HTC Evo 4G LTE review: Almost great

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

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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 the Near Field Communication (NFC) standard 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 Evo 4G LTE
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 backward 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 unmodified, plain-vanilla 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 so 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).

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: As best as 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 many users look for.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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