HTC EVO 3D review

The first time we saw the rumored Supersonic we were blown away. HTC and Google had just wowed us with the Nexus One, and here we were looking at something even better -- a 4.3-inch phone with WiMAX wrapped in a white body. This prototype was buggy and had abysmal battery life, but it was real. Four months later it landed in our hands at Google I/O. We're of course talking about the EVO 4G which went on to become a runaway hit for HTC and Sprint as the first ever 4G smartphone in the US. And here we are a year later with the HTC EVO 3D, the legitimate heir to Sprint's mobile kingdom -- at least until the Motorola Photon 4G comes along. When we first played with the 3D-capable handset at CTIA we were suitably impressed, but we left with a lot of unanswered questions. How do the 1.2GHz dual core processor and qHD display affect battery life? Is 3D a compelling feature or just a gimmick? What is 2D camera performance like with the lower specced camera? Is the EVO 3D a worthy replacement for the EVO 4G? Find out in our review after the break.


Glancing at the front of the EVO 3D, it's easy to mistake it for last year's EVO 4G or the more recent Incredible 2. It combines design elements from both, like the angular edges and silver ringed capacitive keys of its precursor along with the soft curves and beveled earpiece of its Verizon cousin. But it's not until you notice the silver grating missing from the earpiece, and discover the silver 2D / 3D mode switch plus the large machined aluminum camera button on the right edge that you realize this is a completely different beast. The EVO 3D is a little taller than the EVO 4G, but narrower thanks to a different screen aspect ratio -- 16:9 vs. 5:3. It's also a little thinner than its predecessor which, combined with the difference in width, makes the new handset a better fit in the hand. Like the Incredible 2, the bezel is made from some kind of black anodized alloy and incorporates the earpiece, complete with a concealed notification light. Instead of hiding under the screen glass, the 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera lives on the bezel to the right of the earpiece. A sheet of Gorilla glass protects the 4.3-inch qHD capacitive touchscreen and includes silk-screened HTC and Sprint logos at top in addition to the capacitive buttons (home, menu, back, and search) at the bottom.

Turn the phone over and "whoa!" -- watch the magic as people react in awe (or is it fear?) to the massive camera pod sprouting from the back of the EVO 3D. The pod, with its twin 5 megapixel autofocus cameras and dual-LED flash, easily takes up one fifth of the back cover's real estate. It features a tasteful red aluminum rim that also conceals the (loud, clear, if not a bit tinny) speaker, and reminds us of the red trim piece around the EVO 4G's camera. We're unable to determine if the camera pod is covered in glass or high-quality plastic, but unlike the recessed camera opening on the Sensation, it protrudes such that it's likely to get scratched in day-to-day use. In fact, it's almost impossible to pull the EVO 3D out of a pocket without leaving fingerprints on the camera pod. The back cover is made of a matte black soft-touch plastic that wraps around the edges of the handset. It's mostly covered in a grippy textured pattern and adorned with a large shiny HTC logo. The top edge is home to the power / lock button, a standard 3.5mm headphone jack surrounded by a lovely silver ring, and a secondary mic. At the bottom, you'll find the primary mic along with a slot to pry the back cover off. The left edge is devoid of anything other than the combined HDMI/micro-USB (MHL?) connector. On the right side there's a volume rocker plus the aforementioned 2D / 3D mode switch and that delightfully beefy machined aluminum camera key.

While the EVO 3D looks solidly built and feels substantial (it weighs about the same as its precursor), the materials used fail to convey the same sense of quality as the Sensation. The volume rocker and power / lock button, which are a part of the back cover, have an unpleasant, mushy feel. It's also far too easy to trigger the power / lock key and accidentally turn the phone on (it lacks the safety delay found on other recent HTC handsets). Removing the back cover reveals the same translucent black chassis as the Incredible 2, a generous 1730mAh battery, and a microSD card slot containing an 8GB Class 4 card. Gone are the EVO 4G's red innards and signature kickstand -- there's just no room for it.

Spec-wise the EVO 3D is similar to the Sensation. It uses the same 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU and Adreno 220 GPU, but features 1GB of RAM (up from 768MB) and is paired with a dual-mode GSM/CDMA capable radio (MSM8660 vs. MSM8260) -- with GSM disabled here of course. As expected, Quadrant scores hover in the 2000 range which is double what we measured on the EVO 4G, despite pushing 35% more pixels. The phone is equipped with a 4.3" 16:9 qHD (960 x 540 pixel) Super LCD display, and other than supporting glasses-free stereoscopic content, the EVO 3D screen appears to be identical to the Sensation's in terms of brightness, color saturation, black levels and viewing angles. It's not the best qHD display we've come across (that title belongs to the Motorola Droid X2) and it's even outclassed by some WVGA screens (Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus and the Incredible 2's Super LCD come to mind), but other than washing out in direct sunlight it gets the job done. You'll find a full complement of radios on board, including WiMAX, CDMA / EV-DO Rev. A, WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS / AGPS, as well as FM -- along with the usual plethora of sensors (light, proximity, orientation, accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope).

Although we didn't experience any problems with call quality and reception, we also didn't see WiMAX perform significantly better than HSPA+ on other carriers -- at least not in San Francisco where it's often difficult to find a strong signal. WiMAX works best outdoors (since 2.5GHz radio waves are more sensitive to obstacles and interference) and locking onto a signal usually requires staying stationary for a minute. We noticed this with the EVO 4G and the Epic 4G last year, but without other "4G" technologies to compare WiMAX to, we simply accepted the status quo. Things are different now that HSPA+ and LTE are viable alternatives -- WiMAX is suddenly less compelling. Power efficiency is another concern. As more carriers deploy HSPA+ and LTE networks, chip manufacturers are more likely to integrate those radios at the SoC level, while WiMAX continues to require a separate radio.

Which brings us to battery life, or the lack thereof. After topping off the EVO 3D, it only took 14 hours and 44 minutes to drain the beefy 1730mAh battery down to 7%. We barely used the handset during that time -- we made a 15-minute call and slept 6 hours. The rest of it was spent taking a half-dozen pictures, and occasionally checking three email accounts plus one Twitter account with all the radios enabled (save for Bluetooth). This is particularly surprising when you consider the Sensation's stellar battery life. 3D photography is particularly taxing on the battery. In another test, we saw the charge level drop from full to 60% in about an hour and a half during which we snapped about 80 photos and captured four short videos (about half of this content was in 3D). So, whatever you do, be prepared to bring a charger along with that EVO 3D.

Cameras and 3D

One thing is clear. It's hard to escape the gaze of those red-rimmed cyborg eyes the moment you see them. It's like catching a glance of the Terminator, but knowing you'll live. Yes, Skynet is watching you in three dee now. Indeed, everyone immediately notices the twin 5 megapixel autofocus cameras and dual LED flash, and it's no surprise -- stereoscopic imaging is the EVO 3D's raison d'être. Unfortunately, it's also the source of many compromises, and not just for 3D. Both cameras share what appears to be a decent quality 5 megapixel sensor with better than average low-light performance and low noise. The limiting factor here is the optics -- not the autofocus lenses per se, but the panel protecting the camera pod. We're still not sure if it's made of glass or optical grade plastic, but it causes noticeable halos in the periphery of images containing bright light. While color balance is generally accurate, light metering is hit and miss. For some reason, the issue is exacerbated when snapping 2D pictures. Only the left camera (when facing the screen) is used for 2D shots, and scenes with a wide dynamic range are often over- or under-exposed. Unlike the EVO 4G, there's no spot, center, or average setting to control how light is metered.
Macro photography, while possible in 3D, produces results which are impossible to display properly because the two cameras are too far apart (3.25cm to be exact) when capturing closeups. Another limitation of 3D is that the cameras are disabled if the phone is not held in the horizontal position and in the landscape orientation. You can't gather creative stereoscopic images which, when viewed, would be the equivalent of holding your head sideways. And if you're an astronaut (or other space faring creature), you'll likely run into trouble when taking pictures with the EVO 3D in zero gravity -- you've been warned. Strangely, while both cameras feature 5 megapixel sensors, 3D photos consist of a pair of 2 megapixel widescreen stills (that's 1920x1080 pixels each). Also, zooming is not supported when capturing 3D content. Finally, forget shooting in 3D when the battery charge drops below 15%: it's simply disabled. Of course, none of these limitations apply in 2D and images are captured at full resolution (2560 x 1920 pixels). As you'll notice in our sample gallery, the resulting pictures are adequate but don't show any improvements over HTC's existing 5 megapixel devices when it comes to 2D imaging performance. If anything, quality suffers from the poor optics and exposure problems.

3D images can be saved in either MPO or JPS formats, the latter being easier to view and edit since it basically places the left and right pictures side-by-side into a single JPEG file containing additional metadata. Video is captured smoothly in HD at 720p and 30fps, then encoded using standard H264 -- there's no 1080p support for 2D, despite what's listed in the specs. When recording in 3D the left and right frames are combined and squeezed into 1280x720 pixels by a software process not unlike the anamorphic technique used to fit widescreen content onto 35mm film. The net result is that each original frame is stored using only 640x720 pixels, effectively halving the resolution of the final video. Touch-to-focus plus initial autofocus are available when recording video, and the audio is captured in stereo. In terms of camera interface, there's a silver 2D / 3D sliding switch that selects the shooting mode and a large dedicated 2-stage machined aluminum shutter key that's one of the best we've ever used on any handset -- it provides the right amount of tactile feedback and stiffness without blurring shots. Kudos to HTC for nailing something that should be standard on all phones. The rest of the UI is identical to what we saw on the Sensation. It's pretty intuitive and includes touch-to-focus, face detection and color effects.

Update: Just to be 100% clear, contrary to the published specs, the EVO 3D does not support 1080p video recording in 2D. The highest setting is 720p (see here and here). We have confirmed this with other reviewers and have reached out to Sprint for clarification. We'll keep you posted.

Update 2: Here is the statement we received from Sprint:

The correct specs on the device are: HTC EVO 3D captures video in HD quality up to 720p and playback up to 1080p on both 2D and 3D. We will make the change in our spec sheet right now and also alert the other media outlets as well as make the change on our newsroom.

Sadly, whether monitoring the live view in 3D or watching stereoscopic content, the EVO 3D's qHD touchscreen is a mixed bag. In addition to washing out in direct sunlight, many people have problems seeing the 3D effect on the display even after being coached to slowly pan sideways until the 3D photos or videos "pop" into place. To make matters worse, the 3D effect looks blurry at the left and right edges of the screen, and pinch-to-zoom switches the display back to 2D. MPO files and 3D videos were handled properly by the Sharp 3D TV we tried, but none of our 3D content worked on the Nintendo 3DS. We were able to convert the original JPS files into the anaglyph images shown in our sample gallery by using a simple 3-step Photoshop process. We were also able to upload and watch 3D videos on YouTube by tweaking a few simple settings to generate anaglyph videos. Old-school red / cyan 3D glasses are required to view this type of content. But ultimately, while 3D is fun and whimsical, we can't help but think it's just a gimmick. As it is today, the EVO 3D's dual cameras suffer from too many compromises that affect the quality of both 2D and 3D imaging.


The EVO 3D runs HTC's Sense 3.0 UI on top of Android 2.3.3, just like its sibling, the Sensation. As we mentioned in that review, performance is top notch. Qualcomm's 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon SoC is a force to be reckoned with, and takes Gingerbread to an entirely new level of fluidity. Everything from the basic UI to the web browser to maps is utterly buttery smooth. There is no delay, no hesitation -- just pure instant tactile gratification. Still, there's no escaping Sense, and we're not fans. As far as pigs and lipstick go, Sense 3.0 wears a professional makeup job. Other than adding instant access to the camera from the lock screen, it's mostly style over substance, fancy 3D effects on top of functionality that already exists in Gingerbread. A long time ago, in a land far away, Sense made, well... sense. It added important missing features to the OS. But today we'll take plain Android over Sense -- and its frustrating keyboard layout -- any day. We realize some people actually enjoy Sense and we commend HTC for creating a unique and consistent user experience across its device lineup. Just let us turn it off, or provide us with official Sense-free ROMs.

Bad news: there is crapware. Good news: most of it can be removed easily. We have to give Sprint credit for keeping pre-installed apps to a minimum, and even including content that actually adds value (gasp!) to the EVO 3D. You'll find some apps that you'd probably want anyway, such as Adobe Reader, Amazon MP3, Polaris Office, Qik Video, and Swype. Others, like NASCAR, Sprint Mobile, Sprint Radio, Sprint TV & Movies, Sprint Zone (possibly useful to manage your account), and TeleNav are less attractive. What's more interesting is the bundling of games and movies that take advantage of that stereoscopic display. 3D Games currently points to a website showcasing titles for the EVO 4G -- we presume this will be updated with EVO 3D-specific games before launch. Ditto Blockbuster, which is eventually supposed to offer 3D movies for download. Spider-Man is a 3D version of Gameloft's popular game while The Green Hornet 3D launches HTC's Watch service to access the movie. We're curious to see how much additional 3D content becomes available for the EVO 3D once it's in circulation. Will developers join the party and build 3D-capable apps and web services?

Wrap up

The EVO 3D is a well made handset that improves upon the EVO 4G in terms of raw horsepower -- as such, it lives up to its flagship status. That being said, it's also a step back in some areas (the lack of kickstand comes to mind). While the qHD screen provides a welcome boost in pixel density, the overall display performance still lags behind the competition. Sense 3.0 leaves us cold, and now that other carriers are rolling out HSPA+ and LTE networks, WiMAX no longer feels like the new kid on the block. Despite the EVO 3D's 1.2GHz dual-core processor, the camera strangely lacks 1080p support, and the EVO 4G arguably captures nicer stills thanks to better optics and firmware. But our biggest gripe with the EVO 3D is its terrible battery life, which is even worse than what we observed on the already lackluster EVO 4G. As for 3D, we're not convinced it's fully baked yet -- right now it feels like a gimmick, but we're willing to wait and see how it develops beyond the initial "gee wiz" phase. Ultimately, we've come to think of the EVO 3D as a Sensation with a lesser camera, cheaper materials, worse battery life, and without the ability to roam worldwide. But hey, it's got 3D and the best dedicated two-stage camera button that's ever graced a phone. That's gotta be worth something, right?