lenses. I didn’t get much time to test the front camera with Qik video chat, but the one time I was able to test it, it performed well enough. It definitely displayed my face nicely, and 1.3MP is plenty for a basic video chat, and not too big to render 3G video chat impossible.

This isn’t an Android 2.1 review, so I won’t go into everything that this phone does great. Much of the “Wow” moments of the EVO are products of the OS and its software. It’s running Sense UI on top of Android 2.1, so it really is no different than my wife’s HTC Hero, but the key difference between EVO and the rest of the Android competition is Sprint’s WiMax 4G network. I don’t get 4G where I live currently, but I was able to test it out last week while on vacation in Philadelphia, PA. Just to make things ironic, I fired up the pre-installed YouTube app that enables HQ content while on 4G or Wifi and opened the iPhone 4 promo video in HQ. In just a few seconds, I was streaming a high quality video stream with no buffering hiccups. I was almost as enthusiastic as the people in the promo (but not quite). Websites that took ten seconds or more to load on 3G took five seconds or less on 4G, and I was downloading large attachments in a jiffy. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but it’s definitely a huge step up from 3G. The speed tests I ran regularly during my stay in Philadelphia all hovered around the 3Mb down/1Mb up mark. Not bad at all, considering that many are lucky to get 1Mb down in urban areas using 3G. 4G can be simply toggled on or off depending on the situation, and if there’s no 4G signal when you have it on, it defaults to 3G anyways. It’s an unobtrusive implementation of a new network, and props to HTC and Android for making it seamless.

As in my 5th grade experience with the Ricochet, I was enthralled with this phone. Everything about it was exactly how I imagined it would be and then some. I was the cool kid on the playground, and people were looking at my phone in envy while out and about. Unfortunately, as I strolled around Times Square, using the bejeebus out of Google Maps, my phone died at 5:30 PM. I had taken it off the charger at 8:30 AM. I had 4G off, GPS only when I needed it, brightness on auto, and no CPU intensive games were played. I was using the phone almost purely for phone calls and Maps, and it didn’t last the day. For a mobile phone, that’s simply unacceptable. There are countless guides that explain all the different ways you can squeeze battery life out of the EVO, but the sad truth is that you can’t use the phone the way it was meant to be used without having to charge it in the middle of the day. Using Google Navigation for and an hour and a half drive will knock out half your battery, and 4G delivers similar results. Even if I was able to get a full day’s use out of the EVO (which I can do now, thanks to tweaks and apps that help manage battery usage), every time I use my phone, I’m forced to budget my battery capacity. Every time I take a picture, I wonder how much battery it will knock off. Every time I unlock the screen, I check the notifications bar to see how my battery is holding up. I play games only when I can’t find something to read, because games eat up battery life. Say what you will about multi-tasking, CPU power, and screen size, you can’t put out a mobile device that won’t last a whole workday using it the way it was advertised to be used. Based on my usage of the phone in airplane mode (all wireless radios off) on my flight home, it seems that the problem is in the wireless connections. I was playing 3D games for close to two hours on the EVO, and it used up almost 20 percent of my battery, which is definitely acceptable.

Until HTC can fix the battery problem, all the accolades bestowed upon the EVO 4G are pointless if you don’t have a dedicated power source to keep the juices flowing. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly pressed to scale back usage of a phone you likely paid good money to use. As it stands now, the EVO 4G is a formidable device. It is HTC’s attempt to start a new era of smartphones, where the lines between phone, tablet, and computer continue to be blurred. Ideally, this phone can do no wrong. It is a well-built, handsome, fast, powerhouse of a machine. Unfortunately, It may a little too powerful for its underlying software, gobbling up power resources faster than is acceptable in a competitive mobile device. If HTC can fix this problem, there’s nothing out there that can rival the EVO 4G.

Image Credits: Michael James (Flickr)

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