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HTC Vivid and Raider

November 6th, 2011
HTC steps into a fierce market for dual-core LTE phones.

HTC has been on a relentless tear through 2011, releasing new, faster (or bigger) phones seemingly every month, but it has never truly cracked AT&T: even phones like the Inspire 4G are outsold by the cheapest iPhones. With that in mind, the Vivid (known as the Raider elsewhere) is theoretically a powerhouse: 4G LTE, a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, and a massive 4.5-inch screen. But are sheer numbers enough to dislodge Apple and give AT&T a reputation as an Android carrier? With our HTC Vivid review, we'll not only look into whether it's worth getting over an iPhone but whether the Samsung Galaxy Nexus threatens to undo HTC's hard work. HTC has been on a relentless tear through 2011, releasing new, faster (or bigger) phones seemingly every month, but it has never truly cracked AT&T: even phones like the Inspire 4G are outsold by the cheapest iPhones. With that in mind, the Vivid (known as the Raider elsewhere) is theoretically a powerhouse: 4G LTE, a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, and a massive 4.5-inch screen. But are sheer numbers enough to dislodge Apple and give AT&T a reputation as an Android carrier? With our HTC Vivid review, we'll not only look into whether it's worth getting over an iPhone but whether the Samsung Galaxy Nexus threatens to undo HTC's hard work.

Design and the giant 4.5-inch display

Most of HTC's high-end phones in the months leading up to the Vivid and Raider have been examples of HTC's best design: aluminum unibody phones like the Sensation or soft-touch phones like the Evo 3D. Compared to Samsung's plastic phones, even the otherwise superb Galaxy S II, they've been a notch above.

It's with a certain degree of disappointment, then, that the Vivid and Raider don't share either of those pedigrees. The design, while tasteful, is mostly just glossy black plastic. Apart from a slight flourish on the part-metal back, it's one of the plainest designs we've seen out of the company. Gripping it in the hand, you'll feel it, too. The glossy surface is primed for fingerprints, including on the screen, and most of the premium feel comes from the weight and thickness: it's a heavy phone at 6.2 ounces, certainly heavier than the dense but small iPhone 4S at 4.9 ounces or the big but plastic Galaxy S II, and at 0.44 inches thick, it's visibly fatter, though thankfully still manageable.

That sense of disconnect between the hardware inside and the outside design extends to the controls. HTC's sleep, volume, and navigation buttons are all ergonomically good matches and easy to hit even with the phone's size, but the sleep and volume buttons again feel slightly cheap for a phone of this caliber. We also found the somewhat oversized volume buttons a little too easy to hit, as grabbing the phone from that end would occasionally change the volume by accident.

No doubt one of the more pressing questions is the grip. With a 4.5-inch display, it looks almost like a shrunken tablet than a smartphone. In truth, the size isn't quite as intimidating as it looks. HTC likes to use taller-ratio screens on its more recent big phones, so it's still possible to comfortably grip the phone with an average-sized man's hand, even without the thinness of a phone like the Galaxy S II. Before we go too far, though, we still think the Vivid is almost too big. While the iPhone is starting to feel a tad small with a 3.5-inch display, it's a far more pocketable device and more manageable if you have small hands -- or, for that matter, tight pockets. The Vivid is not a discreet phone, and without big pockets, it will be a tight (and noticeable) fit.

Expansion is minimal, if enough. The 16GB of storage on the inside is fair for the price, and there's a microSDHC slot for up to 32GB more. You don't get direct HDMI video out, a shame given the performance of the phone; you do get MHL support for HDMI, though, provided you're willing to buy an adapter cable.

The screen itself, though, is certainly one of HTC's better panels. At 540x960, the image stays sharp enough that it doesn't lose any of the sharpness like the 480x800 screens that first reached phones this size, even if it's not at that "pixel-free" density of the 640x960 iPhone 4 and 4S. HTC's continued use of a Super LCD over Super AMOLED won't give it quite the visual punch Samsung (or Motorola's Droid RAZR) has, but it arguably produces more accurate colors that aren't oversaturated. The Vivid's name is still appropriate with rich colors, a bright image, and one of the greater advantages of Super LCD, a sharp image. Viewing angles are wide, too, so it doesn't have to be head-on for you to read a notification or watch a video at full quality.

How does it affect using the phone? For video and photos, of course, it's a good canvas. This is no doubt on the short list of phones for those who regularly watch movies on business trips or who are sticklers for the quality of a photo before it's shared. Typing certainly benefits from it, with there being very little trouble hitting the right key if you're familiar with touchscreen keyboards. Once again, however, size is a double-edged sword. It's too big to truly use one-handed, and we often found ourselves having to shift hands up to hit a top corner button or reach for the web address bar. We're inclined to think that four to 4.3 inches is the sweet spot for actual usability.

If there's a deeper qualm, it's that the screen is already being eclipsed just days after it's going on sale. From HTC itself, the Rezound has a slightly smaller but much sharper 720p (720x1280) LCD if you're willing to hop to Verizon. And if not, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus manages the same 720p resolution in a 4.65-inch behemoth of a screen that somehow comes in a narrower and thinner body. You'll feel good about the display, but there will be that slight twinge of regret, and some will want a smaller screen regardless.

Android 2.3, Sense, and the 4.0 question

We've touched on Android 2.3 a few times in itself, so we won't revisit old ground on the basic OS other than to say that it's a solid OS with more flexibility and freedom, but prone to lag and trailing iOS in areas like web browsing fluidity and certainly media playback. Android Market is now a lot easier to browse and find apps you're looking for, especially with over 300,000 in the catalog. Google still has some ways to go in making apps discoverable and in attracting the best content. Even with a now frequently dominant influence, many game and media app developers either develop for the iPhone first or develop for it exclusively.

We'd add that, in spite of the big screen, the Vivid isn't the best pick as a gaming phone when the games are available. The screen size is of course a help over the at times cramped iPhone for games, but it's clear from exploration that a number of titles, like Dungeon Defenders, aren't meant for the 540x960 screen and come with a visibly pixelated look. Android's limitations on maximum app size from Android Market also mean that any big game is a headache: having to download half a gigabyte of game only on the device often means waiting 20 minutes to play the game you thought you'd installed.

Browsing is also a slight step back. While the Vivid doesn't have any real bottlenecks between the dual-core processor and LTE Internet access, it still takes longer to load pages than the iPhone 4S it's going up against, even with Flash set not to load, and it's not as responsive or as elegant at focusing on just the text you want. We're still happy with it, we should be clear -- it's just tangibly less polished.

As one of HTC's most advanced phones, it ships with a recent version of Sense, though here it's Sense 3.0 and not the 3.5 update that's currently on a handful of phones like the Rezound and Rhyme. Losing this won't be a deal breaker, but it does mean giving up music control from the home screen, collapsible home screen widgets for key elements like the calendar and browser, and other minor elements like new screen-to-screen transitions. The biggest loss is the lack of the 5GB of free Dropbox space: HTC is clearly gunning after Apple's iCloud, which also starts at 5GB of free space, and 5GB of generic cloud storage is a lot better than the 2GB that Dropbox normally provides and which is the only option for pre-3.5 users.

What you do get is something that's sometimes helpful, sometimes gimmicky, and occasionally a hindrance. By far the most useful addition from 3.0 is the option to unlock to an app. Customizing it is somewhat awkward, but it's extremely handy if you regularly launch into the camera or are a Twitter fan that goes there first before anywhere else. It's a superior alternative to what Apple, Google, and Samsung are doing, which either limits you to launching the camera (admittedly the most common app) or confines other apps to those that have popped up notifications.

Other changes from stock Android also help keep the amount of time hunting down to a minimum, such as showing certain data like weather on the lock screen, quick settings in the notification bar, and redesigned widgets and apps that take more advantage of the higher resolutions on HTC's newer phones, such as the stylized gallery widget and weather content that includes hourly forecasts. If you can get the dock, which isn't easy in the US, there's a docking mode meant for use at the desk or bedside. HTC Watch fills a nice gap for renting and buying movies on Android, where the official Google Videos store is still young, although it's locked to HTC phones -- switch to Motorola or Samsung, and you lose your device. Yes, Apple creates that problem as well, but it's at least set that expectation; HTC is adding a closed element to an open ecosystem.

The on-screen keyboard has been given a slight tweak and more intelligently predicts words. We've generally been of the mind that HTC's keyboard in sense is better than stock and better than the customizations elsewhere, as it's one of the few that encourages an iPhone-like typing speed through the size of the keys and the auto-correction. We did encounter some quirks, though; in part because of the size, we found ourselves unintentionally hiding the keyboard, and it's a bit more prone to leaving in errors than its Apple counterpart.

Some features, though, veer into being purely visual and sometimes distracting. The home screens spin in 3D, like a carousel; it's fun, but not really useful. The weather widget, while useful, also gets in the way with animations that fill the whole screen and intrusive (though silenceable) sounds. HTC Location has a "premium" GPS navigation feature that has no real purpose in the light of Google Maps Navigation. HTC Hub is ultimately a curated slice of apps and theming that doesn't do much. And the FriendStream, like most social media aggregators that hardware makers put on Android, doesn't hold up well versus the separate apps for those who have any more than a few dozen active Facebook or Twitter contacts.

More worrisome might be just the stability. While your mileage will vary, our phone would have background OS processes randomly crash, even after closing all apps or a complete reboot. It also had some trouble with 3D games and would periodically refuse to load them. It's hard to say without multiple phones on hand to say if these were specific to our review unit or how much HTC was involved, but the Galaxy S II and other Android phones we've tried recently were considerably more stable.

The launch schedule for the phone also couldn't be more inconvenient in terms of keeping up with Android versions. AT&T and Rogers are both shipping the phone days before the Galaxy Nexus, which ships with Android 4.0. HTC is near-certain to upgrade the Vivid and Raider alike, but it might not be until 2012. You'll be significantly behind in some performance areas, polish, and features for a few months. That's okay if you really prefer Sense or HTC hardware design, but not as much if you want to stay current.

Performance and 4G LTE speeds

The Vivid and Raider occupy an unusual middle ground in HTC's lineup. Both use a dual-core, 1.2GHz Snapdragon APQ8060. It sounds fast, and in some ways it is, but it's actually one of the more frugal dual-core chips. That's reflected in benchmarks. Although the accuracy of Android tests won't show the full story, the raw number-crunching performance in the Quadrant benchmark is well behind that of the 1.2GHz Exynos in the Galaxy S II at 1,933 versus Samsung's 3,216. Performance in 3D is more comparable: Qualcomm's Neocore averaged 58 to 59 frames per second. If a game or other visually intensive app is important to you, you'll at least get good performance, though it should be noted that the iPhone 4S is faster than either, as should be any phone with a 1.5GHz Snapdragon or Exynos inside. We didn't have problems iwth the 3D games we tried, even if they're not pushing the limits of the hardware.

From a practical standpoint, the phone doesn't have a problem keeping up in overall responsiveness. Like we've said, though, it doesn't entirely cure Android lag, and we noticed occasional, small frame rate drops with visual transitions like the home screen carousel. Going dual-core by itself means a lot just for being able to juggle multiple apps, and it's fairly easy to stream audio while you browse and leave other apps open. Flash still bogs it down a bit and isn't the panacea some Android users think -- HTML5 is often lighter -- but it runs reasonably well. Browsing speed as a whole is held back by that older Android 2.3 release, though, as early cross-platform benchmarks have shown that the lack of dual-core support in the pre-3.0/4.0 browser is so much of a liability that an iPhone 4S can be two or even three times faster than what HTC's offering.

Using LTE-based 4G does give HTC a big sledgehammer that the iPhone, and still most Android phones, don't have. If you're in coverage and on a reasonably clear network, the Vivid and Raider can genuinely outpace your landline Internet connection. We tested on Rogers, which has one of the faster LTE implementations in the world, and got about 22 to 23Mbps downstream -- that's faster than our 15Mbps cable connection. Upload speeds were hard to gauge based on Ookla's Speedtest app; it has a known issue with upstream tests breaking on LTE, in part because it's quick. We'd expect a few megabits per second up. Latency isn't quite as good at about 65-70 milliseconds. but it's low enough that video chat and even online games can be near enough to use in a pinch.

While web use is curbed by the software, as we saw, in most areas the real-world LTE speed is almost comically fast when the coverage is at its full potential. Android Market downloads are so quick that they're usually installing a second or two after you've queued them. Image-heavy websites, where the rendering isn't as important as the file sizes, also benefit from the 4G. And if you find yourself using Flickr, Picplz, or YouTube often, it's the difference between waiting to get home to upload a large batch and uploading it on the spot.

The catch, however, is that coverage, and it's where the emphasis on adding technology for technology's sake falls short. As of fall 2011, AT&T was covering just nine cities -- still excluding major cities like New York City and San Francisco -- while Rogers was covering four main areas. Coverage is also somewhat patchy, and in our testing of the Rogers network, we dropped down from LTE to HSPA+ (marked as "4G," really 3G) just a few minutes' drive away but still very much within city limits. AT&T may also have somewhat slower performance, since it's using narrower frequency slices and has a higher concentration of people to cover. HSPA+ is perfectly usable, but that just underscores how most people won't mind using the iPhone 4S, Galaxy S II, or HSPA+ phones from HTC like the Amaze 4G and Sensation.

There's also the question of bandwidth caps. Rogers has bumped up its plans for LTE users since it first launched data-only hardware, but its service is still small: 2GB for $35 will lead to frequent users quickly running through the cap. It does, thankfully, have an at least temporary 10GB plan for $50. AT&T's plans, however, negate much of the advantage of LTE in the first place. It offers the same $15, $25, and $45 plans for 200MB, 2GB, and 4GB of data. You wouldn't even dare use the 200MB plan, as you'd run out in a few days of regular smartphone use, and the 4GB plan is the most you get. Run over either of the two larger plans and it's $10 for every gigabyte over the cap.

On either carrier, the cap is low enough at the sweet spot of $25 to $35 that there's not much incentive to opt for LTE; why get a phone with three or four times more Internet speed if it just means you're hitting the same caps, only faster? It gets much more worthwhile at 4GB and especially 10GB, but the full potential of the phone won't be unlocked until carriers get realistic -- we know LTE costs less to run on average than 3G, so we're hoping that's reflected in prices over the next one to two years.

Camera app and image quality

The app here is the same as on a few of HTC's other 2011 Android phones, such as the Amaze 4G and myTouch 4G Slide. Although we usually lean towards stock Android, HTC's app mostly, though not completely, makes a case for custom apps. It's not just that it allows for manual control over ISO, white balance, focus, and live effects filters; it's that it's fast. Combined with a camera that itself is fast, you can start up the camera quickly and take successive shots almost immediately, at least if you turn off the shot preview. Tap-to-focus is here, too, and takes care of a precision in focusing that's only really stock in Android 4.0 and which is only really common on the iPhone.

There's one glaring flaw with the app, however: its sound. For reasons unknown, HTC inserts a high-pitched buzzing sound whenever the camera refocuses. It's supposed to recreate the sound of a dedicated camera, but it's actually louder than most any modern camera and completely unnecessary. HTC doesn't give an option to turn it off, either, without completely muting the phone. As such, you're likely to spook a pet during a photo or get awkward looks in a hallway.

HTC outfits the Vivid and Raider with its current-best camera, an eight-megapixel camera with a wide f2.2 aperture and a 28mm equivalent focus. What that amounts to is a camera that's fairly quick to focus, more apt to handle decently in lower light, and which can produce a fairly pleasing soft background with wide viewing angles. We're not so sure that it handles as well as the sensor in the iPhone 4S or Sony Ericsson's Xperia arc. Our low-light shots were more likely to blur than on the iPhone, and noise was more visible. Still, it doesn't exhibit any stereotypical phone camera artifacts and produces good color. About our only functional, day-to-day gripe was that the physical design made it easier to accidentally cover the camera with a finger.

The front camera isn't spectacular, although it's fairly detailed for a front camera at a full 720p resolution and produces fairly pleasing photos and video chat. Flash, as is usually the case, is something you'll want to avoid if you can, though it doesn't completely overwhelm the subject like we've seen on some phones.

Video quality is somewhat disappointing. Some of the basic traits of what makes still photos good carry over, such as color control. It also generally handles contrast transitions fairly gracefully, too. But it's clear that HTC is cutting some corners to say that the Vivid and Raider can record 1080p. The video is more conspicuously compressed than on the Galaxy S II and iPhone 4S: even on the raw video, there's visible blockiness. Audio quality was also somewhat underwhelming and clearly dropped down. Output is leaps beyond where we were even just one to two years ago, but HTC's quality is proof that just saying you have 1080p isn't enough.

Battery life and call quality

An almost universal complaint about LTE smartphones so far is the low battery life. At worst, we've seen phones like the HTC Thunderbolt last for just four to five hours when 4G is in use. A lot of that is simply the nature of the technology in 2011. Until all-in-one 3G and 4G chipsets arrive in early 2012, phones with LTE have to have a second, 4G-only chipset that chews much more power.

To try and offset the drain, HTC gives the phone a 1,620mAh battery. That's fairly large for most phones, but it's actually slightly anemic relative to the 1,700mAh or even 1,800mAh we've seen elsewhere. While it doesn't spell doom for the phone, it does lead to shorter battery life than you'd see on a 3G phone. We could get through several hours of moderate use, such as a typical workday or a long night out, but only just. You definitely want to plug in at the end of the day, as just leaving the phone idle overnight on 4G will sap about 20 to 30 percent of the charge. Be careful about using frequent uploads, too; the Instant Upload feature in Google+ can have a visible effect as just taking a few photos or videos will trigger a frenzy of 4G use that won't be friendly to the phone.

As actual voice phones, the Vivid and Raider together produce mixed results. The best quality seemed to be outbound. During extended voice testing, we were told the phone sounded much better than the iPhone 4S. Inbound wasn't as good. It was loud and reasonably clear, but there was a somewhat shrill tone. Both Apple and HTC are making some of the phones least likely to be used primarily for calls, but if we had to pick, we'd give HTC the nod.

Wrapping up

HTC needed to get into the dual-core LTE smartphone game as one of the most important Android supporters. On a core level, that's been done and done well. If you live in an AT&T or Rogers LTE coverage area and want a data-first smartphone, the Vivid and Raider respectively are almost intimidating devices in how much they can do. On AT&T, it's the more conspicuously advanced of the first two LTE phones through its higher-resolution screen.

Yet we can't help but think that the company's carpet-bomb approach of releasing new high-end phones every few months is starting to backfire because of the timing. As you may have noticed in the review, there are any number of phones arriving at the same time as or shortly after the Vivid and the Raider alike that do something a bit better. The elephant in the proverbial room is Samsung's Galaxy Nexus. While the larger 4.65-inch screen isn't necessarily an advantage if you like portability, that much sharper 720p resolution, the much thinner profile (0.35 inches versus 0.55), and the biggest advantage of all -- a newer version of Android that will be updated in a reasonable timeframe -- make it hard to ignore. Launch plans for the Nexus had yet to arrive as of this writing, but if you're willing to spend extra (we've heard $300 on contract) and hop to Verizon, you'll get a longer-lasting device.

There are certainly other phones as well. On AT&T and Rogers, the Galaxy S II Skyrocket and Galaxy S II LTE are available at the same time. You do lose screen resolution, but you get a faster, thinner device. Even HTC's own roster makes it hard to leap in if you're not attached to any one carrier: the Rezound has a 720p resolution in a considerably more portable 4.3-inch screen, as well as extras like Beats Audio. Motorola's Droid RAZR has a similar screen resolution to the Vivid but is generally half as thick, comes more iconically styled, and theoretically lasts longer on a charge.

The plain build, software hiccups, minor camera issues, and short battery life all also detract from the experience. In some ways, the Vivid feels like a stereotypical Acer, Dell, or HP mid-range notebook versus a MacBook. It's all about putting the biggest numbers possible in as cheap a shell as possible. That does get the price down, at $200 on contract at AT&T and $150 on Rogers, but know that you're saving on build quality and, it seems, software stability to dip below where opponents' phones cost.

This also makes assumptions that you're staying entirely within the Android ecosystem. Apple has been chastised for leaving its screen size unchanged for four years and an overly fragile design whose OS just borrowed some features from Android. You're getting less in some areas for the same $200 on a US contract. With its longer battery life on average, a better rear camera, higher build quality, certain advantages in software polish, and far more portable design, the iPhone is tempting to recommend unless you're ideologically dead set against Apple.

We still think the Vivid and Raider are good phones, but context is everything. Could we honestly suggest pledging yourself to at least two years of service, or a stiff contract-free price, to use them? To be honest, we're not sure that we could at the asking rates. Being on the bleeding edge of technology can have many advantages, but sometimes it means you get cut, too.

- Very fast 4G LTE data.

- Big, beautiful screen.

- Fairly fast in most areas.

- Camera is generally high-quality and fast.

- Some Sense 3.0 features, like launching apps on unlock, are handy.

- Price is right for the features.

- Eclipsed by other, faster phones in days.

- Almost too big and heavy, yet cheap-feeling.

- Short battery life.

- Still ships with Android 2.3 when 4.0 is arriving.

- Camera not quite as good as on iPhone 4S, low-grade video.

- Glitchy, crash-prone Android build in our experience.