Let’s talk today about the best handset battle the wireless industry has ever seen. That’s not hyperbole, that’s fact. The first iPhone was the best wireless handset to hit the market, and continued to be for a long time. The Pre – in my mind – was the best contender to come along since its inception. WebOS is smooth as silk, and can’t be underestimated in the future. Unfortunately, the hardware just wasn’t (and still isn’t) there with the Pre to really show off the fantastic operating system, so it ultimately fell short. Now, as Apple continues its yearly hardware refresh cycle, the Pre is fully and completely obsolete.
In rolls the EVO. The spec list reads like a list of the best of components available for wireless phones currently. The biggest screen (4.3″) with the best screen tech (AMOLED), the fastest processor (1 GHz Snapdragon), the best camera (8MP) – hell, put one on the front too – high def video (720p24), an FM tuner, HDMI output, and oh yeah: the beginning of the next generation of wireless data speeds, Wimax. The kickstand is almost a boastful indulgence as its inclusion suggests HTC thinks that it belongs as much on your entertainment center as it does in your pocket.
So on June 7th, like the rest of the world that just can’t wait to get the latest and greatest in their hands, I listened to Steve Jobs announcing the latest update to the iPhone. Every year, the iPhone seems to set the bar for what to expect from phone hardware and software, while the rest of the industry spends the next year catching up. And then… nothing. No huge surprises. No great, must-have features.
Here is a breakdown of the features of both phones to explain why the iPhone – in my opinion – is no longer the undisputed king of the mountain.
This is the most logical place to start because it’s the most obvious and impressive thing about both of these phones. The EVO went the brute force route: make it bigger. Period. Steve, in his usual way, went more elegant with the same size display as the previous generation (3.5″), but quadrupled the number of pixels per inch. The selling point here is that you can see crisper pictures and sharper text. In theory, you should be able to read text that’s smaller on the iPhone than you would on the EVO.
Unfortunately for Steve, he makes a couple miscalculations in assuming that this pixel count will make up for the phone’s lack of size. On both of these phones, the screen is not just a display, it’s the way you interact with the device. So when I use my finger to hit a key, it’s much easier to hit a larger target, naturally. Plus, as a current Pre user, I find myself frequently having to zoom into a page several times to hit small links. Having more screen real estate also means I have more room to pinch my fingers out to zoom in – while I might have to zoom the screen in 2 or 3 times to get where I want with my Pre, I have enough room to do the same thing in one swipe on an EVO (potentially). You could argue that I won’t have to zoom in as much to READ text on a page if I had a higher pixel count, but I still have to zoom in if I’m trying to press on a link or button on a page. These are real, tangible benefits to a bigger screen. “It looks nice” is not a tangible selling point to me.
Apple also touts their propriety screen material as being far more scratch-resistant than regular glass. While HTC has said nothing so far about their screen, users have managed to prove that it is nothing to shake a stick at… or even a razor blade, if you so choose.
I don’t really think this is much of a feature, outside of a drastic change to the size or shape of a phone. However, I’ve seen several people saying that they couldn’t possibly stand to carry around the EVO – suggesting it would take a holster, or it would be akin to lugging around a laptop – so it bears discussing. Let’s dispel this myth: while the EVO packs a relatively massive screen, it manages to keep a small profile, courtesy of its incredibly thin bezel. The EVO is a full 7mm (~1/4″) longer, 4mm wider, and no thicker than the iPhone 3GS. So when someone says they simply can’t stand a device that is so large, they had better have a Motorola Startac as their primary phone.
In fairness to Apple, the iPhone 4 is another tenth of an inch slimmer in width and thickness (same height) as its older brother. That’s nice, but it is simply not a differentiator. That kind of size makes zero difference in how I use the phone. It’s the kind of thing you tout if you want to say, “I have the thinnest phone ever.”
This is was unquestionably the worst part of Apple’s demonstration. Not only did Steve say he was bringing video calling to the world when he clearly is not, but the features are so stripped-down that they are a mere novelty, not actually useful.
The iPhone 4 will offer Facetime, which allows someone on an iPhone 4 (sorry 3G, 3GS owners), that is also using wifi (so much for video calls from the beach), to call someone else on an iPhone 4, that is also using wifi. Meanwhile, Fring on the EVO allows you to not only speak to other EVO users – over the entire Sprint network – but also with anyone else using Fring on a handset, or Skype on a desktop. Qik is also an option for EVO users, though it is Qik to Qik only. FAR more robust, FAR more useful. I will applaud the implementation of Facetime: it is integrated directly into the dialer (as opposed to being a separate app), and you can switch between a voice and a video call on the fly. However, that only helps soften the blow of finding out that an otherwise cool feature – that Steve would have you believe gives them “a reason to come to work every day” – is almost entirely useless.
The EVO is being shipped with an 8GB micro SD card for its $199 price, while the iPhone comes with 16GB of storage for $199 or 32GB of storage for $299. What sets the EVO apart is the removable nature of its storage. It would be much better if the card was accessible from the outside of the phone, but in my opinion, that doesn’t take away the benefit of having removable storage.
Here’s why: I have a real camera, and a USB drive option on my wife’s new car – many new cars are coming with that option. I already own a 16GB card that I move between these uses. I keep it in my wife’s car 99% of the time, and when I want to, I take it out and put it in the camera (when my phone’s camera isn’t enough) to use. A micro SD card in my phone would allow me the option to use either card if I wanted to go running or mow the lawn and have additional music to listen to. It also allows me to view the various photos on either card if I’m somewhere without the camera but with my phone.
I can’t say for sure that everyone would want this feature, but I imagine most techies – which theoretically should be the target market for smartphones – don’t have at least one microSD card floating around their homes like me, and being able to swap that in and out is invaluable. Versus the $100 premium Apple charges, I can buy two micro SD cards, enjoy the portability of my storage, and still have some money to spare.
Both devices have front and rear cameras, but that’s where the similarities end. The iPhone includes a VGA camera on front (roughly the equivalent of a .5MP camera) and a 5MP camera on back. The back camera has an LED flash, and a “backside illuminated” image sensor. Steve touted this as a feature that he focused on more than megapixels to make photos better.
Luckily for HTC, the EVO was already in front of this development. It has a 1.3MP camera on front – so your friends can see all your pimples during your video calls – and a “backside illuminated” 8MP sensor on the rear. Plus, it has two LED flashes to the iPhone’s one – not likely to make a difference, but another small thing that shows that HTC absolutely refused to be out-done with this phone. We’ll have to see the quality of pictures from both when reviewers get ahold of the iPhone 4, but at least on paper the EVO has the lead.
While writing this review, I came across this new macro lens that came out for the EVO… worth checking out for people who really love their phone cameras.
I’ve already touched on phone pricing above. Essentially, you’re paying $199 for 16GB of storage on the iPhone, and 9GB (1GB internal, 8GB via micro SD card) of storage on the EVO. If you want to go up to 32GB, you can pay $100 extra on the iPhone or buy a couple of 16GB cards for your EVO for around $50 apiece (after shipping and/or tax), which gives you a full 41GB of storage altogether. You have to decide for yourself if you prefer the flexibility of several storage cards or the convenience of having it all in one place.
I do have to mention here the one major design flaw I see on the EVO. In order to access the micro SD card, you have to remove the battery. For most this won’t matter, but I like to switch my card out frequently and move it between devices, so this is annoying for me.
It also bears mentioning – since I see many other sites talking about this – how often you will receive a full rebate with both carriers. AT&T is generously offering customers within 6 months of their full rebate upgrade eligibility an early upgrade at the “full rebate” price. I’ve also seen them offering recent iPhone 3GS purchasers the ability to get a rebate for the difference of what they paid and what the 3GS now costs. These are generous offers, to be sure, but they are not official policy.
Sprint offers all customers in their loyalty program full rebates on handsets every 12 months. If you buy an EVO, you have to be in the program since you have to be paying at least $69 (as an individual subscriber) or $129 (as a family subscriber). I’ve seen several sites lauding AT&T’s offer, while ignoring the fact that Sprint has had this loyalty program in place for quite some time (I was in when I bought their Pre), so I thought it worth mentioning.
I know we’re comparing hardware here, but both of these devices are tied to their respective carriers, so it’s pretty easy – and really, necessary – to compare the plans available to both subscribers as well.
Note: I will be ignoring the 200MB/$15 AT&T data plan. If you use a smartphone and you use less than 200MB of data a month, you probably are wasting your money on the phone in the first place. Plus, AT&T claims that the average iPhone user is in the 500MB/mo range, so it’s not unfair to assume that 200MB isn’t going to cut it.
The vast majority of EVO customers will choose the $69 Everything Data plan with Sprint’s $10 “premium data” add-on (whether you’re in a 4G market or not). That gives you unlimited messaging, unlimited data (really unlimited, not “5GB cap” unlimited), nights starting at 7PM, and unlimited wireless to wireless calling. That means that your only limitation is the 450 minutes that you would use to call landline phones during peak hours (7am to 7pm M-F) every month. Suffice it to say, that should pretty much cover everyone outside of a cold-calling insurance salesman. With AT&T, assuming that 100% of anyone considering this phone would need at least SOME messaging, the plans start at $69 for 450 rollover minutes (nights starting at 9PM), unlimited AT&T in-network calls, 200 text messages, and 2GB of data usage. If you need more texts, your next option is 1500 messages, which would bring your total to $79/mo, the same as Sprint. So if you can keep your data usage under 2GB (no streaming Netflix unless you’re on wifi), and your texts under 200, and your calls under an AVERAGE of 450 minutes per month (AT&T is still the only game in town with rollover minutes) then AT&T is the better value. If you are a heavy texter (not that 250 texts per month even qualifies as heavy texting these days), or a heavy data user, then Sprint is the better value.
On the family plan side, Sprint’s $149 for two subscribers ($129 + $10 per phone for “premium data”) is the same as AT&T’s price ($69 for voice, $30 for family texting, and $25 per phone for data), though Sprint’s nearly unlimited calling (1500 minutes with any mobile, anytime vs. 700 rollover minutes) and truly unlimited data will be a differentiator for some. (A third EVO would cost $30/mo, while a third iPhone would cost $35/mo, respectively.)
For those who prefer to tether their phone to a laptop, or, dare I say, an iPad, that will run you $30 with Sprint, or $20 with AT&T, though it bears mentioning that you can’t actually tether an iPhone to an iPad. The iPhone’s tethering options are USB or Bluetooth, and the iPad can only get an internet connection over wifi – kind of a crazy miss for Apple since they’re such big fans of all their devices working together. Also, if you’re using both your handset and your iPad/laptop/other phone/etc. through your iPhone, you’ll definitely have to worry about the 2GB cap.
Since, as I said, both devices are tied to their carriers, this does make a difference. If your usage patterns will allow you to save a few dollars on AT&T, then that’s good, but I believe that most people reading blogs on the internet comparing phones probably are higher users and will almost always save money with Sprint’s pricing.
I call this section “data experience” (rather than data speed or network technology) because it’s more than just the technology you’re on. To get it out of the way, the browsers are generally, functionally, the same. Android’s browser will roll out Flash support eventually, but while some will say this is a big downfall of Apple’s, I think the simple fact that Apple won’t support it means that many sites will re-write themselves for HTML 5 over time. Plus, we have no way of knowing what the experience Flash will even give when it does arrive on handsets, since it is clearly designed to be used with a desktop, and more importantly, a mouse. “Mouse-overs” are something extremely integral to any Flash site, and I’m not sure how that will work on a finger-driven device.
In terms of the “data experience,” Sprint’s “First” advertising campaign applies two-fold here. First, and most obvious, is the fact that the EVO is a “4G” phone. I use quotes since it does not technically qualify as a 4G technology, but all the US carriers seem to have tacitly agreed to call things 3G and 4G based on how much they spend to upgrade to them, not how powerful they are. Still, there is no denying – based on any review you can get your hands on – that Sprint’s (or, technically Clearwire’s) Wimax network is fast.
The second “first” the EVO brings is the ability to browse the internet while talking; but that feature is only new to the CDMA world (read: Verizon and Sprint), and is not new to the wireless world at large. Since GSM data networks are essentially completely separate from their voice counterparts, phones running on those networks can both carry on a voice call and perform a data transaction at the same time. Some Apple commercials have displayed this perfectly:
“Hey, what movie do you want to see tonight?”
“Just a second, let me pull up what’s showing. How about Baby Geniuses 2?”
“Done, can’t wait.”
While that conversation has never and could never happen (nobody SAW that movie, right?), it’s the best example of the usefulness of that feature. Any time you’re on the phone and need to look something up relevant to your conversation – a movie, a restaurant, an e-mail, etc. – having the internet available is a good thing.
However, there is one huge caveat, one that spans many thousands of square miles: both of those features only work in 4G markets. In a Sprint 3G market, you will miss out on the “4G” experience, and you will have to call your significant other back if you want to find out where that restaurant is, or when that movie starts.
AT&T offers simultaneous voice and data across its entire network, so it takes the crown there. Data speeds, however, are lacking. While you will get EVDO Rev. A speeds anywhere on Sprint’s network, most of AT&T’s network (from a square mile standpoint) is still EDGE; a much slower network technology. AT&T is rolling out HSPA+ and plans to reach 250M people by the end of this year, which will help. HSPA+, while not “4G” from a marketing standpoint, has been repeatedly shown to match Wimax speeds in the real world. Sadly, the iPhone 4 only came capable of HSPA (notice the missing “+”), which is comparable to Sprint’s EVDO network. Meanwhile, Clearwire/Sprint will be rolling out 4G and hopes to reach 120 million people by the end of 2010.
So this one is difficult to call. Simultaneous calls and data is a nice feature, and you have to balance that against faster data speeds on Sprint’s network – whether you’re in “4G” areas or not. I’m much more interested in speed, but not everyone is.
The iPhone unquestionably has the larger selection in their app store, and there are many very good apps. The only place where Google has an advantage here is in the type of apps. Android has a higher percentage of free apps, and basically approves every app that’s submitted. That doesn’t mean Android’s market wins (far from it), it means that there will likely be at least one app here or there that is available via Google’s store that Apple would never approve (Fring anybody?) that will help you feel better about not having access to roughly 5 – 6 times as many apps. Also, the Android market is growing at an incredible rate, and there really aren’t a lot of mainstream apps that are available for the iPhone but not for the EVO.
There is no question that the battery life on the iPhone 4 is better. But battery life’s importance is subjective. I’m a mobile person, but I have no problem keeping my phone plugged in most of the day so that if I do need it to be completely mobile, it’s at 100%. I don’t love managing things like wifi, bluetooth, 4G antennae, e-mail updates, etc. to preserve battery life, but they are a small nuisance – TO ME. They may be important to you, and may be an issue. I will say this: I have used my aforementioned Palm Pre for around a year now, and every report I read says that the EVO’s battery is awful, but that it is significantly better than the Pre. My Pre certainly has poor battery life, but it is manageable. If the EVO is better than that, it is not the end of the world.
This is the first half of the larger debate between Android and iOS users: would you rather something be easier to use or more customizable. Customization actually is a function of usability: if you can customize something enough, it becomes easy to use because you have made it that way. However, the trouble of customizing something is an effort that some users don’t want to go through. Android is certainly the customization king with its widgets, and its plethora of themes. While both have apps that alter the functionality of the phones to some degree, Apple doesn’t allow apps that alter things to the degree that Android does.
Ease of Use
The yin to Android’s yang, ease of use is Apple’s forte. Unlike some Android apologists, I don’t believe that ease of use should be underestimated at all. This incredible article from Wired magazine talks about products that are “good enough,” but they win because they’re just incredibly easy to use. My take on this isn’t that Android is fine being harder to use, just that it isn’t so vastly more difficult that it should turn a large number of users off. Notice that the article talks about products that are cheaper AND simpler. In this case, both devices are similarly priced. I would argue that anyone taking the time to read this detailed review of the EVO vs. the iPhone 4 would fall into the category of people with enough know-how (and free time) to customize their EVO to make it just right for them. Still, I know that this effort isn’t for everyone.
I think it is clear that Apple has not managed to take the unrivaled wireless crown this time around. From a hardware-only standpoint, the EVO is a superior phone in most technical aspects. What annoys me to read are people who weight things based on their own preferences and then call one phone or the other a winner accordingly. I will not be doing that. The big screen, the camera, the customization (I’m a tinkerer by nature) and the removable storage of the EVO are all huge deals to me. The added convenience of swapping micro SD cards, the fact that I happen to live in a market where “4G” his been lit up, and the FM tuner (that I currently have to take out my Zune to use) make the choice easy for me. Sprint’s cheaper and unlimited plans are just icing on the cake.
However, if you prefer to charge your phone overnight and not worry about it the rest of the day – all the while browsing the internet and texting constantly – the EVO will not work for you. It does not have the number of apps that the iPhone 4 has available to it, nor does it have the polish that iOS has. If you live in a major market that does not yet have “4G” service, then you are probably in for a similar web-browsing experience on either device. If you have an iPod already, then the easier iTunes integration might be your cup of tea.
Regardless of the phone you choose, you can rest assured that you will have a great piece of hardware that cannot ultimately claim to be the best. I know that’s a sad payoff for some, but the reality is that there are going to be fans and detractors of both. Having read this, you can tell them all that they’re right.