iPhone 4 or EVO 4G: which one should you get?

Hoo boy. This is a tough one, isn't it? In our years at Engadget, we've rarely seen such deafening debate and adulation for a pair of devices. In one corner we have the iPhone 4, coming off a few relatively easy rounds atop the smartphone mind share heap. However, the Droid and its ilk have weakened Apple's spot, and here comes the HTC EVO 4G in for the kill, sporting a larger screen, 4G data, and all manner of HTC sexy. If the devices themselves weren't enough, the debate has turned into something larger and metaphorical, with Apple representing tight restrictions and a singular top down vision, while Google's Android stands for something perhaps a bit more haphazard but democratizing. The gloves come off after the break.

Of course, the easy answer is that they're both great phones. The truth of the matter is that what might make the EVO the perfect smartphone for one person doesn't necessarily pop up on another person's radar. In many cases (like this author's, for instance), there are many pros and cons on both platforms and devices that makes the decision difficult, almost painful. We're going to try to lay out the facts, so that you have the best material at your disposal for making the decisions, but we're not going to call the decision "easy" or "cut and dry" for anybody. This is a road we all eventually walk alone... into an Apple or Sprint store.


We've stacked these two phones up every which way specs-wise. They're very similar phones when you run down a checklist, but there's one glaring dissimilarity: the EVO is huge. In fact, many people might find a more direct iPhone competitor in the excellent Droid Incredible, or at least the much thinner Droid X. Outside of lacking of a front facing camera and 4G, they're virtually the same phone as the EVO, just smaller (in different ways). But we didn't come here to talk Droids. Here are some of the big ways these two phones compete:


This is the quintessential spot for personal preference, so we won't linger long. Suffice it to say that these are two companies lauded for their hardware design at the top of their game. The EVO is mostly plastic, the iPhone is glass and metal, EVO has a kickstand, the iPhone is thinner (9.3mm vs. 12.7mm). They both fit fine in a pocket, and are both striking enough visually that you wouldn't want to hide them in a pocket. It's hard to tell which would fare better in a drop test, but both are too premium-feeling for us to really enjoy finding out. The heft of the EVO makes it dangerous, and we've seen a couple reports of shattered screens. The exposed glass edges on both sides of the iPhone make it look fragile, and while it's stronger than it looks, it's certainly not invincible.


The EVO 4G's 4.3-inch screen is amazing and jawdropping, while the iPhone's 3.5-inch screen looks unchanged until you get up close: and realize it's just as jawdropping. The EVO scores an obvious win on size, but the iPhone certainly has it on pixel density -- approaching that of a printed page -- and even resolution (960 x 640 vs. 800 x 480), and we found it to be a brighter, higher quality display as well.

That said, we don't think most people will suffer one bit with the pixel density of the EVO, and while the iPhone certainly bests it in quality, the EVO is certainly passable for viewing outdoors and wonderful indoors. Coming down to... surprise, surprise, a matter of preference: size vs. quality.


The EVO has higher resolution cameras front and back (8 megapixel / 1.3 megapixel, vs. 5 megapixel / VGA). Apple claims its low resolution sensor around back is to improve the low light performance, and both manufacturers are using the same "backside illuminated" tech. The EVO wins the spec war, but in practice we tend to prefer the photos and video produced by the iPhone. It has better sound and less artifacting when shooting video, with a higher framerate at 720p of 30 fps, vs. the EVO's 24. Photos seem better as well, with less JPEG artifacting, less grain, and less chromatic aberration. That's just what our eyes tell us, however. You decide for yourself: %Gallery-93318% %Gallery-96052%


This is going to be a big one for a lot of people. In our experience, the EVO can easily get through a day of light use when used on 3G, and isn't that much worse on 4G. Meanwhile, the iPhone has an improved battery over the already strong 3GS, and can fairly handily beat the EVO on both standby and active use time. Then again, the EVO has a user-replaceable battery if you want to pack a spare. We're confident that most people can survive with the EVO, but if you want battery "comfort," the iPhone is the best bet.


We've never really liked the way Android segments storage between device and microSD card, and the EVO doesn't help its case by requiring you to remove the battery to get at the included 8GB card. Meanwhile Apple offers the iPhone in 16GB and 32GB flavors, all nicely synced and managed with iTunes. There's nothing stopping you from putting all the apps and music you want on the EVO, and with microSD you have theoretically unlimited storage, but it's nowhere near as pretty a process as Apple makes it.


Software is much more a "shades of grey" area than hardware, so we're going to have to let a bit more opinion seep in here. Please forgive us. You could spend a lifetime detailing the differences and similarities of these two advanced, complicated smartphone OSes (or at least, like, a day), but we'll try to hit the high points:


We're going to call this for Android right away. Google's notification tray is just so much more pleasant, useful, and unobtrusive than Apple's pop-overs -- we just wonder how long it'll take Apple to figure this out.


HTC isn't helping itself out here by shipping duplicate SMS and email clients to get in the way of Google's own. Apple's also playing catch-up with iOS 4, bringing a unified inbox and threaded messaging to the iPhone. Basically, it comes down to Gmail: if you use it and love it, Android will always be your best experience of it, but for any other service, the iPhone serves just fine. It also makes SMS a prettier experience, though no more usable than its Android counterpart.

Something that's relevant for a minority, but very relevant for that minority, is Google Voice. There's a decent web app that makes it almost usable on the iPhone, but it's a powerful, extremely useful thing as a deeply integrated app on Android, and now that everybody in the US can get in, it's only going to grow in relevance.


These are both touchscreen-only phones, which might be a bit of a change if you're coming from a physical keyboard-equipped device, but rest assured that many humans throughout the ages have managed to become quite proficient on touchscreen keyboards, and Apple and HTC's are pretty much the best in the business. The EVO benefits from its extra real estate -- the keyboard is almost too large in portrait -- and we like some of the ways HTC handles prediction, like offering multiple word alternatives as you type, but the iPhone still offers the best touchscreen keyboard we've ever used in actual practice, and the addition of spellcheck in iOS 4 only helps cement that.


Android: yes. iPhone: no.


Apple is finally entering the multitasking arena with iOS 4, but it's certainly doing things its own way. In truth, Apple still doesn't allow any sort of "true" multitasking on its phone, just background services, task completion, and fast app switching. Android blows this away by allowing full apps to run simultaneously. Still, for all of Apple's overwrought babying of the user, it does have a bit of a point: if you don't kill your tasks vigilantly on Android, your phone will run hot (we're speaking from experience with the EVO), slow down, and devour battery life. If you're smart and proactive, Android's multitasking can make you more productive and also more attractive to the opposite sex. For everybody else, the iPhone is the cleaner solution, and in the multitasking-enabled apps we've been using so far, we'd say the iOS approach is usually sufficient -- though it's really reliant on the app developers to get it right.


This is certainly a matter of taste, but here's a gross simplification: iPhone is for aesthetes, Android is for nerds. HTC's Sense spitshine adds a bit to Android, but it also increases the quantity of divergent, inconsistent UI. Apple's managed to not only present a unified front in its own apps, but also pass on a strong design language to much of its developer community -- something Google is far from doing. Meanwhile, there's something very homespun and fun about diving into Android's technical, geektastic menus and widgets. Extra nerd points included for those brave enough to put stock Android on the thing.


You can't argue against the fact that the iPhone has more applications, way more games, and a generally higher level of app quality thanks to a more mature SDK and increased competition. Still, when it comes to doing stuff that's not gaming, Android Market does alright for itself. It's really down to a per user thing: can you live without app X? Is there an adequate replacement for app Y? Do you hate having fun? Both devices have approval processes to get onto the branded store, but Android's is a bit more lax (emulators, for instance), and you can also grab unsigned apps directly. You have to jailbreak the iPhone for that kind of freedom.

Some notable first and third party applications:

  • Maps: Android is the easy winner, with full dedicated GPS-style turn by turn navigation. This likely isn't going to change soon, either, because Google builds the maps for both handsets.

  • Browser: Google claims to be making some improvements with its browser, rating its Froyo version as the "world's fastest mobile browser." Unfortunately, there's no telling when this new version of Android will make it to the EVO -- that's up to HTC and Sprint. Meanwhile, the iPhone browser is generally regarded at the top of the heap for speed and compatibility, with one notable exception: no Flash.

  • Twitter: Now that there's a first party Twitter app on Android things are looking up (HTC's one was pretty horrid), but you can still find the most variety and quality for Twitter on the iPhone.

  • Facebook: Just about a wash, though there's more integration with contacts on Android.

  • Calendar: This is a case of personal preference, though HTC's replacement calendar is an easy loser to the stock Android version and Apple's very pretty iPhone one. Google Calendar integration is slightly easier on Android, but iOS 4 makes it more of a default on the iPhone than it has been.

  • YouTube: The EVO wins easily with YouTube HQ, a glorious sight on the 4.3-inch screen. We'd think the iPhone would be getting this quality bump sooner or later, but no mention has been made.

  • Tethering: The EVO wins with WiFi hotspot connection sharing, while you have to use a cable or Bluetooth on the iPhone. You can share a 2GB data plan on AT&T for $20 extra, but that ramps all the way to $75 if you use 5GB. Meanwhile the EVO has "unlimited" sharing for $30 extra a month.

  • Video chat: We have an more in depth spec comparison here, but basically: HTC EVO uses Qik and can chat to computers or phones, while Apple uses its own FaceTime tech, which is currently iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 only (with a supposedly open standard set to alleviate that limitation over time). Still, in practice FaceTime seems to be higher quality and easier to deal with. It's really the same old story: you'll have more flexibility on Android out of the gate, more polish from Apple.


AT&T / Sprint

This one's pretty simple: if you live in a WiMAX area with good coverage, you could see higher data speeds on Sprint than AT&T. The trick is, you probably don't live in a WiMAX area with good coverage -- they're few and far between. Luckily, Sprint's 3G network is actually pretty great (outside of some notable rough patches in certain areas), and we've had a wonderful experience using it on the EVO so far, surpassing even some other Sprint handsets we've used. As we get further into the launch we're starting to see some hints that the EVO is straining Sprint's network somewhat -- middling performance where it used to be excellent -- but that's at least not a widespread, iPhone-scale problem at this point.

Meanwhile, AT&T is AT&T: great speeds and network if it's not over capacity in your area. The company has made some strong strides at fighting dropped calls in major metropolitan areas like NY and SF, and that new external antenna design on the iPhone 4 helps out as well -- as long as you don't hold it wrong. On a more minor note, the new iPhone also has slightly improved upload speeds.


The HTC EVO 4G is $199 after a $100 mail-in rebate with Sprint, but you can get it elsewhere (like Radio Shack and Best Buy) for $199 straight up. The iPhone 4 is $199 (if you can find one). Service plans get much more complicated, but basically:

  • AT&T you can get as low at $55 with 200MB of data, 450 minutes of talk, and no messaging. If you want unlimited voice and messaging, along with 2GB of data (the most AT&T will pre-sell you, it's $10 per GB after that), you'll be forking over $115 a month.

  • Sprint requires you to go for a minimum $80 plan (that includes the required premium data plan add-on for the EVO), which includes unlimited data, unlimited messaging, and 450 minutes of talk. To bump up to unlimited everything (and that $10 premium data charge insures a true unlimited data) you'll be spending $110 a month.


You know the facts, you've heard the arguments, you've passively observed the roar of comments from each side... now follow your heart!

Not good enough for you? You can find out more on your own with our iPhone 4 review, and our EVO 4G review. Stay tuned for our Droid X review, as well! You won't be sorry.

Update: If you'll recall, we put this post up briefly a couple of weeks ago, before deciding we wanted to review the iPhone 4 and get all the facts before really pitting these against each other. To reflect the semi-newness of this comparo, here's a semi-new poll to let you express your own opinion. Here are the results of the last poll, for reference. %Poll-48622%