It's sort of hard to believe, but AT&T finally has an Android phone worth paying attention to. Mind you, the AT&T compatible Nexus One is easily the best Googlephone on America's largest GSM operator, but this is the first one that the company has bothered to brand and sell on a subsidized plan within its own stores. Pundits could argue the reasons why forever, but considering that the carrier's doing all it can just to keep up with the demand for iPhones, it's hard to imagine that AT&T has been longing to pursue Android with reckless abandon. Believe it or not, it's been over 1.5 years since T-Mobile gave the world the first taste of a mobile OS that would soon rival (and surpass) the other options already on the table, but outside of the forgettable Backflip (and the nowhere-to-be-found Aero), there's been no Android to speak of on AT&T. HTC has somehow managed to break down the blue and orange walls, piercing the heart of a hardened operator and squeezing a delightful mid-range Android smartphone into a lineup that's about to be monumentally overshadowed by the iPhone 4. So, is the HTC Aria worth the $129.99 that you'll be forced to pay on a 2-year agreement when it ships on June 20th? Read on to find out. %Gallery-95473%
So look, it's pretty obvious at first blush -- this is essentially an Android-infused HD Mini with a few chrome accents, a yellow interior (that no one will ever see, sadly) and a reworked button panel. While we certainly appreciated the HD Mini back at Mobile World Congress, we're going to hand the overall design award to the Aria; the silver faux screws on the rear, power strip at the top and volume rocker on the side are pure class, and the vivacious innards tickle us far more than they truly should. In a world where it's practically guaranteed that the next great smartphone will also be the most humongous smartphone, it's actually a breath of fresh air to see someone going in the opposite direction. The Aria is as cute and nimble as it is sexy, a lovely combination that we weren't sure existed prior to writing this review.
Measuring 4.1- x 2.3- x 0.46-inches and weighing 3.8 ounces with the 1,200mAh battery installed, the phone is light and tight in every respect. We also adore the matte black rear that both rejects fingerprints and slides easy in and out of the average denim pocket. We will say, however, that the über-glossy display (a 480 x 320 resolution capacitive touchpanel) was a tad too glossy when taken outside, and even with the brightness jacked, we had to squint to make out text when perusing Twitter updates under the blazing North Carolina sun. We've also got mixed feelings about the button layout beneath the LCD; the optical trackpad works well enough (though we'll confess to missing the tactility of a trackball), but the capacitive buttons just don't do it for us. We're huge fans of feeling buttons depress, even if it's subtle, and we instantly wished that the home, menu, back and search buttons were more like those found on Huawei's S7. The haptic feedback definitely helps in letting you know if your input has been recognized, but we'd still prefer physical keys for easier use when not looking directly down at the handset.
As if you couldn't tell, we're pretty big fans of the design here. Sure, we would've preferred a slightly more dense resolution than HVGA, and a couple of customizable rocker buttons around the edges would be the answer to a good many fantasies, but all in all, you won't be turning the Aria down based on build quality alone. So, if all that's kosher, how's the software? In a word... actually, scratch that. This aspect is far too complicated to sum up in a single word, and the love / hate relationship we've discovered here simply deserves a longer explanation.
For starters, we're huge fans of the HTC-built Sense overlay on top of Android 2.1. Having seven home panels (as opposed to five), a dedicated phone button at the bottom and an array of gorgeous widgets to choose from are real boons, and it's easy to miss these little things when using a stock Android build. By and large, we were shocked -- shocked -- by how quickly this phone hummed along. Given that Qualcomm's 1GHz Snapdragon was nowhere to be found (the Aria is outfitted with a 600MHz MSM 7227 alongside 512MB of ROM and 384MB of RAM), we didn't expect much on the speed front. Talk about having expectations shattered. Even with a host of apps running in the background and home screens loaded with apps, we never experienced any notable lag when going from screen to screen or app to app. We were continuously impressed with how quickly the screen recognized our swipes, and it's safe to say that you're getting every last ounce of power from this 600MHz power plant. We even dialed up a few YouTube HQ videos over 3G while having a smattering of apps open in the background in an attempt to slow it down -- needless to say, our experiment failed in spectacular fashion.
But for all the speed that's here, there's one thing that just grates our nerves to no end: AT&T's meddling. Sure enough, it's impossible to sideload apps onto the Aria. For those unaware of the terminology, this means that the only way you're getting apps onto your Aria is by downloading straight from the App Market. If you download an app from the web, have one emailed to, etc., you can forget about tossing it onto your SD card and using ASTRO File Manager to install it. There's simply no option whatsoever to allow app installations from "Unknown sources," an option that's very much in place on the Nexus One and other non-tweaked Android phones. We tried to sideload an app using the method above just for kicks, and we were greeted with an warning that our phone wouldn't allow such shenanigans, period. We're guessing that AT&T is trying to prevent its users from installing software that could potentially wreck their handset (and in turn, their AT&T experience), but not even giving users the option is absurd. There's no two ways about it. If you buy the Aria, you're buying a phone that strictly blocks a major avenue for installing apps. It's sad, and frankly, unacceptable. %Gallery-95472%
The other side to having AT&T's hands in all of this is that you'll find AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Hot Spots, AT&T Maps, AT&T Navigator and MobiTV pre-installed, though you'll have to pony up extra per month to indulge in some of those. Our take? We can live without all of 'em, but living without sideloading is something we aren't prepared to do given the wealth of other fantastic Android options on the table. The integrated 5 megapixel autofocus camera is fairly quick to focus and snap, and the image quality certainly isn't half bad for a "mid-range" phone; the VGA camcorder was also a welcome addition, and we'll leave it to you to judge the video quality based on the embed below.
Like it or not, the Aria is a hard sell on AT&T. Sure, it's the first Android phone that's even halfway respectable on the network, but the harsh reality is that the best Android phones reside on other networks. If you're out of your current contract, and you're jonesing to get a Google-fied handset in your pocket, we can't wholeheartedly recommend selecting AT&T as your carrier. Based on the issues we've experienced, it's hard to suggest AT&T as a voice carrier (data is another story) for anyone outside of iPhone loyalists and heavy international travelers, and the Aria's hamstrung version of Android 2.1 definitely doesn't help matters. We love the compact design and surprising amount of speed, and Sense remains one of our favorite UI overlays on the face of the planet. But could we recommend with a straight face that you spend a buck-thirty on a phone that you can't sideload applications to, not to mention one that won't see Froyo until AT&T says it will? No. The fact of the matter is that Apple's $99 8GB iPhone 3GS remains the best bargain smartphone on AT&T (heck, the Aria only comes with a 2GB microSD card), and if you're serious about Android, you'll either snag an AT&T compatible Nexus One or find yourself with a Googlephone on another network. Oh, and HTC -- if you're kind enough to let AT&T sell any more of your Android phones, tell 'em to keep their hands off of the software. Thanks.