HTC EVO 4G review

As a mobile platform, the EVO 4G's Android foundation is still an infant -- well, okay, perhaps it's a tweener -- but in its two-odd years in the public spotlight, the list of truly revolutionary devices to use it has been a significant one: the G1 for being the first to market; the Nexus One for ushering in a new (and subsequently killed) retail model; perhaps the CLIQ for introducing Motorola to the platform or the Droid for bringing the company some desperately needed, long overdue success. For the moment, anyway, a whopping fraction of the world's most important phones are running Google's little experiment.

Needless to say, Sprint, HTC, and quite frankly, many of us have come to expect the EVO 4G to join that short list for some obvious reasons. Put simply, its magnificent list of specs reads as though it was scribbled on a napkin after a merry band of gadget nerds got tipsy at the watering hole and started riffing about their idea of the ultimate mobile device: a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4.3-inch WVGA display, 8 megapixel camera with 720p video recording, HDMI-out, and WiMAX compatibility. Of course, the list of potential deal-breakers for a phone is as long as the EVO 4G's display is wide; to put it another way, there are countless ways HTC, Sprint, or even Google could've screwed this thing up. So does this moderately intimidating black slab of pure engineering and marketing -- this high-profile bet on Sprint's future -- deliver the goods? Read on.


Handset packaging has evolved significantly in the past two to three years -- a nod to the fact that consumers do care, in fact, about the environment (go figure) and take notice when manufacturers package a 4-ounce phone in a box big enough to swallow a laptop whole. We've seen the boxes get a whole lot smaller, but the EVO's isn't just small -- it's also... well, weird. Our own Vlad Savov described it as resembling a microwaveable meal, and we think that pretty much sums it up: it's like an egg carton material surrounded by a bit of decorative cardboard that can be slipped off, and from a distance, it looks like you might peel the top off and expect steam to billow out. Rest assured, if steam actually billows out of this thing when you open it, you'll want to promptly return it to the store.

Inside, you'll find just the bare essentials under a recycled flip top: a package containing the usual assortment of manuals and documents, a recycling envelope for your old phone (which, let's be honest, is probably better off being sold or handed to a family member than recycled), a Micro-USB cable, USB wall charger (without a second cable, unfortunately, so you'll need to find one if you want to leave cables plugged into both your PC and charger), a 1500mAh battery, 8GB microSD card, and of course, the EVO itself. Our EVO arrived with the battery already installed and charged to about 50 percent, but it was a review unit -- your experience may vary.


Alright, enough with the pleasantries; what about the phone itself? Well, it's certainly imposing -- there's just no way around it -- and HTC didn't try to tone things down, coating it head to toe in a mix of gloss and soft-touch black with red accents. Actually, most of the visible red accents left on the production device are beneath the kickstand (more on that in a moment) and around the camera lens; the pre-production unit that we played with back at CTIA also featured a red earpiece grill, which we thought was both edgy and tasteful... but someone at Sprint must've disagreed, because it's just a muted silver now.

Microsoft has said that its mantra for the design of Windows Phone 7 has been "content, not chrome," and we'd argue that the EVO 4G basically exemplifies a hardware version of that philosophy. Every square millimeter of the EVO serves (or seems to serve) a purpose -- nothing is there simply for the sake of design. On the one hand, it's a no-frills device, but on the other hand, the sheer magnitude of its specifications mean that what little design is there still makes an incredibly powerful statement. In other words, wherever you go, people notice this phone. They notice it against your face, they notice it set on a table. In fact, it's hard to not notice. We find it to be an extraordinarily sexy device, and passers-by we encountered seemed to agree.

Though the phone generally feels extraordinarily solid and substantial (there aren't any major moving parts, after all), we did have one minor niggle with build quality. When the capacitive buttons below the display are lit, there's a ton of light leakage along the bottom edge of the phone where the display meets the plastic surround. Obviously, that's not an issue in bright lighting, but in dimmer environments, it's definitely enough leakage to notice and give the phone a visibly cheaper look to it. Then again, this might not be endemic to the entire production run -- and even if it is, it's not going to make or break anyone's decision to buy the EVO, nor their ability to enjoy the living daylights out of it.

The edges of phone are simple affairs. Like the Nexus One, the EVO lacks a dedicated camera button, but it changes the position of the volume rocker from the right side to the left; we're not sure if that was necessitated by the phone's internals, if Sprint specifically requested it be that way, or if there are other dark forces at play. The rocker is quite pronounced, so it's plenty easy to find with your thumb while you're on a call. Around bottom, you'll find a left-oriented mic hole (biased for right-handed talkers, we figure) along with two ports side-by-side in the middle: the standard Micro-USB connector, which is used for both data connections and charging, plus a standard HDMI Type D micro connector that's perfect for outputting those 720p videos you've shot on the phone. It would've been pretty sweet if Sprint had thrown a compatible HDMI cable in the box since odds are good you don't have one of these lying around, but we can understand why they didn't -- we've no doubt their per-unit costs are pretty high on this one as it is. The top of the phone features your typical 3.5mm headphone jack along with a power button toward the right side, which brings us to another one of our complaints: the button is basically flush, and the surface on which it's mounted is angled slightly forward, which makes it surprisingly difficult to find and push the button without looking for it -- especially one-handed. Even a quarter- or half-millimeter of height above the edge's surface would've solved this.

Turning our attention back to the front, Nexus One owners feeling burned by the finicky capacitive buttons can put their minds at ease, because the four examples below the EVO's display work just beautifully. Interestingly, we're not sure how much of the improvement is actual and how much is simply psychological, because they're only marginally larger and lower than the Nexus One's; if anything, we suspect that surrounding each icon with a circle probably increases the odds that we're hitting the buttons exactly where they need to be hit. Of course, the aforementioned light leakage is another matter altogether -- but in terms of raw functionality, we found that the buttons are perfectly usable.

The rear of the handset is comprised of a single curved piece of black soft-touch plastic that features the red-rimmed 8 megapixel optics next to a pair of white LEDs and the speakerphone port. What really concerns us here is that the phone rests directly on the lens, which is pretty unheard of; modern smartphones with decent cameras have a tendency to either recess the lens or conceal it with a sliding cover, but you won't find any of that with the EVO, so it'll be interesting to see whether users' photos become cloudier over time as the glass gets scratched up. Needless to say, we'd probably recommend against placing the phone on hard surfaces -- particularly face-up -- but we suppose the silver lining here is that the protruding lens brings the speakerphone off the surface for maximum volume.

Down below, you've got an inlaid chrome HTC logo, which does a good job of communicating the high-end nature of the beast -- this is no third-rate silkscreen job here, folks -- followed by the kickstand, a feature first seen in HTC's US line on the Imagio. This seems like more of a novelty in smaller devices, but when you're talking about a display this expansive, it actually makes a lot of sense -- we can totally imagine propping this up on our desk and watching some Sprint TV (though we weren't totally stoked to discover that you've got to disable WiFi to watch it). It also saves you a few bucks on a desktop dock (as long as you're cool plugging in the Micro-USB cable by hand) that's perfect for use as a table clock or radio -- and heck, it's good for just getting the EVO off its camera lens. The kickstand has a very strong, positive spring loaded action and feels like it's made of solid metal, so we wouldn't be too worried about breaking it; if we had one complaint, it's that there doesn't appear to be a way to set the phone to perform an action when you open the kickstand (a la Nokia N86). But seriously, we're really reaching for a reason to complain here.

The EVO plays along with one of HTC's more recent design memes kicked off by the HD Mini earlier this year: brightly-colored innards. Boy, does it ever play along! Popping the battery cover off (yes, you pop it with your fingernail -- it doesn't slide) reveals a fire engine red interior complete with matching battery, just like you'll find in the Droid Incredible. Sure, granted, if you replace the pack with a third-party model down the road, it won't likely match -- but then again, this is about as superfluous and hedonistic of a design element as we can possibly imagine, because it serves precisely zero function and is almost never seen by the user. Heck, it's such a covert feature, it's practically a private joke of HTC's... and we can appreciate a good private joke now and again.

The microSD card lives underneath the battery, so we'd probably recommend just getting a nice big one (good luck finding a 32GB!) and leaving it put -- especially since HTC has chosen one of the most unusual slot designs we've ever seen on a phone. Basically, the card rests loosely in a trench and is secured using a plastic peg overhead; press it down to hold the card in place. A fingernail is enough to pop the peg up again, and the card just falls right out. It's such a bizarre design that we can only assume it was necessitated (versus, say, a conventional spring-loaded slot) by virtue of the EVO's tightly-packed circuitry. Nothing a good, old-fashioned teardown won't definitively answer, we're sure.

Comparisons are inevitably going to be made to HTC's other 4.3-inch beast -- the Windows Mobile 6.5-based HD2 -- but when you get into the details, the phones are actually almost completely different animals. The HD2 clocks in at 11 millimeters thick, roughly 2mm thinner than the EVO, and it's just enough of a difference to notice; we've always thought that the HD2 feels almost impossibly thin, while the EVO is a bit more substantial. Mind you, the EVO's gargantuan surface area erases any notion that it's a "thick" phone, but it does feel perceptibly beefier in the hand than either the HD2 or the 11.5mm Nexus One.

The LCD-equipped EVO 4G (left) beside the AMOLED Nexus One (right),
both set at maximum brightness.

Speaking of the HD2, the EVO's display is probably sourced from the same supplier, as far as we can tell -- most importantly, it's bright and it feels good to the touch. It doesn't feel utterly unmovable like you'd expect a glass display to, but it's far from flimsy; you can just barely detect a hint of give if you really press it. Frankly, it's surprisingly similar in terms of color saturation to the Nexus One's AMOLED display when both are set to full-tilt brightness, which suggests that AMOLED's perceived advantage in mobile devices might not really exist; we're certainly not blown away by the Nexus One's battery life, for example, and it's practically useless in sunlight. The EVO fared a bit better in bright sunlight with the automatic brightness control turned on -- it didn't hurt to have a hand cupped over the display, granted, but we could definitely make out what was going on (and here's a little bonus: it's usable in all orientations while wearing polarized sunglasses).

Camera / camcorder

A big, big part of the EVO's draw is the 8 megapixel autofocus camera with dual LED flash and -- drum roll, please -- yes, 720p video recording. The shots had a little bit more splotchiness and noise (er, make that noise reduction) than we would've liked, but they still looked just great scaled down to monitor size; as with pretty much any phone camera, you're not going to want to blow these up and frame them for an art exhibition. What really blew us away wasn't the picture quality, but the shutter lag -- or rather, the lack thereof. You go to take a shot, and boom, the shot's taken. The biggest lag time is with autofocus, but even that's unusually quick for a phone; it got a little slower in low light, but that's to be expected.

As for video quality, we don't think that calling it "720p" really does it justice. We appreciate the fact that we could select between MPEG4 and H.264 output, but when you drop the file on your machine and play it back in QuickTime, it's immediately evident that HTC wasn't shy about compressing the crap out of your output.

Bottom line: as is often the case with these high-megapixel smartphones, it makes a great substitute for a low- to midrange point-and-shoot in a pinch, but don't toss the 1080p camcorder. Not now, not ever.


So the EVO 4G is very much a Sense-powered Android 2.1 device, and by and large, that's the experience you're going to get; there aren't any surprises to speak of as far as the UI goes. Like the Droid Incredible and the Desire, it runs almost eerily smoothly -- and if you like Sense, this is exactly the kind of processor (you know, the 1GHz kind) that you want to be running.

It's not so much the overall Sense experience we're interested in here, but rather, two specific components of the EVO 4G's ROM that take it to another level: Sprint's Hotspot app and YouTube HQ. Actually, there's a third huge custom add-on here that we want to explore -- Qik-powered two-way video chat using the EVO's front cam -- but it wasn't ready in time for this review; we're told we'll have it in our hands in the next week or two, so we'll be sure to update you as soon as we've gotten some face time with it.

Anyhow, Hotspot seriously couldn't be easier to use: you activate it either through a dedicated Launcher icon or the EVO's settings menu (or a home screen widget, if you're into that sort of thing), you set your SSID name, your encryption type, and your password -- and that's it. Boom, you're surrounded in a cloud of life-giving WiFi. We connected the EVO to a couple of laptops we have lying around, and it worked great over both 3G and 4G. In fact, it worked so well that we'd argue it obsoletes dedicated mobile hotspot devices like the Overdrive and MiFi, because we were getting speeds as high as 7.5Mbps down and nearly 3Mbps up on WiMAX (granted, roughly 3.5Mbps down was more of the norm, but we saw some amazing peaks).

We know what you're thinking, though: what about battery life? Amazingly, we got some three hours and 13 minutes of run time while using the EVO continuously as a 4G hotspot -- and when we say "continuously," we mean we were streaming high-quality audio the entire time. What's more, the phone wasn't even fresh off the charger when we started; it had been on and in heavy use for two hours and four minutes prior. Bottom line, this thing seems to be a champion on a 1500mAh battery; we can't even begin to fathom what a massive aftermarket pack would do to it.

YouTube HQ does exactly what it advertises -- it significantly boosts your video quality on a high-speed connection. We played a few high-def clips, and the difference is patently noticeable; not only are they smoother and crisper, but they actually take up all of the EVO's huge display rather than being needlessly constrained to a smaller box. What sucks is that HQ's a bit of a tease -- it doesn't work over 3G, even though it seems like EV-DO Rev. A should have plenty of downstream bandwidth to handle what YouTube's trying to do here. Instead, you'll need to be connected to WiMAX or WiFi for things to get interesting. [Update: We've tried it a few more times, and it seems you can actually enable HQ over 3G, it just takes a while to toggle and play -- you can see evidence of that in our video above.]


Of course, the EVO's 4G access isn't just about the Hotspot app (though that's arguably its single most valuable function). The phone's WiMAX radio can be controlled independently of the CDMA / EV-DO, Bluetooth, and WiFi radios -- which will certainly be a boon for customers in 3G-only markets and for anyone looking to max out battery life -- but we tested the EVO in Chicago, where Sprint's (and Clearwire's) 4G signal is alive and well.

When we got a signal, it was amazing. Hell, it was straight-up epic -- full, desktop-caliber websites and apps like the Market loaded with honest-to-goodness WiFi-like speed, and we were able to make calls over CDMA at the same time (this was a feature that Sprint said was on the bubble back at CTIA, so we're happy to see it made it in). Of course, we imagine this is partially a function of the fact that Sprint's 4G network is practically a ghost town; Clearwire's most recent quarterly report clocked less than a million subscribers nationally, and we're sure we'll see some performance degradation as insanely hot hardware like the EVO starts infiltrating Sprint stores and power users get hip to the knowledge that WiMAX is the bee's knees.

The other issue we had was... well, put simply, staying covered. Chicago is an urban canyon in every sense of the word, and Clearwire operates in a high spectrum slot that doesn't share the building penetration characteristics of 700 and 850MHz networks. In other words, we found ourselves getting four bars of 4G walking down the street, then ducking into a coffee shop and dropping to just one or even no bars at all.


Let us be crystal clear: we love this phone. Nay, we adore it. But the fact remains that it's still very much an Android device -- which means that if you don't like Android now, odds are good that even Android executed on the most amazing hardware to date won't do much to change your opinion of it. You've also got to be concerned about upgradeability; Froyo is almost certainly around the corner now, and HTC hasn't done anything to suggest it's able to push Sense-powered updates in a timely fashion.

That said, this is truly one of the best smartphones ever made, and even spotty 4G -- a reality of a young technology that's going to take years to properly build out -- probably won't do much to hamper your enjoyment of this thing. It's reasonable to assume that phones like the EVO will ultimately come to every carrier over the next few months... but hey, if you jumped ship for Sprint to pick up this monster, we wouldn't be able to blame you.