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HTC Magic and T-Mobile myTouch 3G

June 22nd, 2009
A strong second Android phone from HTC.

HTC's first Android phone, the Dream (or T-Mobile G1), was ostensibly pitched as an "iPhone killer" but was really an alternative to a legion of lookalike Windows Mobile phones. The Magic -- called the myTouch 3G in the US -- encroaches much more directly on Apple's territory. It's thinner, sleeker and the first Android device to depend on a touchscreen keyboard. But do the form factor and a host of much-needed software features like video recording manage to unseat Apple from the hearts and minds of at least some prospective customers, or is it arriving too late?

design and expansion

One moment spent with the Magic and its ergonomics, at least, appear to trump both the Dream/G1 and the iPhone, albeit in different ways. The profile is noticeably thinner than the somewhat blocky, older HTC device but, because of the smaller 3.2-inch display and added thickness compared to iPhones, is easier to hold without being delicate in the way the iPhone requires. It won't fit as elegantly into a tight pocket but is at least slightly less prone to slipping out of one's hand. We'd add that the Magic is genuinely "pretty" insofar as it's smooth and without unnecessary design clutter, though get it in white or red if possible: like the iPhone 3G and 3GS, the glossy black invariably attracts fingerprints.

Hardware controls on the front will feel more than a little familiar to anyone who's had time with the Dream or G1; there are four buttons on the front face plus a trackball. While there's something to be said for the minimalism of the iPhone, we don't mind these controls at all and have found ourselves getting accustomed to them in short order. The trackball is also a useful touch for those who live in more northern climates and need true control without removing gloves on a particularly cold winter's day.

As for the display that the phone hinges upon: it's close, but just not quite as good as what Apple offers. It's capacitive and uses the electricity from your fingers to gauge input, so it responds to gentle taps and supports flicks and other gestures. However, it's not multi-touch and has just a bit too much friction to be perfect. The image is bright and vivid indoors or in cloudier situations outside, but in reasonably bright sunlight the screen is rendered dimmer than the iPhone's and is harder to use as a result. When testing, we also noticed that it was more prone to showing smudges and of collecting the occasional semi-permanent stain that needs a damp, lint-free cloth to remove.

HTC's design has one definite advantage over Apple's in terms of expandability: namely, it exists. While the microSDHC card slot is regrettably not external, the back panel slides off easily (but not accidentally) and reveals both the storage slot as well as a removable battery pack; for those who do enough calling in a day that one battery often isn't enough, this could be a godsend. Out of the box, the storage is somewhat anemic -- Rogers gives its Magic just a 2GB card, T-Mobile a 4GB card -- but microSDHC is inexpensive enough these days that 16GB is realistic, even if it quickly closes some of the price gap between this and an iPhone 3G S. The Magic also only officially supports 16GB as its maximum, so those who want 32GB may have little choice but to turn to Apple.

One dire flaw threatens to undermine much of the smartphone's media ambitions, however. In its idiosyncratic way, HTC has decided to only use an ExtUSB port for audio, charging and data. Without an adapter, which isn't included in the box, buyers have to use HTC's bundled, fairly low quality earphone and mic combo instead of their own headset. A similar complication prevents users from playing audio while charging. There's always stereo Bluetooth, but that requires wireless headphones and a willingness to tolerate audio compression. We can only hope that HTC one day learns that media phones are much less useful when you can't choose how you listen.

the interface and on-screen keyboard

Android is now an established fact as far as operating systems, and so we won't go into too much detail about its inner workings. That said, we can say that it's intuitive but still rough around the edges in a few places. Google has managed a largely natural interface with a multi-page home screen that still allows for more customization than common mobile operating systems: you can have just a handful of apps at the top level for quick access, but the full app list is always just an upwards swipe away. Requiring dedicated "back" and "menu" buttons eliminates some of the on-screen clutter that takes away from the viewing area on an iPhone, and we like the notifications that can be viewed with a downward flick from the menu bar and dismissed just about as quickly.

Again, multi-touch isn't an option -- concerns over Apple patents likely preventing Google and HTC from implementing it -- but Android's default apps are largely as capable as what one would expect in those circumstances. The web browser is fast and accurate, the e-mail client preserves HTML and supports push data for Gmail, and Google Maps is not surprisingly very well developed. Most apps also change the function of the "search" hardware button depending on context, such as either searching the web, a location or for an app.

Even so, there are definite rough patches that show Google has some progress to go before Android is truly ready. E-mail is perhaps the most glaring example; there's no easy way to mass delete or move e-mail messages. More importantly, you can't switch Gmail addresses in the dedicated Gmail app without resetting the phone altogether, as Android only asks for the Google sign-in on initial setup. There's also a certain irony in that Google Maps on Android seems decidedly inferior to the iPhone version: the GPS is noticeably less accurate, and the options for mass transit and walking directions aren't there. Android at least brings Latitude to show and interact with Google contacts who are physically nearby.

Media playback is crude but at least easy to use. Any songs and videos stored in memory are automatically detected, including tags where available, but there's not much to do besides play songs, albums or playlists as well as individual movie clips. We'd also appreciate a more dedicated syncing app; drag-and-drop is uncomplicated and works on virtually any platform, but there's a good reason why iTunes is considered an advantage in streamlining media transfer for the iPhone.

Thankfully, there's little room to complain about the touchscreen keyboard, at least not for those who aren't dead-set against them in the first place. Although the layout is slightly different, the keys are well-sized and behave much the same way. At first, typing can be slow and deliberate as you learn to type without depending on physical buttons, but after weeks (or months) you soon learn to type with your thumbs. HTC has also taken one step more and added haptic feedback that vibrates the phone gently but noticeably on each button press. It can be disconcerting at first and doesn't truly replicate buttons, but it does help acknowledge that on-screen keys really did register a press.

carrier software and Android Market

What you'll see for default software on the Magic depends on which carrier. On Rogers, the default apps are almost exclusively devoted to selling its own goods, like ringtones. We honestly can't see many subscribers making use of these with support for the user's own audio as a ringtone or the existence of Android Market, but it's nice to have them available. Rogers is also courteous enough to tuck them all away on their own separate home screen.

The T-Mobile myTouch 3G is fundamentally similar with the obvious elimination of the Rogers apps, but adds a new third-party app, Sherpa. Made by Geodelic, it's effectively a substitute for Yelp and other location-based entertainment guides. It can not only tell you how close you might be to a given concert, hotel or restaurant but can make recommendations based on what you've tried in the past. Given that the market for this sort of software hasn't been tapped on Android with quite the same depth as it has on the iPhone, this is a minor but still useful touch.

We should add that the HTC Magic and myTouch 3G are superior to the G1 through e-mail support. HTC includes Exchange and ActiveSync support -- a crucial edge for anyone hoping to keep track of company e-mail on their personal phone, albeit only using IMAP. It won't satisfy those who need Exchange contacts and calendars but could mean the difference between getting an Android phone or having to use a company's preferred BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phone.

Most users will focus solely on Android Market, and those who've had experience with it in recent months can both vouch for it and curse it. At nearly 5,000 apps (as of June 2009) it has a broad enough selection that many will have their niche app needs filled. Google doesn't filter apps with nearly the same severity as Apple, and so you're more likely to find apps that bend the functionality of phone in dramatic ways or which allow more controversial content. Android doesn't forbid running in the background, either, so messaging or social networking apps like Twidroid (a Twitter client) can load on startup and even send the same alerts as e-mail or the phone client might.

Having said this, Android Market is still extremely small; it has about a tenth the apps of the iPhone and is less likely to have more professionally produced content or entertainment products. The same open-source, technical bent that makes Android so strong also tends to favor more austere apps, beta releases and other content that might have a harder time reaching the iPhone's App Store. We fully expect Android Market to surge in growth, but for now there's still a certain gamble to assuming a certain kind of app will be available.

call quality and battery life

In our testing in a moderately noisy environment, 3G call quality was good, but not flawless. Phone conversations were slightly muffled on either end, but the volume was strong and both parties had an easy time understanding each other. The handset has a well-placed volume rocker for quick adjustments in mid-call.

Longevity is a pleasant surprise on this phone. With a moderate amount of use that included multiple app downloads as well as brief spurts of web browsing, calls and media playback, we were down to about a 20 percent charge after several hours and were told by Android that a recharge was in order. While your experience might vary widely, this fared better than the somewhat quicker-draining iPhone 3G; the competition is somewhat fiercer with the iPhone 3G S as its battery life in data-intensive activities is noticeably better.

Recharging is, unsurprisingly, not very quick. It takes only a couple of hours to reach roughly a three-quarters charge, but the remaining portion takes considerably longer. We'd expect as much from current-generation lithium-ion batteries.

It bears repetition that the Magic's removable battery means that the end of a charge isn't necessarily the end of its useful lifespan. Since battery swapping is simple, a second battery could well provide those extra hours of use for those who are almost constantly talking or using streaming Internet apps. That HTC has managed this without significantly compromising the Magic's thickness is impressive.

camera use and quality

Regrettably, the camera is the one real weak point in the Magic's otherwise good-to-great hardware design. It has a 3.2-megapixel sensor with autofocus, but it's still patently obvious in most cases that this is a cellphone-grade camera with just the basics to control features. The right subject is usually be in focus, but unlike the iPhone 3G S or a media phone like the LG Viewty Smart, you can't tap to autofocus on a particular point of the screen. The only choice is to hold the shutter button and hope the camera detected the right focus object. Photos are usually acceptable but often came out with slightly dull colors. In a few cases, we also get the smeared looks and "purple fringing" (chromatic aberration) that comes from using a small, plastic lens that can't help but produce unwanted effects.

Video recording likewise isn't a selling point. Motion is smooth, but the lens still has an impact on image quality. We were also disappointed that video came out at 320x240 and at a low bitrate that produces blocky compression artifacts. Many phones now (including the iPhone 3G S) can capture at 640x480 and, with very high-end phones like the Samsung i8910, 720p. Most of your recorded footage will ultimately be limited to lowest-detail YouTube sharing or other casual viewing instead of the high-quality web-ready (or even DVD-ready) video that some can offer.

wrapping up

When broken down into its individual components, there are a number of obvious nitpicks with the Magic and the T-Mobile myTouch 3G: a backwards approach to expansion, software that's missing features you're surprised is missing, and hardware that can at times clearly feel like it's just short of where it would need to be to match the iPhone.

With the original iPhone 3G now at $99 and the iPhone 3G S at $199, HTC's device is also very much between a rock and a hard place, especially if you want 8GB or 16GB of storage and have to pay more yet again. Even at $150 on Rogers, it's just a short hop to what Apple offers; with T-Mobile, there's no price difference whatsoever. If you're only interested in the least expensive full-featured touchscreen smartphone you can buy, Apple wins. Likewise, if you want 32GB of storage or better camera quality, the iPhone 3G S is your only real option.

And yet, we can't help but be pleased overall with the Magic and myTouch. Ergonomically, they're near-perfect; Android as an operating system is also a major selling point and manages to please power users without necessarily alienating newcomers, as Windows Mobile (and to some extent, BlackBerry OS) is liable to do. Also, many of the hangups that prevent certain app types from reaching the iPhone aren't there. Using either version of the phone feels more like using an easy-to-use handheld computer than a narrow-purpose business device that some smartphones still resemble today.

Hardware limits also aren't as much of a factor as they are with Apple, as owners are also going to be less dependent on the device builder for storage upgrades and battery replacements.

Our chief reservations hinge on apps and your intended purpose. If you need the widest possible selection, the iPhone will still be better. Likewise, the absence of a real headphone jack or a bundled adapter quickly rules it out as a media phone. But if data and phone calls are your primary concerns and you're willing to forgive occasional limits, the Magic and myTouch 3G are both exceptionally capable devices and arguably better than the Dream or G1, even with that hardware keyboard absent.

- Great design to look at and hold in the hand.

- Android is powerful; good onscreen keyboard.

- Removable storage and battery.

- Good, not great, battery life and call quality.

- Capacitive (finger-friendly) touchscreen with trackball.

- Simple drag-and-drop media handling.

- Poor camera quality and features.

- Some stock apps limited vs. iPhone; Android Market has less than App Store.

- No 3.5mm earphone jack; proprietary ExtUSB port.

- Touchscreen isn't quite as bright or as smooth as Apple's.

- Currently in a limbo area for pricing.