An iPhone Lover's Take On The HTC EVO 4G

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Back in January, I wrote a post entitled An iPhone Lover’s Take On The Nexus One. At the time, the Nexus One was soon to be released as the latest and greatest Android phone, and a number of iPhone users were wondering whether it was worth it to switch for the benefits of Android (and perhaps more importantly, another network besides AT&T). My take: it was the best Android phone yet, but it wasn’t better than the iPhone. Now I’m going to do the same type of review for the new HTC EVO 4G phone, which Sprint is launching next week.

At Google I/O, the search giant gave the phone away to every attendee complete with one month of service to try it out. Just as with the Nexus One, I’ve decided to use it as my primary phone for the past week or so to get a real sense of the pluses and minuses of the device. Just as with my Nexus One review, this isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing review or roundup (for that, see here or here or here). Instead, this is just my reaction to the device as an iPhone user.

So, I’ll start off with what you really want to know: is the EVO 4G an “iPhone Killer“? No way. Not even close. Does it have some advantages over the iPhone? Of course. But it has more disadvantages. And, in fact, this isn’t even the best Android phone I’ve tried. Both the Nexus One and the Droid Incredible are better. If you want details about some of that, read on.

4G

Let me lead with a big caveat: I haven’t been using this thing on an actual 4G network. Sadly, neither San Francisco or New York City (the two cities I’ve used the device in) have Sprint 4G yet (both should get it later this year). That said, as just about every other reviewer has pointed out, the 4G is almost more of a detriment to the device because while it does offer faster download speeds, they’re not that much faster than 3G — and 4G usage destroys the battery life of the device worse than even 3G does. Also, I have used Sprint’s 4G network before, in Austin, Texas, and I can confirm that it is faster but not that much faster that I would consider it a killer feature at this point. Hopefully that will change as the network matures.

Battery

And let’s start with the battery. Simply put: it sucks. Again, I’m not using the 4G network (and yes, I have the 4G radio turned off), and it absolutely blows. My iPhone 3GS is about a year old now, so its battery isn’t at the peak condition that it once was. Still, it almost always lasts me for at least a full day doing what I would consider to be moderate usage of the web, texting, taking pictures, etc. The EVO? Good luck getting more than 4 hours of moderate usage out of this bad boy.

It’s almost unfathomable how bad the battery is in this thing. Why? Well you might assume it’s the massive 4.3 inch LCD screen. But according to the Battery usage area in the Setting menu on Android, the display is only eating up 5% of my battery on average. Instead, it’s “Cell standby” (again, I have 4G off), “Phone idle,” and “Android system” that eat up over 75% of the life. Am I doing anything odd that makes it drain faster than an average user would? I don’t think so, and talking with others who have the device, all report the same awful battery performance. I have no doubt that “regular” users are going to bitch about this as well.

I’m terrified to think what this thing would be like if I were using 4G. A mobile phone that lasts for 2-3 hours? Ugh.

Screen

Speaking of the massive screen, there’s no denying that it’s beautiful. Rather than using the same OLED screen that the Nexus One uses (which you can barely see in daylight), this uses a standard TFT display, so it’s easy to see at all times. The 480×800 resolution is great, and everything looks crisp. That said, this (and the HTC HD2 — the WinMo phone with the same size screen) proves that bigger isn’t always better.

The screen is too big. Or maybe a better way of saying it is that the screen makes the device too big. Mat Buchanan of Gizmodo has called this the “Escalade of smartphones,” and it’s a perfect moniker. For people with huge hands, and huge pockets, this thing will be great. For everyone else, I have little doubt they’ll find this too big. There’s a reason many smartphones tend to hover around the same 3.5 inch screen (iPhone, Nexus One, etc): it works.

Camera

The camera on the EVO is great. And there are actually two of them. The one in the back is 8 megapixels and destroys the iPhone’s 3 megapixel camera. The front one is a lower resolution (1.3 megapixels), but is convenient for vanity pictures and video chatting if that’s your thing. The back camera also can take 720p HD video, which again destroys the iPhone (there’s some debate as to just how good the “HD” bit-rate quality is — to me, a novice, it looked very nice).

Of course, the new iPhone is expected to be unveiled in just about a week. And it too is likely to have two cameras (one front and one back). I doubt the back one will be 8 megapixels, but it should get a boost to 5 megapixels. And the front one will undoubtedly be fine-tuned for video chatting as well. And the rumor is that it will take HD quality video as well.

Meanwhile, the photo-taking software on Android continues to lag behind the iPhone’s. And I do mean lag — often times it would take up to a minute for the controls to show up onscreen. And oddly, they can only be oriented to take pictures in landscape mode. And it’s far too many clicks to switch between the front and rear cameras (this is buried in the camera settings area). But all of that is somewhat excusable – what’s not is that more than half the time while trying to take a picture, I would get the message “Unable to save file to SD card due to insufficient file permissions.” I have no idea what that means, nor did I care enough to figure it out. Nor will most users when they get the same message. It worked sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t. I’ve never had this problem with the iPhone — nor is it possible since there is no SD card slot.

The photo browsing element of the EVO, meanwhile, is better than other Android phones I’ve used. But it’s still not nearly as good as the iPhone.

The EVO has a pretty good flash — something the current iPhone doesn’t (but again, the next one likely will). But it’s pretty poor compared to a regular camera flash. Point is, if you’re buying this thing to get a good camera, you should probably just invest in a good camera.

Exterior

The exterior of the EVO is pretty nice. As I said, I prefer the size of the Nexus One (and iPhone), but the EVO feels just as solid (unlike many other Android phones). Taking off the back to access the battery is a bit wonky. The entire back faceplate is removable, but each time I did it, I was sure I was going to snap off one of the clips that holds it in place. I was also sure I was going to snap off my fingernail at one point (which they suggest you use to open it up — brilliant).

There’s also this rather odd kick-stand on the back of the EVO. Presumably, it’s to make watching media on the huge screen more appealing (so you don’t have to hold the big, heavy thing). It’s also probably good for video chatting. But it’s a gimmick at best. And my colleague Jason Kincaid actually almost broke it off when he thought that was the way you get to the battery.

Unlike the Nexus One, the EVO has no trackball. I think that’s a good thing. Some people seem to like it (I assume ex-BlackBerry users), but I never understood the point of having it on a touchscreen device. Good riddance.

My biggest gripe about the exterior though has to be the top on/off button. It lays way too flush against the actual top of the device itself, making it very hard to click. I endured much frustration when I would pull the thing out of my pocket and would try to turn it on quickly. Sometimes I was hitting the button, sometimes I was hitting nothing — and it was hard to tell.

Software

All the other problems aside, the software may be what really kills the device — for now, at least. The EVO out-of-the-box runs Android 2.1 with the HTC Sense UI. Android 2.1 is far too slow. Even running on these devices with 1 GHz chips, there’s noticeable lag when doing things such as simply scrolling through your apps. It’s unacceptable.

The good news is that Android 2.2 mostly fixes this. I have been using 2.2 running on the Nexus One, and it’s much, much better. The bad news is that it’s not yet clear when 2.2 will come to the EVO because HTC has to update Sense to work with it.

Speaking of Sense, some people love it. I do not. While I find Android’s standard UI to be a bit bland, Sense is almost too much of the opposite — it’s garish. It also takes up way too much screen real estate with things such as the default time/weather widget. Do I really need the time taking up half of the main screen? No. I want apps there. Luckily, it’s easy enough to delete those default widgets.

The EVO does come with some pretty nice ways to integrate your Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr accounts when you set it up. And then you can easily see friends’ activity from the nice Friend Stream widget they provide. Sadly, this widget loads way too slowly. I also like the Twitter widget they give you. It’s a very simple way to update your Twitter status without even launching a client.

HTC also has a brilliant pinch-to-zoom mechanism to access each of your 7 main Android screens. In fact, it’s exactly like the Expose feature in OS X. You pinch on the EVO (or if you’re on the main screen, hit the home button) and the screen you’re on zooms out to reveal thumbnails of all of the screen you have, and shows what’s on each of them. Apple should consider copying this for the iPhone because it’s much better than the current scroll from page to page method.

The worst part of the software though is the keyboard. It’s laughably cluttered. The soft keyboard built into Android is bad enough — mainly because it lags (which again, Android 2.2 fixes). This Sense one is much, much worse. It’s set up in a way so that you can access things such as numbers on the top row of keys, but you have to hold them down to do so. And actually, numbers are also found if you hit the “12#” button at the bottom of the keyboard. It’s redundant and confusing.

And the cursor movement keys at the very button of the keyboard are one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. Again, this is a touchscreen device, why do I need touchscreen soft keys to move around whatever I’m writing? Just touch where you want to go.

WiFi Hotspots

Okay, I’ve been fairly hard on the device so far. But there is one thing that despite all its problems, would make me consider it: the WiFi hot spot feature. It’s hard to explain how awesome this is. But there are a few big catches.

I’ve tested out a Sprint Overdrive (mobile hotspot creator) before, and it’s great. But it’s also yet another device you have to carry around, and it’s somewhat of a pain to boot up, get connected to the service, etc. The EVO is like an Overdrive that you’re going to have on you at all times. And turning it on is one touch of a widget on the screen. This creates a new WiFi hotspot that up to 8 people can connect to. You can set the password right from the included software.

The other day, I was in a cafe in New York City but only had one hour of free Internet access. When I ran out, I turned on the EVO Hotspot and was up and running again in seconds. And it was fast (again, even without 4G).

Yes, the battery issue remains — this thing may work for a couple of hours as a hotspot, maybe less — but there is no disputing the ease-of-use.

Mobile hotspot creation is being built-in to Android 2.2, but it will be up to the carriers to decide how they use it (meaning, they decide whether or not to turn it on, and how much to charge for it, if so). This Sprint version is different (it’s not the built-in Android version) — and right, now entirely free. But that is expected to change following the actual launch. Reports indicate that Sprint will offer the Hotspot feature for free through July, but only to those on 4G networks. After that (and for other users) it will cost an extra $30 or so a month, apparently.

That’s a buzzkill.

Of course, next to the iPhone, which still doesn’t have any tethering option in the U.S. thanks to AT&T’s inability to maintain their network, this is still a great feature.

Overall

So, that a lot of words about what, as an iPhone user, I like and don’t like about the EVO 4G. Would I give up my iPhone for this? Not a chance. Hell, I wouldn’t give up a Nexus One or Droid Incredible for this, even with 4G. The battery life is simply too poor, and the whole device is too large.

The Android software continues to make steady improvements, but Sense, in my opinion, doesn’t help it at all. Instead, Android 2.2 is the thing to get, and that won’t be available on the EVO at launch.

The EVO has many of the strengths of the Nexus One — mainly, the way Google services interact with the phone (Google Voice, Gmail, Maps, etc), but it adds a bunch of weaknesses.

If you’re a fed-up iPhone user looking to switch to an Android device, there are better options. If you’re a happy iPhone user that is interested in Android devices, you probably won’t like this one much at all.

And no matter what camp you’re in, if you do buy this thing now, you’ll probably be kicking yourself in a couple of months as better 4G devices hit. Or you’ll be kicking yourself in a couple of months when better Android devices hit. Or you’ll be kicking yourself in a few weeks when the new iPhone HD (or whatever it will be called) hits.

Forgive me, but: this is probably not the Android device you’re looking for.

Update: A few commenters noted I should try out one of the task-killing apps to improve battery life. It’s pretty ridiculous that I might have to install a third-party app to manage the system, but whatever, I gave it a try. The result? Two things.

1) Yes, the battery life is slightly better, but still unacceptable. For example, I left the device on overnight with the screen off (just as I normally do with the iPhone), with just two apps running (Twitter and Gowalla) and it was completely dead less than 6 hours later.

2) How many regular users are actually going to install a task managing app? I don’t mean early adopters, I mean people who are average consumers. I bet hardly any will. And I suspect those who buy the EVO will start bitching out the battery almost immediately.

Further, here’s an update from Mike, who also has an EVO now. Remember, this is iPhone-quitting, Android-loving Mike. “I went on a bus today with a fully charged battery on evo, took it off the charger. Three hours later after using it the whole time, but no calls, it was just about done.” Also, there are no shortage of complaints here.

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