Coming hot on the heels of the ultra-impressive G2, T-Mobile has returned to its myTouch series with the myTouch 4G. While the G2 is the natural enthusiast flagship, the 4G represents a flagship in its own right of a skinned, curated Android experience. If the G2 is the Droid 2 killer, T-Mobile probably sees the myTouch as the iPhone 4 killer (even the name has a similarity to the popular "iTouch" misnomer, and the 4G / 4 mirrors T-Mobile's matchy matchy naming sense with the myTouch 3G / iPhone 3G... we're just saying, is all). So, what does that mean in practice? Some impressive functionality inside and out, including a front facing camera for video calls, HSPA+ network speeds, and WiFi Calling. How does it all play out in the real world? Let's find out.
The myTouch 4G is very "premium." Unfortunately, it's "premium" in the worst way. It screams over effort, has an incomprehensible jumble of design languages and materials, feels simultaneously heavy and cheap in the hand, and manages to bear a too-striking resemblance to the iPhone 3G to boot (at least in the white edition of this phone we have, the handset also comes in red, plum, and black flavors). Lest you think we just have iPhone on the brain, a non-techy family member actually made the look-alike comment offhand, unprompted. What's sad is that there are actually a lot of redeeming qualities to the external hardware that, when taken one at a time, would be pretty welcome in a phone.
Take the brushed metal battery cover, for instance. It has an ultramodern look and feel, and HTC (responsible for the hardware, though they clearly departed from their traditional design language) heightens this impression with a slightly darker metal up above, around the camera. Unfortunately, this two-tone metal area is surrounded by white plastic, which makes both elements look cheap and out of place. For overall feel we actually love the hefty weight of the device (some might differ, it's a personal preference), but there's a discontinuity of contour everywhere that would make a car designer blush. If you run your finger from screen, over a side edge, and onto the back you go from glass to metal to plastic back to metal, with all sorts of odd angles and abrupt edges en route. This might sound silly to be worried about, but we found that with all this inconsistency the phone just never "settled" into our hand in a satisfying way.
Another personal preference, but one which actually swings the other way, are the large, clicky face buttons and the optical track pad which doubles as a button as well. We just love clicking things. They're all nestled in the "chin" of the device, an ode to the G1 / myTouch 3G heritage, and a little touch that we love as well. Unfortunately, this friendly set of buttons is marred slightly by T-Mobile's replacement of the traditional search button with the "Genius Button" to enact voice searches. We'll talk more about it in software, but basically we're unenthused by this switcharoo.
Finally, don't even get us started on the horrific earpiece speaker grill.
Other hardware details that aren't so polarizing: an excellent camera shutter button in the usual spot; a lock button in the usual spot, which might be just slightly too recessed; and a volume rocker that's a little "loose" and plastic, but otherwise unoffensive. There's the typical micro-USB jack on the lower left-hand side, 3.5mm headphone jack up top, and some intriguing docking pins of some sort one the middle of the left side that seem primed for accessorizing.
Speaking of accessories, the myTouch 4G's retail packaging is actually pretty swank. Once you get the simple cardboard sleeve off, it's simply a zipper case with foam-lined spots for the USB wall plug adapter, USB cable, headphones (with remote / mic), manuals, and, of course, the phone. %Gallery-106858%
Spec-wise, the myTouch 4G pretty much has it all. The 3.8-inch 800 x 480 really "pops" color and brightness-wise, although the viewing angles don't quite match Super AMOLED or the best LCDs we've seen. It's also very readable outdoors, though our current weather patterns didn't allow for testing it under direct sunlight.
Under the hood there's the same second-gen 1GHz Qualcomm QSD8255 "Scorpion" Snapdragon processor that powers the Desire HD, and the same 768MB of RAM. A sizable 1400mAh battery provides plenty of juice to get through a day of pretty hefty use. We even left it off a charger overnight and still had some room in the tank to make it to noon the next day. Of course, if you're doing anything that really taps into the processor -- 3D gaming, or the oddly demanding Angry Birds (which kills our iPhone battery as well, and makes both handsets run inexplicably hot) -- you should probably keep your charger handy.
Storage-wise there's an 8GB microSD card included (which is nicely accessible without removing the battery), and 4GB of built-in storage, though there's only about 1GB of that available to the user.
The real standout feature is a front-facing camera, which still only a few handsets on the market can lay claim to. Of course, the VGA sensor won't do your ugly mug any favors. With HSPA+ onboard (what T-Mobile's calling "4G" these days), T-Mobile is confidently pushing this phone as a "video calls anywhere" number, and luckily HSDPA works fine as well -- which is extra-nice because HSPA+ signals are still pretty scarce in NY where we tested this. Around back there's a 5 megapixel camera, complete with LED flash, which is also usable for video calling.
One of our favorite little tidbits is the 802.11n WiFi, which blissfully supports our 5GHz-only home router in addition to regular 2.4GHz shenanigans (2.4GHz is horribly saturated in Manhattan).
Phone / speakerphone / call quality
This is an intensely mixed bag. The excellent connection we got on T-Mobile meant people could hear us vastly better than they typically can on a AT&T / Verizon / Sprint connection in our usual haunts. This writer's apartment in particular is a sort of concrete bunker, and T-Mobile blasts right through it (of course, your mileage may vary, T-Mobile's network is well known for its inconsistent nature).
Better yet, T-Mobile has included WiFi Calling on this phone, which Just Works. Basically, you just run the WiFi Calling app, register your current WiFi network, and select if you prefer WiFi calls or cellular calls in absence of the other, or want to go WiFi only. Then, for as long as you're on the WiFi, your incoming and outgoing calls will be routed through WiFi. Unfortunately, this app solution doesn't have any sort of handoff method for moving to cellular if you leave the WiFi area, but it's still a far sight better than resorting to tack-on VoIP solutions when you can't get a signal.
So, with great connections at our back, everyone we spoke to on the phone were positively ecstatic about our voice quality. Unfortunately, they don't sound so good on our end. Basically, the earpiece (that ugly, ugly earpiece) is too quiet. It's not like we can't hear people, but we like to have the capacity to turn up the volume to an uncomfortable level, in case we're in a noisy environment, or the person on the other end is quiet for some reason. Sadly, the speakerphone is even worse. Not only is it very quiet and rather tinny, but it distorts terribly at its higher volume levels. Speakerphone music playback is painful as well.
The included headphone / headset is alright, and at least solves the volume problem on our end, but the remote / mic that's built into the cable is a little too low for optimal voice pickup.
The 5 megapixel camera is alright. Interestingly, it seems to do a pretty good job with indoor lighting, but has a tendency to have a too-slow shutter speed for overcast outdoor shots. We have some pretty shaky hands, and had difficulty getting a sharp image of the scenery -- the heavy JPEG compression doesn't help, either.
At least the UI is very nice, with tap-to-focus, relatively in-depth image adjustments (ISO, exposure, saturation, contrast) and some built-in filters
The 720p video is becoming a must-have feature in this class of phone, and we're happy to report that the myTouch handles it ably. You can switch in-between camera and video modes nearly instantly, and recording starts instantly as well. Footage is nicely saturated and not too terribly compressed, and even quick pans and tilts look fine, although there's no avoiding the regular shake of a non-stabilized handheld camera like this. Check out a sample below:
Ugh. Please, T-Mobile, make it stop. We can hear the gears turning in the T-Mobile HQ's hive brain: "We'll make a mostly vanilla G2 with a slide-out keyboard for those hardcore users, but Regular Joe Consumer? He can't handle straight-up Android. Let's take this paintbrush loaded up with plastic and cruft and inconsistencies and a little bit of HTC Sense and smear it all over Froyo."
Does it sound like we're taking this a little too personally? Because we are. Android has gotten too good for these shenanigans, and while the basic consumer might never know the difference -- might even like some of these HTC-built widgets and T-Mobile themes -- we can't unsee the excellent elements of Froyo that have been trampled on to make way for their inclusion. T-Mobile went to the trouble of putting seven different themes on this device, each which packs a different background image, a slight alteration of the UI's "chrome," and swaps the color of various buttons and other elements. To be honest, we wouldn't be that offended by all of this if there was just a blessed eighth option that said "none." As it is, we're stuck with T-Mobile's idea of a good UI (which naturally clashes with a half dozen other UI styles present in various apps and the original Google look that peeks through now and then), and the added weight it adds to the experience.
For instance, when you grab for the notification tray, there's a subtle lag that breaks the illusion of pulling something down and sometimes made us feel like we'd mis-touched -- despite the fact that the processor on this phone is incredible, and blazed through regular applications. Swiping between home screen areas can slow down slightly at times, and the swipe gesture to unlock the phone (a downward pull on a horizontal bar) feels unsatisfying and lacks the swipe-to-mute option.
Do we sound nitpicky? Good, let's continue. Another big gripe is the loss of Google's own Calendar app for HTC's similar but inferior one. In fact, HTC's calendar app versus Google's is sort of a case-in-point for what we're talking about UI-wise. The week view on Google's version is very "chromeless," you might even call it ugly. HTC spruces it up with some rounded corners, pastel versions of the different calendar colors, and gradients through each item to make events look a little bit like pieces candy. The problem? HTC decided to excise the text out of every single event, no matter how large, making the view basically useless. This isn't a new problem for HTC Sense, but we're going to keep railing against it until Google / manufacturers / Regular Joe Consumer wise up.
On the bundled application front, T-Mobile goes for the "more the merrier" angle, with games, productivity applications, and T-Mobile's own "My Account" and "App Pack" additions. Here are the notables:
Swype: It's set as the default keyboard, though you can revert to the Android original if you'd like. Opinions in the staff are split over Swype, but it's definitely grown on this writer over time.
WiFi Calling: We already talked about this above, but we just wanted to mention it again because we love it so much.
Media Room: A nice UI for browsing through your music and video library, FM radio, and Slacker all in one place. We're still surprised Google doesn't offer something better by default, but this is one place where it's nice to have a third party step in.
Screen Sharing: A DLNA media pushing app from Twonky.
Faves: A pretty ho-hum implementation of T-Mobile's famous / infamous Fave Five service. We probably wouldn't mention it if it wasn't bolted to the bottom of the home screen to the right of the app drawer.
Genius Button: This is an unfortunate carry-over from the myTouch Slide. In place of the typical search button, there's a stylized "G" that launches a voice-controlled app. The voice control is powered by Nuance, the guys behind Dragon Naturally Speaking, and to their credit, it's some of the best voice recognition around. It differentiates between affect and effect, and even recognizes "Engadget." Unfortunately, we just don't want voice recognition in lieu of good old fashioned text searches. There's no easy way to switch the button to a search button that we've found, which would be an acceptable compromise, and instead we've got a nice gimmick to show off to friends, but are short a core feature of Android in payment.
Video Chat: A slightly-branded version of Qik. Obviously, this is one of the phone's most important features, and we're glad that it doesn't feel entirely tacked on, despite the 3rd party creator. Most importantly, it ties into the HTC social network amalgamation functionality (which is mostly useless otherwise... we prefer the actual Twitter and Facebook applications, thanks). The phone finds Facebook profiles that might match up with phone numbers or email addresses you have in your address book, and asks you to "link" them by hand. It's not a hard process, but we were surprised when it popped up again for another round. Only, this time it was for adding Qik users we already knew. Once you've added someone to your Qik buddy list, you get a concise list of contacts from within Qik that only shows the people that have Qik, with a video icon next to them and (here's the best part) a green lit-up icon if they're online! If you make a call with someone that's not on your buddy list, you can add them after the fact, and then the magical-contact-linker will prompt you to associate the Qik buddy with a contact card if it pulls up a match. FaceTime should really take notes.
Calling-wise, Qik was quick to establish a connection over 3G. For an incoming Qik call, the phone rings just like a regular phone call, even if it's locked. Unfortunately, Qik seems to have a capped quality level that presents pretty blocky video to both ends, even if you have WiFi. Hopefully this will improve in the future. For now, it works, and you can indeed brag to your iPhone friends that you can make video calls wherever without a jailbreak or other hackery. Better yet, we like the fact that we already know a lot of people with Qik video chat-capable devices, and that they aren't all using the same device. Check out a demo below:
One last thing that should be noted is that most applications perform brilliantly on this phone. The browsing experience is pretty much butter, even with the embedded Flash, with almost iPhone-level pinch-to-zoom and scrolling responsiveness. In other apps we noticed that some of the typical lag we had come to expect in that particular application's performance was all but erased. Kudos to Qualcomm for the processor, and a grudging thanks to T-Mobile and HTC for not putting so very much cruft on here to actually slow down the handset -- though we'd love to see how much it would scream with stock Froyo.
We've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we typically get blazing fast internet, on par with a low-to-mid-level home broadband connection (2 to 3Mbps down and 1.3Mbps up, with similar speeds on our laptop when tethered with the phone over WiFi). There's actually little difference in browsing between our cell connection and WiFi. Video calls are as clear as Qik can make them at this point (not very clear), and our voice call quality is perfect.
The bad news? As far as we can tell, we've rarely strayed from HSDPA. Basically, T-Mobile has a very good "3.5G" network in NY, which is either vastly underutilized or just plain good. This excites us for the potential HSPA+, and indeed, we've probably bumped into it unwittingly on occasion (you have to dive pretty deep into the phone to know what sort of connection you're getting, the menu bar simply displays an "H" next to the signal bars). Still, when buying a "4G" phone you have to be aware to what extent a "4G" network exists to support it, and T-Mobile has a ways to go.
Overall, the myTouch 4G hits almost every checkbox when it comes to features and functionality, but sadly misses the mark completely when it comes to aesthetic and "purity" of the Android vision. In T-Mobile's attempt to make a consumer-friendly phone, we'd argue they've driven in the other direction. Luckily, many of our qualms with the phone can be chalked up to personal preference, and a power user could potentially finagle a stock Android ROM onto here, so we'd encourage any prospective buyers to check out the phone for themselves before we fend them off entirely. For the rest of us, we'll keep dreaming of the Nexus Two that this phone most assuredly isn't.