The HTC EVO 4G Smartphone Signals Our Tech Future

The old days of annual phone announcements are gone forever. I say good riddance, because it was boring.  A week doesn’t go by without another smartphone announcement, and this is exciting not just for the consumer, but also for the technologist. Why for both? Consumers are finally getting the capabilities in their phones that they could historically only get in a PC and a whole lot more, and technologists are impressed with the bleeding edge technology at break neck speed. The new HTC EVO 4G exemplifies just this and I wanted to share with you my first impressions after using it for a week but more importantly what this signals about our tech future.

I want to say first that this isn’t a comprehensive review of the EVO 4G. There are some very good ones available from PCMagjkOnTheRunAllThingsDigital and Laptopmag. What I want to share are the new and differentiating features and their implications for the future.

WiFi Hotspot
The HTC EVO 4G can act just like a standard WiFi wireless router in your work and home. It allows up to eight devices to connect to it and share its 3G or 4G internet connection. This service is an extra charge.

This hotspot feature is beneficial in a lot of different scenarios. If you are away from home or work you can have 3G/4G internet from your WiFi enabled notebook, netbook, tablet or personal media player like an iPod or Zune. Additionally, this can even help you save money, time and hassle because you are only paying for one wireless account.

The alternative is to have a wireless account for each device or buy a 3G/4G USB dongle plus service for the notebook and netbook. Also, a few phones allow tethering over Bluetooth and USB. Bluetooth can be difficult to setup, is unreliable, and has limited range. USB tethering is clunky as it requires a cord which limits distance and is sometimes difficult to setup. WiFi is fast enough, offers good distance from the “router”, and most everyone knows how to connect WiFi.

One very impressive feature is that while others are connected to the phone, you can still use the phone! When I tested it, I was driving 70mph down the highway while one of my kids was connected to it and I was streaming Pandora and had a driving navigation program running; all without stuttering. One note on the WiFi Hotspot feature is that it will drain your battery very quickly while using it. I recommend plugging in the phone when using the feature.

4G Wireless
The HTC EVO is the first phone in the US that supports 4G wireless technology. It is based upon WiMax technology, not LTE.

In theory, 4G based on WiMax provides a maximum download speed of 75 mbps. Faster internet speed of course means less waiting for the current content or richer content, like video, in the same time.

Sprint advertises its 4G WiMax speeds at “Peak download speeds of more than 10 Mbps” and “average download speeds of 3-6 Mbps”. In Austin during my week-long and very unscientific tests using the OOKLA Android app, the best download speed I ever got was 3.335 mbps. On average I got around 1.5 Mbps down. This was in the northeast, central, and southwest parts of Austin. Yes, my average 1.5 Mbps is much different from the 3-6 Mbps average speeds above and well off the 75 Mbps theoretical maximum.

This is not some speed conspiracy; it’s just the sad reality of wireless claims that have been used for years. First, theoretical Wimax speed is only between a single client and towers, not with multiple users going through the backhaul or to the internetwork or the server you are pulling content from. Secondly, upgrading a wireless network is a massive, expensive and long term undertaking. Carriers need to upgrade physical towers, build new ones in some cases, upgrade or replace new backhaul capabilities, and in most cases install all new software. Whew! Yes, upgrading a network is a very difficult thing to do. As with red wine, most networks get better with time and I expect that the network will get better with age. This happened with 1G, 2G, 3G, and I expect it will happen with 4G.

720P HD Video Camera
Up until the last few months, most smartphones could take videos up to 480P resolution at between 24 and 30 fps at up to 2 mbps. This is ok if you are just viewing on a small smartphone screen but not very good if you want to view on a PC or TV. The HTC EVO 4G can take HD 720P videos at 24 fps at 6 mbps. In comparison, a Kodak Zi6 palmcordertakes HD 720P videos at up to 60/30 fps at 11/9 mbps. After looking at the videos I took, I am not going to get rid of my HD palmcorder anytime soon. My eyes do notice a 6 fps difference and the capture quality just isn’t there. The video is particularly grainy in lower light and when zooming in and watching it on an HDTV. For casual use with videos you don’t want to keep for 20 years it may be fine, but for anything else I recommend a real camcorder or palmcorder. The quality level may be a function of the software not the hardware as early reports of the iPhone 4′s HD video prowessare surfacing. I am hoping the EVO’s HD video quality will improve over time with software updates.

HDMI Connectivity
The HTC EVO 4G provides HDMI connectivity which allows users to directly connect the phone to an HDMI-enabled TV or monitor at 720P resolution. I projected videos and pictures on my 52″ Samsung HDTV. Pictures looked great but the videos looked a bit grainy, even high quality ones. The ability to even do this right off of a phone is incredible in itself so I really can’t complain about some graininess. The EVO connects through a mini-HDMI port in the bottom of the phone and an optional, non-proprietary HDMI to mini HDMI cable.

Unlike the iPhone 4, users need to “piece-part” the videophone solution together. Fun for geeks like me, a nightmare for the average user. Users can download “Fring” or “Qik for HTC EVO 4G”. Video is captured with the screen-facing camera so that users can see the other caller.

I tried a few test calls but didn’t use this feature completely as I don’t have friends with a capable phone or on Fring or Qik. Outside of buying another phone for my friends and family, I decided to pass after a few attempts.

What This Means For The Future
The HTC EVO 4G brings some amazing features to users today. While I am excited about today, I am more interested about what it signals for tomorrow:

* Real-time video communications will finally go mainstream. I know, we have heard this since 1970 and there have been a thousand failures since then. Heck I used to work for AT&T who invented the modern videophone. It’s different now. The quality is better, it’s close to “free”, tech giants are behind it, and there will be billions of capable end points. Getting Apple behind it is huge with iPhone 4. They got it as “right” as you can get it from a consumer’s point of view. All we need now is inter-compatibility between disparate systems.

I think when users get comfortable with video communications over the phone, they will become more comfortable and desire even richer experiences on their PCs and in the living room.

* Data density grows exponentially continuing the need for more processing power, storage, and bandwidth. In the next five years I believe it will be hard to buy a smartphone without a decent quality 1080P video camera. As with camera phones today, smartphone buyers will be popping off high quality videos and either loading snippets to the cloud or transferring the full video to their home PC. As for those longer videos on the PC, users will want to cut, snip, improve and ultimately be able to play on any device via transcoding. Yes, the PC will still matter in the future.

* Integration not dis-aggregation. Technology either aggregates or disaggregates like a living organism. The PC disaggregated from mainframes/mini’s while AM/FM radios were integrated into everything The EVO shows today that after future improvements the smartphone could also be a very good still camera, palmcorder, low speed WiFi hotspot, bed-side clock radio, and of course, the home phone.

* Bandwidth to the cloud will continue to be rationed and expensive which ultimately leads to continued importance of client-side computing performance. While major phone, PC, and server technologies get major overhauls every five years, wireless overhauls take around ten years. I don’t expect 4G to be much different. In the US, 3G networks are busting at the seams and carriers are beginning to eliminate unlimited rate plans and charge a ton for tethering. Are you happy with the speed today of YOUR 3G data service during peak times when you need it? I didn’t think so. Imagine what happens to network performance when even more people get on the network and want to do even more that takes even more bandwidth….

Expensive and slow bandwidth with high user demand will drive the need for better CODECs (COmpression-DECompression) to pump higher density content through a small pipe then be displayed on the other end of the pipe. CPUs and GPUs do this well and combined APUs will do it do it even better.

The new HTC EVO 4G smartphone introduces some very revolutionary features that signal a few key insights into our tech future. The EVO introduces 4G wireless, 720P HD video capture, videophone, WiFi hotspot and external HDMI display capabilities. Interestingly enough, changes in smartphone capabilities signal impacts to PC capabilities. Expanding video communications to smartphones, increasing smartphone video capture capabilities, and rationed bandwidth all mean good things for the PC.