A Bold Phone Fades a Bit in the Details

Fine print, baby. It’s all about the fine print.

It’ll get you when you buy a car. When you rent an apartment. When you sign a prenup.

The new Sprint HTC Evo 4G smartphone is displayed at the International CTIA Wireless 2010 convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center March 24, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CTIA is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.
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The new Sprint HTC Evo 4G smartphone is displayed at the International CTIA Wireless 2010 convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center March 24, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CTIA is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.

Most of all, it’ll get you when you buy the new Sprint Evo 4G phone ($200, after rebate, with two-year contract).

It’s another great-looking, blazingly fast app phone made by HTC and running Google’s Android operating system. Android gives the phone more complexity than the iPhone (its obvious rival), but also provides some sensational features: speech recognition that lets you type by speaking, almost anywhere; an excellent, free turn-by-turn GPS navigation program; and a wireless app store stocked with more than 70,000 little programs.

Of course, the Evo’s little brother, the terrific HTC Incredible, delivers all of that, too.

What makes the Evo seem even more spectacular are all the firsts and bests.

For example, the Evo has an enormous 4.3-inch touch screen that dwarfs those of most phones. You can turn the Evo into a pocket Wi-Fi hot spot, so up to eight people can get online with their laptops. The 8-megapixel camera has dual LED flashes and records hi-def video.

The Evo is also one of the first app phones that can run Flash videos and animations on the Web, which the iPhone, notoriously, can’t. There’s even a second camera on the front, so you can actually make video calls to other Evo owners. Now you, too, can play Dick Tracy, or at least show your Evo-owning grandparents the new baby.

Above all, the Evo is the first 4G phone in America. That is, it can exploit the fourth-generation cellular towers that Sprint has been building, to bring you much, much faster Web pages and e-mail, and skip-free Internet video.

Come on — all that sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t sign on the dotted line?

Unfortunately, these groundbreaking features come with enough fine print to give the White Pages an inferiority complex.

First, the screen. It’s big, all right, and bright and beautiful (480 by 800 pixels). The hugeness pays off when you’re looking at photos, videos or maps, and whenever you’re reading anything.

Unfortunately, physics has some fine print of its own — and one of the footnotes says that you can’t have a big screen on a small phone. The Evo is nice and thin, but it’s also tall and wide. It is not for the small of hand. People might mistake it for an iPad Nano.

The Wi-Fi hot spot business is slick. With a couple of taps, you can turn the Evo’s cellular Internet signal into a Wi-Fi hot spot. Now nearby laptops, game machines and even other smartphones can get online wirelessly through it. It’d be great on long car rides, slow-moving movie shoots and camping trips for those who can’t let go of their technology.

Actually, make that “short car rides,” “brief movie shoots” and “afternoon camping trips,” because this feature eats through a full battery charge in as little as one hour. (More on the Evo’s amazing disappearing battery in a moment.) And beware: the hot spot feature costs an extra $30 a month.

O.K., so what about Flash? Isn’t a big deal that the Evo lets you watch Flash videos that its rivals can’t?

Well, sort of. The Evo runs something called Flash Lite, which is marketing-ese for, “Sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.” It plays videos on some sites that the iPhone can’t — on Engadget, for example, plus all the blinking ads (a mixed blessing). But it still can’t play the Flash videos on CNN.com or, sadly, TV shows on Hulu.com.

All right, what about video calling? Surely this is the killer app. Imagine: your friends and family can not just hear you, as with normal phones, but see you as well (assuming they also bought Sprint Evos, of course).

Well, let’s hope they’re NASA engineers, because this feature is head-bangingly unstable. After two days of fiddling, downloading and uninstalling apps, manually force-quitting programs and waiting for servers to be upgraded, I finally got video calling to work — sort of. Sometimes there was only audio and a black screen, sometimes only a freeze-frame; at best, the video was blocky and the audio delay absurd.

To make video calling work, you have to install an app yourself: either Fring or Qik. But we never did get Fring to work, and Qik requires people you call to press a Talk button when they want to speak. The whole thing is confusing and, to use the technical term, iffy.

But come on — this is the first 4G phone in America! That’s got to be better than 3G, right?

Hard to say, since I couldn’t find any 4G reception, even in weeks of traveling. My problem, evidently, was that I was visiting major cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. So far, Sprint has installed 4G coverage in only 32 areas — and they’re bustling metropolises like Boise, Idaho; Wichita Falls, Tex.; High Point, N.C.; and Milledgeville, Ga.

The battery test

Fortunately, my Times tech colleague, Roy Furchgott, has three things going for him: he also had an Evo to test, he’s a fellow tech reporter and he lives in Baltimore, one of the 4G cities. So I asked him to put the Evo through its paces for me.

His tests indicate that 4G Internet downloads are about four times as fast as 3G (averaging 2,693 kilobits a second, versus 676 over 3G). He noted that Internet videos don’t stutter, and of course e-mail attachments fly in.

He also noted, however, that the 4G signal was “spottier than a kennel of Dalmatians.” At his house, he sees four to five signal bars, but two blocks away there is no reception at all. Furthermore, it takes 20 seconds for the phone to recognize that a 4G signal is available, then six minutes to connect for the first time.

Meanwhile, Sprint charges you a $10 monthly surcharge to own this phone (on top of the $70 minimum a month for calling, texting and Internet), even if you don’t live in a 4G area and can’t use it. (Sprint points out that this package, with its unlimited data, texting and calls to other cellphones, is still a better deal than Verizon’s or AT&T’s.)

All of this fine print would probably take at least some of the wind out of any Evo devotee’s sails. But the big letdown is battery life.

If you charge this phone all night long, then leave the house at 8 a.m., you’ll find its battery charge at 50 percent by early afternoon, even if you don’t make a single call or send a single e-mail message. By quitting time, or dinner time if you’re lucky, it’s completely dead. On this phone, the battery gauge practically shrivels as you’re looking at it.

Sprint suggests that you turn the 4G feature on and off as needed throughout the day to save juice — but that’s rearranging crackers on plates on deck chairs on the Titanic. This phone has far bigger battery-life problems, including its incredibly fast (but power-hungry) processor, the Android system’s multitasking feature, and of course the super features like the Wi-Fi hot spot.

The good news is that most of the disappointing, flaky and mediocre aspects of the Evo all pertain to its cutting-edge features. Thousands of people don’t actually care about 4G or hot spots or video calling. They take pleasure in the Evo’s less exotic features: sizzling speed, smooth software, ingenious layout of the five home screens, and even the little kickstand that props the thing up when you’re watching a video.

Beyond that, the Evo is basically a technology demo. It’s a glimpse at the high-speed, smooth-video future of this country’s cell systems, at least for people who live in those 32 lucky hamlets.

Someday soon, of course, you’ll stumble across a news item like, “4G Networks Now Blanket the Country; Refined Phones Overcome Battery-Life Problems.” When that headline comes along, it will be some fine print, indeed.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.