When we look back over the history of mobile telephony in Australia some years down the track, we'll remember that Telstra was the first telco to offer 4G. Its long-term evolution (LTE) network, which launched at the end of September last year, will be unique in this country for more than six months before Optus rolls out a similar network upgrade in 2012. This is a milestone for our industry, but does that automatically make its first 4G smartphone a winner by proxy?
The HTC Velocity is most certainly a chip off the old HTC mono-block. With a 4.5-inch screen, the Velocity is a little larger than last year's best phones, and it's also noticeably heavier (at 163 grams). HTC opts for a stiff plastic chassis on this handset, with a sharp, angular design that certainly helps the Velocity look and feel more like a business phone than some of its nearest competitors.
The Super-LCD display is as bright and sharp as we've seen from the Taiwanese company of late. The Velocity benefits from a qHD resolution display (960x540 pixels) and while this isn't as many pixels per inch as you'll find on the Google Galaxy Nexus or iPhone 4S, it is a pleasing screen to use all the same. We have found that we've needed to set the screen brightness to a level higher than we usually do on other phones. Not that this screen is dull — it is eye-achingly bright on its 100 per cent setting — but the brightness scale doesn't seem consistent, and at the 60 per cent brightness setting the screen is starting to lose comfortable visibility.
As with HTC's best releases of last year, the Velocity has only the bare minimum of inputs around the edge of the handset. There is a large volume rocker on the right-hand side and a USB port on the left. You can expand the handset's internal memory by removing the battery and inserting a microSD card in the provided slot. There isn't a TV-out option as there is on a number of other handsets, but you can use the USB port as a video-out port if you have the right Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) adapter.
Sense UI and performance
The really disappointing part for fans of HTC phones is that the Velocity doesn't ship with an updated version of the company's Sense user interface (UI); instead you get the same version of the software found on the Sensation XE last year (minus the Beats Audio elements).
The consolation prize is that this version of Sense runs better on the Velocity than it has on the HTC handsets we saw at the end of 2011 (though the Sensation XE isn't very far behind). HTC employs a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor and 1GB RAM to power this mini-computer and the result is smooth sailing across the board. In our short time with the Velocity we haven't experienced any crashes, and only some very minor lag.
Battery life will be a concern for heavy users, but not so much otherwise. We found in our tests that 4G connectivity did have a detrimental effect on battery life, but that the phone helps counter this with excellent standby battery usage. It is entirely possible to chew through 30 per cent of the phone's remaining charge in an hour of solid use, but when left in standby, the battery drain is only 1 or 2 per cent each hour.
While this battery life may suffice for some, we can guarantee that the heat this battery generates will please no one. Most smartphones give off a certain amount of heat with use, but the Velocity takes this a grade further, with the handset heating to uncomfortable levels from about 10 minutes of continuous use. As part of our standard testing we ran a continuous web browsing test until the battery completely discharged. The test took two hours and 20 minutes, and at the end we were surprised not to see smoke rise from behind the screen due to the heat this phone was giving off.
4G: ready for prime time?
In a way, the Velocity isn't being sold as the next big thing from HTC, rather it's the next big thing for Telstra. The Velocity is the pilot 4G smatphone for Telstra, a handset that should indicate what this network is capable of, but if we're honest — the 4G experience has been mightily underwhelming.
For starters, the phone is almost never connected to the 4G network, even when we have used it within the designated 4G coverage zone in Sydney's CBD. When it is connected to the LTE network, it typically reports a weak-looking signal — one or two bars of coverage. That said, a weak 4G signal is still capable of outpacing 3G data speeds. Speed tests we've run have been impressive even with only a bar or two of coverage, typically achieving results between 10 and 30Mbps.
Speed tests conducted around parts of Sydney's CBD and surrounding suburbs show how limited the 4G network currently is. All speeds are in kilobits per second (Kbps).
But when you're looking at real-world web browsing, this is only half of the equation, and it's the other half that really slows this experience down. The Velocity runs on the latest version of Android Gingerbread (2.3.7) and is powered by one of the fastest processors available at this time, and yet its performance in web benchmarks is surprisingly average. When you add all of this together, the combination of 4G, the software and the hardware, the overall web-browsing experience is good, but it's not as fast as we've seen on a smartphone, and certainly not worthy of the "Australia's fastest smartphone" branding that Telstra is using to promote it.
The 4G speeds shine through better when the Velocity is tethered to a laptop and the internet connection is shared. With a more capable web browser at your disposal, the raw speed is far more noticeable. But then, if this is how you plan to use your data, we'd recommend you consider buying one of Telstra's excellent 4G USB modems and a different phone entirely.
Perhaps our greatest surprise during this review process was when we discovered just how good the 8-megapixel camera on the Velocity is. With all the talk of 4G and its somewhat boring business design, we were quite surprised by the uniformly excellent results of the collection of photos we took. The Velocity doesn't look like a hipster handset, but it may be the phone they turn to for its excellent photographic capabilities.
Colour captured with the 8-megapixel camera on the Velocity 4G appears vibrant but natural.
Notice in this pic that the foreground is blurred while the background is in focus. This was shot on a moving bus and helps show the speed of this camera's shutter.
Besides heavily customising the Android user experience, HTC also pre-installs a collection of (mostly) useful and unique apps. The standouts in HTC's app arsenal are its multimedia offerings. HTC Watch is a movie rental service that improves with each new HTC release we have the opportunity to review. The individual titles are a little on the expensive side, but there is now a range of 99-cent rentals to choose from, which makes the service more attractive.
HTC Watch is a far more attractive app with 99¢ rentals.
HTC's partnership with Kobo ebooks is also worth noting. The Reader app is clean and easy to use, and with ebooks available off the Kobo library makes this worth a browse if you don't already own an e-reader.
One of the few disappointments in this suite of apps is the new Usage Monitor tool. This app details your data usage, calls and messages made and received over a month, and while this is handy, we wish it was a little more detailed. There is no way, for example, to track which apps are using the most data, or to set limits or reminders for excessive data use.
Telstra's first 4G phone is definitely good, but it's not great. Based on its user experience and performance, the Velocity is much like the smartphones we saw from HTC at the end of last year, but delivered in a bulkier, heavier package. It performs well as an everyday smartphone, especially suited to a business user, but it doesn't live up to the title of "Australia's fastest phone" for tasks like web browsing or browsing the Android Market. It is one of the more expensive handsets available, though.