With no iPhone to run the show, T-Mobile has three flagship phones, all very similar: the HTC Amaze 4G, HTC Sensation 4G, and Samsung Galaxy S II. Like the others, the $259.99-with-contract Amaze runs a skinned version of Android on a huge, gorgeous 4.3-inch screen using a crazy-fast 1.5GHz dual-core processor. HTC tried to differentiate its option a little, though, boasting that the Amaze has “the most advanced camera of any smartphone.” But the camera, as HTC surely knows, is only one part of the phone. With some stiff competition, how does the Amaze measure up when it comes to phone calls, browsing, display, and battery life? And is its camera really that good? Read on to find out.
Hardware / design
I’ve never seen a phone quite like the Amaze 4G. Rather than sink down into its bezel, its display actually rises slightly above it, giving the impression that it’s coming out at you. It’s tall at 5.12 inches and wide at 2.58, almost exactly the same size as the Galaxy S II. It’s much thicker, though, at 0.47 inches to the GSII’s 0.37 — and small differences in thickness, at least in my hand, are more noticeable than height and width changes. It’s also significantly heavier, weighing 6.1 ounces to the Galaxy S II’s 4.77; the upside is that the phone feels solid, but the downside is that "solid" largely just means "heavy."
Rather than the minimalist monochrome appeal of most other recent smartphones, the Amaze opts for a dual-tone look, with silver accenting a black back. I like the look a lot, and the matte back doesn’t take on fingerprints like glossy phones do, but it’s not as futuristic and sleek as the Galaxy S II or the Sensation 4G. The front of the phone has HTC and T-Mobile logos up above the screen, next to a notification LED that I had missed from my BlackBerry-owning days and quickly became obsessively attached to. Down below are the four capacitive Android buttons, which are spaced out well enough to be hit without looking. There’s a black bezel around the screen, with a silvery shell around the display; the sticking-out display looks cool and contoured, but makes for a sharp edge that pokes you as you hold the phone, like MacBooks tend to do.
On the right side of the device is a silver strip that controls the volume, as well as shutter press and video record buttons for the camera (more on that down below). The power button and 3.5mm headphone jack live up top, and an odd USB port that’s compatible with Micro USB but also has its own, different charger, sits on the left side. Down on the bottom is a button that at first glance looks like a flap covering the USB port, but don’t be fooled — tap this thing, and off comes the shell so you can access the battery or memory card. It’s wonderfully easy to access, but a little jarring the first time you try to plug your phone in and accidentally split the phone in half.
Any good phone needs a good display, and the Amaze delivers
You’ll notice the biggest difference between the Amaze and the Galaxy S II the moment you turn them both on — the Amaze’s 4.3-inch, qHD 960 x 540 Super LCD display is far better than the 4.52-inch WVGA display on the Galaxy S II. It’s higher-res on a smaller screen, which means that text can be smaller and still be sharp, so you don’t get the always-zoomed-in effect of the Galaxy S II. Colors are a little muted on the display — they're not nearly as eye-poppingly vibrant as the Galaxy S II — but it’s very crisp and clear. It has excellent viewing angles (despite some discoloration when you’re off-axis), and is relatively readable in direct sunlight. On this size screen and at this price, anything below 960 x 540 just doesn't cut it anymore.
The Amaze has a great camera — for a cellphone
HTC wants you to buy the Amaze 4G instead of a point-and-shoot camera, and the phone operates quite a bit like one. There's the aforementioned dedicated shutter button on the side, and a long press on the button opens the Camera app no matter where you are on the phone. The 8-megapixel, f/2.2 lens is surrounded by two LED flashes that actually flash, unlike some that just shine light in your subjects' eyes the whole time you're framing the shot. The autofocus is fast and automatic, not even requiring a half-press on the shutter, but it doesn't always work well, especially in close-up shots. The camera technically has zero shutter lag, because it’s actually always caching photos when the camera is running — it just saves one the moment you press the shutter — but those photos are often blurry; you’re better off with a half-press to focus first.
The photos produced by the Amaze 4G are stellar. They're not as good as a point-and-shoot and they get very soft when you zoom to full size, but if you're looking to upload photos to Facebook rather than print out huge versions of the image, they're every bit as usable. Though it doesn't do great indoors, the bright lens and fast shutter speed make it better than most cellphone cameras at capturing non-blurry images inside. There are also plenty of point-and-shoot-style shooting modes as well, like a panorama mode, HDR shooting, and a burst mode that takes five shots in rapid succession. The 2-megapixel camera on the front of the phone isn't as good as it sounds; its photos are very soft, and typically blurry, but it works well enough for video chatting, and that's all it's really meant for anyway.
The Amaze shoots 1080p video at 30 frames per second, and it’s excellent. Colors were crisp and bright, and video looked good even in imperfect lighting. Motion capture wasn’t stellar, as moving cars stuttered down the road rather gliding, but captured video and audio were both quite impressive. The dedicated video record button, which sits right next to the shutter button and is close enough that I more than once accidentally shot a video instead of a photo, is also a welcome addition.
Though its photos aren't notably better than those from other excellent smartphones like the MyTouch 4G Slide, it's so camera-like to operate that I'd definitely recommend the Amaze 4G to anyone wanting to replace their point-and-shoot with their phone.
Performance and battery life
The T-Mobile Galaxy S II and Amaze 4G run the same 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, and as expected they perform much alike. Sitting with the phones side by side, I opened apps, browsed the web, played music, sent messages, and more; the phones performed virtually identically, trading which was eye-blink faster almost on every operation. Oddly, the devices’ test scores were very different — I got Quadrant scores between 1,900 and 2,500 on the Amaze, which is far below the Galaxy S’s over-3,000 scores. We don’t put too much stock into any single benchmark, though, and this phone is the perfect reason why: in everyday use, the Amaze functioned every bit as well as the Galaxy S II.
There’s one score on which the Amaze really stands out, and it’s browser performance. The Amaze 4G browsed the web, especially complex and graphically intense sites like ESPN.com, a little more smoothly than the Galaxy S II. It’s extremely fast, especially in places with HSPA+ 42 coverage, and smoothly handled all the web apps and games I threw at it. Our SunSpider scores mirrored that too, with much higher scores for the Amaze 4G, and while the difference between the two wasn’t as pronounced in my every day experience it was definitely there.
Speaking of that HSPA+ 42 network, it’s super fast — if you catch it just right. I got speeds as high as 19 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up in midtown Manhattan, but then an hour later (during peak evening hours), from virtually the same spot, got speeds like 0.38 Mbps down and 0.43 Mbps up. I tested other T-Mobile phones as well, and the problem persisted, so it’s clearly more network than handset that’s at fault here, but still — if you want super-fast connections and tethering (the Amaze has a hotspot mode, which can be activated for $15 / month), you’ll get them, but only if you’re an insomniac.
Battery life was surprisingly dismal on the Amaze. I never once got a full day of use from the phone, and even after charging it fully it would lose its charge after only a few hours of normal use — web browsing, a few phone calls, and some camera use. Part of the problem is certainly due to T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network, which is a battery drain on any phone, but it’s among the worst I’ve seen on recent smartphones.
Call quality was solid on the Amaze 4G, with loud max volume for both the earpiece and speakerphone and minimal distortion. I was told I sounded good, but people I talked to occasionally sounded as if they were inside a tin can. I got a few complaints about background noise, too, even while doing things like opening an envelope. Speakerphone was better than most phones I’ve used — only about half the time could callers tell I’d switched over, and we could both hear each other fine even from a few feet away.
The Amaze is fast, but its battery life is awful
HTC's Sense UI is fine, but it's not for me
HTC's Sense UI is all over the Amaze 4G, and though it's a matter of personal preference whether that's a good thing or not, I'm not a fan. Sense is designed to make navigating your phone easier, and it succeeds — finding the phone app or the settings menu is easy, and there are plenty of ways to personalize the phone to make it look how you want — but it's just busy. The keyboard and dialer are filled with alternate characters, homescreens are packed full of colorful widgets, and some of the apps just look cluttered. Plus there are weird animations everywhere, like the utterly pointless spinning-home-screens carousel that shows up if you move too quickly between home screens. Fortunately, the processor does keep Sense moving fast — I’ve seen the skin slow phones down before, but that wasn’t an issue here. Really, it's purely a matter of preference, and with some work you could make the Amaze 4G look as simplistic and uncluttered as you'd like.
T-Mobile and HTC are both notorious for loading bloatware onto its phones and the combination is a dangerous one. The Amaze 4G comes preloaded with a ton of apps, many of which I never opened and wished I could have been rid of: T-Mobile Mall, T-Moble Name ID, T-Mobile TV HD, More for Me — the list goes on and on. HTC adds its own, too: Peep, a Twitter app that I actually didn't mind; HTC Likes; HTC Hub, Highlight; Friend Stream; and more. The bloatware is a little out of control on the Amaze 4G, and you can't uninstall as many of the apps as I'd like. Fortunately, there are apps like LauncherPro that let you get rid of or hide a lot of interface clutter, and I installed it immediately to great effect.
Oddly, the Amaze runs neither the most current version of Android (2.3.4 instead of 2.3.5) nor the most current version of Sense (3.0 instead to 3.5). The differences aren’t earth-shattering, enabling some video chat and NFC functionality in Android and a bunch of interface tweaks in Sense, but software that’s out of date on day one never bodes well for getting timely updates — especially with Ice Cream Sandwich on the horizon.
The Amaze 4G isn't perfect, but it's superior to its T-Mobile competition in two key respects: the screen and the camera. It's technically not as fast as the Galaxy S II, but it performed just as well in my time with both phones, and its qHD screen and camera functionality are head and shoulders above the Galaxy S II or the Sensation. At $259.99 with a two-year contract, it's $30 more than the Galaxy S II and $60 more than the Sensation, but in my mind it's worth the price to get the best overall phone on T-Mobile right now.