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Review Vault: HTC Droid Incredible

The Droid Incredible follows HTC’s standard remix formula: Two parts existing phoneware—Android 2.1 with Sense, speedy processor—one part fresh spice—Verizon’s network.

To proceed directly to the spoilers, this is the best Android phone you can buy on Verizon, which, at the very least, makes it the best smartphone you can buy on Verizon. It’s also possibly the best Android phone you can buy in the US for now—with the caveat that running a custom user interface introduces the high possibility it will get screwed on future Android updates from Google, as owners of HTC’s other custom Android phones could attest to, still waiting patiently for the update to 2.1 themselves.

The Software

Firstly, we need to talk about the differences between Android 2.1 with and without the Sense UI. If you’ve looked at a Nexus One (or own one), then you probably know that the experience with the UI is a mixed bag. Some portions of the software have been dramatically cleaned up, while others seem to be left on the cutting room floor. That’s absolutely not the case with 2.1 and Sense. Basically, the Incredible — and all devices with that combo — feel like complete, polished, modern smartphones, with none of the perks or features missing. In particular, the homescreens have been massively expanded here, giving you seven screens in which to store icons and widgets… and there are a lot of widgets. HTC has included a handful of its own widgets alongside some of the familiar stock ones which Google offers. Of course, the widgets (and their corresponding apps) which HTC offers generally offer far more functionality than Google’s options, and they’re also tied together with Sense in way that makes the experience of using them within the OS feel complete — something notably missing from the Google-only experience. To say that this UI is competitive with something like iPhone OS 3.1 (or 4 for that matter), or Palm’s webOS is an understatement; in many ways it’s superior to what Apple and Palm are offering.

HTC has done a marvelous job in tweaking Sense in all the right places. The performance of the Incredible couldn’t have been more faster. The phone never hiccuped, and scrolling between pages or up and down long lists happened without hesitation. Not only was the UI blazingly fast and responsive — even with all seven homescreens running heavy widgets — but as we mentioned previously, the touchscreen response on this phone seem remarkably better than its contemporaries, which leads us to believe that HTC has honed the software in this regard as well. That sensitivity comes in especially handy when using HTC’s new pinch feature on the homescreens, which brings up a “card” view of all your pages. The only spot where we noticed any kind of slowdown was when using the live wallpapers — we’re not really big fans of the concept to begin with, but it did seem to make the homescreen frame rate visibly more sluggish. Besides just the cosmetic stuff, HTC has also done seriously heavy lifting in the details department, continuing to improve the music, video, and photo browsing options on their devices, as well as making their fantastic on-screen keyboard even better in this higher resolution version. We found finger tracking and typing speed to be considerably improved, as well as word prediction and correction. Apple, watch your back… HTC has done a damn good job of sneaking up on your tech, and maybe improving on it. We can’t stress this enough: HTC has made a really good OS (Android) into a truly amazing and competitive OS. HTC has even improved upon the copy and paste functions of the phone, making the process much more iPhone-like, but expanding on that with options to share and look up your selections via a context menu. Oh, and did we mention the amazing new text flow in the browser? No matter how far you zoom in, HTC’s software will reflow the text you’re looking at to make it zoomable. It’s pretty amazing, actually. We don’t know why Google doesn’t just collaborate with the company in a more formal fashion, because no one else has been able to deliver this cohesive and enjoyable of an experience with Android.

It should also be noted that the browser on these phones is equipped with Flash lite, though we had lots of trouble getting videos to play on many of the sites we visited. If someone was hoping to convince us that Flash could work on a device like this, consider the job unfinished.

Verizon and HTC have collaborated on a few perks in the OS as well, cleaning up the Google Navigation, er, navigation, and also collapsing Visual Voicemail into the messaging app on the phone, making it easier to get at all your communications at once. We’re Google Voice users (which of course perfectly integrates with the device), so we didn’t spend much time with Verizon’s version. HTC was also happy to point out that its email app supports multiple Exchange, POP, or IMAP accounts with a unified inbox — something that should please a number of enterprise users. Other bundled apps include Quickoffice, a PDF viewer, HTC’s Teeter game, and Peep, the company’s built-in Twitter client. A note about this latter application; we’re big fans of HTC making Twitter an integrated part of its UI, but this app has the annoying habit of auto-updating your timeline and jumping to the most recent tweet, which makes this “solution” less than appealing. We ended up sticking with Seesmic, and probably will until HTC addresses this minor issue. One other item that cropped up — which may or may not have to do with this being an unreleased device — is that we got very different results for apps in the Market. Some programs we were looking for just simply didn’t show up in our searches. We had the same problem with the Desire and Legend when testing, and HTC says it’s looking into this problem, though we have yet to hear a proper explanation from the company on why this is occurring.

Overall the experience with 2.1 and Sense was a complete pleasure — using the phone felt fast and efficient. We’d like to point out that we’ve been running the Incredible without any third party task managers, and without manually killing any applications. Android is designed to multitask without the need for utilities of the sort, and based on Steve Jobs’ words from the recent iPhone OS 4 event, we were extra curious to see how this brand new build of the software would fare. We can tell you this — it hasn’t let us down yet, and we’re not seeing any sluggish behavior or force closes on apps. If this OS has a need for management of its processes, we haven’t experienced it yet.

The Hardware

The Incredible might be the world’s first mullet phone: flat, straightforward business in the front, stylized rubber party in the back. In fact, if you pop the back condom off (it’s got ridges and it’s rubber, it’s basically a hard condom), the Incredible’s hot-rod red underneath. It saves the phone from verging into boring-as-hell territory. Slightly thicker than a Nexus One or iPhone, but lighter, it feels (and looks) chintzier than both.

The phone’s face is its 800×480 AMOLED display, with four capacitive touch buttons and an optical joystick. The display appears to be the same as the Nexus One, a super-saturated crowd pleaser, which also happens to have a few color reproduction issues. Running the test patterns, the Incredible also showed the same kind of color fringing that the Nexus One has. For all but the nerdiest of people though, it’s a non-issue. It’s a really pleasant screen to feast your eyes on, even if it’s not producing the most technically accurate colors.

DO NOT BE ALARMED by the funky looking port on the side. It’s not proprietary, it’s just a weird-looking micro USB port. The optical joystick works, though it feels unusual at first. It proves useful mostly for navigating between text, since Android still as a whole sucks at text editing. Battery life is okay, not good. But this is a function of Android, and its marvelous freedom to run things in the background, as much anything else. Verizon’s 3G network actually works in New York, unlike a certain other carrier’s and it was as fast as you’d expect. Calls, they were fine.  Further testing does reveal, however, weaker than expected reported signal strength—that said, performance still felt okay.

The Camera

The camera is actually one of the few unique characteristics of the Incredible. It’s a new eight-megapixel shooter with a twin-LED flash, versus the five megapixel cam HTC’s been shoving in phones. The photos and video it takes are passable, not incredible, as you can see.

Two things make it mostly excellent to use, though. First, it’s fast. You can snap a photo in two seconds from the home screen. That includes autofocusing, which is touch-to-focus. (You can also long touch to focus-and-shoot, but this takes longer than focusing and pressing the optical joystick button separately, which immediately fires the camera.) The software is really responsive, too. There’s no dedicated camera button, unfortunately—so you do have to launch via software, which is a downer.

Second, the controls are impressively extensive. You can adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, even manually set ISO (100-1250). It also comes with a variety of picture effects, like grayscale, sepia and negative, saving you the step of running it through a separate Android app to add effects to your shots.

Verdict

The calculus is relatively simple: If you’re on Verizon and want a smartphone (and aren’t stuck with BlackBerrys), the Incredible is pretty much the one you should buy. With Palm’s future unclear, and its app ecosystem shaky, it’s hard to recommend the Pre, even though its software is generally more usable than Android. And the Droid’s single redeeming feature over this, a physical keyboard, is actually less usable than the custom keyboard HTC’s put on the Incredible. The Nexus One for Verizon looms, but the only reasons it could be considered superior—it feels better built and more expensive, and the promise of timely updates from Google—are mitigated by the fact the Incredible is here now, and HTC’s Sense does glossy up some of Android’s rough spots.

Calling this phone Incredible is a bit hyperbolic. But it is impressive.

It’s fast

HTC’s Sense makes Android a bit more usable and connected

Camera controls and interface are great, shots and video only decent

Feels a little cheap, and too plasticky

The places where Android and HTC’s custom Sense interface overlap can feel a bit weird and confusing

Gallery

[Gizmodo]

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