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HTC Vivid
HTC Vivid

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HTC Vivid review

AT&T sticks with a tried-and-true partner for one of its first LTE phones

For Americans, this is the year of LTE. Granted, MetroPCS and Verizon actually launched their first LTE markets and devices last year, but next-gen data has really hit the mainstream in 2011. Virtually all members of Verizon's high-end smartphone line (the iPhone notably excluded) are now LTE-capable, and the network is now in the process of lighting up smaller, secondary markets. If you're a fan of high-speed data — and who isn't? — it's a good time to be alive.

AT&T is about a year behind Verizon in the LTE deployment cycle, but it's catching up in at least one regard: it has now shipped its first LTE phones less than two months after launching the 4G network itself — Verizon took over three months to reach that milestone. To be fair, AT&T has the benefit of an additional year's worth of experience and maturity on the hardware side — Verizon and HTC were blazing trails back when they released the ThunderBolt — but if nothing else, it's a sign that AT&T is going full-bore to get on a level playing field with its nearest competitor. Customers understand the need for fast data better than ever, and on some level, all the major carriers appear to recognize that.

That brings us to the HTC Vivid, one of AT&T's first two LTE handsets to hit store shelves (the other being the Samsung Skyrocket, a reworked version of the Galaxy S II). Leaked over the last several weeks as the "Holiday," the Vivid comes to market with a good bit of pent-up anticipation behind it — not only is the LTE support a big deal, but this marks the first time HTC has brought a qHD display to an AT&T device. Furthermore, it's the first 4.5-inch qHD display in AT&T's lineup, period.

In other words, the hype meter is pegged and the pressure's on. Is the Vivid the right showcase for AT&T's LTE network?

Packaging

Packaging

I was a little taken aback by the design of the Vivid's box... or rather, the lack of design. Considering the groundbreaking LTE support, you'd assume AT&T would want to position this as a flagship phone — particularly in light of the high-end $199.99 price tag on contract — and flagship phones typically get cool packaging. Even phones in the mid-tier and below get tiny, efficient, form-fitting boxes designed for minimal ecological impact. The Vivid, though, has neither a cool box nor a tiny one: it's roughly twice the width of the phone and just looks like an ordinary, orange, AT&T-branded box. Obviously, it's not a big deal at all — it's what's inside the box that counts — but a unique unboxing experience can put a smile on your face, and that's always a good way to start a relationship with a new gadget.

Speaking of the box, there's nothing out of the ordinary inside: other than the phone, you've got documentation, a fairly small USB wall charger, Micro USB cable, and a 1,650mAh battery (ours was pre-installed, but yours may not be). What you won't find, though is a microSD card — nor will you find one in the phone. The Vivid supports expansion of up to 32GB, and I'd expect at least an 8GB or 16GB card to be installed in a $200 on-contract handset these days. Granted, you've got 16GB internal, but only about 13GB of that was accessible to me out of the box.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Unique industrial design is likely one of the easiest corners to cut
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Simple, all-black slabs are the norm among Android devices — and really, among smartphones in general. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that; simple can be (and quite often is) beautiful in its own right. And from a technological perspective, pushing an extra-large touchscreen out to the edges, practically eliminating the bezel in the process, limits your opportunities for meaningful differentiation.

If you'd covered all branding on the Vivid, I probably would've guessed it was an LG

Thing is, HTC has been far more talented than most of its competitors at taking a few limited design variables and crafting genuinely unique devices. The Legend, Aria, Incredible, Sensation, Amaze, Rezound, just to name a few — they've all had stand-out elements that make them distinct and immediately recognizable without compromising functionality. Somehow, HTC has lost sight of that design DNA on the Vivid. I don't want to use the term "half-baked," but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some corners cut along the Vivid's development path in order to meet AT&T's goal of a 2011 LTE handset launch — and gorgeous, unique industrial design is likely one of the easiest corners to cut.

The best way I can describe it is this: if you'd covered all branding on the Vivid and shown the phone to me before I knew what it was, I probably would've guessed it was an LG. That's not necessarily a knock on LG — it's a testament to the fact that there's very little about the Vivid's design that screams "HTC," and that's odd considering how strongly HTC's personality tends to shine through in most of its products.


But let's get to specifics. The front of the phone is dominated by a 4.5-inch qHD display that's actually advertised as a Super LCD component — there was a period of time where HTC had been shying away from using the Super LCD branding, but it looks like that might be a thing of the past. The bezel is pleasantly minimal on all four sides: on the left and right, it's maybe 5 millimeters, and the top and bottom don't seem to be any wider than they need to (the AT&T logo at the top is tastefully small). Your front-facing camera is positioned at the upper right, while the bottom has the usual pre-Ice Cream Sandwich array of capacitive buttons: Home, Menu, Back, and Search, in that order.

No complaints so far, but it's the side of the phone where things start to go downhill. I was provided with the all-black version of the Vivid for review, and I didn't care for the glossy, angled edges at all — it almost looks like an enamel coat on metal. Obviously, it's a personal preference here, but I didn't think there was anything attractive about this element of the phone's design. In the brief time I'd spent with the white version (which has a contrasting silver battery cover), I thought the look was much, much better. Glossy white generally seems to work better than glossy black.

The controls and ports along the edges are simple and typical, starting with a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top left and a chromed power / standby button at the top right. The power button was too flush for my liking, making it difficult to suss out by feel alone — I would've liked perhaps a millimeter of height here. By contrast, the volume rocker along the right edge — which, like the power button, is chrome — is hard to miss. The single-piece switch is well over an inch long, so even if you can't distinguish it from the rest of the edge by feel, you could just guess at its location during a call and odds are good that you're going to hit it. Conspicuously missing, though, is a dedicated camera key; I'm not sure why manufacturers continue to produce high-end phones without them, considering what a big difference they make in the shooting experience. The left edge has the typical Micro USB port near the bottom, and the bottom edge has a tiny mic hole — it's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

Thanks to the inward angle of the Vivid's edges, the back of the phone is actually quite a bit smaller than the front, and the entire surface is a flat metal cover that can be disengaged and removed by sliding it upwards. The top of this area features a metal grille (the loudspeaker, naturally) with the 8-megapixel camera and dual-LED flash right below it. The cover felt like another design misstep to me: it's the only metal component on the phone and didn't really "fit in" with the remainder of the decor. On the plus side, there isn't any obnoxious branding here — just an understated HTC logo engraved into the top half.

Overall, the phone felt pretty good in the hand. It's actually extremely solid — I don't know exactly what material HTC is using for those chunky, angled, glossy edges, but there's absolutely zero flexion when you attempt to twist the device (not something I recommend you try yourself, but an interesting test nonetheless). I wasn't in love with the feel of those angles when I had the phone to my face, but I never really felt like I was in danger of dropping it. As with other qHD phones, the 16:9 aspect ratio really works to the Vivid's advantage — it's a little narrower than WVGA, so you can get away with a 4.5-inch screen size without making the shell too big to hold or to access the entire display with your thumb.

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Display

Display

The display is definitely a bright spot on this phone — and with a name like "Vivid," I'd expect no less
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Design aside, the display is definitely a bright spot on the Vivid — and with a name like "Vivid," I'd expect no less. 720p phones like the Galaxy Nexus and Rezound are poised to take the all-out resolution crown away from qHD devices like this, it's true, but make no mistake: the 960 x 540 offered by qHD still looks stellar, and at roughly 245ppi, there was no point that I felt that display elements felt too big on the phone's 4.5 inches of real estate.

Needless to say, I don't think AT&T is lying about the presence of a Super LCD here. The phone's usable viewing angle is very nearly 180 degrees, in my judgment, and you can't tilt it in a way that makes the colors wash out. If I had to come up with a complaint, it'd be that there's a noticeable gap between the glass and the display — something that devices like Sony Ericsson's Xperia Arc and the iPhone 4 / 4S have made an effort to eliminate — but it's not a practical concern in day-to-day use.

Cameras

Cameras

The Vivid's viewfinder interface is significantly more advanced than stock Android without being in-your-face
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AT&T doesn't seem to be placing particular emphasis on the Vivid as a photography-centric device. The fact that there's no dedicated camera button lends credence to that — but on the other hands, it's got an 8-megapixel camera capable of 1080p video capture and a dual-LED flash. In other words, the specs would suggest that there's a fighting chance that the output won't be half bad.

The results weren't the best I've seen, but they were definitely passable, particularly if you're not planning on blowing up a shot at full 8-megapixel resolution. More impressive was the speed: it seems like HTC might be putting some effort into reducing shutter lag, because both shooting and autofocusing were surprisingly quick procedures. In general, the company appears to have found a happy medium on its camera UI: the Vivid's viewfinder interface is significantly more advanced than stock Android without being in-your-face, and it never once stuttered or lagged in the course of making adjustments. I'm sure the 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon can be thanked for that to some degree, but history has proven that it's very easy for manufacturers to mess up the camera app, regardless of specs.

I found the video output to be slightly better than stills — the quick 1080p test I shot was clear and didn't seem to be overly compressed. The real shocker, though, may have been the 1-megapixel camera up front: it isn't great, but it offers surprisingly good capture (virtually all phones I've tested skimp on front-facing camera performance, considering their limited utility). Amusingly, it can even shoot 720p video if you're so inclined.

Performance / battery life

Performance / battery life

I was able to hang on to an LTE signal in all of my normal haunts, and I regularly observed downlink speeds over 10Mbps
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As one of AT&T's very first LTE handsets, clearly there's going to be a focus on the Vivid's performance. That's not to say there's no reason to buy the Vivid if you're not in an LTE market — it's still a 4.5-inch qHD device with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, after all — but high-speed 4G is certainly the main thrust here.

Though the Vivid was handed out to reviewers in New York — where AT&T's LTE network isn't yet live — I was able to take it to Chicago, one of the carrier's handful of deployed markets. The performance is encouraging, and seems to be significantly improved since I tested it on an Elevate 4G hotspot during the soft launch a few months ago. I was able to hang on to an LTE signal consistently in all of my normal haunts in and around downtown, and I regularly observed downlink speeds over 10Mbps with ping times below 60ms (both excellent numbers). In using the Vivid as a hotspot, I had the connection "hang" on me a few times which necessitated that I cycle the hotspot feature off and on again, but it's a phenomenon I experience fairly regularly on Verizon's LTE devices as well — this isn't a problem unique to AT&T or to the Vivid.

AT&T has touted the benefits of circuit-switched fallback, which allows it to keep just one radio active at a time — put simply, Verizon's current architecture necessitates that phones have two radios powered up even when connected to the LTE network, so AT&T's devices can theoretically squeeze more run time out of a charge. The downside to circuit-switched fallback is that it requires the phone to step down to HSPA when placing or receiving a voice call, and I was able to observe that behavior consistently on the Vivid. Clearly, that's not a big deal — most customers will never even notice — but it's something to keep in mind if you do a lot of multitasking.

Processor performance is mostly positive. Quadrant tested between 1,800 and 2,000, which isn't terribly high (Samsung Exynos devices can score over 3,000), but this is a case where the score really doesn't tell the story of the user experience. The phone features a 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm APQ8060, bred from the same silicon (albeit with a different modem configuration) used in the Sensation 4G, among others. It's still in the very top tier by production smartphone standards, and HTC's Sense UI — which is loaded down with 3D effects and miscellaneous chrome — performs smoothly and flawlessly. In fact, the only place I ever saw lag was in the browser, which is an all-too-common experience in Android regardless of how much horsepower you've got under the hood; the desktop version of our own home page, for instance, stutters its way through scroll and zoom operations. You might argue that it's not fair to be testing desktop versions of sites, but trust me: on this huge, lovely display, you'll almost always want to use them.

I got 3 hours and 38 minutes of run time on the Vivid from full charge to power-off, and I was absolutely abusing it for the entire duration: LTE, mobile hotspot enabled with a laptop connected and in use, and the screen on at full brightness — and I was running benchmarks and speed tests on the phone, too. I haven't yet had a chance to run another test with more typical use, but incidental evidence so far suggests that you'd have no problem making it through a full day. I'll update this when I've got more data points.

Software

Software

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Interestingly, the Vivid doesn't launch with HTC Sense 3.5, which is now available on Verizon's Rhyme and will be in the next few days on the Rezound. Instead, you get 3.0, and it looks the same as it does elsewhere: you get the trick lock screen with the "ring" that can be used to jump straight into a set of configurable apps, for instance, and you get the usual set of HTC widgets like FriendStream. I don't have much to say about Sense 3.0 that hasn't already been said — as I mentioned before, it performs smoothly on the Vivid's 1.2GHz processor, but all my usual complaints carry over: the notification curtain wastes space, the Personalize button shouldn't have a permanent place at the bottom of the home screen, and the paginated app drawer is awkward at best. It goes without saying that I'd promptly install Launcher Pro if this were my personal phone, but if you enjoy all that Sense has to offer, you'll feel right at home here.

As you might expect from a branded carrier smartphone, the Vivid ships with its fair share of bloatware, trialware, and crapware (plus a few apps that you'd probably nab from the Market anyway). Out of the box, the custom installs include Adobe Reader, Kindle, AT&T Code Scanner, AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Navigator, City ID, Facebook, Featured Apps, AT&T Live TV, MOG, myAT&T, Need For Speed Shift, Polaris Office, Qik Lite, Twitter, AT&T Visual Voicemail, and YP, which is — get this — nothing more than a link to a Market page for the real YP app. Some of the apps (AT&T Code Scanner, for instance) can be uninstalled, but others like City ID and AT&T Navigator can't. For the life of me, I can't figure out how TeleNav continues to convince carriers and customers to pay a monthly subscription for its turn-by-turn service when Google offers Maps Navigation for free, but here it is... and you can't get rid of it. That's another good argument for installing a custom launcher over Sense like Launcher Pro — you can hide the stuff that you can't uninstall.

The Vivid is a perfectly average, acceptable Android smartphone. The problem, though, is that "acceptable" doesn't really cut it at $200 on contract — and regardless of the pricing, AT&T should've been looking to blow people away with its first LTE handsets. Why not? The commercial deployment of LTE is the most important thing to happen to the American wireless industry in years, and carriers that manage to get it off the ground should be celebrating with some truly awesome hardware.

Add in the average camera performance, the "blah" styling, the old version of Sense, and Gingerbread — which is at the very tail end of its shelf life in this market segment — and it stands to reason that AT&T customers are better off waiting for something else. LTE's brand new, after all; as hardware goes, the Vivid is just the tip of the iceberg.

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