HTC Incredible 4G LTE Review
The latest little Droid Incredible is here. It sounds like a kids’ cartoon show about a heroic but diminutive robot, but it’s not. It’s a smartphone.
Actually, it’s more than just a smartphone, or an HTC phone, or even an Android phone. This device is a “Droid.” The brand that catapulted Android into relevance in the United States. To most Americans, any Android phone is a “Droid;” the terms are interchangeable to the common person. But that’s not how Verizon sees it. Though the carrier offers many Android-based smartphones, it reserves the “Droid” moniker for the devices it plans on pushing. The ones it wants to move. The stars.
There are exceptions, of course -the Samsung Galaxy S III isn’t branded as such- but the superstar rosters of Verizon Wireless’ lineup are almost always stacked heavily in favor of “true Droids.”
Like the Motorola Atrix HD, the latest Droid Incredible -awkwardly dubbed the “Droid Incredible 4G LTE”- is the third evolution of a brand dating back to 2010. Also like its Motorola cousin, the new Incredible follows a unique, well-respected originator, and a less-impressive sequel.
Is the third time the charm for HTC and Verizon Wireless? Does the new device live up to its storied progenitors? Will we be able to make it through this entire review without uttering a single “incredible” pun? Read on to find out.
The device packs a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 CPU running at 1.2GHz. That’s augmented by 1GB of RAM and 8GB of on-board storage, with microSD expansion available up to an additional 32GB. A word of warning: you’ll probably be making use of that card slot. The user-accessible onboard memory totals only 4.8 GB out of the box.
On the radio front, WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and DLNA are all here, as is NFC. A Verizon exclusive, the phone supports both CDMA and LTE air interfaces; 800/1900MHz for the former, and 700MHz Class 13 for the latter.
A smaller phone usually means a smaller display, and that’s true of this latest Incredible: the S-LCD screen measures a full 4 inches in the diagonal but feels smaller due to the slim bezels along the sides. The display packs a 540×960-pixel resolution at 275ppi; that’s lower than the pixel density found on devices like Motorola’s Atrix HD and the “Retina”-class iPhone 4S, but the display doesn’t suffer too much for it; in fact, we found the Incredible 4G LTE’s screen to be quite sharp under most viewing conditions.
Powering all this, nestled directly beneath the new Incredible’s 8MP BSI camera and hiding under quite a roomy back cover, is a 1700mAh battery. It’s rated for 9.5 hours of talk time -or a full 18 days of standby- but power users rejoice: the battery is removable if you want to carry a spare in your wallet.
We knew the Droid Incredible 4G LTE was something special the minute it arrived at our door; like the phone itself, the packaging it arrived in was diminutive.
That’s a big part of the new Incredible’s immediately apparent charm: compared to the jumbophones -and even the midrange handsets- that have crossed our desks in the past few months, the phone really seems tiny. Its 122mm x 61mm frontal measurements render it an eminently clutch-able, delightfully pocketable little smartphone. It’s not going to win any awards for slimness at 11.7mm thick, but it doesn’t need to; the added depth means it sits in the palm better than most phones in its size range.
That comfy in-hand feel is helped along by the device’s back cover, which resurrects the aggressive “muscle car” styling of the original Incredible. The textured, asymmetric bulge dominating the center of the cover follows the contours of the hand nicely. It makes the Incredible 4G LTE much more visually interesting than its immediate predecessor, which was a victim of HTC’s “year of boring.” The daring use of asymmetric elements continues toward the phone’s edges, where a glossy upper-left corner serves as a counterpoint to the understated Beats logo in the lower-right. The offset, red-ringed camera lens with adjacent LED flash completes the look.
Around front, HTC’s trio of capacitive buttons sits under the display, their smallish icons visually grounding the device. The rest of the phone’s front side is featureless, save for the red-accented earpiece grille, barely visible VGA (!) front-facing camera, and tiny notification LED hidden under the glass. Verizon’s oversized logo presides over the display, reminding everyone who’s boss.
The Droid Incredible 4G LTE is a magnificent device to handle. Its 132 grams make it feel hearty in the hand, while its small footprint preserves its portability and, as we mentioned in our Huawei Ascend P1 review, the unit’s smaller size somehow makes it feel more advanced, with all that technology packed into a relatively diminutive casing.
It’s not all ice-cream cake and birthday clowns, of course; the smaller screen means smaller touch targets, and adapting to life at the 4″ display size is harder these days than it once was. Also, reviewing several devices in a row with side-mounted lock buttons has convinced us of the utility of that design: The new Incredible cries out for a side-mounted lock key where its volume rocker sits, and even after several days of use, we still found ourselves instinctively thumbing the volume-up key in a vain attempt to unlock the phone. Lefties will no doubt have another opinion, but we think this would have brought the new Incredible that much closer to hardware perfection.
As mentioned above, we found the Incredible 4G LTE’s display to be more than adequate in most situations, ranging from dark rooms to sunlit days at the beach. The S-LCD panel’s color reproduction is lovely, and blacks are rendered as darkly as can be expected in the absence of a S-AMOLED display.
In all, we’re very much fans of this Droid’s hardware. Those looking for a device that slots in somewhere between the micro- and jumbo-phones of today would be hard-pressed to find something that feels as good as the Droid Incredible 4G LTE, from the palm to the pocket to the purse.
The Droid Incredible 4G LTE runs the latest iteration of HTC Sense -version 4- on top of Android 4.0.3. We were introduced to the new HTC Sense earlier this year during our review of the HTC One X, where we said, “skins aren’t always a picnic, but if we’re going to be forced to use one, we want the new Sense. It strikes the right balance of utility and beauty, while remaining lightweight enough to stay out of Android’s way (most of the time). And it’s really gorgeous on this display.”
Once you get past the nice tutorial screens on initial setup, that holds true today- though given how taken we were with the new version of TouchWiz on the Galaxy S III, HTC’s skin certainly has serious competition these days. But we really enjoyed being reunited with some of the best aspects of HTC Sense, like the cards-based multitasking view, innovative unlock screen shortcuts, and cohesive UI elements. There are thoughtful touches throughout the interface, handy little shortcuts that make life easier- like the persistent link to the Google Play Store in the launcher, for when the app you’re hunting for isn’t there because it hasn’t been installed yet. There’s also HTC’s bevy of homescreen widgets, some of which are quite useful: we especially like the messaging widget, which converts SMS messages into a row of vertically-scrollable cards.
Some of the downsides aren’t HTC’s fault, or at least not directly. HTC might’ve recently sold back part of its stake in Beats, but that hasn’t resulted in any relief from a UI standpoint. The premium-audio suite still possesses an annoying need to brand itself at every opportunity, the red Beats logo glowing ominously from the top-left corner of the notification tray whenever audio is being played through headphones. “I’m Beats! Remember, you’re listening to enhanced Beats audio!” it seems to say. This is especially noticeable when Spotify or another streaming app is running, which causes the Beats notification to fight to stay on top every time the track switches. It’s pretty annoying.
Verizon has also done its part to muck up the notification area: as we previously reported on, it’s converted the WiFi toggle into a persistent notification. The WiFi icon always stays in the tray, reminding you that, even if you don’t currently have WiFi turned on, you could if you wanted to. It won’t bother everyone, but for those who like keeping their notification tray clear so that incoming messages can be quickly identified, this senseless perversion of the notification system will likely prove a real pain.
In a break from our less-than-stellar experiences on the Huawei Ascend P1 and Motorola Atrix HD, the Incredible 4G LTE’s out-of-box keyboard didn’t make us want to immediately replace it. We still hate that OEMs can’t resist the urge to mess with the excellent stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard, but HTC has crafted one which is visually quite striking. It’s a bit crowded, owing to the small display size, but it has much better autocorrect than we’ve seen elsewhere, at least in US-English mode. The haptic feedback, though, is inconsistent; key presses don’t always trigger a haptic “buzz,” and this inconsistency shakes our confidence when typing quickly. Also, the shortcuts to punctuation and alternate characters aren’t as intuitively-placed as on other devices. So you may still find yourself wanting to replace the HTC keyboard. That said, it’s certainly useable, and even enjoyable, and the average consumer will probably do just fine with typing on the Incredible 4G LTE. Especially in landscape mode.
Overall, Sense 4 on the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE delivers much of the same user experience as it did on the HTC One X. The skin offers some very useful customizations along with some not-so-useful chrome, and the end result is a smartphone OS that’s quite enjoyable to use. It’s still a skin atop Android, though, and not the lightest one out there: users should expect the occasional stutter and lag, and we saw a bit of that in our time with the device. The interface is no speed demon, but it’ll get you where you’re trying to go, and you’ll probably enjoy the ride.
As in other corners of the UI, firing up the camera on the new Incredible gives us a quick pang of nostalgia for the One X. It’s no mistake that the first installment of our “Empty Nest” series features that device. It’s not just fond memories, though; so many of the camera interface elements that HTC brings to smartphones just make sense.
The unified viewfinder makes its return here, and continues to make all the sense in the world: to shoot stills, press one button; to start recording video, press the other. Both buttons are on the screen continuously, and you can even snap stills while recording video- a relatively new feature already becoming common on higher-end smartphones.
We’re happy to see that HDR shooting mode is back, which we really enjoyed on the Samsung Galaxy S III, and sorely missed on the Motorola Atrix HD. On the new Incredible, this mode is handy, but also too aggressive; it often “cartoon-ifies” photos, generating artificial-looking halos around them. There’s a middle ground that HTC is missing here. Still, it’s a great feature to have available, even with this deficiency.
There’s the usual array of high-end features throughout the software, including panorama mode, face detection, smile capture, macro, portrait, low-light settings, and a host of others. Some of these features are more useful than others, but they’re all nice to have. We particularly like the slow-motion video feature, which ups the frame rate to around 100 fps for capturing golf swings, firecracker explosions, or whatever it is you kids are doing these days.
In all, the camera delivers good results, particularly outdoors. Indoor or dimly-lit areas produce shots that tend to fall a little on the gloomy side, but the effect isn’t as bad here as on some other smartphones we’ve played with recently. Video is sharp and clear at 1080p, and the white balance and exposure auto-correct keeps up pretty well with changing lighting conditions. The 8MP lens does protrude from the casing in traditional HTC fashion, though, so make sure you wipe it clean between shoot sessions.
The gallery features some of Sense’s more annoying tweaks, with sharing options defaulting to the HTC Facebook and Twitter apps. You can get around this, but it takes a while for the device to learn your preferences. Also, failing to set up these Sense-ified social apps results in a real annoyance if you accidentally try uploading a photo to one of them; an upload-in-progress indicator lodges itself in the notification bar, never progressing but never disappearing, even after a restart. We remember having this problem on the AT&T version of the One X as well, and wish HTC would give up on some of Sense’s social elements already.
Those minor quibbles aside, the newest Incredible boasts a camera that, while not best-in-class, certainly brings a lot to the table. It should satisfy all but the most demanding mobile photographers.
This device isn’t a powerhouse, and it’s not being marketed as such. Still, with a name like “Incredible,” customers are going to expect some impressive performance. We’ve put the device through our usual run of benchmarks, and here’s what it’s delivering with its current software build:
Benchmark values aside, we find the Incredible HD’s day-to-day performance to be just fine for an upper-midrange device. As mentioned above, the Sense skin does put the brakes on Android 4.0.3 at times, but it’s definitely livable. We don’t mind the occasional widget delay or launcher stutter if the majority of the software is responsive, and that’s the case here. Jumping into and out of HTC’s multitasking display is speedy, as is scrolling and responsiveness throughout the OS.
The Droid Incredible 4G LTE works well as a personal media player; we’ve mainly stuck to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, and the device and network keep up just fine. While we continue to find the Beats equalizer to be heavy-handed, we have to admit it does a lot to spice up a song being streamed over the network. Like adding hot sauce to a flavorless dish, throwing a bunch of bass and volume at a low-bitrate song does improve the listening experience somewhat- as long as you don’t listen too closely. It might not be the most elegant solution, and any audiophile reading this has probably already stormed off in disgust, but Beats is definitely a nice thing to have on board.
Gaming isn’t the first thing most users think of when laying eyes on a 4″ device, let alone one with a dual-core, 1.2GHz processor. That said, if you want to game on the new Incredible, you shouldn’t have a problem as long as you’re not trying something too extensive. For what it’s worth, the device handled our old standby, X-Plane 9, quite well.
Like Motorola’s Atrix HD, the Droid Incredible 4G LTE offers a battery whose capacity falls a little on the low side. At 1700maH, the cell pales in comparison to the 2100mAh pack offered standard with the Galaxy S III, but it’s proved surprisingly hardy in our tests. It’s not going to win any awards for longevity -very few smartphones these days would- but it’s got some staying power.
Our stress test took place while preparing this review, so it was an uncharacteristically technical endeavor. It included a full suite of four benchmark tests, a number of network speed tests, about fifty photos transferred via Bluetooth, and taking a few videos and photos. There was also an hour of Google Navigation thrown in there, for the lunchtime commute. In the afternoon, the device endured a full reset and restore from a blank state, with all accompanying syncing and downloading. That download included several large applications, such as X-Plane 9, and its accompanying media packs, all over LTE. Under this situation, with near-constant use, the device lasted just over 6.5 hours.
That means power users will still want to pack a spare battery, charger, or power pack. But it also means that normal folks -the everyday users that comprise a large portion of the Incredible 4G LTE’s target market- should get through a full day just fine.
Call Quality/Network Performance
We initially had some trouble getting solid data speeds out of our Droid Incredible 4G LTE, and were concerned about what that meant for the device’s performance. Fortunately, the blame didn’t lie in the device but in the user; we’d forgotten to reset our device to factory conditions before setup. The lesson: never underestimate the power of a good, clean, factory reset, especially if you’re dealing with a used phone (review device or not).
After the reset was finished and we’d synced the device back up with our personal accounts, it flew. We averaged download speeds around 20Mbps and upload speeds around half that, on Verizon’s LTE network in the Greater Boston area.
Similarly, voice calls were child’s play for the device. Callers said we came through “loud and clear,” and sound on our end was equally good. Even the speakerphone performed fairly well; callers said we sounded even louder when speakerphone mode was enabled. The sound was predictably tinny but plenty loud, and full duplexing is in full effect here, for those who like interrupting others mid-sentence.
The upshot: in both voice and data modes, the Incredible 4G LTE shines as a mobile phone.
+ Pocket-friendly build, great feel in hand
+ Eye-catching visual design
+ Solid network performance
+ Fully-featured camera
+ Good battery life
+ Good call quality
- HTC Sense occasionally lags
- Verizon’s UI tweaks are annoying
- Unremarkable benchmark performance
- Front-facing camera is VGA only
Pricing and Availability
The Droid Incredible 4G LTE is available through all Verizon Wireless consumer sales channels. It’s priced at $ 199 with a two-year contract ($ 149.99 if you get it online) and $ 499.99 at full retail price.
The Droid Incredible 4G LTE takes what’s great about the Incredible brand’s legacy and makes it better, while minimizing the shortcomings of the devices that came before it. It’ll seem a little pricy to customers shopping on the spec sheet alone, and not everyone will be a fan of its smaller stature in this age of jumbo-phones. But don’t let its small size fool you: the Droid Incredible 4G LTE is a wonderfully capable smart phone. If it helps you to think of it as a pared-down HTC One X, that’s somewhat accurate- but more importantly, it’s a great device at a great price that goes a long way toward living up to its lofty brand name.
Scored For Me