Every few months — a year at most — we see a feature or spec introduced on a phone that represents a new standard, a baseline that future phones in the high end have no option but to match. If you go back a few years, you can build a list: the front-facing camera, the gigahertz processor, HD video capture, the WVGA display, the dual-core processor — all line items that set a new bar. They're not always important line items, of course — we could do without front-facing cameras, I suspect — but regardless, these kinds of things force manufacturers to up their games and move forward.
Today, that must-have feature is now the 720p display. It wasn't more than a year ago that WVGA resolution was perfectly acceptable on a $200-plus smartphone, and qHD had just barely started to replace it over the course of 2011 when Samsung, LG, and HTC all decided that it was time to go straight to an actual high-definition screen. It's pretty remarkable to think that you've got close to a million pixels on a display that measures under 5 inches across.
HTC's Rezound for Verizon is the very first of an onslaught of 720p phones to hit the US market. As you might expect, its price ($299) and the remainder of its long spec sheet are just as hefty as the display: 16GB of storage, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, an 8-megapixel camera with 1080p capture, and naturally, LTE. The company is quick to point out that this is HTC's first Beats Audio device to hit the US, too, so let's find out whether this beast is as good as its feature list would have you believe.
Hardware / design
All told, I like the shape, size, and feel of this phone a lot more than I thought I would
Packaging and accessories
From the box alone, you'd have no idea what you're holding. Verizon's smartphone marketing strategy is a fascinating case study: the boxes for its Droid models tend to be loud, in-your-face packages with a glowing red eye featured prominently somewhere, but the Rezound — which isn't branded as a Droid device, for some reason — comes in a completely black box with nothing more than a subtle "HTC" embossed at one end. That's it. No Rezound logo, no picture of the phone. Calling it understated is, well, an understatement.
When you remove the outer sleeve and flip open the box, you'll find the Rezound placed between the included Beats Audio earbuds, one bud on either side. This part of the packaging is all black, too, which really makes the red wires of the headset pop out at you — and that's likely the intended effect. It's clear that HTC really believes that its Beats partnership is a big deal, and in the consumer audio business, those red wires have become iconic to a level that's exceeded only by the classic iPod white. If you've read some of my other reviews, you'll know that I'm generally not a fan of headsets included with phones — they're rarely good enough to do your music justice — but Beats Audio may be an exception. More on that a little later.
I'm generally not a fan of headsets included with phones, but Beats Audio may be an exception
Removing the top layer of the box's interior reveals the remainder of the accessories: the LTE SIM card (which will probably be installed by the time the phone's in your hands), some documentation, a small pleather pouch for your Beats headset, some replacement buds of different sizes, and HTC's usual USB wall charger and Micro USB cable. There's also a 16GB microSD card included, which brings the phone's total to 32GB between the internal and external storage — an appropriate amount considering the Rezound's music slant. Oh, and the fact that Verizon's charging $299 on contract.
At 13.7mm, the Rezound isn't going to win any records for slim design. What's funny is that it's launching just a few days after Motorola's 7.1mm Droid RAZR, which is by far the thinnest LTE smartphone (and really, the thinnest smartphone, period) on the market. They're both $299 — and Verizon is positioning them both as very high-end devices — and yet their designs really couldn't be much more different.
It turns out I may have been a little harsh on the Rezound when I first put my hands on it during HTC's unveiling event — now that I've used it for several days, I don't think it's unreasonably thick or chunky. In fact, it feels quite good in the hand — I prefer it to the RAZR, which doesn't really have any "hand-friendly" surfaces. I find that 4.3- and 4.5-inch phones can get away with their size a little better when they're using a display with widescreen resolution, because the phone is less wide than it would be using a 5:3 display (WVGA, for example), which makes the handset easier to grip. The Rezound's 720p screen, at 1280 x 720, certainly fits that bill.
If you're familiar with HTC's Evo 3D, the Rezound's overall appearance and feel are surprisingly similar, right down to the red accents. Around back you've got a partially textured, soft-touch material that should prevent all but the most butterfingered slips. One element that isn't like the Evo 3D, though, is the asymmetric ridge along the battery cover — this is actually a carry-over from Verizon's beloved Incredible and Incredible 2. The funny thing about this design is that I've never liked it in pictures, but I always think it looks quite good when I finally see it in person. The same thing holds true with the Rezound — it's a unique and attractive look that helps the phone stand out from a really homogeneous pack.
Other features on back include the 8-megapixel camera with dual LEDs, the all-important Beats and 4G LTE logos, and a well-concealed loudspeaker grille. The placement of the grille is actually really smart — it's positioned in an area of the cover that slopes very slightly inward, which ends up giving audio something of a megaphone effect when you place the phone face-up on a flat surface. I don't know whether that was intentional or not, but it works quite well: at max volume, the sound was really loud for calls, music, and video playback.
The entire back lifts off to reveal a neat translucent red interior. (I'd assumed that HTC was moving away from its trademark brightly-colored interiors, but I was clearly mistaken.) As with some other recent HTCs, the cover doubles as an antenna, and I found that the phone immediately went to zero bars of reception as soon as I pried it off. Obviously, you won't be using the phone without a cover, but that probably raises the cost of getting a replacement and complicates the job of aftermarket accessory makers that want to offer an extended battery kit.
The Rezound's edges are half soft-touch plastic, half black chrome. In general, I'd call this phone "blacked out" — it doesn't have any bright bits, apart from the metallic red ring around the camera lens. The right edge has a fairly large volume rocker that I found easy to use during calls; the left edge has the MHL port near the bottom and a secondary mic near the top for noise cancellation. With MHL, you can connect the Rezound to HDMI for high-definition video out, but there's one very minor disadvantage: because it's perfectly rectangular, it's a little harder to tell which way to insert a Micro USB cable for charging and data transfer, and I found myself frequently getting it wrong on the first attempt. Along the bottom edge is your primary microphone and a recessed edge for lifting the battery cover, while the top has your standard 3.5mm headphone jack and power button. As with the Vivid, I felt that the button was a bit too flush with the edge of the phone for my liking, but it's certainly not a deal-breaker.
Finally, that leads us to the front. The bezel is fairly minimal on the left and right sides of the screen, with just a hint of black chrome peeking out from the very edge. The top has a long earpiece with a red grille; it's not too much red to be annoying or overpowering against the phone's understated design, and I think it's a nice touch (I'm a big fan of the black / red combo in general). You can make out the front-facing camera on the upper right, but you can't see the proximity or light sensors at all. Below the display, the Rezound uses red backlighting for the four capacitive buttons; like the phone's other red accents, I really like it, but I imagine some people might prefer the more traditional white.
All told, I like the shape, size, and feel of this phone a lot more than I thought I would. It's heavy, solid, and relatively thick, which makes it a stark counterbalance to the Droid RAZR's insane design and engineering. I think some will find the phone too heavy or too thick, but hey — that's exactly where the RAZR comes in (and soon enough, the Galaxy Nexus).
If you have a serious problem with this screen, you're looking too hard
We can wax philosophical about the Rezound's LTE radio, 1.5GHz processor, and Beats Audio until we're blue in the face, but really, all eyes are fixated on one feature alone: the 4.3-inch 720p LCD. It's the first phone to launch with a true high-def display in the US, and I think it goes without saying that people want to know whether it's a marked improvement over the crop of qHD devices that have come to market over the past few months.
In a word: yes. You want this screen — or something very much like it — in your next smartphone. At a rather absurdly high 342ppi, the Rezound shares the iPhone's unique ability to make individual pixels all but disappear to the naked eye — but it does so at a higher resolution and a much larger size than the iPhone does.
Going into this review, I'd assumed that HTC would've had to use the much-maligned PenTile subpixel arrangement in order to hit such a high resolution at this size, but it turns out the Rezound uses a traditional RGB configuration. None of the usual PenTile complaints — poor text rendering, a "checkerboard" pattern around edges, strange tint, and an inability to correctly render shades of gray, for instance — are present here. Compared to the PenTile qHD displays in phones like the Droid Bionic and Droid RAZR, the Rezound runs circles around them, both for clarity and accuracy.
Outdoor viewability is quite good, though I was able to get the screen to wash out in bright, direct sunlight (solution: put a hand over the screen). I was also able to get colors to fade by holding the phone at odd viewing angles, but none that would affect normal day-to-day use. Looking at it straight-on, I found contrast, brightness, and color temperature to be near perfect, or at least good enough for my imperfect eyes. It's very difficult to find fault with this display — and if you do find fault, it's because you're specifically looking for it, not because you're running into limitations in the course of using the phone normally.
The Rezound uses the very latest version of Sense available — 3.5 — which is currently a Verizon exclusive in the US. Sense 3.5 first launched on the Rhyme, but the Rezound's UI is actually quite a bit different: I'd describe it as a more "traditional" Sense layout with the arc-shaped bar along the bottom of the homescreen. Is that a good thing?
Well, that depends entirely on whether you were already a fan of Sense or not. Readers of mine will know that I'm not a fan, and the Rezound doesn't really do anything to change that opinion. I put it up against AT&T's Vivid, which runs Sense 3.0, and the differences are minor to say the least — the Rezound's homescreen bar is now translucent and has labels for the left button ("All apps") and the right button ("Personalize") rather than icons alone, for instance. You can also now tap and hold panel thumbnails (after pinching the home screen to get to the thumbnail view) to rearrange or delete them. It's a neat trick, but it does nothing to solve my fundamental complaint about Sense, which is that it's way too flashy and in-your-face. Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson have all learned their lesson that "less is more" here, pulling back on their customization efforts and presenting more tasteful skins with each subsequent generation of product — but HTC doesn't show any sign of moving in that same direction. It's frustrating to see such a powerful product get hamstrung by an annoying, cartoonish UI, and Verizon's products are conspicuously missing from HTC's official bootloader unlock list. Something tells me that's not a coincidence.
Another frustration was HTC's inattention to customizing the UI to take advantage of the massive display. At 720p, the distance between icons on the homescreen is comical — perhaps a half inch or so. There should be at least one more row, if not two. In fact, HTC should've redesigned all of its widgets to take specific advantage of this amount of space. It appears that the widgets either scale correctly or were at least designed so that they can appear perfectly smooth at this resolution, but nothing in the system takes advantage of the extra space made available by having 1,280 pixels from top to bottom. Real estate is always at a premium on phones, regardless of size, so I would've liked to have seen a more efficient use of it here.
Oh, and here's the worst part: I couldn't find a single piece of crapware on this phone that can be uninstalled. Don't want Let's Golf 2? Sorry! This is a pretty unforgivable move on Verizon's part considering the industry trend — the Vivid, for instance, allows a lot (but not all) of its bundled software to be removed at the user's discretion. Verizon has to understand that the $300 Rezound is a high-end device targeted squarely at power users — the kinds of people most likely to want to remove this stuff and really customize and personalize their device. It's bizarre.
Don't want Let's Golf 2? Sorry!
Performance / battery life
The Rezound feels fast and smooth, and it should: the 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 is one of the fastest processors around right now
In light of the Beats branding, let's start with the elephant in the room: audio performance. HTC has been talking an extraordinarily big game around the value that its Beats Audio partnership brings to the table with the Rezound and other products — so I had to find out of the included earbuds are any good. I should point out that these aren't the high-end Beats by Dr. Dre Tour model — easily identified by the flat ribbon cables coming out of the buds — rather, they appear to be pitch-perfect copies of the company's $100 iBeats. They fit in my ears quite well, were comfortable to wear at length, and can be customized to your ears with the included pack of replacement buds.
I was really pleasantly surprised at how good the audio quality was (with a big caveat). When you play music through the built-in Music app, a Beats logo appears in the status bar — this is your cue that the phone is running some proprietary processing on the signal, and it makes the output sound much "bigger." Audiophiles probably aren't going to appreciate the sound being artificially enhanced this way, but I have to say: for my purposes, the output was fantastic between the processing and the included buds. All of my music sounded as good (or nearly as good) as the $500 Shure SE535s I use as my daily drivers.
But back to that caveat I mentioned: the excellent output is a combination of hardware and software. With the software processing turned off (which you can do from the notification tray), the included buds sound flat and boring across the entire range — they're not much better than buds that rest in the ear rather than filling the ear canal, which was surprising to me. And the worst part is that the software processing doesn't kick in at all in other music apps I downloaded like Pandora and Rdio, which renders all that Beats Audio technology practically useless. The Beats logo simply doesn't show up in the status bar, so there's nothing to enable. HTC tells me that they're working on expanding the processing to other players and that developers will have access to a Beats API, but for now, the best sound quality is going to come from the in-built music player alone.
People I called were surprised to learn that I was standing in the middle of downtown Chicago with loud people and even louder cars whizzing by, so that's a good sign. The phone has a dedicated secondary mic positioned along the left edge, and it appeared to have an impact here. My only concern was that my callers told me that I occasionally dropped out for a moment — perhaps some over-aggressive noise cancellation — but I'd rather be mostly audible with the occasional dropout than be lost in a sea of white noise.
Speed: processor and data
The Rezound feels fast and smooth, and it should: the 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 is one of the fastest processors around at the moment. Quadrant yielded scores of around 2,400, which puts it right in the thick of the top-tier pack (Samsung Exynos excluded). As I mentioned before, Sense is a pretty heavy skin — particularly the wild 3D carousel effect when you move between homescreen panels — and at no point did I ever see this phone choke, stutter, or lag. The one exception is the browser; I was able to make it stutter a bit on desktop versions of sites (our own included), and I never really felt that scrolling or zooming performance was where it should have been. The only processor that I've seen pull this off flawlessly on Android is Exynos; I'm not sure whether the browser is to blame, the processor, or some combination of the two, but regardless, I don't feel like it's appropriate for a 1.5GHz dual-core processor to show any signs of slowdown while browsing the web.
On the data side, I tested the Rezound in an LTE market (Chicago) and found the performance to be brilliant (as LTE often is). There seems to be an effect with many of these devices where the first speed test will show low scores — 2 to 3Mbps down, for instance — then speed way up and show numbers consistently above 10Mbps, and I certainly noticed that effect here. Latency was almost always below 75ms, which is quite good and in line with what i'd expect.
The Rezound has a 1,620mAh battery, which is a little lower than I expected considering the 13.7mm shell — I guess that thickness is more on account of the 720p LCD and circuitry, not a giant power pack. I had two distinctly different experiences in the course of testing it: my torturous maximum drain test yielded just one hour and 52 minutes, in which I used LTE to stream NFL Mobile nonstop at full volume (and allowed the phone to get quite warm in the process). On the flip side, though, I found that I was more than able to make it through a full day of "regular" use including a fair amount of LTE-driven web browsing and email management and a half-hour phone call. In other words, my initial impression here is that you won't need to worry about it as long as you can plug in every night and recharge, but there might be some days — when you're streaming a ton of video or using the Mobile Hotspot feature, for instance — where your luck is going to run out.
I was really delighted with the Rezound's camera interface, which is snappy, pretty, and easy to use — it's the same one that HTC employs on the Vivid and other recent devices, and it's apparent that the company put some serious thought into how this should work. Autofocusing is fast, as is shutter speed, and I found that I could really get up close with macro shots — about an inch and a half. I was once again disappointed here with the lack of a two-stage hardware shutter button, but it seems like this is a feature that manufacturers are trying really hard to move away from for whatever reason.
I took a lot of shots outdoors, and the phone's HDR mode really came in handy here — you can see a couple photos in the gallery taken both with and without HDR, and it really helps bring out foreground detail when you're dealing with an overpowering sunny sky. Unfortunately, I wasn't blown away by the quality of either the 1080p video or the 8-megapixel photos when blown up to full size — there appears to be quite a bit of compression noise. It's fine for messaging use and perhaps a wallpaper here and there, but I wouldn't look to the Rezound to replace either your point-and-shoot or your HD camcorder.
The front-facing camera is actually quite good, producing stills far cleaner and clearer than they realistically need to be for the intended duty (video calling, primarily). Like the Vivid, it'll also let you record 720p video up front — kind of a neat parlor trick.
I loved the Rezound's camera interface, which is snappy, pretty, and easy to use
Rezound Live Q+A
The Rezound will likely go down as one of the best Android phones ever to launch pre-Ice Cream Sandwich — its incredible display, in harmony with the LTE modem and beefy processor, is simply too great to ignore. But I couldn't help shake the feeling that this phone could be so much better if it had shipped without Sense, or — at the very least — a significantly stripped down version of it, the same way other manufacturers have put their skins on a diet as of late.
Would I recommend the Rezound? With these specs, it's hard not to — but at the very least, I'd wait just a few days to see what the Galaxy Nexus offers before pulling the trigger.