4G goes mainstream with the HTC EVO Shift, an inexpensive Android smartphone with a full-QWERTY keyboard.
The flood of 4G phones at CES 2011 started with the HTC EVO Shift 4G ($150 with a two-year contract from Sprint). Available starting on January 9, the Shift 4G is a follow-up to last year’s popular HTC EVO 4G, the first 4G phone on Sprint’s WiMax network, and is in some ways a smaller version of its brother. If you are a keyboard addict and don’t like the large size of the EVO 4G or the high price of the Samsung Epic 4G, the Shift 4G might appeal to you.
Like just about every HTC phone I’ve ever set my hands on, the Shift is attractive and solidly constructed. Measuring 4.6 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches, the phone is a little chunkier than other smartphones due to the keyboard, but the curved, soft backing makes it feel really good in hand. The unit we got was Midnight Blue–a nice departure from the legions of glossy black handsets out there.
Whereas the EVO 4G has a 4.3-inch display, the EVO Shift 4G has a 3.6-inch display. That might seem like a downgrade to some people, but I think that it makes sense, given the extra bulk needed for the keyboard. Below the display are the same circular touch buttons you’ll find on the EVO 4G: Home, Menu, Back, and Search.
The keyboard keys feel a bit stiff, but they are nicely spaced, and you get plenty of useful shortcut keys. The Motorola Cliq 2 has a far better QWERTY keyboard, however.
The EVO Shift 4G runs Android 2.2 with HTC Sense running over it. This isn’t the latest version of HTC Sense, which we won’t see until the HTC Inspire 4G launches. The Shift 4G supports Flash, so you’ll be able to watch Flash videos, view Flash-enabled pages, and play Flash-based games. Hopefully, the EVO Shift 4G will be updated to Android 2.3 sooner rather than later–an upgrade that should improve performance overall.
We’ve written a lot about HTC Sense in the past so I’ll just quickly summarize what works and what doesn’t with the overlay. Of all the Android overlays, Sense is the best-looking. The latest iteration of Sense features Leap, which is essentially an elegant way of handling multitasking; it’s a bit reminiscent of Palm’s WebOS deck-of-cards visualization (remember WebOS?). Pinch anywhere on the homescreen, and you’ll jump to seven thumbnail versions of your homescreens. From there, you can go to any of those open applications or close out of one.
Friend Stream, HTC’s social network aggregator, lets you view your friends’ status updates, shared links, and pictures in one seamless view. Supported social networks include Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, among others. I find this type of social network feed a bit annoying–do I need to see everybody’s tweets and Facebook status updates jumbled together? If you’re an avid social networker, though, seeing all of the updates in one place may be useful.
I’m not a huge fan of HTC’s Sense music player. The album art doesn’t take full advantage of the Shift 4G’s display while the app is in Now Playing mode; instead, the art remains thumbnail-size. The Sense player is slightly prettier than the dull-as-dirt Android player, but I prefer both iTunes and Samsung’s TouchWiz player. Audio sounded good on the Shift 4G, and the player supports a respectable range of audio and video formats.
Like other Sprint 4G phones, the Shift 4G comes with Sprint’s Mobile Hotspot, which lets you connect up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices. It also comes loaded with Sprint apps (or bloatware, depending how you look at it), as well as Google’s suite services–GTalk, Gmail, Google Navigation, YouTube, and others.
In place of the EVO 4G’s 8-megapixel camera, the Shift 4G offers a 5-megapixel camera with a flash and autofocus. The camera’s user interface is straightforward, and you get some advanced controls, including exposure, color, white balance, and various photo effects. My test photos looked a bit grainy and washed out overall, particularly on indoor shots.
The Shift doesn’t tout HD video capture, but the video clips I recorded looked okay–a little fuzzy, but good enough to upload to YouTube. The phone lacks a front-facing video camera, which was one of the biggest draws of the EVO 4G.
To benchmark the phone’s performance, I used the Quadrant app for Android. By its measurements, the HTC Shift 4G outperformed the Nexus One, the Motorola Droid X, the HTC EVO 4G and the Samsung Galaxy S. We saw these same results when we benchmarked the T-Mobile G2 with Quadrant, which has the same chipset.
Using the FCC-approved Ookla’s Speedtest.net application, I tested the Shift’s download and upload speeds in Las Vegas and in a few different areas of San Francisco, where 4G rolled out just last month. In the South Park neighborhood of San Francisco, the Shift 4G achieved average download speeds of 2.62 mbps and upload speeds of 0.78 mbps–pretty fast, but a bit slower than Sprint’s claimed download speeds of 3 mbps to 6 mbps. Because the San Francisco 4G network is so new, we haven’t figured out where we all of the strong-signal and weak-signal locations are. At PCWorld’s offices, we got just one bar for 4G.
Call quality was very good from the Strip in Las Vegas; callers on the other end of the line heard very little of the madness that was going on around me. In San Francisco, call quality was again quite good, with very little background noise audible to the people I called.
If you find the size and price of the $200 HTC EVO 4G and the $230 Samsung Epic 4G intimidating, you may be a good candidate for the HTC EVO Shift 4G–especially if you don’t need an extra-large display or a front-facing camera. It’s too bad that the main camera got a downgrade as well, but that isn’t a dealbreaker. Sprint promised us a heap of 4G phones this year so if the Shift doesn’t suit you, you’ll surely find something later this year.