Jun 09 AT 12:30 PM Taylor Wimberly 55 Comments

Android Evolved: The Sprint EVO 4G review

Since the iPhone came to AT&T, every carrier has longed for a flagship smartphone that could generate the same buzz and result in new, higher-paying customers. Sprint hoped that device would be the Palm Pre, but it failed to attract the number of customers (and more importantly developers) in order to become a major success.

Sprint was looking for other options so they got their toes wet with their first two Android phones last year. Both devices were a success, ranking 7th and 8th in the top 10 U.S. smartphones according to AdMob, but Sprint knew they could do better. The carrier needed a hero device to show off their high-speed 4G WiMAX network and they decided early on that Android would be their mobile operating system of choice. Enter the EVO.

The HTC EVO 4G is the first Android phone to wow me since I got my hands on the Nexus One. Both phones have similar internals, but the EVO packs on so many extra hardware “firsts” that it turns into a superior device. The EVO is the most feature-rich and visually pleasing smartphone I have ever used.

Android phones turnover quickly, but Sprint and HTC can now claim the best Android phone on any carrier. There is always a better Android phone coming 3-6 months down the pipe, but the EVO offers enough significant features to be at the top of anyone’s list (whether they are looking to purchase their first Android phone or upgrade that aging G1).

Hardware

htc-evo-4g-battery

As you may have heard by now, the EVO is the first 4G WiMAX phone in North America. Sprint has made 4G support the focus of their marketing campaign, but the device also features many other exciting new features. Additional firsts for the U.S. Android market include a 4.3 inch display, 1.3 megapixel front-facing camera, 720p video recording, HDMI out, and a kickstand. These features alone should grab the attention of any gadget fan and tempt those holding out to upgrade their first-generation Android device.

Dimensions The EVO is a big smartphone (4.8 x 2.6 x 0.5 inches), but it does not cross the line on size for me. Even though the display is a half inch larger than previous Android models, the overall phone height is not that much taller than previous models. The EVO is almost as slim as my Nexus One and about the same weight as the Motorola Droid. I had no issue fitting it into the front pocket of my jeans.

Processor Powering the EVO is Qualcomm’s 1 GHz Snapdragon platform, which is the best Android has to offer. The Snapdragon leads all other platforms in overall system performance benchmarks, but its Adreno graphics processor trails behind the Motorola Droid (PowerVR SGX GPU). The EVO still manages to play 3D games quite well, but the Droid will have the fastest GPU till the Samsung Galaxy S comes out.

Display How big is too big when it comes to displays? Each person will have to answer that question, but I believe the EVO hits the sweet spot at 4.3 inches. I was using the Nexus One which featured a 3.7 inch display, but that extra half inch made a big difference to me. Web pages were easier to read, the on-screen keyboard felt more accurate, I noticed more detail in games, and videos were a joy to watch.

HTC is using a TFT LCD display instead of the newer AMOLED type, but the shear size of the screen made up for that loss. I prefer the better colors and brightness of the AMOLED, but the TFT LCD is easier to see out in direct sunlight. Samsung has had a hard time keeping up with the demand for AMOLED displays which has led to Incredible shortages, so that is why HTC likely passed on them.

Touch Sensor Earlier HTC smartphones suffered from some multitouch issues which were related to the Synaptics touch sensor being used. Thankfully, HTC upgraded to the newer Atmel maXTouch sensor which supports unlimited touches, lower power consumptions, and superior performance. This touch sensor felt more accurate when typing on the virtual keyboard and I had no issues when playing games with multitouch controls.

Memory and Storage Inside the EVO you will find a 1 GB ROM, 512 MB of RAM, and an 8 GB MicroSD card. The large ROM size only allows a couple hundred MBs for app storage, but Android 2.2 adds support for applications to be installed to the SD card. The 512 MB RAM is the current tops for Android and users will notice increased multitasking performance thanks to the extra memory. Sprint includes an 8 GB MicroSD card, but users can upgrade to 32 GB if they want to add some extra storage space for all their media.

Camera Dual-cameras have finally made an appearance on an Android phone. The EVO features a main camera with 8 megapixels and LED flash, while a 1.3 megapixel camera is located on the front of the device. This opens the door to a new wave of video applications and we have seen that already with Fring and Qik. The 8 megapixel camera takes beautiful photos with some tweaking and the front facing camera is more than adequate for video chat and snapping profile pictures.

Kickstand One of the most unique hardware features is the metal kickstand, which allows the user to easily prop the phone on any flat surface. The kickstand performs quite well on a level surface, but users will still need to hold the device when they want to operate it. Just pressing around the corners could cause the phone to fall over. I was worried the kickstand might be too loose, but it has a nice springy feel and snaps back into place when closed.

HDMI Out The EVO is the first Android phone in the U.S. with a micro HDMI port (Type D), which allows you to send a 720p signal to your HDTV. This feature is so new that you will have a hard time finding the correct cable at your local retail store and will probably need to order it online. Best Buy and others are planning to eventually sell the cable, but it might not be available till July.

The thought of sending high-definition video to your TV sounds really cool, but our experiences using the HDMI out were a mixed bag. For starters, I was only able to get a video signal to my TV when using the Gallery app. Users have the option to display photos in a slideshow or playback HD video they recorded. Several videos I recorded that were not in 720p would not playback on my TV.

YouTube HQ is supposed to support HDMI out, but I have been unable to make it work. When I attempt to play a video, my TV (Samsung LN46A650) just says “mode not supported”. We have heard there could be compatibility issues between HDMI 1.4 and older HDMI 1.1-1.3 devices, so that might have been my problem.

Finally, the Android SDK does not offer native HDMI support so Sprint has coded their own solution. Developers can support the feature, but the way it’s implemented will not benefit real time apps or games. As our developer friend Mike Leahy put it, “Lets just say it’s a big hack and not the good or useful kind.”

Operating system and software

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The EVO ships with the latest Android 2.1 and HTC’s updated Sense UI, both of which we have seen before so I’m not going to spend much time on them. I’ve been pretty hard on different flavors of Android in the past, but I actually enjoyed the Sense experience and the extra features it offered.

I found myself using the pinch-zoom homescreen option (called Leap) quite often and I prefer it over the hover cards used to preview homescreens in the stock version of Android 2.1. The Scenes feature, which allows users to create custom themes for their different moods, also impressed me. It was cool to have one desktop that had the icons and widgets needed for work and then be able to easily switch my theme back to normal for when I was at home.

Normally I suggest that people purchase Android phones with the expectation that they might never get upgraded, but with the EVO that should not be a problem. Sprint already rolled out a minor software update on day one and many more are in store. The phone ships with Android 2.1, but an update to Android 2.2 is already in the works and should appear later this year.

The only downside to Sense UI has been the extra waiting period when HTC had to upgrade their software to support the latest Android firmware. Since the EVO is already using Android 2.x, hopefully the next couple of updates should see reduced hold times. However, those devices with stock versions of Android like the Motorola Droid should always see Android updates before their cousins with custom UIs.

Android 2.2 offers a major performance boost that we have measured in recent benchmarks and the battery life improves as well. I’ve been running Android 2.2 on a Nexus One and I can say it’s the most complete version of Android yet. Virtually all of the major Android complaints have been addressed and I’m having a hard time coming up with feature request now. For complete details on Android 2.2, watch the official announcement video or check out Sean’s highlights.

Sprint apps More pre-loaded apps come with Sprint phones than any other carrier, but most of theirs are actually useful. The EVO includes Sprint exclusives like Sprint TV, Nascar Sprint Cup Mobile, Sprint Football Live, Sprint Hotspot, Sprint Navigation, and Sprint Zone.

Qik Thanks to the front-facing camera, users can now video chat with their friends. Basic video calls are free using the pre-loaded Qik app or users can pay $4.99 per month for premium features. It all sounds really awesome, but I have yet to complete a video call since using the EVO. Qik first had issues getting their app listed on the EVO Market and then their servers were overloaded when 20x the normal traffic crushed their servers. The problems have been so bad that Qik unpublished the application from the Market until the issues are resolved. In the mean time, check out Fring which allows video calling EVO-to-EVO or even with your Skype friends.

Google Navigation I’m sure some of you know this is now included with Android, but Google Maps Navigation is the best GPS app and the service is totally free. Each release brings new features that continue to make this a must-have location application.

Hackers paradise If it says HTC, then you can hack it. The EVO has already been rooted and custom ROMs are starting to appear on xda-developers. With the popularity of the EVO, I believe a strong development community will support the device. If you like owning a phone that allows you to load custom versions of Android, overclock the hardware, and use the device in a way not intended by your carrier, then the EVO (or any HTC phone) is a great choice.

4G Speeds

The 4G data speeds of the EVO are the fastest I have experienced when using any Android phone, but they don’t quite live up to the expectations we had. Sprint claims on their site that the EVO 4G is 10x faster than current 3G phones and can average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps.

In our own 4G testing across multiple Texas cities, I was never able to top 3 Mbps and my max download average was typically around 2 Mbps. For uploads, I was able to hit the 1 Mbps cap that Sprint has set. These speeds are definitely fast, but I’ve been able to achieve similar results on other carriers’ 3G networks. I expect that speeds will differ based on your location, but other 4G testing in northwest states produced similar results.

The major benefit of Sprint’s 4G is likely to be the reliability of the network speeds. Other carrier networks bog down in the daytime during peak hours, but 4G WiMAX was fast every time I used it. In my testing it rarely (if ever) dropped below 1 Mbps downloads. It might not be “10x” faster than 3G, but if you need a consistent internet connection that can be shared with other devices, then give 4G a try.

Unfortunately, many readers will not be able to benefit from these faster speeds until Sprint grows their 4G WiMAX network to cover more markets. Sprint hopes to cover 120 million people with 4G service in 2010 and keep expanding that next year. To check your coverage area, please visit Sprint.com/4G.

Battery Performance

Reading a couple of the other EVO reviews, I can see that the battery life is the biggest concern for most reviewers. Some wished it lasted longer, while others proclaimed it flat out sucked.

As an avid Android user, I can honestly say I have no issues whatsoever with the EVO’s battery. Its performance is on par with other Android phones I have used, which means you need to charge it every night.

There are situations where a rogue app can drain the battery in a couple of hours, but this is an Android issue and has nothing to do with the EVO. For example, one day I noticed my battery near 20% after only 3 hours of normal use. When I checked the battery log, I found the game Drop7 had been constantly running in the background eating up CPU so I quickly uninstalled the app. Random things like this will happen with Android, so it never hurts to keep a spare charger in the car or at your work desk.

New users should also not be alarmed if they experience poor battery life during the first 48 hours. Almost every Android phone I have owned requires some kind of calibration phase and users will see performance increase after several cycles of fully draining the battery and re-charging it.

Going forward, battery life is still expected to improve with future software updates. Android 2.2 includes the new JIT compiler which reduces CPU load and I have seen a noticeable improvement in battery life when I installed it on my Nexus One.

Battery test So how well does the EVO’s 1500 mAh battery perform when under load? To test the battery I gave it a full charge and then measured how long it would last when doing something stressful to suck the power down.

First I made sure I was connected to 4G and then I launched the mobile hotspot application to tether the internet connection with my laptop. Then I started downloading a 4 GB file via uTorrent and counted down the hours. To my surprise, the EVO went a full 3 hours before I heard the low battery warning go off. I allowed the download process to continue and the phone did not shut off till 3 hours and 33 minutes after I began the test (and transferred over 1 GB of data).

This might not sound like much, but using both radios is one of the most draining tests and I’ve been lucky to get around 1 hour when testing WiFi tether on my older HTC Magic. If you plan to use the mobile hotspot feature, it is always wise to plug your phone in, but it’s good to know you can still squeeze a couple hours when you are in dire need.

System Performance

Users should expect top of the line performance from their EVO that is only guaranteed to get better over time. The 1 GHz Snapdragon processor offers the best overall system performance and that is expected to increase 2x-5x when Android 2.2 comes out. The only downfall to the Snapdragon, is its graphics processor which falls behind the Droid as we mentioned earlier.

To provide a reference for comparison, I ran a couple of the more popular Android benchmarks and provided the scores below. The EVO tested in the range of other 1 GHz Snapdragon phones in system performance, which places it just ahead of the Motorola Droid (using the 550 MHz OMAP3430 processor). However, when it came to games the Droid was still the better performer with its faster GPU.

  • GLBenchmark: PRO ES 1.1 – 3.4 fps ,PRO HD 1.1 – 28.8 fps
  • Linpack: 6.896 MFLOPS
  • NeoCore: 24.8 fps
  • NenaMark1: 10.1 fps
  • Quadrant: 546 points

Have suggestions for other Android benchmarks you want us to perform? Please leave a comment.

Camera & HD Video Capture

An 8 megapixel camera is included with the EVO, which is similar to what we saw in HTC’s Droid Incredible. I’m not a real camera buff, so this area of the review will be revisited later after we spend some extended time with the EVO. Check out our Nexus One vs Incredible camera test for a sample of what to expect from HTC cameras.

In the meantime, fellow contributor Dylan Anderson has uploaded a slew of EVO test shots to his flickr, and there is even a growing flickr pool of EVO photos. The camera is capable of taking crisp, clean shots, many examples of which can be found on flickr.

The one area I did try out was HD video recording, which the EVO captures at a maximum resolution of 1280×720. Video files are saved in a 3gp file format which makes them easy to upload to YouTube and I found it took up about 40 MB for every 1 minute of HD video (or around 1 GB for 30 minutes).

To test the camcorder I recorded two quick video clips, one during the daytime and one at night. The video quality was not as good as a dedicated HD camera, but it still topped anything I’ve seen from a smartphone. When I played it back on my HDTV I noticed some blocking, but the video was very viewable even at 46 inches.

You wouldn’t want to shoot a whole movie using the EVO, but it’s perfect for those moments when you least expect it. Thanks to the speedy 4G connection, users can capture events around them and quickly share them with their friends (or the world) via YouTube only minutes later.

Nighttime video samples were a little disappointing because there is no option to force the LED flash on. I’ve seen this feature in the (un)official Android 2.2 running on my Nexus One, so hopefully it finds its way to the EVO sometime soon.

Pricing options and calling plans

Sprint stores are selling the EVO for $449.99 regular price or $199 with 2 year contract (that’s after a $100 mail in rebate). I’m disappointed the carriers have turned to mail in rebates so they can advertise a lower price, but you can find the EVO at many other retail partners who offer an instant rebate. If you are willing to wait a couple of days for shipping, the best deals are always found online.

Sprint offers some of the most competitive smartphone plans around, but customers will still pay a premium to use the EVO 4G. Customers are required to have a $10 data add-on to whichever plan they pick, but Sprint claims customers can still save around $40 compared with AT&T and Verizon’s unlimited talk/text/data plans.

The combination of features and services on the HTC EVO 4G provide capabilities that were never previously available on a wireless device so Sprint assumes customers will likely have higher data usage and this is the reason for the extra $10. It does not matter if you live in an area where 4G service is not available, this monthly fee is mandatory.

Customers who opt for the mobile hotspot feature, which provides wireless internet tethering for up to 8 devices, will be charged an additional $29.99 per month. There is also the option for free wired tethering, if you want to take the time to download one of tether apps from the Android Market and configure it to work with your PC.

Final Verdict

The Sprint EVO 4G offers the best hardware of any Android phone currently available. It’s amazing when you think of all the capabilities stuffed into this phone that can replace other devices. The EVO 4G can act as a smartphone, portable gaming device, camera, camcorder, FM radio, GPS, HD video player, and a TV remote (when Google TV launches later this year). All of that is in addition to the endless possibilities that can be performed when carrying an always-connected mini computer in your pocket. There are over 60,000 applications in the Android Market and that number continues to grow at a blazing pace.

I’m a huge fan of the Sense UI, but I’ll always prefer the stock version of Android. HTC’s Sense presents a great experience for those new to Android, but I’m more of a power user and I like the simplicity that comes from the plain old Android. Thankfully, those who truly wish to hack their phone and load a different version of the OS can still achieve that.

    Things we liked

  1. Huge 4.3 inch display is the sweet spot for Android phones. I hope this becomes the standard on new high-end phones. The Atmel maXTouch sensor handles multitouch much better than older HTC phones.
  2. Fast 1 GHz Snapdragon processor and 512 MB RAM. This is the king when it comes to overall system performance and it will only get faster with Android 2.2.
  3. The 4G download speeds were the fastest we have seen on an Android phone. They might not meet Sprint’s “10x as fast” claim, but the connection was reliable.
  4. Dual cameras. It’s nice to see a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera to match the 8 megapixel camera on the back. Video calling should be a huge selling point after the apps are fine tuned.

    Things we didn’t

  1. We are not a fan of the $10 premium data add-on and find it confusing. If the fee is for 4G data, then it should be limited to 4G markets. I feel like im paying for the hardware twice with a mandatory $10 “Android tax” added on every month.
  2. Users with older HDTV’s might experience issues with the HDMI out feature. A TV with HDMI 1.4 ports is recommended.
  3. We experienced major issues with the video chat service Qik. They featured this app on the front of the box, so there is no excuse for all the issues people have had. Hopefully things get sorted out soon.

Even though I love the EVO, at the end of the day I’m still sticking with my Nexus One for daily use. Both phones have the same 1 GHz Snapdragon processor, but the Nexus One is currently faster since it’s running Android 2.2. Yes, that might be an unfair advantage, but that is one of the benefits of owning the Nexus One. We know the EVO will eventually get this update, but there is no official time frame and users could be waiting several months.

The 4G speeds were some of the fastest I’ve experienced, but it’s not the huge leap I was expecting and I don’t have an immediate need for it in my daily life. Early testing on T-Mobile’s new HSPA+ network shows it offers “4G speeds” and it has outperformed Sprint 4G in several test markets. We also know Verizon will begin their transition to the faster 4G LTE this year and likely have a matching handset next year. If your contract does not end for another 6-12 months, then sit back and watch as the carriers upgrade their networks in your neck of the woods.

I’m also still a major fan of T-Mobile’s Even More Plus (no-contract plan) where I currently pay $59 per month. The wireless landscape changes every six months and I don’t want to be tied up in another two-year contract and have to worry about early termination fees. I enjoy my freedom on T-Mobile and I’ll likely stay there until more carriers offer better no-contract options. If you are a customer who is switching to Sprint for the EVO, then a contract is required.

The beauty of Android is that you can own a superphone no matter what carrier you prefer (minus AT&T for now). If you are a die-hard Sprint fan, then the EVO is your obvious choice. AT&T and Verizon customers who are looking to join the Android party and save some money should also consider the Everything Data plans with Any Mobile, Anytime.

editors-choice-jun10

As long as Sprint can keep up with demand, we fully expect the EVO will become the best selling smartphone in company history.

In recognition of the superb build quality and innovation, we are giving the Sprint EVO 4G our first Android and Me Editor’s Choice award. This is a new badge we’ll be awarding to the best that Android has to offer, both hardware and software.

If you’re interested, you can click to see the price of the EVO in our Android phone store. We also sell EVO accessories if you’ve already purchased the phone.

Note: If you are viewing this on the mobile site or in a feed reader, please consider visiting the full review on the desktop site. It’s packed with all sort of expanded content, charts and photos we just couldn’t fit here.

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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