HTC Amaze 4G $599.99
8th Feb 2012 | 22:22
HTC aims to Amaze at 4G speeds, but can polished hardware overcome cluttered software?
Overview, design and feel
T-Mobile may not be the best U.S. carrier, but the scrappy underdog continues to provide shelter for an assortment of Android handsets. That includes the HTC Amaze 4G, which continues the trend toward larger displays in an effort to stand out from the crowd.
T-Mo and HTC have thrown almost everything but the kitchen sink into this model, but is it enough to separate it from the pack?
The first thing you'll notice when holding the HTC Amaze 4G is its solid build quality and how great it feels in the hand. Weighing in at 6.1 ounces and 0.46 inches thick, the handset is a direct descendent of the HTC Sensation, but takes advantage of T-Mobile's 42Mbps HSPA+ network speed to warrant the 4G branding.
An aluminum frame wraps around the edges and spills onto the lower half of the back, available in either black or white (we reviewed the latter).
The Amaze 4G has a 4.3-inch qHD touch screen at 960x540, which makes it physically smaller than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and a bit easier to hold and use with one hand.
Pixel density junkies might be disappointed with the screen, but unless you're coming from an ultra-high density display (like that of the iPhone 4S or Galaxy Nexus), you'll likely find the 256 pixels per inch to be perfectly sharp, and the display as bright and color-rich as you could hope for.
The entire back of the Amaze is one piece that pops off by pressing a notch on the bottom of the unit. A standard SIM card slot is perched vertically above the removable battery, with space for a micro-SD/SDHC card (up to 32GB) at left.
The handset continues to work while the back is removed, so there's no need to power down for a quick SD card swap (the SIM card is blocked by the battery, so you'll need to remove it first).
With the back plate on, the Gorilla Glass face is raised above the chrome frame at the left and right edges, bucking the current trend of smartphones where the display is recessed. Although the glass is larger and far more rounded on the edges, the raised face echoes the iPhone 4/4S.
The HTC Amaze 4G has a somewhat unique button setup, featuring two camera buttons on the lower right side: One dedicated to video record mode (marked with a red line) and a second, larger button for still photos.
A volume rocker rests at top right, which is a somewhat awkward position for right-handed individuals. It also doubles as a zoom control when in camera mode.
The top of the device features a 3.5mm headphone jack and power button, with micro EXT/USB on the left. A two-megapixel front camera rests to the right of the earpiece above the T-Mobile logo, with a blinking notification LED to the left.
The HTC Amaze 4G is available for a wallet-friendly $179.99 with two-year contract after a $320 instant discount and $100 mail-in rebate.
The HTC Amaze 4G comes with HTC Sense 3.0 liberally ladled atop Gingerbread 2.3.4, the most widespread but not really greatest version of Android now that Ice Cream Sandwich is the new sheriff in town.
We're not talking Kindle Fire level forking of Android, but HTC certainly wants to make Sense your front and center UI experience.
After pressing the power button to wake the display, users are greeted by icons for Phone, Mail, Camera and Messages. They won't do anything when tapped on, except remind you to drag the desired icon into the ring at the bottom of the screen, which acts as a quick shortcut. Likewise, you can simply drag the ring up to unlock the main menu.
Here we're greeted to the familiar HTC Sense clock and weather widget, Google search bar and shortcuts for Messages, Mail, Internet and Camera – yes, they're laid out differently than the lock screen, but users can tap and hold to move them as desired, or drag new icons into their place.
A circular menu below offers shortcuts to apps, Phone and Personalize, where you can decorate your Sense experience to your heart's content.
This area also acts as a carousel of sorts while maneuvering the Sense UI. Swiping left or right rotates you to three additional screens on either side, or you can tap the Home button to get a bird's-eye view of all seven at once.
The top of the screen will be more familiar to Android users, with notifications at left and icons for wireless, battery and time of day at right.
To access notifications, swipe down the screen from the top as usual, where you'll find a row of running apps; tap one to quickly jump into it. The Quick Settings tab at bottom also provides shortcuts to Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Hotspot, Mobile Network and often-used options.
Sense or Senseless?
It all sounds fine, but unfortunately the version of Sense that ships with the HTC Amaze (3.0) frequently works as a layer of complexity on top of Android. The user interface simply offers too many ways to accomplish the same thing, even for power users.
On a more positive note, the Sense UI benefits from the handset's 1.5GHz Snapdragon S3 CPU and 1GB of RAM – everything responded quickly and fluidly, even after opening a number of apps and a full day of use.
It's also reviewer-friendly, allowing screenshots to be taken simply by holding down the Power button and tapping the Home button, rather than having to jump through hoops the way some other Android devices do.
Contacts and calling
Google's method of handling contacts is hit or miss and with the HTC Amaze 4G Sense has to yet again take some of the blame.
Accessing the Phone calls up a Sense-ified keypad with a big green Call button at the bottom. Call history with contacts grouped alphabetically can be accessed simply by swiping up.
Unfortunately, this experience is marred by having contacts sorted alphabetically only by first name, while the actual Contacts app allows for sorting by last name first, which is many users' preferred method.
To overcome this limitation, users can tap the Menu button, select People and choose the number they wish to call. Smart dial offers the option to begin typing a number or name with the keypad, and a speed dial list is also included for those who want to do it old school.
All things considered, dialing contacts is needlessly complicated on the Amaze 4G.
On the plus side, Google contacts get synced over the cloud after signing into your account, and the Contacts app allows you to add others from the SIM, Phone or T-Mobile Contacts Backup as well as apps like Facebook.
The keypad itself is adequate size (taking up roughly half of the display) but it's nothing special if you've already been spoiled by the super-sized Ice Cream Sandwich dialer now.
Google's voice dialing is also supported from the keypad and we had no problems using Google Voice for dialing out, as well as GrooVe IP for making free VoIP calls over T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G data pipes.
Call quality is decent, though we found call volume to be a bit low. On the other end of the line, callers reported we sounded loud and clear.
There's a speaker on the back of the unit which was loud and clear, even while driving and playing talk radio via the iHeartRadio app.
There's nothing earth shattering about SMS and MMS messaging from the HTC Amaze 4G – it appears to be one area where the manufacturer decided to leave well enough alone and allow Android to stand on its own two robotic feet.
Standard options include deleting individual messages, composing a new one, group messaging and a range of Settings.
The built-in app is only one such option in today's app-happy world. Facebook, Google+ and others are available as a free downloads from the Android Market and work as you'd expect.
(One exception was Facebook continually alerting us to a new phantom message that didn't exist, which forced us to disable message notifications and use Facebook Messenger instead.)
The Mail app is likewise fairly standard stuff here, and we had no problems setting up email accounts from both iCloud as well as our own IMAP-enabled domain name.
Users can quickly jump to Mail features by sliding a finger across the bottom to access All Inboxes, Conversations, Favorites, Unread, Marked and Attachments, and the app works in both portrait and landscape modes.
Sadly, IMAP-IDLE is not supported in Mail, so frequent email junkies may want to install another if push mail is required. Gmail users also have access to the standard Android app, which they'll likely find a more pleasing experience anyway.
All messaging options use the standard Android keyboard with predictive text, which could be considered a plus or a minus depending on your view of Android 2.3.4 – we've been spoiled by the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0, but keyboard replacements like SwiftKey X are just a download away.
Speech to text recognition is also available and worked well in our tests.
The "4G" in the HTC Amaze 4G refers to T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, which is not the same as 4G LTE being rolled out by Verizon and AT&T.
HSPA+ is more like 3.5G, but the Amaze is one of a few handsets actually capable of hitting the fourth-place carrier's faster 42Mbps data speeds.
We racked up some pretty impressive download speeds on T-Mobile's network using Speedtest.net – maxing out around 17.01Mbps – but never came close to the carrier's fastest speed.
Uploads varied between a paltry 1.0 to 1.6Mbps, rather disappointing considering the respectable rates we achieved in the opposite direction.
The built-in web browser (aka Internet) is fairly standard stuff for Android 2.3.4, defaulting to a T-Mobile web2go portal with a mish-mash of Yahoo and CNN news, quick links and other data, which we quickly eliminated in Settings with extreme prejudice.
Android's Gingerbread web browser is standard fare, and remains unchanged here.
T-Mobile is really hyping the HTC Amaze 4G as having an advanced camera and on paper, we'd agree: An eight-megapixel, auto-focus, backlit camera sensor with dual LED flash and a laundry list of features to rival most point-and-shoot digital cameras.
As mentioned earlier, the Amaze 4G features dedicated hardware buttons for both still and video. Even while the display is locked, users can quickly access camera mode by holding down either button for a few seconds.
This could easily cause a multitude of all-black pocket or purse photos, but we didn't suffer from any phantom photos.
Holding these buttons down halfway locks exposure, focus and white balance, and pressing all the way snaps a photo or starts video recording.
In addition to the usual Auto mode, the Amaze 4G includes several handy presets such as SmartShot (for stitching together the best group photo from several versions, which sadly doesn't work as advertised), SweepShot (for panoramic shots), ClearShot HDR and BurstShot, which offers five shots in rapid-fire succession for quick-moving subjects.
Another nice touch is displaying how many photos you can take with the current settings, which appears briefly in the upper right corner when you switch into Camera mode. Tap to focus, face and blink detection are also in play here, as well as Macro and full Manual shooting modes.
T-Mo touts its exclusive "Perfect Pics" feature, a type of smart album for ranking photos on the go. It narrowed our 43 shots down to three, but only one of those was actually good – it completely ignored other suitable candidates, so we'd call this feature a miss at best. (You can also manually add photos to Perfect Pics with the Gallery app.)
Despite so many otherwise decent features, the end results were just okay, with indoor shots having soft contrast and a general lack of definition (outdoor shots fared much better).
Flash photos were a bit less gaudy than single-LED smartphones, and users can crop, rotate or add effects to photos from the Camera app (sadly, there's no red eye removal here).
The Amaze 4G is a competent shooter capable of replacing many low-end point-and-shoots, but nothing warranting the hyped celebration from T-Mobile.
Video recording is also available on the HTC Amaze 4G, with up to 1080p HD resolution. Hold down the small shutter button with the red line on it and you'll be instantly in video recording mode, differentiated by the red on-screen button (still mode has a shutter icon).
Unfortunately, even at the highest "Full HD" record setting, HTC has dropped the ball here. Videos we recorded exhibited a lot of noise and pixelization that had us longing for our iPhone 4S.
We wouldn't call HD video recording on the Amaze completely worthless, but we've seen better results on low-end Flip camcorders.
Likewise, audio recorded with video is tinny and lacking midrange and bass. The Amaze 4G defaults to recording stereo audio – which even few pocket camcorders offer – but we turned it off immediately because it created a bizarre pulsing noise in our videos. Video recording can also be done with one of six effects ranging from Grayscale to Aqua, but as usual these are more gimmicks than anything else.
The Amaze 4G also displays remaining recording time when switching into video mode, and includes the usual array of auto focus and auto white balance options (white balance can also be manually selected via Settings).
As mentioned earlier, the volume rocker doubles as a digital zoom, but we'd recommend skipping it entirely since it's simply enlarging an otherwise subpar image.
As you might imagine, a media-centric device such as the HTC Amaze 4G comes ready to please with a wide range of playback offerings.
The Gallery app neatly sorts media into folders based on camera mode (i.e., Panorama or Burst), with direct access to a micro-SD card and even a Locations folder for viewing where images were taken on a map.
Tapping on Albums view pulls up options to jump quickly to Facebook, Flicker or Picasa photos or even Media Servers, which will find UPnP volumes on your local network and stream content direct to your handset. We were able to successfully play most every AVI, WMV and MP4/M4V video file we threw at it.
The Amaze 4G comes standard with 16GB of storage, but true media junkies are likely to install streaming media apps or beef up their storage options with a micro-SD card.
Hulu Plus is still unavailable, but Netflix is ready for download in the Android Market and worked without a hitch. Our favorite home media server app, Plex, also installed and streamed content with ease.
T-Mobile has taken the liberty of preloading a wide variety of bloatware – er, apps – for your media consumption pleasure, including T-Mobile TV with Mobile HD, offering a variety of free and paid content including live TV options from FOX News, Disney Channel, ABC Mobile and ESPN and on-demand content for download such as PBS Kids' Curious George.
T-Mobile TV requires a connection to its 4G network to validate your account the first time, but subsequent visits can be done over Wi-Fi or 4G. We downloaded a free 30-minute TV episode in just a few minutes over 4G, and streaming options started playing within seconds.
Video was perfectly acceptable on the Amaze 4G display, and downloaded content can be watched for a limited time even with no wireless signal available.
Finally, the manufacturer has also waded into the media pool with HTC Watch, offering a limited range of Hollywood offerings for rent or purchase with most titles available for $3.99 and $14.99, respectively. Google's own Videos app is not preinstalled but can be downloaded from Android Market.
Battery life and connectivity
The HTC Amaze 4G features a 1730mAh Lithium Ion battery for up to six hours of talk time or 11 days on standby.
Those are respectable numbers, but the whole point of an advanced multimedia handset like this is to stream audio and video, browse the web and connect to other devices while on the go.
So how does the Amaze 4G fare in daily use? After streaming an hour or two of video, checking email, Facebook and Path, web browsing and downloading a few apps on top of the usual talk and messaging, we consistently drained the battery down to 15 percent by the end of the day with a mix of Wi-Fi and 4G data access.
To be fair, this is pretty common with many modern smartphones, but a spare battery is recommended for power users.
In addition to the aforementioned Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot feature, the Amaze 4G also allows direct tethering to a computer via USB as well as Internet Pass-Through for using your computer's network connection with the handset.
Bluetooth 3.0, GPS/A-GPS and 802.11a/b/g/n complete the wireless connectivity checklist.
HDMI output is possible via the micro-USB 2.0 port, which also provides charging and mass storage device access on your PC or Mac. An NFC chip is included, but sadly this device cannot yet install Google Wallet from the Android Market to utilize it.
Maps and apps
The usual suspects come preinstalled on the HTC Amaze 4G: Google Maps and Navigation with Street View, which by now are familiar to all Android smartphone users.
We used built-in Navigation for a few quick road trips and it worked well with T-Mobile's 4G coverage, but certainly dinged the battery life for extended use. (The handset also includes a 30-day free trial for TeleNav GPS Navigator, which requires a monthly subscription fee of $9.99 thereafter.)
T-Mobile and HTC have conspired to load up the Amaze 4G with a variety of other apps and as usual, their usefulness ranges from good to useless. At the better end of the scale is My Account (a free app for keeping tabs on your T-Mo account), Flashlight (with three brightness levels) and Visual Voicemail, a decent emulation of the iPhone's implementation with optional Voicemail to Text feature for $3.99 per month (hint: you're better off going with free Google Voice for this).
Amaze users can create and edit Word or Excel files with Polaris Office, and a T-Mobile-branded version of Qik video chat and deal service More for Me also come bundled alongside paid features like T-Mobile Name ID ($3.99 per month just to identify unknown incoming callers) and T-Mobile Mall (for all your ringtone buying needs).
Among the more dubious inclusions: Peep (a marginal Twitter client), Music (do we really need this now that Google Music is so good?) and "Pro Apps," a weblink to free productivity apps like Dropbox, Evernote and LinkedIn that can be downloaded from Android Market.
HTC also jumps into the fray with the space-wasting offerings HTC Hub and HTC Likes, both requiring free HTC Sense signup. And before you ask, no, you can't delete any of this flotsam and jetsam from your device.
Hands on gallery
Overall, there's a lot to like about the HTC Amaze 4G. It feels great in the hand and offers just the right balance of size, shape and weight – not too big, not too small. But while the hardware end is solid (literally!), the software is a mish-mash of confusing and often contradictory ideals.
Sense isn't great. Once you get past the attractive home screen, it's kind of downhill from there, layering on too many options and too much confusion for the average user to bear.
The bloatware on the Amaze 4G is pretty substantial. It's already like a virus among the U.S. carriers, and The Amaze 4G triples the offense here with offerings from T-Mobile, manufacturer HTC, and some questionable third-party offerings we could live without.
Finally, the battery might not suffice for everyone. We had no problem draining the majority of the battery over the course of an average day, which makes us think twice about using the Amaze 4G under heavy working conditions, and might just entice some buyers toward the Razr Maxx.
The build quality of the HTC Amaze 4G is surprisingly great. Despite the raised glass edges, the Amaze 4G looks and feels great; there's no creaky plastic feel to this smartphone.
And while we might not need two designated camera buttons, being able to jump straight to still or video camera mode so quickly almost makes up for the mediocre video quality.
It doesn't rival Android's highest-end handsets, but the Amaze 4G's 4.3-inch qHD is colorful and bright enough for all but the most discerning eyeballs.
T-Mobile users are frequently left in the lurch when it comes to the latest and greatest handsets, but the HTC Amaze 4G makes the best of its overzealous software selection and split personality by taking advantage of network speeds that, at least for downloading, often rival even 4G LTE carriers.
Standing out in the crowd is a tough thing for most Android-based devices these days, as manufacturers and carriers continue to pile on new handsets almost weekly. The HTC Amaze 4G may not completely live up to its name, but it fits in nicely with the upper class of Android devices thanks to a better than average build quality alone.