Phones

Real-world Testing: IPhone 4 vs. HTC EVO 4G

I've been using an iPhone for three years now, first the original iPhone then the 3G. I like the iPhone a lot -- but I'm not married to it. When I began hearing great things about the Sprint's Android phone, the HTC EVO 4G, I thought hard about switching. And although I eventually decided to upgrade to the iPhone 4, I was curious what I was missing.

The good people at Sprint let me borrow an EVO for a few weeks, and I compared it to my personal iPhone 4. I found that there were a lot of factors where one phone excelled over the other -- but that, in the end, it was hard to choose between them.

What follows are my observations about how the two phones compared in a variety of aspects. In each case, I've chosen the phone I think is the winner in each category -- when there was a winner.

Note: The EVO I tested ran Android OS 2.1, but the next version of Android, version 2.2 or "Froyo," is due any day now. Froyo is a major upgrade -- but many of the new features are interesting only to developers, and others are already available on the EVO, including wireless tethering and Flash support.

According to all reports, Froyo performs faster than Android 2.1, but even using Android 2.1, I didn't find performance to be a problem.

Style

The iPhone is a sexy little thing -- 4.5 x 2.3 x 0.4 in. and weighing 4.8 oz. But though the phone is small, it feels solid and comfortable in my hand.

The glass-and-stainless-steel case looks great. The glass is a special reinforced kind, called "aluminosilicate." Apple says it's 30 times harder than plastic. It sounds awesome. (I think Doctor Who has aluminosilicate glass in the windows of the TARDIS.)

At 4.8 x 2.6 x 0.5 in. and weighing 6 oz, the EVO is very large for a smartphone, but not freakishly so. It'll fit in your shirt or pants pocket (unless you wear ultratight 70s disco pants). I have small hands and even so, I found the EVO comfortable as well.

Still, I prefer the smaller size and design of the iPhone 4.

Winner: iPhone 4

Display

The iPhone has a gorgeous screen, which Apple calls a "Retina" display. Looking at photos and images on the iPhone 4 is very nearly paper quality.

When I've taken photos with a phone, I've always waited to get back to my computer to get a better look and decide which pictures to share on the Internet -- until I got the iPhone 4. The display is as good as anything available on most people's desktops.

The EVO's display isn't as good as the iPhone's. Its resolution is 800 x 480 pixels, compared with the iPhone's 960 x 640. On the other hand, the EVO's 4.3-in. display is much bigger than the iPhone's 3.5-in. screen. The big display is one of the chief things EVO enthusiasts like about it.

Winner: iPhone 4

Call quality

Recently, iPhone 4 news has been dominated by user complaints that the device drops calls when you touch a particular spot on the lower-left edge of the case. In a press conference held on July 14, Apple CEO Steve Jobs denied that it was a serious problem but agreed to give a free bumper case to iPhone 4 owners. Jobs said very few users are affected. I believe him. I'm not affected by the problem.

But antenna problems aside, I found that the EVO beats the iPhone in call quality. I tested both phones in a variety of locations around San Diego, where I live. Call quality was very good on both phones, but better on the EVO, with clearer, more natural sound. On the other hand, the iPhone did a better job screening out background noise.

The iPhone is available in the U.S. only with AT&T as a carrier, and AT&T users around America complain about dropped calls and poor audio quality. Customer satisfaction for AT&T was tied for last place among four major American wireless carriers in a March 2010 study by ChangeWave. Just 23% of AT&T customers described themselves as "very satisfied" with service. Sprint, the carrier for the EVO, did much better than AT&T, ranking second with 35% of customers saying they're "very satisfied."

If asked, I would have been one of those "very satisfied" AT&T customers, since service is good where I am. Still, EVO call quality was better.

Winner: EVO 4

Battery life

Battery life was not an issue. Both phones lasted more than a full day of checking e-mail, Web browsing, making phone calls and taking pictures and video. I finished the evening with a significant charge left over at bedtime.

Winner: Tie

Tethering

You can use the EVO as a portable Wi-Fi hot spot for up to eight other devices. It's easy to set up -- you connect your notebook computer or any Wi-Fi enabled device to the EVO the normal way you connect to any Wi-Fi network. When I tried it out, I found that performance was fine for Web surfing, e-mail, instant messaging and other typical Internet usage.

Using the EVO as a Wi-Fi network runs down the phone battery faster than other uses. Starting with the EVO battery topped up, I got 3 hours 45 minutes use out of the phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot before the battery ran completely dry.

The iPhone 4 also offers tethering -- in theory. Your choices are either Bluetooth or USB cabling; you can't use it as a Wi-Fi hot spot. I was unable to get Bluetooth tethering to work, even after an hour on the phone with AppleCare support. On the other hand, USB tethering was easy to set up and worked very well.

Sprint charges $30 per month to activate tethering on the EVO, while AT&T charges $20 per month for tethering on the iPhone. (There are Android apps that purport to offer tethering over a USB cable for free.)

The EVO has a major advantage here, since tethering will be hugely attractive to road warriors who need to take their laptop computers out and about.

Winner: EVO 4G

Wireless broadband

Both phones operate on the 3G network. The EVO also supports the faster 4G networks. However, 4G networks are currently deployed in only a few places in the U.S., so the overwhelming majority of people won't be able to take advantage of the faster network speeds. When using 3G, I noticed no difference in the speed and responsiveness of the two phones.

Winner: The EVO 4G if you live in one of the areas served by 4G. Otherwise, tie.

Camera

The iPhone 4 proves that megapixels (MP) aren't everything. The EVO has a higher-resolution rear-facing camera, 8MP compared with 5MP for the iPhone 4. But the iPhone 4 took better still pictures and video. Lighting in the photos and videos was better and brighter, colors seemed richer and audio quality in videos was better (both phones take HD video).

Winner: iPhone 4

Notifications

Android -- and, by extension, the EVO -- does a great job displaying notifications of incoming e-mails, Twitter @mentions, missed phone calls, new voicemail messages and other events. Notifications appear as icons in a horizontal bar at the top of the home screen. Pull down the bar and you see your notifications in a neat column. Tap on each notification to read it (or in the case of voicemail, listen). It's a great way to catch up if you haven't looked at your phone for a few hours.

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On the iPhone, by comparison, notifications are poorly handled. The iPhone can be set so that a small number appears on the icon of each application with new messages. If you have a lot of applications peppering you with notifications, that's messy. You can also get pop-up windows displaying notifications onscreen, but you see only the most recent notification in the pop-up.

Winner: EVO 4G

Video chat

Both the iPhone 4 and the EVO 4G support video chat. The iPhone's FaceTime video chat works only with other iPhone 4s and only on the Wi-Fi network, not 3G or EDGE. But within those limitations, FaceTime works great: One tap on a button while on a conventional phone call and FaceTime starts. Video and audio are crisp and clear.

In theory, the EVO's video chat should be better than the iPhone's, because it's designed to work with any other device on any network. The reality is that video chat on the EVO didn't work for me. The only apps it currently works with are Fring and Qik, but in my tests, Fring video was badly pixilated and the audio was indecipherable. I couldn't get Qik video chat to work at all.

Winner: iPhone 4

Google integration

Gmail is my primary e-mail application, Google Voice gives me my primary phone number, and I use Google Calendar (synced with BusyCal on the Mac) to keep track of my schedule. To sync my mail, contacts and calendar on the EVO, I just had to enter my Google login and the EVO took care of the rest.

On the iPhone, those things are nowhere near as convenient. A while ago, I spent hours figuring out how to get my iPhone 3G to sync with Gmail, contacts and Google Calendar, and I had to go through the whole painful process again when I upgraded to the iPhone 4.

In addition, Google Voice integration on the iPhone 4 is clumsy. You can easily receive Google Voice calls on your iPhone, but you have to use a Web app to place a call with Google Voice. And you have to manually forward your iPhone voicemail. All of that is automatic on the EVO with the free Google Voice app.

If you're not a Gmail user, both phones enable you to pick up POP3 and IMAP email through their built-in mail clients, and both support connectivity to Microsoft Exchange.

Winner: EVO 4G

Multitasking

Android multitasks in the same way that most other computers do. You can run any application in the background while using another.

The iPhone's operating system, iOS 4, keeps third-party app multitasking on a tight leash -- it just lets some apps do some things in the background. For example, GPS apps can continue tracking your location and giving voice directions in the background, while other applications can finish uploading and downloading data.

In theory, the Android approach offers more freedom, but in practice, the multitasking limitations on the iPhone didn't affect my day-to-day use of the phone. Apple says it locks down the iPhone 4 to improve performance and enhance stability, but I did not notice problems with either while multitasking on the EVO.

Winner: Tie

App choice

Both the iPhone and Android have rich ecosystems of third-party applications. With 200,000+ apps available in Apple's App Store versus 70,000+ in Google's Android Market, you'd think the iPhone would have it all over the EVO in app selection. But some types of applications that are available on the EVO are blocked from the iPhone.

For example, Google developed a native version of Google Voice for the iPhone, but Apple blocked it because it duplicates existing phone capabilities. (Surely the fact that Apple and Google are fierce competitors had nothing to do with the decision.)

There were other apps that I found handy that I could get on the EVO, but not on the iPhone. For example, you can download apps to customize text input, changing the default EVO onscreen keyboard.

And the $6.99 DoggCatcher Android app downloads podcasts over Wi-Fi, without having to connect to the desktop to sync. On the iPhone, I have to connect my phone to my desktop computer to download new podcast subscriptions.

I have no philosophical objections to Apple running a closed platform. I just wish they had different rules.

Winner: EVO 4G

Flash

EVO supports Flash, while the iPhone does not. I had mixed results viewing Flash pages on the EVO: Simple Flash animations at corporate Web sites displayed flawlessly, a Flash game rendered extremely slowly and Vimeo videos wouldn't play at all.

Flash support simply doesn't matter to me -- and I think despite all the noise from Apple critics, Flash support isn't going to matter to the overwhelming majority of users. There are plenty of alternatives to sites that require Flash, and some of the most popular Flash sites, like Hulu and YouTube, have non-Flash versions for non-Flash-supporting mobile devices.

But, still, even partial Flash support is better than none.

Winner: EVO 4G

Conclusions

After a couple of weeks putting both phones through their paces, I decided I made the right decision in upgrading to the iPhone 4.

Why? Well, mainly because it's work to switch platforms. You have to learn how to use the new device, and find and download apps to do the same things you did on the old device. To be worth the cost and trouble, the new platform has to do something new and great that the old platform can't do. While there are distinct differences between the iPhone and its Android competition, neither is superior enough to the other that it's worth the inconvenience of switching if you're satisfied with your current platform.

But what if you have neither yet and you're trying to decide between an Android phone and an iPhone?

Well, first you need to consider which carrier you want to go with. The problems people have with AT&T's service are well publicized -- if that is a concern, or if you already have a favorite carrier you want to go with, then choose a phone that works with your service.

If you don't care which carrier you use, then this is the way I'd choose: If photo and video quality are important to you, go with the iPhone, because it's better at those things. Likewise, if style is an issue, go with the iPhone. Otherwise, after working with both the iPhone 4 and the HTC EVO 4G, I would recommend the Android phone as the better choice, for its Google integration, Wi-Fi tethering, open applications and a choice of Android hardware vendors and wireless carriers.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Read more from Mitch at the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog.

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