Australia has waited patiently for its first LTE smartphone, and it has finally arrived in the form of the HTC Velocity 4G. It is by all accounts an excellent high-end smartphone, but there are some limitations around Telstra’s 4G service that take some of the sparkle away and restricts our buy recommendation to the few, not the many.
Why It Matters
The HTC Velocity 4G is Australia’s first LTE smartphone. Theoretically this means data speeds of 100Mbps peak downloads and up to 50Mbps uploads on Telstra’s 1800MHz LTE spectrum. Typical speeds, however, are obviously much less and depend on a number of things, including the speed of the website you’re trying to visit and how close you are to a base station. You can expect real-world download speeds of between 2Mbps and 40Mbps, which is about five times faster than what you’d normally get on 3G, and typical upload speeds of between 1Mbps and 10Mbps, which is three times faster than upload speeds on 3G.
What this means is that web pages load faster, streaming videos take less time to buffer, photos take much less time to upload and large files can be emailed more quickly. You get the idea. It certainly sounds great on paper, but it’s definitely not as “instantaneous” as Telstra says, and I actually laughed out loud when I saw the words “mach speeds” on HTC’s website. They might have gotten away with passing off LTE as 4G, but let’s not get carried away here.
Optus and Vodafone have both announced plans to roll out a LTE service, but Telstra was first to launch and says that its 4G footprint is currently available in all Australian capital city CBDs (within 5km from the GPO), associated airports and some regional areas (within 3km from the GPO). Outside of these areas, the HTC Velocity 4G will default to dual-channel HSPA+ connectivity, which is a faster 3G service that provides theoretical speeds of between 1.1Mbps and 20Mbps.
What We Like
There's a bit more plastic on the Velocity 4G than we've seen before on HTC phones, but its build quality is superb and it feels every bit like the high-end smartphone that it is. The battery cover is made of a slick charcoal aluminium while the rest of the phone is encased in a glossy black plastic. It has a distinctly geometric feel, with its straight lines and angular form factor. At 4.5 inches the qHD 960x540 screen on the Velocity 4G is a bit smaller than the one on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but it feels quite a bit larger and heavier thanks to a raised back. We love that it feels solid and heavy in the hand.
Photo taken with HTC Velocity 4G, default settings.
The rear camera on the Velocity 4G is not to be underestimated. It packs a 28mm wide-angle F2.2 lens and back-illuminated sensor for superb daytime shots with a shallow depth of field, as well as surprisingly good shots in low light. HTC Sense 3.5 brings an "instant capture" camera to the Velocity 4G, but it's not quite as instant as the zero shutter lag feature that you'll find on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
The 1.5GHz dual-core processor inside the Velocity 4G is impressively efficient, providing a clean and snappy user experience and a seamless integration of HTC's Sense 3.5 user interface. Battery life is better than expected, although it does deplete much faster on 4G. Getting a full day out of the phone will require a top up, but as with all high-end smartphones these days, we just put up with it and think it's normal. I personally found that the HTC Velocity 4G outlasted the Samsung Galaxy Nexus by a few hours, although the former would start bugging you about low battery at 25 per cent, while the latter leaves you alone until the battery is on its very last legs.
The Velocity 4G comes with Android 2.3.7, which is the latest iteration of Gingerbread. Android 4.0 will be available within a few months, according to Telstra, but if Ice Cream Sandwich is what you're really after, you're probably better off waiting for one of the handful of 4G smartphones that Telstra will be letting loose by winter.
Speedtest.net gave us some very impressive stats that put our ADSL2+ fixed line connections to shame. There's a noticeable speed bump when loading Facebook photos, streaming YouTube videos and emailing large files, but your mileage will vary depending on what you're doing. If that website you're trying to access is running off a shitty server, not even 4G speeds are going to help you much.
While Telstra doesn't give you any extra data allowances for being on 4G, it's worth noting that Telstra isn't charging a premium for its 4G service -- they could have legitimately charged extra but chose not to. And be prepared to see your data usage jump -- I've switched from a $40 plan with 800MB of data to a $50 plan with 2GB.
Click image to enlarge. I've included speed test results for my home ADSL2+ connection speed test result (Wi-Fi symbol) and Edge (the line with the worst results).
What We Don't Like
Although the phone comes with a fairly standard 16GB of internal storage, the phone's bundled software and operating system takes up 3GB, leaving you with 13GB for widgets and apps. We're happy to see that HTC has bumped up the internal storage capacity in its most recent phones and stopped crippling them, but you'll have to bring your own microSD card for the Velocity 4G. I'm not going to grumble too much -- more internal storage for no microSD card is an excellent trade.
Our main complaint is not with the phone but with Telstra's 4G service. It's inconsistent and unpredictable to the point where you stop seeing the 4G as a feature of the phone and more as a bonus when it does appear. For instance, as soon as you walk into Wynyard station or the QVB, the phone switches over to the 3G network despite being well within the 5km 4G inclusion zone. The first day I took the phone home (I live 4km from the Sydney CBD), I was appalled to find that I was on Edge -- not 4G, not even 3G. Fortunately, it switched to 4G the next day and has been like that at home ever since. In our offices at Circular Quay, my review unit picked up a 4G signal from day one, while the phone that Angus tested never got a 4G signal and turned out to be faulty. On my way home from dinner the other day, the phone randomly picked up a 4G signal in Stanmore (6km from the CBD), and it looks like there are pockets of 4G coverage all over the place. My advice would be to check Telstra's coverage map -- you may live or work in one of those random pockets of 4G service.
We also think it's a bit lame that Telstra is marketing its LTE service as 4G when in fact it does not satisfy the 4G standard requirements. LTE is considered to be part of the 3G standard, but for all intents and purposes it is being sold by carriers as 4G technology. US carriers are doing the same thing to mislead consumers, and nobody really seems to care. It's dodgy behaviour and sets a dangerous precedent for an industry that is known for its bullshit.
Should You Buy It?
The phone itself is great and only let down by a 4G service that is vague in definition and coverage. If you don't live within or frequent the 4G inclusion zone, the HTC Velocity 4G falls back to HSPA+ dual-channel 3G speeds (1.1Mpbs-20Mbps). So while the speed difference between your regular 3G and DC-HSPA+ connectivity is small, that bump makes the Velocity 4G faster than anyone else's phone. If you want the fastest phone you can get right now, the HTC Velocity 4G is the phone for you. For someone like me who works and lives within the 4G coverage areas -- and totally addicted to being online all the time -- the Velocity 4G is the ideal solution.
Also, if you want the Velocity 4G, you are forced into a relationship with Telstra (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) since it has the exclusive. By the time the other carriers launch their own LTE networks, there will be better and newer phones in the market and this one will be long forgotten. Telstra alone is getting ready to launch a portfolio of 4G phones within the first six months of 2012.
OS: Android 2.3.7 (upgradable to Android 4.0)
Screen: 4.5-inch qHD S-LCD touchscreen (960x540)
Processor / RAM: 1.5GHz dual-core / 1GB
Storage: 16GB internal (up to 32GB microSD)
Camera: 8MP rear (1080p HD video), 1.3MP front
Price: $0 on $79 Telstra Freedom Connect Plan or $864 outright