The major wireless phone companies have begun building out the next generation of cellular phone systems, called 4G, or fourth-generation, networks. These networks are designed to offer much faster data speeds than the current speediest networks, which are called 3G.
Sprint is leading this race. Its 4G network already is available in 32 cities, and the company plans to add at least 14 more by year end.
Now, Sprint (S) is preparing to release the first 4G-capable phone in the U.S. on June 4. I’ve been testing it for about a week in two cities: Baltimore, where Sprint has fully rolled out 4G, and Washington, D.C., where it is in the process of doing so.
This new phone, which also works on Sprint’s 3G network, is called the EVO 4G. It runs Google’s (GOOG) Android operating system and is built by HTC, based in Taiwan. It will cost $200 after a $100 mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract. Monthly fees will start at $80 for unlimited data and text messages, 450 talk minutes, and free calls to any mobile phone on any network. That’s a $10 hike from Sprint’s comparable plan for 3G phones.
My verdict: The HTC EVO 4G, when used on Sprint’s 4G network, offers the highest consistent downstream data speeds I have ever seen on a cellular network. It also has a number of other strong features: a front-facing camera for video chatting, and the ability to serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot (for an extra fee of $30 a month) that can simultaneously connect up to eight laptops or other devices to the Internet.
However, the data speeds I got in my tests weren’t spectacular, or anywhere close to the typical maximum Sprint claims, even in Baltimore, where the company’s 4G network is mature. And, when using 4G, the EVO’s battery runs down alarmingly fast. In my tests, it didn’t last through a full day with 4G turned on. The carrier, in fact, is thinking of advising users to turn off the 4G network access when they don’t think they need it, to save battery life. This undercuts the whole idea of faster cellular speeds.
Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G cellphone
In addition, the 4G advantage isn’t yet available in most cities. And the phone is heavy. Also, like other Android phones, it has limited storage for third-party apps—just 358 megabytes of total memory capacity of 9 gigabytes.
The phone itself is physically similar to T-Mobile’s HD2, a 3G phone also built by HTC. Like the HD2, it has a larger screen than on other smart phones—4.3 inches measured diagonally versus the more typical 3.5 or 3.7 inches. That makes the EVO, like the HD2, bulkier and heavier than most competitors.
However, in addition to its greater speed due to 4G, the EVO has several other features the HD2 lacks. Notably, it has that front-facing camera, the ability to connect to a big-screen TV using a modern connector port called HDMI, and a built-in kickstand to keep it upright for video viewing. In addition, because it runs Android and not the creaky Windows Mobile software used by the HD2, the EVO offers a much cleaner interface and many more available apps.
But the big deal about the EVO is that it can handle 4G, and I focused my tests on this.
Sprint claims that average users will see downstream data speeds of between 3 and 6 megabits per second on the EVO when 4G is in use. In my tests, in the heart of Baltimore’s popular Inner Harbor district, I averaged 3.4 mbps downstream over 4G, and just under 1 mbps upstream (the upstream speed is capped by Sprint at 1 mbps.) That downstream speed was double the EVO’s speed when using 3G, and the upstream speed was about triple.
In D.C., where the Sprint 4G network is still being completed and tuned, downstream streams varied widely, from under 1 mbps to a high of around 4 mbps.
The EVO was much faster than an iPhone using AT&T’s (T) network, which in Baltimore never got to even 1 mbps downstream and in D.C. averaged about 1.8 mbps. Verizon’s (VZ) new Droid Incredible, another HTC Android phone, did well in both cities, averaging about 2 mbps downstream, but that was still slower than the EVO.
Sprint explains I never saw anything close to its top claimed speed by pointing out that both cellular reception and test methods can vary greatly, and that my sample was small.
I tested other features successfully. I used the EVO to provide Internet connectivity to a Lenovo ThinkPad and an Apple (AAPL) MacBook laptop simultaneously, and both performed speedily. I also could view photos and videos on my TV by connecting the EVO with a special cable. But I couldn’t test the video-chatting feature because the necessary software wasn’t ready yet.
If you are hungry for more cellular data speed, and live in a current 4G Sprint city, the EVO may be just what you need, as long as you’re prepared for short battery life.