It's not often that we feel a keen sense of déjà vu while writing a review, but here we are. The EVO View 4G ($399.99) is a first, but also something you've most definitely seen before. This tablet is, for all intents and purposes, the HTC Flyer: it has the same 7-inch display, aluminum build, single-core 1.5GHz processor, Gingerbread-plus-Sense-combo, 32GB of storage, and stylus for pen input. But, it also happens to be Sprint's first WiMAX tablet to go on sale in the US, with a 4G radio promising download / upload speeds up to 10Mbps / 1Mbps on Sprint's network. And, at the risk of spoiling our review, the View's connection is, indeed, zippy. But does this have any bearing on the tablet's overall value? Join us past the break to find out -- we've got some revisiting to do.
Durable aluminum bodyFast WiMAX connectivityLong battery life
Few apps optimized for the screen sizeMediocre cameraChunky and heavy
The View 4G has one major cosmetic change from the Flyer, but it just happens to be a biggie. The back is fashioned out of black, not gray, aluminum, and there's a thin red ring around the rear-facing camera. HTC also sprinkled matching red accents in the small slots housing the stereo speakers. Because the aluminum body has rubberized bumpers on the back side, the various black pieces don't totally match -- a quirk we noted with the white-and-gray Flyer. It's kind of like how a cotton black shirt would look awkward against a black wool sweater; they're clearly not cut from the same cloth. Still, the cobbling of materials is slightly less distracting in black than it is in gray. All told, of course, this hand-wringing over the color comes down to personal preference. We could say the gray is a playful complement to the black-and-red's machismo, but we'd be revealing more about ourselves than anything else.
We'll also reiterate that while those bumpers dash any gravitas this metal-clad device may have had, they also define the ergonomic experience. Those plastic bits are just thick enough that you'll naturally use them to cradle the tablet when holding it in landscape mode. And, as with the 10-inch Toshiba Thrive, a little bit of rubberized coating goes a long way in making a chunky slate a cinch to grasp. What's more, the aluminum casing inspires confidence that this is a durable, carefully crafted device, even if it will never be the sleekest. To be sure, we didn't accidentally drop ours this time, but we routinely tossed it in a bag with our keys and other pointed objects, such as pens. The View's back remains blemish- and scratch-free, as does the screen -- though the fingerprints blanketing it are another story.
Of course, we couldn't talk ergonomics without a nod to the screen size. It's not that we haven't come across an ergonomic 10-incher -- because we have, several times over -- but there's something to be said for having a device with a façade the size of a paperback book. We realize we might be preaching to the choir, but if you're waffling between this and a 10-inch slate, it's refreshing to be able to type in portrait mode without feeling a stretch in your fingers. In general, too, we didn't crave more screen real estate for any of the things we tend to do -- web surfing, reading email, playing games, and watching YouTube clips. At the same time, it's compact enough that we found ourselves whipping it out when we had less than a minute to spare at a red light or waiting in line at a deli. With a 10-incher, we probably wouldn't have bothered.
Taking a tour around the device, you'll find a typically minimal array of ports and buttons, including a metal volume rocker on the top edge, near the front-acing camera; a micro USB socket on the right side; and a 3.5mm headphone jack and lock / power key on the left. There's also an LED light built inside the headphone jack -- a surprise the first time you see that blinking green notification signal.
In the grand tradition of mobile camera sensors, the View 4G's 5 megapixel cam struggles in harsh backlighting, though we were disappointed to see that even after we took refuge in the shade, we still ended up with blown-out pockets in some pictures. Many of our test photos have a softness about them, even if we tried our best to stay still while tapping the shutter. Nonetheless, as you can see in the gallery below, our shots were far from terrible, with pleasant, balanced colors, and surprisingly decent depth of field in close-up pictures.
The 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera is no better, as you can imagine, though if decent video call quality is what you're after, you'll get adequate, bright image quality so long as the room is relatively well lit. As with the Flyer, HTC included a handful of goofy distortion and color filters, which you can find in a dedicated Snapbooth app or as an option in the Camera app's menu. We happen to be suckers for this touch, but it does slightly compensate for what would otherwise be a mediocre pair of cameras.
The camera also shoots 720p video, but you wouldn't know it from watching our fuzzy test clips. We also didn't have any more success avoiding tinny noise distortion than Vlad did when he put the Flyer through its paces. It's a shame, since the actual motion in our movies -- dogs running, buses rumbling by -- looks fluid, and doesn't betray a hint of ghosting.
Display and Sound
The Flyer's 7-inch (1024 x 600) display is vibrant, but the real star of the show are the viewing angles, which help it pass for a Super LCD panel. (HTC confirmed that it is, in fact, just a plain old LCD.) We quickly grew a habit of using the tablet outdoors, and only once found ourselves squinting at the display under direct sunlight. Indoors, too, we enjoyed easy viewing, even when sharing the tablet with friends and watching movies from potentially awkward side angles.
Look closely, by the by, and you'll see that the display is studded with a grid of small dots. We suspect these help facilitate N-Trig's DuoSense technology, which allows for the pen input we'll expound on shortly. In any case, you can only see that dot pattern when the tablet is locked or powered down. As for those stereo speakers, the sound quality is decidedly tinny, even if the View does have one more speaker than most slates out there.
Like the Flyer, the View 4G runs Android 2.3 with the latest version of HTC's Sense UI layered on top. Sprint has said that it will upgrade the tablet to the tablet-optimized Android 3.0. (The carrier hasn't said anything yet about a further update to 3.1.) So using the View, in short, is akin to poking around the menus of an EVO smartphone. It's familiar, and it works. Gingerbread is finely tuned in a way Android 3.0 isn't just yet. The only thing is -- and this is actually a big thing indeed -- you'll miss out on apps designed to make the most out of that extra screen space, such as Gmail with a reading pane.
Based on conversations we've had with Sprint, it's clear that resemblance to a smartphone was the idea. According to the carrier, its EVO franchise of handsets account for some of its best sales, so naturally, the Now Network is eager to replicate that success with tablets. That means appealing to existing customers, who love their phones and might be interested in scooping up another toy running the same software they're used to. Or, perhaps Sprint is hoping Sense phones and slates alike have the power to reel in new subscribers. Either way, the premise is that if you're considering the View 4G, it's as much for the user experience as the 4G radio.
For the uninitiated, the latest version of Sense blends a number of 3D flourishes with new ways to personalize the look and feel of the device. This includes a carousel of eight home screens that you can pinch to make all of them appear on one page as shrunken windows. Out of the box, you'll find five of them populated with widgets, including HTC's own music player, along with its news, calendar, Gallery, and FriendStream apps. While a blank home page leaves enough room for a grid of 16 apps, the ones with widgets don't leave any room to squeeze in a lone shortcut or two. And yet, these widgets don't take up the full screen, and sadly aren't optimized to take advantage of that 1024 x 600 display. For the most part, you won't get a satisfactory helping of information at a glance, and you'll need to open the corresponding app to really enjoy a substantive experience. Take the social networking aggregator FriendStream, for instance. You can scroll through your Twitter feed and post an update yourself, but to toggle between Twitter and Facebook or do things such as check direct messages, you'll have to open the app. In that regard, Sense doesn't realize its potential.
We have to say, that while Sense can feel inefficient and bloated, we're truly enjoying the new lock screen that HTC cooked up for the latest version of the UI. You'll see a so-called activation ring, a circle into which you can drag one of four app shortcuts. In doing that, you'll unlock the phone and find yourself in that app, thereby saving yourself some extra taps. You can customize these (we swapped out the Exchange mail app for the Gmail one, for instance), and we also opted to display local weather animations on our lock screen.
Fantastic, and long enough, at that, to make us rethink our notions about 4G devices having middling endurance. Just to give you a day in the life, we left the house at about 7:30AM with a fully charged battery, and spent the ensuing 12 hours checking email and weather updates, glancing at Twitter and Facebook notifications, watching the occasional clip, and sinking an embarrassing amount of time into Angry Birds Rio. It wasn't until about 8PM that we saw a pop-up message warning us we were down to our last 15 percent. Not too shabby.
In addition to HTC's gussied-up Sense UI, you'll find a shortcut to HTC's own Watch service, a storefront from which you can stream and download movies, either for rent or for buy. Rentals in the US cost $2.99 to $3.99 a pop, with purchase prices ranging from $8.99 to $14.99. The app itself has a clean, two-paned interface, and the instant playback is fluid, but the uneven selection of roughly 400 titles harkens back to the early days of Netflix streaming. For every Gossip Girl or No Strings Attached, there's a Grumpier Old Men and Curly Sue.
Like the Flyer before it, what makes the View 4G stand out in a crowded field of Android tablets is its accompanying stylus and custom-built note-taking software. All this is possible thanks to N-Trig's DuoSense digitizer, which allows for both pen and finger input -- the same setup, by the by, that you'll find on the HP Slate 500 and the Fujitsu LifeBook T580.
Whenever the tablet is on, you'll see a glowing green pen icon to the right of the main search, home, and back buttons icons. It'll appear, along with the primary haptic buttons, on one of two edges of the bezel, depending on whether you're holding the tablet in portrait or landscape mode. Tap that icon with the pen and you'll see a palette of options pop up in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, a hub where you can choose the text color and the kind of the kind of writing implement (say, a brush, or a felt-tip pen). When you launch the app for the first time, it'll walk you through a tutorial -- a helpful touch, since the interface of menu options is comprised entirely of small icons. We had a handful of vexing moments at the very beginning when navigating the cramped menu felt tedious and unintuitive, but after a few minutes we were tapping through at a brisker pace.
HTC seems to have realized it didn't have much to offer in the way of pen-friendly apps, so it made sure to integrate the pen experience throughout the OS. You can take a screenshot of almost anything and doodle on it -- a feature we used once in earnest, when we wanted to forward an email to a friend with a snarky aside painted on top. HTC also bundled a dedicated note-taking app (dubbed Notes, natch), which you can sync with Evernote, if you like. We have to say, this is one of the smoothest experiences we've had writing on a tablet. Even when we scrawled in script, barely applying pressure to the pen, the slate picked up everything. Erasing and highlighting using dedicated buttons on the pen also works like a charm.
It's a shame that's all you can do with it. We don't know about you, but we don't find ourselves taking notes that often, and drawing amateur cartoons, meanwhile, simply requires too much effort. Until there are more apps to go with it, we can't help but feel the Magic Pen is something of a gimmick.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, the View 4G is going the way of the US Flyer, which is to say that the Magic Pen, that distinguishing piece of hardware, will be sold separately for $80 -- highway robbery when you consider that you can find pens for other DuoSense tablets for $20 or so. To soften the blow, the folks at Sprint will throw in a pen as a promotion while supplies last. So some people will get a fair shake. Unlike the Flyer, though, this comes without that snug case, which has a loop for stowing the pen. So try really hard not to lose this one.
Just how fast is WiMAX? Sprint promises download speeds as high as 10Mbps and, until today, max upload rates of 1Mbps. Starting now, the carrier is expanding the upload ceiling to 1.5Mbps. In conversations with the company, a rep added that on average, users could expect download speeds between 3Mbps and 6Mbps. This isn't the first time we've noticed this kind of hedging when testing mobile broadband. It's not unlike how laptop makers are careful to say you can expect up to 10 hours of battery life: they almost never say these results are typical.
In the case of the View 4G, though, our speeds were pretty darn close to the upper limits of what we were told to expect. We got an average of 10.31 Mbps down and .93Mbps up, and even hit 11Mbps in our download tests. Anecdotally, we spent less time waiting for pages to load than we would have on our Verizon smartphone, but WiMAX's benefits were most obvious when we streamed short clips -- movies were quick to load and just as fast to buffer, resulting in smooth playback.
As of this writing, WiMAX is live in 71 markets in 28 states, which still leaves large swaths of rural and suburban areas without coverage. We can't vouch for cities we haven't visited, of course, but we can say our coverage in New York City was some of the most robust we've ever enjoyed on a mobile device. We always had a 4G signal, and never fell back on 3G. And, we collected these scores from various parts of the city, from downtown Manhattan to the outerborough of Brooklyn. We've learned not to take that consistency for granted. When we tested T-Mobile's "4G" (HSPA+) mobile hotspot, we noted particularly strong performance in certain neighborhoods, on certain blocks, and in certain cafes, only to see our rates slow to a crawl when we turned the corner. Ultimately, then, we respect the View 4G as much for its reliability as its raw speed.
But annoying things started to happen in the rare moments when our connection broke. Whenever we lost our signal, a full-screen dialog box popped up, warning of "Data Call Failure." The problem is, even after we tapped "Dismiss" this notification kept interrupting us. And, as you can imagine, even without that disclaimer, we tended to be aware when we were in areas with poor or non-existent service (e.g., in a train, underground).
The 32GB View 4G costs $399.99 with a two-year agreement. Sprint offers several plans, all of which include unlimited 4G: $44.99 a month for 3GB, $59.99 for 5GB, and $89.99 for 10GB. For what it's worth, Sprint is also holding a promotion that could allow you to shave $10 off your data plan for every month of the two-year contract. Of course, there's no such thing as free lunch, which in this case means that save on data you'll have to activate a handset with a Simply Everything, Simply Everything Share, Everything Data, Everything Data Share, Everything Business or Business Advantage Messaging and Data plan. On the plus side, though, Sprint customers who already subscribe to one of these plans are also eligible for the discount.
Here we are again. Even when you throw WiMAX into the mix, sizing up the HTC EVO View 4G presents almost the same mental balancing act as the 3G Flyer. When we think about what made our week with the View so enjoyable, we keep coming back to the well-tooled ergonomics, bright display, and long battery life -- all things that warmed us to the Flyer. For a lot of people, Sprint's consistently fast (but hardly ubiquitous) 4G network will be a boon, but perhaps not a compelling enough feature to seal their buying decision. Moreover, the addition of WiMAX isn't enough to soften our criticisms of the Flyer -- even if you prefer the comfort of Gingerbread, this thing still needs more apps that are optimized to take advantage of that bright 7-inch display. With a chunky shape and no ETA for Honeycomb, the View 4G isn't the sexiest or most cutting-edge slate of the bunch. But it's sensible, reassuring. And if Sprint is correct that the people considering this might well be satisfied EVO customers, there could be something to be said for sticking with what you know.