Damn you HTC and your product titles that cry out for corny gags! It was bad enough with the HTC Dream, the company's first Android-powered handset, but the Magic is 10 times worse. How are we supposed to review this phone without referring to Harry Potter, Houdini or Siegfried and Roy?
Those interested in the differences between the HTC Dream and the HTC Magic will find the most outstanding changes in its physical design. Gone is the Dream's bulky size, and with it, its full-size QWERTY keyboard. Instead, the Magic makes use of a 3.2-inch HVGA (480x320) touchscreen display with a built-in software keyboard. This omission means the Magic is impressively slimmer, and we also find it to be much sleeker and sexier too. Our review unit is a glossy black number with small silver navigation keys under the screen and a 3-megapixel camera lens on the back.
We really like the size and shape of the Magic; a colleague in the US referred to it as being slim with a chin. The chin is a small, curved lip around the base of the phone, visible from side-on, which really helps to hold the phone comfortably in your palm. This shape appears to assist with single-handed operation, with most common tasks being simple to complete with just one hand, and thanks as well to a jogwheel tucked away beneath the Magic's display.
To discuss more about the physical aspects of the phone, the interface and navigation, is to talk about the latest incarnation of Google's Android. This operating platform is now version 1.5, codenamed "cupcake", and is quite similar to the original version of Android launched with the HTC Dream, with a few tweaks and additions.
Navigation is identical to the previous phone, the touchscreen gestures are intuitive and the Magic responds to these well. From the home screen, dragging a finger left or right will show extra space for customised shortcuts; dragging from the top will draw down the notifications panel, showing new messages and missed calls; and dragging up from the bottom opens the applications window.
One of the major enhancements is the inclusion of an on-screen keyboard, with a landscape mode for when the phone is tipped to the side. At first glance this keyboard may seem too small to use accurately, but what Google has achieved is one of the best predictive text experiences we've come across. We've found the best way to type a message is to type as fast as possible, making sure we strike keys in the vicinity of the correct letter each time and the software does the rest, auto-correcting mistakes with astounding accuracy.
The growing Android Market is also worth a mention in this review. Though its 3500 applications seem small compared to the whopping 35,000 apps of the Apple App Store, we are consistently impressed with the quality on display. Cupcake also adds widget functionality to the Android, so expect to see the Market swell with various widgets for the home screen very soon.
As with the iPhone, most of the software shortcomings of the Magic are redeemable with Android Market downloads. The lack of Microsoft Exchange support, the simplicity of the camera and the absence of Java app support are all addressed by one or several of the apps on the store. Check out our Android starter kit for suggestions about which apps to download first. A little warning though — some of the apps can be a bit buggy, more than we've experienced using the Apple App Store. Become familiar with how to remove apps using the Settings menu so you can ditch those apps that need more work.
Multimedia and the web
To buy an HTC Magic is to have made a tough decision. Do you value internet access over multimedia? If you're looking for a multimedia-capable phone then the Magic isn't for you. It is capable of playing a small selection of media file types; MP4 and 3GP video plus a range of audio including MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV and OGG, but it's a long way from seeming like a competent media companion. During our tests, video files all but refused to play — the phone complaining about bitrates and screen sizes without the ability to downscale a file before playback. Music playback is fine, but the Magic lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack and HTC does not include an adapter in the box. Instead you are stuck using the bundled hands-free kit and this is far from ideal. An excellent YouTube app makes up for this somewhat, especially if you love "keyboard cat" videos.
Luckily, the Magic is much better at surfing the web. Its Webkit browser is fantastic, with fast load times, decent navigation and a full desktop-like viewing experience. Cupcake also adds a Google search bar at the top of the home screen, so you are always one-click away from finding an answer to just about any question. Additional pre-installed Google services; Maps, Calendar, GMail and GoogleTalk are all excellent. Internet connections are made by using HSDPA network functionality (900/2100MHz UMTS) or Wi-Fi. We have found the connectivity to be finicky at times, with web-enabled applications struggling to make a connection even while the phone displays 3G connectivity or an established Wi-Fi connection.
If there's one good reason to buy an Android phone, it's the performance of this platform. Both the Dream and Magic share the same zippy performance, with the transitions from home screen to applications windows and the execution of applications being completely seamless and with almost no visible lagging or stuttering pauses. What impresses us most is the way the phone continues to perform so well with multiple background tasks being performed simultaneously. We downloaded a Microsoft Exchange mail client from the Android Market called RoadSync and ran it in the background alongside numerous other frequently updating processes, like a weather widget, and the Magic continued to chug along without a hiccup.
Battery life was a major concern with the HTC Dream, and while we can't say the Magic significantly improves on this problem, it is better. In our experience, we managed to get through at least a day and a half between charges with push notifications on in the background, or about 12 hours with heavy downloads over Wi-Fi. This should be sufficient for most people in a standard working day.
We like the Magic, maybe even love it a little bit, but we can't deny being disappointed at the parts of this phone that are missing. The Magic is perfect for young, hip, tech-savvy types for whom the lack of decent multimedia will be a major turn off, especially when compared with the iPhone's excellent iPod capabilities. This wouldn't be such a huge problem if it shipped with an iTunes-like syncing and conversion software, but it doesn't.
Confusingly, the Magic will be released in Australia in two variants; one offered by Vodafone with a couple of consumer-focused additions like geotagging, and the other offered by 3 Mobile with baked in Microsoft ActicSync compatibility. Pricing also differs greatly, with 3 offering a "free" phone for AU$99 and Voda for AU$69. Vodafone also bundles data with the plan while 3 customers will need to add a data plan at an extra cost — a significant consideration for a phone that surfs the web so beautifully.