Review: Sprint HTC EVO Shift 4G leaves a lot to be desired

Sprint and HTC decided to follow up the successful HTC EVO 4G with a smaller, cheaper model that sports a physical QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, the keyboard is not good enough to take on the Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint.

Back in May of 2010 I stood in line and purchased a Sprint HTC EVO 4G and two times last year I awarded this smartphone my top pick. I have been spending several days with the new Sprint HTC EVO Shift 4G and have to say that the older HTC EVO 4G still gets my pick as the best current Android smartphone available.

There are plenty of smartphones coming later in 2011, some of which were announced at CES last week. The HTC EVO Shift 4G is a version of the EVO with a QWERTY keyboard and looks to compete directly with the Sprint Samsung Epic 4G and IMHO the Epic 4G is a better QWERTY keyboard device than the EVO Shift 4G. The EVO Shift 4G seems like a device that should have launch in October as a refresh of the EVO 4G with a QWERTY keyboard while giving buyers a chance to pick it up in time for the holidays. Now with dual-core processor smartphones coming out in the next few months, this is mid-level device that at least is priced to reflect that at the $149.99 two-year subsidized contract price. Check out some photos of the HTC EVO Shift 4G in my image gallery and forgive me if I no longer have my own EVO 4G to take comparison shots and I moved off of the Sprint network last month.


Image Gallery: Check out product images of the HTC EVO Shift 4G on Sprint.
Image Gallery: EVO Shift 4G retail box
Image Gallery: EVO Shift 4G in hand

In the box and first impressions

Unlike the funky frozen food container that the HTC EVO 4G came in last year, the HTC EVO Shift 4G ships in a standard rectangular yellow highlighted box. Inside you will find the EVO Shift 4G and 1500 mAh battery, A/C charger, 2GB microSD card preinstalled (another sign this is only a mid-level device), USB cable, and several guide books. There is no stereo headset included.

The HTC EVO Shift 4G is a rather thick device compared to the latest smartphones today, but it is narrower than the EVO 4G because it has a smaller display. It feels nice in your hand with a soft touch back and nice front and rear speaker borders. The slider has no assist mechanism and feels a bit old school to me and I found the directional pad in the lower right of the keyboard to be rather awful.

Specifications

Specifications for the Sprint HTC EVO Shift 4G include the following:
  • Android 2.2 with HTC Sense experience
  • 800 MHz Qualcomm MSM7630 Snapdragon processor
  • 5 megapixel camera with single LED flash
  • 3.6 inch WVGA (480x800) capacitive touch display
  • Dedicated, touch-sensitive Home, Menu, Back and Search areas
  • Proximity sensor, light sensor and digital compass
  • Integrated GPS
  • Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g)
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • FM radio
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • 1500 mAh battery
  • microSD card slot with included 2GB card
  • Integrated WiMAX radio for 4G access and WiFi Hotspot capability
  • Loaded Sprint apps, including Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, Sprint Football, and NASCAR Mobile
  • Dimensions: 4.62 x 2.37 x 0.62 inches and 5.9 ounces

Compared to the HTC EVO 4G, we see the Shift 4G getting much smaller display (3.6 inch vs. 4.3 inch), smaller megapixel camera and one less LED flash, loss of the front facing camera, loss of the HDMI port, and extremely small included microSD card (2GB compared to 8GB). While the processor speed looks to be lower on paper (800 MHz vs. 1 GHz), this is a 2nd generation Snapdragon model that actually looks to be a bit snappier.

Walk around the hardware

The 3.6 inch display takes up most of the front of the EVO Shift 4G with four touch sensitive keys/areas at the bottom for Home, Menu, Back, and Search. The handset speaker has a nice silver border and it looks classy. The rest of the front has a brushed black metal finish to complete the business look of the device.

There is nothing on the right or bottom of the device. On the left side you will find the volume button and a microUSB port. The top houses the power button and 3.5mm headset jack. The flash, camera, and mono speaker are found on the back up towards the top.

The display slides to the right (up when rotated into landscape orientation) to reveal the 4-row QWERTY keyboard. As I mentioned earlier, the slider mechanism has no spring assist or anything so you have to manually slide it all the way open and closed. The mechanism feels OK, but with slick designs like the T-Mobile G2 this one feels a couple years old to me.

The keys are covered in soft touch material and the layout is good with adequate spacing and tactile feedback. The bottom right directional pad is pretty awful though with feedback provided for a top, right, and left press and nearly nothing when you press to go down. It is not touch sensitive and really serves little purpose with a full touch screen display. If HTC wanted some directional control on the keyboard then simple arrows would have been more effective. Motorola learned this with the transition from the Droid to the Droid 2 and I have to admit I was pretty surprised since HTC has been known to make some fantastic QWERTY keyboards (HTC Touch Pro2 and G2 come to mind). When you are sacrificing so much compared to the EVO 4G to get a physical QWERTY keyboard it should be the best and it simply is not on this device.

Walk through the software

The Sprint HTC EVO Shift 4G runs the Google Android 2.2 operating system with HTC Sense built on top of it. Right out of the box, the user will have a great experience as you are walked through a setup wizard that helps you easily setup your device and understand how the keyboard works with preferred internet connection (network and/or WiFi) selector, Gmail, POP/IMP, or Exchange email account setup, and social network (Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter) setup. It is quick and easy to follow these and gets your device setup and ready to go.

After the setup wizard is done you will find yourself at the main page of the seven (7) available screens in one of the Scenes of HTC Sense. You can flip through the screens with your finger on the display. You can setup multiple Scenes with these seven different screens with widgets, program shortcuts, contact names, and much more. One of the coolest features in this new HTC Sense interface is the "Leap" view where you can view thumbnails of all seven home screen panels on one screen by pinching your finger closed on any panel or pressing the Home button twice.

All the typical HTC Android applications and utilities are present, including Navigation Panel (Footprints, Google Maps Navigation, Voice Search, View Map, Search, and Make a Call all in one quick interface), Amazon MP3 Store, FM Radio, Google Maps Navigation, Android Market, Music, Peep (HTC's Twitter app), PDF viewer, Quickoffice viewer, Teeter, Photo Gallery, YouTube, Weather, and more. Sprint added some applications onto the EVO Shift 4G too, including Sprint Football Live, Sprint Hotspot, Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, Sprint Zone, NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile, and Visual Voicemail.

With one Android 2.3 device available and others coming soon, we have to hope the HTC EVO Shift 4G is slated for the update as well since it is a new device.

Pricing and availability

The Sprint HTC EVO Shift 4G is available now for $149.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate and minimum voice and data plan with 2-year contract. The minimum individual price plan is $79.99 and this includes 450 anytime minutes, free unlimited calls to mobile phones, unlimited text and data, unlimited Sprint Navigation and some other services. There are subscription fees for some Sprint TV content and a huge $29.99 monthly fee to activate the WiFi Hotspot functionality. You will note there is a $10 premium price for data on the EVO Shift 4G and Sprint states this is due to the improved content and access and is not a direct cost for WiMAX.

Final thoughts on the HTC EVO Shift 4G

I was looking forward to trying out the HTC EVO Shift 4G given the track record HTC has for great QWERTY keyboards and thought it would be like an EVO 4G with a great keyboard. It turns out I was wrong and the keyboard actually turned me off so much that I am sending back the eval unit now rather than use it for the next couple of weeks that my loaner period runs for. I have also been spoiled with devices that have a physical camera capture button (HTC HD7 and Nokia N8) and this is becoming a feature I am now looking for on my smartphones.

I have also come to thoroughly enjoy using the Swype soft input keyboard on my Android and Nokia devices so find little need for a physical QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, the HTC EVO Shift 4G doesn't have the Swype keyboard like we see on the Samsung Android devices so you don't have that option either.

If you really want a physical QWERTY keyboard on an Android device with Sprint, then I recommend you take a look at the Samsung Epic 4G that has a rather lovely QWERTY keyboard and beautiful large display.