HTC EVO 3D Review

Posted Aug 29, 2011
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Remember the good old Android days — when HTC used to be the one leading with innovation and bleeding edge devices? Yes I’m talking about back when the likes of HTC Hero or the Google Nexus One (manufactured by HTC were ahead of the curve, and every other Android OEM was trying to follow suit. That was until Samsung came out with its Galaxy S line, and things never remained the same for HTC.

Since then — despite all its innovations, HTC has somewhat failed to hit the same high marks as the Hero or the Nexus One did. Whether its the physical design of the device — which gives the appearance of using the same design template over and over again — or the reletively lower quality cameras, or even the horrendous battery life, HTC seems to have struggled with delivering a solid contender to dismantle the Samsung Galaxy S line which has established itself as the leader of the entire Android lineup.

HTC made a really good effort with the Sensation, but our own experience with the device left us a bit underwhelmed and wanting for more when compared with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S II. Now with the EVO 3D, HTC has another shot at the throne and take back what once belonged to the Taiwanese giant. But apart from its 3D autostereoscopic screen, does the EVO 3D have any other tricks up its sleve which would help it accomplish which its older brother couldn’t? Continue reading to find out.

Specificatoins

On paper, the HTC EVO 3D isn’t very much different from the HTC Sensation. It has the same dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8260 chipset running at 1.2GHz along with the Adreno 220 GPU which powers the 4.3 inch qHD 540×960 Super LCD display. Its also running the same version of HTC Sense 3.0 UI on top of Android Gingerbread 2.3.4.

What has changed this time however is that the EVO 3D comes with an Autosterioscopic screen, which I’ve covered in detail below. And to complement the screen, the phone also has two 5 megapixel cameras (down from one 8MP camera on the Sensation) on the back capable of 720p video in 3D and a 1.3 megapixel front facing cam. The RAM and ROM capacities also receive a healthy bump with the former going up to 1GB while the later is now at 3.72 GB with about 1GB accissible to the user for apps and stuff. And naturally, to supply juice to this extra workload, the battery has also been increased to a hefty 1730 mAh.

And when I say hefty, I literally mean it. The HTC EVO 3D weighs about 170 grams, which is up from the 148 grams on Sensation. And you actually feel all that weight when you’re holding the device — specially if you are coming off using the Samsung Galaxy S II. It still remains the similar overall dimensions somewhat, which is nice since we really loved the ergonomics on the Sensatoin.

Apart from these differences, the phones are pretty much the same. It has all the usual amenities like 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0 and A-GPS support — you know, the stuff you’d expect from every high end Android device these days.

Design

Like I said in the opening section of the review, HTC has adhered to pretty much the same design template since the HTC HD2 came out in 2009. The signature HTC design has varied very little in the ears despite changes in the manufacturing process (the unibody devices with aluminum cases). This isn’t to say that the HTC design is bad — in fact its quite far from it. It is one of the best industrial designs out there. But after almost two years, you can’t argue that it has gotten a bit boring and we really need to see something revolutionary from the Taiwanese manufacturer instead of evolutionary steps it has been taking.


The front of the phone starts with the long and narrow signature speaker grill on the top — which also hosts the usual sensor array. The front facing camera lays right next to the speaker grill. Front and center is the large 4.3 inch Super LCD display with an autostereoscopic parallax layer on the top which produces the 3D effect, being protected by a Gorilla Glass screen. Right below the screen are the usual four Android capacitive buttons which light up when you interact with the device.

The left side of the phone only has the Micro-USB port, while the top houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and the power/lock button. The bottom of the EVO 3D seems no action with only notch to pry open the back cover.

The right side has the volume rocker up top — which is a bit flush into the body and is hard to interact with sometimes, while the lower portion is where all the 3D action rests.


The EVO 3D has a dedicated camera shutter key, along with a 3D toggle switch — which allows you to swtich between 2D and 3D modes. This only works in the camera app though, not when viewing other 3D content. Also these two buttons kind of look like an afterthought, because their silver color is a bit of a distraction for the overall design aesthetics of the device.


The flip side of the EVO 3D is a bit different from your regular HTC phones. For starters, since this is not an aluminum unibody design, the whole back cover is made of removable high-quality plastic. I can see why HTC went with a plastic material on the high end device. A traditional metallic back would only have added to the already heavy weight of they phone. The back cover has a textured pattern though and it looks really nice.


The dual camera assembly at the back is slightly protuded from the back but, there is a small metallic trim around it which prevents it from sitting flush with any flat surface you place the phone on. The dual LED flash also sits between the two lenses on the back, which are arranged in a vertical order (so you get the 3D effect when holding the phone in a horizontal position).

Take of the back cover and you’re greeted with a large black 1730 mAh battery which follows the same theme as the rest of the innards of the device. The SIM card slot is located to the left of the camera modules, and you can replace the SIM without taking out the battery, though you still have to reboot the phone for the changes to take effect. The MicroSD card slot is located right beneath the SIM card slot, and supports capacities up to 32 GB.


The overall ergonomics of the EVO 3D good. The textured back feels great in the hands and provides a solid grip. The qHD screen also packs a good pixel density 256 dpi, which makes the text look sharp and crisp, and the 16:9 aspect ratio means that you won’t get any stripes when watching or recording videos. While volume buttons could have been a little bit better, they did get the job done. If only the weight of the device was slightly lighter, it would have had the perfect balance for a device you’d carry around all day.

3D Display and Performance

The autostereoscopic screen is the center point of the EVO 3D, and the experience pretty much falls short of expectation here. The 4.3 inch Super LCD display has a parallax barrier layer on top which is responsible for the 3D effect. For those of you how don’t quite understand how this works – here’s a little explanation.

In order to see objects in three dimensions, each of our eyes need to view the subject from a slightly different angle – or offset. This offset is equal to the distance between our eyes. Our brain perceives depth based on these slightly different images we see. But since conventional displays only have one screen which in turn can only show one image at a time, everything we see appears flat – i.e. at the same level of depth.

3D displays attempt to solve this problem with a number of different solutions which range from passive techniques like anaglyphs, and polarized displays to active ones like LCD shutters. While how exactly each of them work is a story for another article, they all depend on the same principle of being able to display two slightly different images of the same scene, and then relying on some eyewear to isolate the image for each eye. That’s why you have to wear some sort of glasses to view in 3D. While this technique may work for large displays like cinemas or televisions, you can’t really expect to wear dedicated glasses while using smaller handheld devices like portable consoles (the Nintendo 3DS) or cell phones.

Instead, these devices rely on another method called Autostereoscopy or glasses-free 3D. While autostereoscopic technology also has a lot of variants, the one I’m going to explain is called the Parallax Barrier. In simple terms, the barrier is a layer of ‘slits’ that is placed on top of an LCD display which allow only a specific set of pixels to be viewed by each eye, which in turn gives a sense of depth. The only major snag with this technique is that it requires the user to be viewing the screen at specific predetermined angles. If you look from an off angle, you won’t see any 3D – in fact you’d see double images instead. Oh and since each eye only see alternate pixels, the effective horizontal pixel resolution is halved as well – though it’s not really noticeable.

Now that you have an idea of how the 3D effect on the EVO 3D works, you’d appreciate why the display isn’t worth the investment. In order to perceive images in 3D, our eyes need to focus on specific objects on the screen. That’s relatively easy when you’re viewing content on a large screen, like a cinema or a TV because the screen and the 3D content pretty much fill your entire field of vision. But on a smaller device like a phone, your field of view also includes content that isn’t on the screen – i.e. the surrounding world.

These surrounding objects continuously keep reminding your eyes that what they are trying to focus on screen is just really an illusion and so your eyes never really adjust to the display and keep on trying to focus – all this labor ends up giving you a headache and if you still keep at it, your eyes also start to hurt.

Now before people start bashing me in the comments, I should point out that I do perceive 3D on regular screens (Cinema, TVs, polarized, active shutter etc.) quite easily and have absolutely no trouble adjusting to the image. And just for the sake of testing it out, I gave the phone to a lot of people to try out the 3D effect. And by a lot – I mean over 50. I tested it on everyone in my family, my work, my friends, and even random people at malls and cafés.

Interestingly, every single one of them said they had a hard time trying to perceive the 3D and it really strained their eyes after a couple of minutes. I’m pretty sure the fine engineers at HTC did rigorous testing of the concept before they released it. I just don’t understand why they didn’t just can the whole idea knowing that it really doesn’t work.

For what’s it worth, the camera on the HTC EVO 3D actually does work great when it comes to capturing content in 3D. But I’ll focus on that more in the camera section.

As far as the performance of the rest of the device goes – for a dual core phone with a 1GB of RAM, the phone was really sluggish. In fact, I was able to squeeze out better performance with single core HTC Incredible S which I reviewed earlier.

The all new Sense 3.0 UI is really beautiful, but has noticeable jitters in the animation – specifically if you enable an HTC supplied Live Wallpaper on the phone. Comparatively, the Samsung Galaxy S II has no such issues with its home screen.

I’ve said this before in my earlier reviews that Android 2.x isn’t ready for dual cores yet. And playing around with the EVO 3D just proved my point. While the device was really fast for an Android device, it really didn’t have any advantage over an HTC Incredible S or Samsung Galaxy S – both single core devices. Maybe things will change with Ice-cream Sandwich but we’ll have to wait until the end of the year to see that. Of course I’m not saying that the EVO 3D is a slow device. It’s fast; trust me – but not as much as the Galaxy S II — in fact it’s not even in the same league.

The only place where the EVO 3D really shined was in graphics performance – which saw a significant improvement over the previous generation of single core devices. The frame rate in almost every quadrant graphics benchmark nearly doubled up. Then again, there is no real world app to take advantage of this power yet – but I believe we will get there eventually.

Cameras

The dual cameras on the EVO 3D are better than your standard issue 5 mega pixel shooters you are used to on the HTC devices. In fact, as far as 2D mode is concerned, they are simple the best cameras on an HTC device I have seen.

In 2D photo mode, the cameras capture a lot of detail – even in low light conditions. Granular noise is low and the phone takes stable shots more often than not. This is partially helped because of the dedicated camera shutter key HTC added this time around – though you can still take images via the on-screen button.

3D photos also work pretty well and capture just as much detail as when in 2D mode. The only downside is that you can’t take shots in portrait – but the images turn up sharp and the color reproduction is very good. You are limited to only 2 mega pixels here, which is understandable given the extra processing work involved with the 3D shots.

As for the camcorder, the maximum resolution on the EVO 3D is 720p, down from the full 1080p on the HTC Sensation. In its defense, the video quality is actually quite good – better than what I had on the Incredible S, but it is still no match yet for what you get with the Nokia N8 or even the iPhone 4.

3D Video is recorded in side-by-side mode: which lowers the effective horizontal resolution into half. Videos are still recorded in MP4 format with 30 frames per second and still retain a good amount of detail for 3D video. The rolling shutter effect comes into play when recording video, but I’m not holding it against the EVO 3D because I still haven’t used a smartphone that doesn’t suffer from this issue.

Unfortunately, YouTube didn’t automatically detect the video as 3D sometimes and I had to manually change the settings to enable YouTube 3D for the videos I uploaded. This isn’t really much of an issue but it does mean that you’d have to go to a PC to upload videos and configure them before sharing them with the public.

Software

The EVO 3D packs the same version of the Sense UI which was introduced with the HTC Sensation. For those of you who didn’t know already – HTC Sense is the most usable Android UI to date and it just got more beautiful with version 3.0.

The latest version harvests the power of the more powerful CPU, GPU and leverages the extra RAM to deliver a more immersive experience. Right at the moment when you drag the ring to unlock the screen, you realize that you are using a modern and mature UI instead of the cartoony icons that come with TouchWiz. And HTC has revamped every bit of the interface to give more detailed animations that really bring the phone to life. Just try the weather widget or the live weather wallpapers. You’d see what I mean.

Unfortunately, there are still points where you’d the ugly stock Android UI would resurface itself. It is a necessary evil though – something which can’t really be avoided.

As for preloaded apps, you get full versions of The Sims 3, Need For Speed SHIFT and Spider-Man 3D ready to download on your phone. While the first two games are just plain 2D, they still are a good outlet to showcase the phone’s superior graphics prowess.

HTC also preloads the HTC Watch app which lets you watch Hollywood movies straight on your phone — or over DLNA on your TV. You’d need an HTC Watch account for that to work and it isn’t supported in every market yet, due to licensing restrictions.

Almost all the HTC apps have received minor updates or facelift. On top of that, HTC has also introduced a nice new task manager built into the OS which you can use to kill running applications. What would have been awesome was the ability to take screenshots natively as well, because sometimes you really have to show off the awesome new UI elements and there really isn’t way to take shots without rooting the device.

Speaking of which, the EVO 3D comes with a locked bootloader for now, but HTC has promised to unlock it down the line. This is an opt-in method to be exact, but we aren’t complaining because not everyone would want to unlock their phones anyways.

Battery Life

The EVO 3D comes with largest battery I’ve seen in a recent HTC phone. 1730 mAh sure can hold a lot of juice inside it. But remember that this beast is also running on a dual-core chipset and has a 3D display to top things off, so it actually needs all the power it can get.

Now Android isn’t known for its awesome battery life – unlike the iPhone 4 or even Samsung Windows Phones, but my experience with the EVO 3D was a mixed bag. There would be days when the phone would easily last up to 16-18 hours on a single charge if I kept myself from using any of the 3D features or played 3D enabled video content or games. But on days when I consumed 3D content even moderately, the battery performance fell down to about 10-12 hours.

Now my battery usage is a rather taxing one since I have Wi-Fi, data and GPS constantly enabled in the background and brightness set to 75%. Still for any average user a normal day use with some 3D would go around 14 hours – which isn’t bad considering it is an Android device.

Conclusion

I have a lot of good to say about the HTC EVO 3D. It is a powerful Android device running on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset and packs a gigabyte of RAM. And all those brawns are equally matched by exquisite beauty and industrial design perfection which you would come to expect from HTC. Add the latest enhancements to the Sense UI and you easily have the perfect ingredients for a killer Android handset.

But having the perfect ingredients doesn’t always mean that you end up with a perfect product – and the HTC EVO 3D proves just that by missing to make an impact with its signature feature. The current generation 3D tech just isn’t ready to be consumed by 3D devices like smartphones which you have to use while you’re on the go – with constantly changing the device position and orientation, it is impossible to focus on the screen without straining your eyes. Pair this with the occasional snag in performance when you have too many widgets and live wallpaper enabled, and the HTC EVO 3D almost fails to deliver on the promise.

I say almost because it is a decent phone overall, and the 3D part does work well for capturing the 3D content at least. But if you want real sense of depth on a mobile device then the EVO 3D isn’t the right device for you. In fact, no mobile device on the market currently offers and acceptable experience. At least not until lenticular displays become cheap enough for mobile usage.

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