HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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."

The Evo comes out tomorrow (6/4) on Sprint for $200 with 2-year contract rebate.

4.3-inch, 800 x 480-pixel screen. 4G WiMax with wireless hotspot powers. 8-megapixel, 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 back-of-napkin fantasy, which is precisely the point. The Evo is an icon, manufacturer HTC gleefully tugging at customers' hems: Look what we can do!

The Evo a beautiful slab. Being the biggest, fastest and strongest—and boastfully so—is a rare trait, marginalized 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.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

This Is a Big Phone

You will either love how ridiculously palm-spanning 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, yet he is a power nerd. I think it feels like a weirdly retrograde 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 polarize the buying 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 armored suit to be. The way it's sculpted—aggressively functional, like War Machine, with little Tony Stark flash—emphasizes unseasoned power. You might expect the back of the phone to be cut from metal, but it's fit with a rubber-esque finish. (We are still talking about HTC here.)

The build quality is nonetheless respectable, down to the kickstand—it'll survive a tumble or three. (There is light leaking through the seam where the top of phone meets the frame, netting a few demerits.)

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; you're struck by the brilliance of the screen itself. It's not just big, it's super bright and colorful, with a pleasantly wide viewing angle. (Crucial for kickstand video watching.) Since it's a regular LCD it's actually usable in the sun, not the more fashionable AMOLED, seen in the Nexus One, Droid Incredible and Zune HD. But it's not tremendously better than an iPhone's screen, either.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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 so large. Videos are just big enough that—what do you know—a kickstand doesn't seem absurd. After a while, the Evo's screen doesn't seem that big—it's just that other cellphone screens feel small.

If only the battery was a fuel cell, powered by ambition. It might be 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 had 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

Everything you've read makes the Evo sound like 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 $10 to every plan, whether or not you live where you can take advantage of it), accessing the web with speeds comprable with those of low-end home broadband.

Additional, the Evo can serve as a wireless hotspot, allowing "up to eight" of your devices to utilize the network just like they would Wi-Fi at home—if you pay another $30 a month. ($70-a-month for data may sound expensive, but realize that Sprint's OverDrive 4G hotspot runs $60 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 is faster than any cellphone you've ever used—but only if your city has the 4G infrastructure. (Sprint has a list of 4G cities.)

Testing the Evo in Wimax-equipped Chicago, pages just load. Thunk. Mobile sites pop up near-instantaneously. Full versions of the same sites load with an expeditiousness that challenges even the most nasally 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 generalized 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 more nible Android 2.2 underneath.)

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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).

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

As a hotspot, I was only able to connect two devices: a laptop and an iPad. While the Evo promises support for 8 connect devices, I couldn't break this 2 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.)

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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—especially as the 4G data plan is unlimited. 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 4 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, 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 cell 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 even though 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.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

The Shooter

The camera is both impressive and disappointing, but it's no point and shoot replacement. In straight up daylight, the 8 megapixel 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.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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. (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—it totally sucks. It's grainy, blotchy and just plain crap. (You can check out HD samples, along with photos in full resolution on Flickr, by clicking on the gallery above.)

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

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War MachineS

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 seems just about as expensive. After paying $200 (post- $100 mail-in rebate) It costs $10 a month for premium data—which isn't optional, even if you live nowhere near WiMax, but it is UNLIMITED—on top of one of these mandatory plans listed below (the big "but" is that these plans include unlimited text messages, saving you $20 over a comparable plan on AT&T.)

Individual
$69.99 per month/450 anytime minutes + Any Mobile, Anytime
$89.99 per month/900 anytime minutes + Any Mobile, Anytime
$99.99 per month/unlimited minutes

Family
$129.99 per month/1500 anytime minutes shared between two lines + Any Mobile, Anytime
$169.99 per month/3000 anytime minutes shared between two lines + Any Mobile Anytime
$189.98 per month/unlimited minutes

Plus, it's another $30 a month to use the Mobile Hotspot feature, per phone. It's a fat wallet commitment. But at the same time, it's far and away the best value for data that any carrier is offering. $70 a month gets you unlimited data and tethering on a network actually worth using, especially if you can get on WiMax. AT&T wants $45 for the privilege of tethering with a 2GB pool of data that I'd be lucky to even have a good enough connection to get through in New York or San Francisco.

View gallery »

Verdict

The calculus for deciding if you want this phone is relatively simple: 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.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

WiMax, in a phone! Weeeeeeeeeee.

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

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

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

Sprint's 3G network

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

An unabashed celebration of steroidal specs

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

The camera's great...in daylight

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

It's massive, like a squished carbon fiber brick

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

Miserable battery life

HTC Evo 4G Review: A War Machine

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