The flood of 4G phones at CES 2011 started with the HTC EVO Shift 4G ($150 with a two-year contract from Sprint). Available 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 is somewhat of a lesser 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 is Midnight Blue, which is a nice departure from the legions of glossy black handsets out there.
The EVO Shift 4G doesn’t have the large 4.3-inch display like its brother. Instead, it has a 3.6-inch display, which might seem like a downgrade to some. In my opinion, it actually makes a lot more sense however, given the extra bulk needed for the keyboard. The phone would simply be too large to accommodate for both. Below the display, you’ll find the same circular touch buttons you’d find on the EVO 4G: Home, Menu, Back and Search.
The keyboard isn’t the best; the keys feel a bit stiff. They are nicely spaced, however and there are plenty of useful shortcut keys. But when it comes to the best QWERTY keyboard of CES (there are only two new phones at the show that sport them), the Motorola Cliq 2 takes the title.
The EVO Shift 4G runs Android 2.2 with HTC Sense running over it. Now, this isn’t the latest version of HTC Sense; we won’t see that until the HTC Inspire 4G launches. Yes, 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, which should undoubtedly 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. Out of all of the Android overlays, Sense is the best-looking of the bunch. The latest iteration of Sense features Leap, which is essentially an elegant way of handling multitasking; it’s actually 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, allows you to view your friends’ status updates, shared links, and pictures all in one seamless view. Supported social networks include Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and others. I find such social network feeds a bit annoying—do I really need to see everybody’s tweets and Facebook status updates all mixed up together? But I suppose if you’re an avid social networker, seeing all of these updates in one place is useful.
I’m not a huge fan of HTC’s Sense music player. The album art doesn’t take advantage of the EVO 4G’s large display while the app is in Now Playing mode; it remains thumbnail-size. The Sense player is slightly prettier than the dull-as-dirt Android player, but I prefer iTunes or Samsung’s TouchWiz player. Audio sounded good, though, 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 all the usual Sprint apps (or bloatware, depending how you look at it) as well as the suite of Google services like GTalk, Gmail, Google Navigation, YouTube, etc.
Rather than the 8-megapixel camera you find on the EVO 4G, you get a 5-megapixel camera with a flash and autofocus. The camera’s user interface is pretty straightforward offers a handful of advanced controls such as exposure, color, white balance, and various photo effects. My test photos looked a bit grainy and washed out overall, particularly those shot indoors.
The Shift doesn’t tout HD video capture, but the clips I recorded looked okay. They were a little fuzzy, but good enough for an upload to YouTube.
As mentioned previously, there is no front-facing video camera. That was one of the biggest draws of the original EVO 4G so it is strange to me that it is missing from the Shift 4G.
The EVO Shift 4G is powered by an 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM. This seems a bit weak when compared with the upcoming dual core-powered phones we saw at the show (LG’s Optimus 2x or the Motorola Droid Bionic, for example). The processor is the next-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon, however, and it was speedy enough for basic Web browsing and toggling through applications.
To benchmark performance, I used the Quadrant app for Android. According to the app, the HTC Shift 4G outperformed the Nexus One, 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 both Las Vegas and a few different areas of San Francisco, where 4G was recently rolled out 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. This is pretty fast-but a bit slower than Sprint’s claimed download speeds between 3-6 Mbps. The San Francisco 4G network is pretty new (rolled out at the end of December) so we haven’t quite figured out where we can get a strong signal and where we can get a weak signal. Over at PCWorld’s offices, we were only getting 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. I also tested it again in San Francisco and found call quality to be quite good. My friends on the other end of the line agreed and heard very little background noise.
If you find the size and price of the HTC EVO 4G ($200) and the Samsung Epic 4G ($230) intimidating, the HTC EVO Shift 4G is a refreshing alternative. If you don’t need the extra large display or a front-facing camera, the Shift 4G will suit you. It is too bad that the main camera got a downgrade as well, but it 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.
Ginny Mies is an associate editor for PCWorld.]