Tech Lab

4G phone will quickly change things

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 27, 2010

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BALTIMORE — I’m only here for the day. No time to dine on soft-shell crab; barely enough for a glance at Camden Yards, where the Orioles play baseball. I’m a digital tourist, here mainly to stare at a glowing LCD screen.

Still, I’m enjoying the tiny view; Web pages and Internet videos downloaded at amazing speed by a device that fits into a shirt pocket, lets me shoot high-definition videos, and can still be used to call the folks back home.

It’s called the EVO 4G, and it’s our first glimpse at the next big thing in smartphones. When cellular carrier Sprint Nextel Corp. begins selling the EVO on June 4, it will be America’s first 4G cellphone, capable of far greater speed than the 3G iPhones and BlackBerries we have come to love.

But why fly 360 miles to check it out? Because Boston doesn’t have a working 4G network yet. Baltimore is one of about two dozen US cities where you can find one. Sprint says it’s building more 4G coverage as fast as it can; Boston is on the list for sometime this year.

Today’s 3G services will let you download perhaps a million bits of data per second on a good day with a strong tailwind. In normal use, you’re more likely to top out at 600,000 bits per second. But 4G promises speeds as high as 12 million bits per second, with 3 to 6 megabits being the likely norm.

That means we’re on the verge of having portable, pocket-size devices that can download data as fast as the broadband connections in our homes. Sprint already sells portable data hotspots and laptop cards that will deliver 4G speeds. The EVO 4G, made by the Taiwanese company HTC, packs 4G technology into a sleek, feature-packed smartphone.

You will still enjoy the phone, 4G or not. It’s thinner than an iPhone, but longer, with a screen that’s nearly an inch wider when held sideways. That makes the EVO an excellent video player. The EVO uses Google Inc.’s Android operating system, a worthy rival to Apple’s phone software.

You get two cameras for the price of one. There’s an 8-megapixel autofocus camera that shoots video, as well as a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera.

But it’s the EVO’s broadband firepower that really matters. I tested it with help from Ookla, a company with software for measuring data speed on mobile devices. I installed Ookla’s Speed Test app on the EVO and on an Apple iPhone 3GS running on AT&T Inc.’s 3G network.

It wasn’t even close. The iPhone’s 3G speeds were around 600,000 bits per second. Meanwhile, the EVO 4G was hauling down the data at more than 3 megabits, or five times faster.

That’s enough bandwidth to share with friends and colleagues, and you can. The EVO 4G is also a Wi-Fi mobile hotspot. Up to eight other Wi-Fi-equipped devices can draw data from the phone’s 4G connection. For some reason — envy? — my iPhone wouldn’t speak to the EVO 4G, but my BlackBerry Bold happily hooked up, as did the Netgear Wi-Fi card in my battered old Dell laptop.

But all this digital splendor comes at a steep price. The EVO devours battery power. With its 4G modem switched on, I got just over three hours out of it.

The phone’s $200 price tag is quite attractive — two-year contract, $100 mail-in rebate and all. But you must also pay $80 a month minimum for unlimited voice and data service, $10 a month more than Sprint charges for its 3G plans. You will have to pay this price even if you live in a city that hasn’t gotten 4G coverage yet. And using the phone as a mobile hotspot costs an additional $30 a month.

Still, the future is rarely cheap, and the EVO 4G is the most advanced smartphone yet. There are rumors of a 4G iPhone, perhaps to be unveiled by Steve Jobs at Apple’s software developers’ conference on June 7, three days after the EVO goes on sale. But Apple’s cellular partner, AT&T, can’t even get its 3G network to function properly. So unless Apple breaks its exclusive deal with AT&T, the EVO 4G will continue to outperform the iPhone, especially in Baltimore.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at