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Originally published Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Brier Dudley

HTC Evo 4G is multimedia milestone

You could make a good argument that Sprint's new HTC Evo 4G is the biggest advance in mobile phones since the iPhone appeared in 2007.

Seattle Times staff columnist

You could make a good argument that Sprint's new HTC Evo 4G is the biggest advance in mobile phones since the iPhone appeared in 2007.

Apple hooked people on touch-screen pocket browsers, raising expectations for mobile phones to work as miniature computers.

The Evo, which goes on sale Friday for $199 after rebates, continues down that path but adds network capabilities that may change the way people think about buying wireless and broadband service.

It's based on the same slablike chassis that HTC used for the video-oriented HD2 smartphone, which appeared in March: a huge 4.3-inch diagonal screen, powered by a 1 gigahertz processor, but the Evo runs Google's Android operating system instead of the Microsoft software in the HD2.

What's really special about the Evo, though, is its bleeding-edge wireless capabilities.

The Evo is the first phone to use the "fourth generation" wireless network that Kirkland-based Clearwire and its founder, Craig McCaw, spent $4 billion and much of the past decade building across the country. Clearwire and Sprint merged their 4G WiMax networks in 2008.

Sprint claims 4G speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G networks, but until this week you had to use special 4G modems to get the service. Sprint claims the Evo will see download speeds of 3 to 6 megabits per second, with peak downloads of 10 Mbps. When 4G isn't available, the Evo automatically switches to widely available 3G.

Faster speeds are only part of the big advance I'm talking about.

To make the most of its 4G advantage, Sprint added a wireless router to the Evo that lets up to eight devices connect to the Internet through the phone.

This isn't just tethering a phone to a computer, as you're able to do with some phones. It's a full blown wireless hot spot that can connect a room full of gadgets and computers.

Just as the iPhone made users think differently about smartphones, the Evo's hot-spot capability could get them to reconsider the mix of wireless and wired Internet services they're using to connect various devices to the Web.

If you're in an area with good 4G coverage and you live alone, you could theoretically ditch your Internet service and use the Evo instead.

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Instead of buying a $30 data plan for your iPad, another for your netbook and another for your car — plus a $60 smartphone plan — you may get by with an Evo.

This is the great promise of mobile broadband, I think, if the networks and devices work well enough and carriers don't block people from sharing connections. The Evo and other hot-spot phones to come may prevent the data-plan creep that will happen as we use more connected devices.

Some drawbacks

But after testing the Evo last week, I'd say it's still a little early to start consolidating all of your wireless plans.

One reason is, the 4G network isn't widespread. At my home in a dense part of Seattle, where 4G has been available since last winter, I could only get decent 4G coverage by holding the phone up to a second-story window.

At my desk facing downtown Seattle, the Evo showed full 4G coverage at a window. But using Speedtest.net, the fastest speed I found was 3.35 Mbps. When the Evo was in a pocket or on the floor away from the window, the tests showed 0.7 to 0.9 Mbps.

The hot spot worked well with my laptop and an iPad, on which I streamed movies from Netflix via the Evo. But video playback stalled when I used the phone's Web browser at the same time.

No replacement yet

So it won't replace home or office broadband yet, but it still feels like the ideal device for someone who works remotely and travels and doesn't want to carry a phone plus a cellular modem plus a point-and-shoot camera.

The Evo has an 8 megapixel camera and up to 32 gigabytes of storage. An autofocus system for the camera and camcorder works well but adds some lag to the shutter.

I used it to take photos and videos for my blog last week, and accidentally gave the phone a bounce test, dropping it onto a concrete floor from about 5 feet while taking a picture. The battery cover was dislodged but otherwise the phone was unharmed.

There are four hard buttons below the screen — home, menu, back and search — but I wish there was also a hard button for the camera. When trying to tap the on-screen shutter I sometimes hit the back button, exiting the camera application.

The touch-screen keyboard has a nice addition for people like me who dislike touch-screen keyboards: Below the standard keys is a row of navigation arrows for moving the cursor.

The Evo also has a compass, GPS navigation, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 720p video output via HDMI. Apps are available from the Android Market and Sprint preloads its own mobile TV, NASCAR and NFL apps.

Costs add up

As with the first iPhone, it'll cost you to be at the forefront.

The Evo requires data plans starting at $70 per month, plus an obnoxious extra $10 fee for Evo users. To use the hot-spot feature, you have to pay $30 more per month, which is like charging the buyer of a convertible extra to drive with the top down. A video-chat application preloaded on the phone costs another $5 per month.

But the biggest price you'll pay to use the Evo is in battery life. If you use its advanced features, you won't make it through a workday without having to recharge. You may want to Velcro a charger onto the back so you can plug in whenever you see an outlet.

I tried the navigation system on a trip from Seattle to Everett and back with the hot spot on and it used more than half the charge. I could actually see the green charge indicator shrinking. Some of the energy came out as heat, as the case warmed up during heavy use.

It reminds me of a friend's early Dodge Viper. It had a 500-plus horsepower V10 that got something like 11 miles per gallon.

But it was the most outrageously potent American car in years. For some, that was worth the cost and sacrifice.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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