HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

You know that scene in Iron Man 2, where Justin Hammer asks Rhodey which weapons he wants inside War Machine - and Rhodey says "all of them"? That's exactly how the Evo 4G was born. Somebody said "everything".

4.3-inch, 800x480 screen. 4G WiMax with wireless hotspot powers. 8MP, 720p video camera. Front-facing camera for video chat. 1GHz processor. HDMI out. Kickstand. The Evo's dossier reads like a phone nerd's sticky napkin fantasy, which is precisely the point. The Evo is an icon of HTC gleefully showing the world "look what I can do!" like an overeager child.

It's a beautiful thing. Being the biggest, fastest and strongest - and boastfully so - is an ever rarefied trait, marginalised by the Apple-born-but-increasingly-popular mantra that guts don't matter, or at least that you shouldn't talk about them, that the experience should come out of a magical black box. The Evo is HTC's response to that. It's pure guts.

This Is a Big Phone

You will either love how ridiculously ginormous a phone that is well over four inches diagonally feels, or you will find it awkward and kind of silly.

This is exactly how we're split on it. Jason really adores the size; he is a power nerd. I think it feels like a weirdly retro idea of the future, what some people expected smartphones would evolve into before the iPad entered into our collective consciousness - a mutant phone/tablet thing that's just big enough to do everything. It's just a really big phone that will ultimately polarise the public. I mean, when there's a kickstand, a statement is being made.

It's heavy, too, almost in the way you'd expect an armoured suit to be. The way it's sculpted - aggressively functional, like War Machine - to emphasise raw power adds to that. You might even expect the back of the phone to be cut from metal, but it's fit with a rubber-esque finish instead.

The build quality is nonetheless respectable, down to the kickstand - it'll survive a tumble or three. (The noticeable light leakage through the seam where the top of phone meets the frame, nets a few demerits, though.) That said, given that the camera lens protrudes from the back of the phone, don't expect it to hold up as well. It will be scratched and scuffed within a week.

The screen makes you gasp a little when you turn it on and it glows for the first time. As it lights up, the enormity suddenly becomes tangible, then you're struck by the brilliance of the screen itself. It's not just big, it's super bright and colourful, with a pleasantly wide viewing angle. (Crucial for kickstand video watching.) And it's actually usable in the sun, since it's a regular LCD, not the more fashionable AMOLED, seen in the Nexus One, Droid Incredible and Zune HD. But it's not leagues (if any) better than an iPhone.

What makes the experience of the 4.3-inch screen transformative is that it gives you breathing room. Twitter feeds feel less cramped. Web pages are roomier, so there's less panning and zooming. It's ridiculously easy to type when the keyboard is almost the size of a laptop's (exaggerating a bit, but still). Videos become just big enough, that no, a kickstand isn't quite absurd. In short order, the Evo's screen suddenly feels less big than other mobile phone screens feel small.

If only the battery was a fuel cell that would be more up to the task of powering this juggernaut. My main phone at the moment is a Nexus One, so I'm pretty familiar with managing Android to make it through the day. It's oddly a struggle to make the Evo last that long - on a weekend, I had to recharge by 2pm - and I'm talking about with 4G turned off. Expect to plug this thing in at work before you go out at night, if you want a phone that isn't dead by your second drink.

Super Speed Data

But everything you've read above only makes the Evo yet another HTC Android phone... albeit on a grander scale. What makes it a phone truly worth considering is that it runs on Sprint's 4G WiMax network (which unavoidably adds $US10 to every plan, whether or not you live where you can take advantage of it), accessing the web with speeds that truly approach the low end of home broadband. Then, on top of all this, for $US30 a month the Evo can serve as a wireless hotspot, allowing "up to eight" of your devices to utilise the network just like they would Wi-Fi at home. ($US70 a month for data sounds expensive, until you realise that Sprint's OverDrive 4G hotspot runs $US60 a month, and all it does is deliver internet.)

What's all this mean in real life? It's really freaking fast - browsing the web faster than any mobile phone you've ever used - if your city has the 4G infrastructure (list here).

Testing the Evo in Wimax-equipped Chicago, pages just load. Mobile sites pop up near-instantaneously. Full versions of the same sites load with an expeditiousness that challenges even the most nasal impatience. If you didn't tell a friend using the phone that it had 4G, they'd probably assume you were connected to Wi-Fi. Even face-to-face video chat over Fring runs close to perfectly (while in 3G mode the results are more mixed, with lag ranging from minimal to vastly annoying). And the generalised page load time improvement between 3G and 4G is something you'll cherish without a stopwatch, but we timed the speed improvement anyway (oh, if only it was running the nimbler Android 2.2 underneath):

In terms of clocked bandwidth, the Evo approaches DSL. That's not cable internet, no, and it falls a bit short of advertised speeds (for me, at least). But it's a far cry from what your phone is using now. We charted the results below in which the Evo averages download speeds of over 3Mbps (that's 384KB/s).

As a hotspot, I was only able to connect two devices: a laptop and an iPad. While the Evo promises support for eight connect devices, I couldn't break this two-device limit no matter how many times or other devices I tried. However, what I could do on those two connections felt like a tiny miracle.

After I browsed the web on both systems without hiccups, I pushed the threshold. On the iPad, I decided to stream Netflix, while on the laptop, I opened AIM, my Twitter client, Gmail/Chat and streamed Hulu in HD. I even video called Jason on the Evo. To my surprise, I was able to pull off the stunt with near-sustainability. (Every 10 minutes or so, Netflix did stutter a bit.)

I'm actually willing to conclude that an average person could really use the Evo on Wimax as their primary home connection, if they have good WiMax reception, sharing it with a spouse for casual browsing and video. Torrent freaks, well, you know I'm not talking to you.

But maybe the most impressive thing of all about 4G on the Evo was its hotspot battery life. While I expected 2-3 hours of runtime (given that the battery barely typically doesn't last a day of normal usage as just a phone), the Evo cracked four hours under heavy use (nonstop video streams, AIM, Twitter and Gmail/Chat by the two devices mentioned above). Plugged in, it could obviously run forever (which is how we powered through Google IO, albeit with Sprint's also excellent 3G service).

While I'm obviously nuts about 4G, but I do want to share one caveat you should keep in mind: Given the hype for Verizon and AT&T's incoming LTE networks, most people might think of 4G technologies as 700Mhz tech - low frequency waves that reach farther and penetrate buildings more easily than what mobile phone carriers use now for phones. Sprint's 4G network sits on a much higher frequency - 2.5GHz, which offers superior bandwidth over lower frequency spectrum, but it's not as great at penetrating buildings. In my practical testing, that meant 4G cut out deep inside buildings - and forget elevators. Indeed, I tested one particular spot downtown where I can always get Sprint 3G reception while my AT&T iPhone totally craps out. Checking that same spot with the Evo, 4G fared as poorly as AT&T's 3G. At my apartment, I get a full strength signal by the window. Move a room in, I lose a bar. There's less flexibility here than you'd expect.

So is Sprint's 4G on the Evo the Holy Grail of wireless internet service? Not quite. But boy does it come close.

The Shooter

The camera is both impressive and disappointing, but it's no point and shoot replacement. In straight up daylight, the 8MP camera takes what most people would consider to be fantastic photos for a phone. It's really fast to focus and shoot, which is critical for a decent phone camera. And HTC's custom camera interface is nicer, easier to use and more fine-grained than what Google offered in Android pre-2.2.

But once the light conditions shift toward the darker side of the spectrum, it's a crapshoot. While it struggles in lowlight, and the accompanying dual LED flash will blind your subjects, washing out their complexions like a solar flare (and seriously, the flash is so painful in a bar that it could double as some sort of non-lethal defensive device).

The 720p video is disappointing in any light, though. Which is to say, it totally sucks. It's grainy, blotchy and just plain crap. (You can check out HD samples, along with photos in full res on Flickr, by clicking on the gallery above.)

Video out of the 1.3MP front-facing camera surprisingly ain't too shabby, so our video phone calls from the future using Fring went even better than we expected.

Knocking Some Sense Into Android

Like the Incredible on Verizon - a phone that now seems more like a mini Evo - the Evo is running HTC's custom Sense interface on top of Android 2.1, which we've covered extensively. It's basically the same as its ever been, making some things better, and some things worse. The Evo's display size works against the interface a bit, making the glossy plastic, carbon and neon green interface feel cheaper than it ever has. Some the icons and gradients just look bad as a result, too. (Admittedly we're a bit spoiled by Android 2.2, which now does everything Sense had to before, like better Exchange support, wireless hotspot powers, and integrated social networking.)

The bigger issue to consider, though, as it is with every Android phone running a custom interface, is how badly you want to be on the bleeding edge of the Android platform. You will wait several months for Android 2.2 to reach the Evo, which offers a ton of tangible benefits, not the least of which is seriously improved speed (you'll notice mostly within apps). And you'll wait again for Android 2.3, and so on. For most people, this won't be a problem - but it's something to be aware of, particularly since you won't have the option of the official Google phone, the Nexus One, on Sprint.

Pricing

The upfront cost isn't the painful part: It's the maintenance costs, and the monthly pricing for the Evo is just about as expensive. After paying $US200 (post- $US100 mail-in rebate) It costs $US10 a month for premium data - which isn't an optional upgrade - on top of one of these mandatory plans listed below (the big BUT is that these plans include unlimited text messages, saving you $US20 over a comparable plan on AT&T.)

Individual

$US69.99 per month/450 anytime minutes + Any Mobile, Anytime $US89.99 per month/900 anytime minutes + Any Mobile, Anytime $US99.99 per month/unlimited minutes

Family

$US129.99 per month/1500 anytime minutes shared between two lines + Any Mobile, Anytime $US169.99 per month/3000 anytime minutes shared between two lines + Any Mobile Anytime $US189.98 per month/unlimited minutes

Plus, it's another $US30 a month to use the Mobile Hotspot feature per phone. It's a fat wallet commitment, make no mistake. You're talking about a data plan that is least $US10 a month pricier than anybody else's, even if you're not taking advantage of 4G. That said, if you live in a city with WiMax it is pretty much a no-brainer. It's serious mojo, and you'd be silly not to take advantage of it.

Verdict

The calculus for deciding if you want this phone is relatively simple, like the equation that would lead the government to buy War Machine: If you want the biggest, brawniest, most ridiculously muscular phone you can buy, it's the Evo. Just don't forget to top off the power before going into work.

WiMax, in a phone! Weeeeeeeeeee.

A beautiful screen that's the size of a rugby field

Sprint's 3G network

An unabashed celebration of steroidal specs

The camera's great... in daylight

It's massive, like a squished carbon fibre brick

Miserable battery life

You're gonna wait a long time for fresh Android updates

Monthly plans are pricey