Sprint's Evo 4G LTE: The Best Phone You Can't Buy

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The Sprint HTC Evo 4G LTE's already unwieldy name would be more accurate with an asterisk tacked on. Two major features won't work until Sprint deploys network upgrades later this year, another needs work by Google — and, oh, you can't buy one.

The Evo 4G LTE is Sprint's version of the HTC One X (also sold by AT&T), one of the spring's more interesting smartphones. This strikingly slim device, $199.99 for new or renewing customers, has a 4.7-in. screen that doesn't seem too enormous, thanks to the trim bezel around it. On the back, an 8-megapixel camera takes occasionally great photos with help from a ridiculously fast burst-shooting mode.

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But unlike many high-end Android phones, the Evo 4G LTE doesn't have terrible battery life, at least in its slow 3G mode. After a day sitting idle, it retained 85 percent of a charge; when sentenced to playing Pandora Web radio with its screen lit nonstop, it somehow lasted 8:26. That ranks it among the best devices I've tried, even if it still expired after maybe seven hours of the kind of incessant online and GPS use a phone gets at a tech gathering like CES or SXSW.

What about the phone's eponymous LTE mode? I don't know. The phone's integrated 3G/4G circuitry, an overdue development, ought to help, and the AT&T version has drawn compliments for its LTE battery life. But Sprint won't turn on much faster Long Term Evolution access until mid-year, when it's due in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and San Antonio. It aims to cover 123 million people by the end of 2012, 250 million in 2013.

Another Evo 4G LTE feature, higher-quality HD Voice calling, also awaits a Sprint network update beginning late this year. In the brief test call I heard at the CTIA trade show, HD sounded clearer but inferior to Skype or a CD.

The Evo's NFC (near-field communication) chip also looks underdone; the Google Wallet service it uses for tap-and-go purchases supports few merchants and fewer credit cards. And copying files from a Mac will remain tricky until HTC ships a promised OS X release of its sync software.

The optimistic way to read these coming-soon features — on top of such extras as a kickstand for table-top viewing, an FM radio users may never notice and Beats Audio sound that doesn't add much — is that this phone has enormous upside. Or you could just call it incomplete.

HTC's implementation of the Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 edition of Android, unfortunately, shows an excess of effort. The Taiwanese manufacturer replaced ICS's elegant multitasking interface with a showier version that displays fewer open apps at once. Then it added an onscreen keyboard with superfluous navigation buttons and a right-side number/letter shift key instead of the industry-standard left.

Sprint won't say how long it will ship Android updates for this phone; the industry has a history of dropping support for old Android phones.

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But this phone's biggest issue isn't its software but its black-market status. U.S. Customs is detaining shipments as it investigates whether the phone includes features from earlier models that a court held infringed on some Apple patents.

An HTC statement says the company "is working closely with Customs to secure approval… as soon as possible." Sprint and Apple publicists didn't comment.

Until that's resolved, the Evo 4G LTE's main utility may be to demonstrate not the possibilities of Android, but the massive uncertainty an out-of-whack patent system inflicts on manufacturers and customers.

Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery

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