Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misstated Sprint's 4G download speeds. This version has been corrected. Also, because of a production error, a screen grab of an error-404 page at Ubuntu Linux's Web site ran with Rob Pegoraro's Fast Foward column in the May 30 Sunday Business section. The correct screen grab appears with the June 6 column on page G4.

'4G' timing not quite right for Sprint's big-screen Evo

The Sprint HTC Evo 4G mobile phone includes a built-in WiFi hotspot mode you can use -- for a fee, of course.
The Sprint HTC Evo 4G mobile phone includes a built-in WiFi hotspot mode you can use -- for a fee, of course. (AP)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Can you have too much of a smartphone?

Sprint's new HTC Evo 4G, its third device to run Google's Android operating system, raises that theoretically absurd question.

The Evo -- debuting June 4 for $299.99, before a $100 mail-in rebate, for new or renewing subscribers -- stands apart from other smartphones even when it's shut off. Its comparatively enormous display, 4.3 inches across, makes it a slab of a device, wider than any mobile phone I can remember using.

That sizable screen eases typing on its on-screen keyboard and reading Web pages, although without the trackball or touch-pad control found on most Android phones navigating and selecting text is more difficult. A thoughtful flip-out stand also lets you rest the phone on its side for tray-table movie viewing.

But in return, it looks as if it could double as a carrying case for more compact models, such as Verizon's HTC Droid Incredible.

The Evo also aims to up the ante with its mobile broadband connection. It's Sprint's first phone to support its under-construction "4G" service, which the Overland Park, Kan.-based company touts as offering download speeds averaging from 3 million to 6 million bits per second (Mbps), compared with 3G downloads that typically go no faster than 1.4 Mbps.

Although Sprint has yet to declare its 4G network open for business in the Washington area, signals have been available for months -- and on Tuesday, the partially Sprint-owned Clear service launched its own 4G Internet access on the same network. Tests with a phone lent by Sprint's PR department, using Ookla's free application, did not confirm Sprint's claims. Even with the phone showing almost a full 4G signal, its download speeds hovered between 2.5 and 3 Mbps -- while in 3G mode, they ranged from 1.5 to almost 2 Mbps. Other reviewers have seen similar results.

Thing is, the Evo carries a $10 "Premium Data" surcharge, making its minimum monthly cost not the industry-standard $69.99 but $79.99. Sprint says that extra fee doesn't just cover 4G service but also reflects the odds of the Evo's features leading its users to spend more time online, then notes that its voice-and-data bundles include unlimited text and multimedia messaging. But not everybody texts like a teenager and needs such a level of service.

The Evo's 4G connection, which relies on a technology called WiMax, may be most useful outside of the phone -- the Evo includes a built-in WiFi hot spot mode you can use for an extra $29.99 a month. A Windows 7 laptop reported slightly faster downloads at the site, up to 3.6 Mbps.

(Android users have long been able to use the PDANet program to borrow their phones' Internet connections, but the Evo's hot-spot mode is far simpler to set up.)

Using the 4G connection for Internet access can put a dent in the Evo's battery life, but for voice calling it didn't appear to make a difference: The loaner phone stayed on the line for 6 hours and 10 minutes in 3G mode, 5 hours and 57 minutes with 4G active.

After the big screen and the faster access, the Evo's other major contribution to smartphone design may seem like a joke: not one but two cameras. (Coming in 2011, phones with three cameras! It'll be like razor manufacturers competing to see how many blades they can add to their products.)

The 8-megapixel camera on the back shot surprisingly good photos outdoors but was predictably mediocre when it had to resort to its flash indoors. On its front, however, a second, 1.3-megapixel camera points toward the user.

But a lack of useful software leaves it without much of a mission: The best-known videoconferencing service, Skype, has somehow elected to ship Android software only for Verizon's phones. Instead, Sprint has tapped a less widely used service, Qik, to ship a version of its video-streaming software for the Evo.

Another Evo multimedia feature, a digital HDMI audio-video connection to high-definition televisions, seems even less well thought-out. The Evo's HDMI connection requires a "Micro-HDMI" cable that is, predictably, not included in the box. Sprint charges a quasi-extortionate $29.99 for it, but hardly any other retailers sell these things -- not Radio Shack, not Best Buy, not even the we-carry-every-cable-ever-made online store

The Evo also arrives at an awkward time in the Android software's evolution: Although Google is now introducing a considerably updated version, Sprint's phone ships with the prior version. Buyers will have to wait for HTC and Sprint to test and ship an Evo-specific update.

In six months or a year, many of the Evo's early-adopter ailments could easily be addressed by Sprint and other companies. But in six months, the frantic evolution of the Android market could also wind up scrubbing some of the shine off this phone.

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