HTC Evo 4G LTE review: Almost great

HTC's Evo 4G LTE smartphone is impressive at first glance, but the phone has drawbacks that make it difficult to recommend.

HTC's Evo 4G was one of Sprint's first breakout smartphone stars. Now, after some lackluster follow-ups, the carrier is hoping to bring the sizzle back to the Evo name with its HTC Evo 4G LTE.

HTC Evo 4G LTE

The HTC Evo 4G LTE, launching in the U.S. on May 18 for $200 (with a new two-year contract at Sprint), works hard to reach the rock star standard established by the original Evo. The device is based on HTC's |critically acclaimed One line of smartphone devices, but it's no mere copycat: The phone combines the One's standout qualities with features that made the first Evo shine, resulting in a new yet somehow familiar piece of technology.

While impressive at first glance, however, the Evo 4G LTE has some serious issues that keep it from achieving true greatness. After using the phone as my own personal device for several days, I find it difficult to recommend.

Body and display

On paper, the Evo 4G LTE seems quite similar to HTC's One X: The phone is basically the same size -- 5.3 x 2.7 in., with a thickness of 0.35 in. -- and shares the same 4.7-in, 1280 x 720 Super LCD display. (It has a lot of the same internal hardware, too; we'll get to that in a moment.)

Make no mistake about it, though: The new Evo doesn't look like a One-series phone. The device follows the original Evo's design, with a dark gray and red color scheme and a bright red kickstand on its back. The kickstand may seem like a gimmick, but it's actually a nice little touch -- and a sturdy one, too: I found it to be quite useful for propping the phone up on a desk or coffee table for easy hands-free viewing.

The Evo 4G LTE trades the One X's unibody design for a two-toned type of casing: On the top part of its back, the phone has a shiny plastic material that houses the camera lens and leads up to the kickstand. Below the kickstand, the device uses a matte aluminum material. The contrast certainly makes the phone stand out, but I found myself wishing HTC had just gone with aluminum for the entire rear casing; the plastic material looks somewhat cheap in comparison, and it's horrible about showing every single fingerprint and smudge.

A silver brushed-aluminum band wraps around the phone's perimeter. While the phone is about the same thickness as the One X, the combination of that band and a highly angled bevel gives it a noticeably different feel. I found it slightly uncomfortable to hold the phone in the talking position for extended periods of time; my fingers had nowhere to rest but on the rather sharp edge where the band meets the face of the phone.

Like its One X relative, the Evo 4G LTE's display is outstanding. In my initial review, I described the One X as having one of the best screens I've seen on any smartphone; since the new Evo uses the same display technology, it's no less impressive.

The kickstand is useful for propping the phone up on a desk or coffee table for easy hands-free viewing.

The Evo 4G LTE has a micro-USB port on its upper-left edge that doubles as an HDMI out-port with the use of a special cable or adaptor (not included with the phone). A headphone jack and power button sit along the phone's top, and a volume rocker and physical camera button -- the latter of which is a pleasant surprise, as it's a rarity in phones these days -- live along its right side.

The Evo, like HTC's other recent phones, has three capacitive buttons on its face for system navigation. This is a departure from Google's model Android 4.0 setup, and in general, I found it provides a less smooth and intuitive experience than the virtual-only button model Google endorses. (For a more detailed analysis of HTC's button approach and the problems it presents, see the "Button factor" section of my One S review.)

Under the hood

When it comes to processing power, the HTC Evo 4G LTE is almost identical to HTC's One X (U.S. model): The phone uses a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor along with 1GB of RAM. Like the One X, it has top-notch performance: From home screen swiping to app loading and multitasking, the Evo handled everything I threw at it with ease and without any stutters or slowdowns.

The Evo 4G LTE has a nonremovable 2000 mAh battery, which is slightly larger than the (also nonremovable) 1800 mAh unit in the One X. In terms of real-world performance, it was tough to tell much of a difference: Like its One-branded cousin, the Evo consistently allowed me to get through a full day of moderate to heavy usage without ever running out of juice.

There's one important caveat to consider, though: The Evo 4G LTE, as its name makes all too clear, is built to run on Sprint's 4G LTE network -- but Sprint's 4G LTE network is not presently available. The carrier is expected to start lighting up the network little by little later this year, with coverage set to launch in six cities by mid-2012. LTE is a notorious drainer of smartphone batteries, so it's hard to gauge how well the phone will perform stamina-wise in the future.

That brings me to a significant downside of the Evo 4G LTE: Without Sprint's LTE network activated, the phone is currently limited to using only the carrier's 3G data network (the Evo is not capable of connecting to Sprint's older WiMax 4G network). And compared to LTE, the speeds on Sprint's 3G network are just downright abysmal.

I tested the Evo along with an LTE-connected Verizon Galaxy Nexus. I used Ookla's Speedtest.net app and conducted five trials on each phone to help balance out any incidental fluctuations. The Evo 4G LTE, on Sprint's 3G network, had an average download speed of 516 kbps and an average upload speed of 383 kbps; the Galaxy Nexus, meanwhile, had an average download speed of 9,399 kbps and an average upload speed of 7,437 kbps.

In other words, data speeds on the Evo were 18 to 19 times slower than data speeds on an LTE-connected device. That's no small disparity and the difference was painfully apparent: Downloads on the Evo felt slow as molasses, and I found myself continually growing frustrated with waiting for data to transfer. Once Sprint's LTE network comes online, this issue will likely be moot -- but until then, it's a serious knock on the Evo-using experience (and for most of the country, there's not so much as a vague timeline as to when Sprint-based LTE will actually become available).

Voice calls on the Evo 4G LTE were fine in my experience; I could hear callers loud and clear, and people on the other end of the line reported no static, echoes, or distortion in my voice. The Evo 4G LTE will eventually have access to Sprint's new HD Voice technology, which is supposed to provide "fuller, more natural-sounding" voice quality with even less background noise.

Computerworld editor Barbara Krasnoff experienced a demo of the HD Voice technology at a Sprint media event in April and, in the controlled environment, found the improvement to be quite noticeable. But HD Voice won't be available until sometime in late 2012 -- and even then, it'll require a conversation between two users of HD Voice-capable handsets on HD Voice-upgraded networks to work.

The Evo has 16GB of internal space as well as a microSD card slot that can support up to 32GB of additional storage (provided you supply your own card). You have to pry off the phone's upper-back cover to access the card slot, which is slightly inconvenient, but the increasingly rare option of adding external storage is something many users will appreciate nevertheless.

The Evo also comes with a two-year subscription for 25GB of cloud-based storage from Dropbox; after those two years, you'll be defaulted back to Dropbox's free 2GB level unless you opt to pay a minimum of $10 a month or $100 a year for a higher-level plan.

HTC's Evo 4G LTE supports near-field communications (NFC) and comes preloaded with the Google Wallet payment service.

Cameras

The Evo 4G LTE has the same superb camera technology used in HTC's One line of phones, and its image-capturing capabilities are consequently one of the device's high points. The Evo has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with 1080p HD video recording. It utilizes HTC's new ImageSense technology, which includes a dedicated HTC ImageChip, an f/2.0 aperture and a high-end camera sensor.

The effort put into the phone's camera is not wasted: The Evo captures beautiful photos with brilliant colors and crisp details. The camera is absurdly fast, too: Holding down the on-screen shutter button causes it to take machine-gun-like "burst" photos, allowing you to capture dozens of shots in a matter of seconds.

On its front, the Evo 4G LTE has a 1.3-megapixel lens with 720p video capture for vanity shots and video chat.

The software

The Evo 4G LTE runs a heavily modified version of Google's Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) operating system. HTC's custom Sense 4.0 interface brings significant changes to the operating system as seen on a pure Android phone like the Galaxy Nexus.

HTC does away with ICS's subdued blue-and-gray-themed approach (right) and replaces it with a more busily colored alternative (left).

In terms of design, HTC does away with the subdued blue-and-gray-themed approach ushered in with ICS and replaces it with a more busily colored alternative. Many of the interface simplifications introduced in Android 4.0 are undone, too, such as the centralized app drawer/home screen customization tool and the understated multitasking utility. In these regards, HTC's interface feels like a step backwards from the sleek simplicity Google achieved with Ice Cream Sandwich; after using the Evo, my eyes felt a sense of relief when returning to the ICS environment.

HTC does introduce a number of interesting features into the software, such as a customizable interactive lock screen and a series of potentially useful widgets. While some people may appreciate these additions -- particularly casual users who are less prone to explore the Android ecosystem and customize their devices on their own -- more advanced users may find that they add a level of clutter into the platform. Most of the features could just as easily be achieved by installing third-party applications on your own; by baking them into the operating system, HTC makes it impossible to remove unwanted elements unless you go as far as to hack the device.

Speaking of clutter, the Evo has HTC's usual set of content-purchasing and media-sharing applications along with a handful of integrated apps and Sprint-added pieces of bloatware. All of these programs are annoyingly glued into the operating system to prevent you from removing them; the only saving grace is the fact that Ice Cream Sandwich allows you to disable system apps and hide them out of view (though one of Sprint's apps is impossible to disable).

At a Glance

HTC Evo 4G LTE

HTCPrice: $200 (with a new two-year contract from Sprint)Pros: Excellent display; outstanding camera; impressive system performance; supports external storage; has distinctive kickstand on backCons: Limited to slow 3G network for the foreseeable future; somewhat uncomfortable to hold while talking; rear case shows fingerprints and smudges; software lacks sleek simplicity of stock Android 4.0 OS

The Evo 4G LTE features HTC's much-touted Beats Audio integration. As I've mentioned in past reviews, I'm not quite sold on the significance of its effects: Best I can tell, enabling Beats Audio mode delivers a slight bass boost to music played on the phone. In blind tests performed on myself and numerous other people, I've yet to find anyone who can hear a convincing difference between Beats mode and non-Beats mode -- or identify either mode as sounding better -- when using a regular set of headphones.

Bottom line

The HTC Evo 4G LTE is a premium phone with plenty of positive qualities. It has a gorgeous display, a fantastic camera and impressive system performance. The device has a solid build with a distinctive kickstand that's both cool and convenient. It also offers support for external storage -- a feature missing from most recent smartphones and one that's sought after by many users.

For all its positives, though, the Evo has several negatives that are impossible to ignore. The phone's current lack of LTE connectivity is the biggest one; with Sprint's LTE rollout still pending -- and expected to spread across the country rather slowly -- the Evo is stuck using a dated 3G network that's absurdly slow by today's standards. Compared to other smartphones, the phone is also somewhat uncomfortable to hold while talking, its top-rear casing is extremely prone to visible fingerprint smudges and its heavily modified software lacks the visually pleasing sleekness introduced in Google's vanilla Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS.

Ultimately, while the Evo 4G LTE has a lot of good things going for it, its weak points allow it to be outshined by other devices. The Evo is almost an awesome phone -- but whether you want a pure Android 4.0 experience or an HTC-flavored ride, there are other handsets out there that'll serve you better.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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