By Brandon Miniman | February 9, 2011 3:35 PM
AT&T subscribers have been patiently waiting for a 4.3-inch Android phone, and it’s finally here with the Inspire 4G. Not only that, but the new smartphone ushers in the era of 4G HSPA+ connectivity over the AT&T network, providing speeds of up to 6Mbps down, which is a 2-3 times improvement over what you’ll get with standard 3G. In essence, the Inspire 4G is a Desire HD, but with a handful of updates made to the software and hardware to keep it fresh for AT&T. Read on for our full review.
Inside the box we have just the charger, but no headphones. The Inspire comes with an 8GB microSD class 2 card preinstalled.
Let’s go through the specifications. The Inspire 4G is running with a Qualcomm 1Ghz Snapdragon CPU supported by a plentiful 768MB of RAM and 1GB of ROM. The Super LCD display is 4.3″ and WVGA 800×480 resolution. For syncing and charging, you have microUSB, and for audio there is a 3.5mm jack with Dolby Mobile and SRS WOW HD enhancement when you use the stock music application. It has a proximity and light sensor, plus an accelerometer. For radios you have WiFi (with N support), Bluetooth, FM, and of course UMTS with HSPA+ support. The camera on the back can take 8MP photos and 720p videos, and it includes a dual LED flash to illuminate dark subjects. Powering everything is a 1230 mAh battery.
The Inspire is a conservatively-designed device, and resembles the Desire HD in most respects. In features a vast 4.3-inch Super LCD screen, adorned with a chrome earpiece on the top, and four flat capacitive touch buttons on the bottom. There’s also a useful green LED notification in the earpiece, which can be configured to show you an indication of missed calls, emails, SMS, and more. In-hand, the Inspire feels substantial and high quality. At 164 grams, it’s not a lightweight, but that’s par for the course with a device with such a large display.
We found the screen sensitivity of the Inspire 4G to be perhaps that best we’ve ever experienced. If you tilt the device in the light just right, you see a close grid pattern of dots on the screen. Typically we see a grid, just not as tightly packed. Perhaps this explains why the screen is so sensitive.
On the left side of the device is a tall metallic volume rocker. Also over here you can see the strangely-placed battery cover. More on this later.
On the top we have the metallic power/standby button.
And on the bottom we have the 3.5mm headphone jack, plus the microUSB port. Lacking is an HDMI output, which would have been nice.
The back is a mix of metal and plastic, giving the device a quality look and feel. Back here you can see the dual LED flash (which is often TOO bright, as we’ll find later) next to the 8MP camera and speaker grill. Also note the second microphone near the flash used for noise cancellation.
Gaining access to the battery or SIM card/microSD card is a bit unusual, as you can see here. While the bottom hatch is easy to open and replace, the side hatch is a headache. Fortunately, most people won’t need to access the battery often.
The Super LCD screen, while not as contrasty as an AMOLED display, provided a fantastic level of clarity and color reproduction. Outdoor visibilty was fantastic. Overall, the display on the Inspire 4G is a winner.
If you’re looking for a vanilla installation of Android 2.2, you won’t find it here. The Inspire 4G features HTC’s latest and greatest version of Sense UI, which leaves practically every stock element of the operating system modified with a different visual style.
It all starts on the home screen, where some changes have been made compared to previous HTC Android phones. As before, you get seven homescreens, which unfortunately you can’t bump up or down, even if you use a number other than seven. Hitting the button to the right of the Phone icon will bring you to the Personalize screen, which you can use to add widgets, change wallpaper, set ringtones, and more. You get four new widgets through clicking the “add more” button, which links to HTC servers: dice, word of the day, translator, and fortune cookie. Beyond that, you get the typical HTC widgets like clock with weather, bookmarks, calculator, FM radio, footprints, friend stream, mail, my shelf, people, photo album, and more. You still can’t resize HTC widgets, which can be a pain since most of them can take up an entire homescreen (but hey, maybe that’s why they give you seven).
Then, Sense can be found in nearly every other UI element, which now can be skinned to a variety colors and textures with skins that come preloaded on the Inspire, plus others that you can get from HTC servers. The notification tray adds a list of recently used programs; the email application has a big “compose” button (making it easier to reach than in stock Android) with tabs along the bottom to filter between various message states; the settings have been colorized with the addition of a power saver feature to conserve battery life at critical levels, plus settings for the LED notification; the People application draws contacts from Facebook and LinkedIn; the Gallery application has a beautiful scrolling effect and can integrate with cloud-based photography services; and much more.
HTC has added some applications that you might not have found on previous generation phones from the company. The HTC Hub lets you access other HTC assets such as addition scenes (which are premade widget configurations for your homescreens), wallpapers, ringtones, and more. Not only that, but these HTC assets are scrollable through a beautiful Cover-Flow-like animation. There’s even a Reader application (that uses Kobo books) which features this interface.
Then there’s the HTC Likes application which suggests apps for you to download. This is ideal for someone who is new to Android.
Another great feature of this version of Sense is that it integrates with the cloud through HTCSense.com, for free. After you make an account, you can remotely manage your phone in many respects: you can track it on a map, you can remotely lock or wipe it, and more. Previously, you could even remotely install widgets, wallpapers, and other assets through the HTCSense.com website, but those features have since been put on hiatus as HTC optimized the website for better performance.
The typing experience on the Inspire 4G is really top-notch. HTC brought back its trio of keyboards: the standard QWERTY, the T9, and the SureType. These keyboards, coupled with a high level of screen sensitivity, provide one of the best typing experiences we’ve ever seen on a touchscreen phone.
To be honest, we aren’t always so fond of the heavy changes HTC brings to the table with the Sense interface because they tend to slow down the device with unnecessary eye candy. This time around, though, with a fantastic level of performance, we welcome the Sense UI with open arms.
Video quality, at 720p HD, was above average compared to other phones we’ve recently tested. Noise was kept to a minimum, audio was crisp (sorry about the wind!), and color saturation seemed reasonable.
Despite running on the soon-to-be last-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255 CPU, the Inspire 4G is no slouch. In fact, it beat the Nexus S in Quadrant, scoring around 1800. Thanks to a copious 768MB of RAM, the Inspire 4G multitasks like a champ, and tends to keep many programs in memory, so that opening them is nearly instant.
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
We wrote at length about how AT&T is misleading customers regarding the HSPA+ data speeds on the Inspire 4G. In summary: whether you’re on the faster 4G speed or the slower 3G speed, you will always see the “H+” indicator at the top of the screen. If you look in the user manual, it explicitly states that an “H+” means “4G Network Connected.” And yet, we’re obviously not connected to a 4G network because our data speeds are slow, even slower than 3G speeds clocked on a Nexus One.
What also rubs us the wrong way is AT&T’s marketing material. It claims that 100+ million people are covered with their HSPA+ network…but…only in places where there is “enhanced backhaul.” Unfortunately AT&T doesn’t make it public where this enhanced backhaul is, so we’re not really sure where to go to achieve 4G speeds.
We’re going to give AT&T the benefit of the doubt that in short time its 4G network will have wide coverage.
In terms of call quality, the Inspire 4G was great…no dropped calls.
Battery life on the Inspire 4G is a bit below average. With very heavy use, you might not get through an entire day. With moderate usage, you’ll make it easily through a day.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
On February 14, the Inspire 4G will be available from AT&T for $99, which is a very reasonable price for a high end phone. You’ll need to pay the tethering fee of $20 which will give you 4GB of data in order to use the WiFi Hotspot app.
+ Display has fantastic color and contrast, excellent sensitivity
+ HTC Sense UI enhancements are found everywhere
+ Great performance
+ HSPA+ capable on AT&T with up to 6Mbps down
+ Fantastic build quality
+ Above average camera
+ Terrific on-screen keyboard options
+ LED notification is useful
+ DLNA support
- A bit heavy
- HSPA+ support isn’t as widely deployed as thought
- No HDMI
- No front-facing camera
- Difficult to access battery
- LED flash is too bright
Again, we’re going to give AT&T the benefit of the doubt on the HSPA+ situation. It’s unfortunate that we were unable to test the true capability of the Inspire 4G because we don’t have access to the faster speeds, despite moving within a 50 mile radius of Philadelphia to find the enhanced connectivity.
The Inspire 4G is an extremely well-rounded phone. The screen is gorgeous, the software is well-tuned, and it is a bit “future proof” in its ability to do data speeds that are 2-3x faster than what you can get on 3G today. If you’re looking for one of the best large-screen Android phones on the market today, the Inspire 4G is hard to beat.
We rate the HTC Inspire 4G at 4.5/5.