Sprint Nextel Corp.’s new EVO smartphone runs over a new wireless data network called WiMax. It’s the first so-called 4G, or fourth-generation, network, designed to deliver faster speeds for downloading movies and for handling new, data-rich services such as live streaming of high- definition video.
A better name for WiMax might be “WhyMax?” That’s because the network so far has extremely limited coverage, will eventually face stiff competition from even newer technology and requires significant trade-offs. You’re somehow left with the feeling that the EVO and the WiMax network are more important for the bragging rights they give Sprint than the benefits they provide consumers.
The EVO is made by Taiwan-based HTC Corp., which consistently turns out some of the most impressive handsets this side of Apple Inc. It’s a slim black slab built around a powerful Qualcomm Inc. processor with a 4.3-inch screen -- the same as on HTC’s HD2 phone, released in the U.S. on the T-Mobile network -- that dwarfs the 3.5-inch screen on the iPhone 3GS and new iPhone 4.
Just above the screen is a front-facing camera for video chatting. The slightly bowed back houses an 8-megapixel camera with two LED flashes, and a kickstand for propping up the phone to, say, watch a movie on an airline tray table. In addition to the usual array of connections, it has an unusual one: an HDMI output for connecting the EVO to a high-definition TV.
Like most other HTC phones, the EVO runs the manufacturer’s Sense software, a reasonably easy-to-master user interface that coexists well with the Android 2.1 operating system from Google Inc. Sprint is charging $199.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate on a two-year contract; a service plan with 450 minutes of talk time and unlimited data and texting is $79.99 a month.
It is, in short, a nice phone at a decent price. But let’s face it: Sprint’s pitch for the EVO is much more about the network than the hardware. And for now, at least, that network is still very much a work in progress.
Sprint and Clearwire Corp., its WiMax partner, say they have so far deployed 4G service in 33 markets. Some are major metropolitan areas: Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia. Many are not: Salem, Oregon; Milledgeville, Georgia; York, Pennsylvania. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami are among those not yet operational but scheduled for later in 2010.
If you’re lucky enough to live in Milledgeville, or one of the markets where WiMax is available, you will likely see better performance on your phone than on a comparable 3G device, though perhaps not the 10-times-faster speeds Sprint claims. You’ll also probably see considerably worse battery life. In my highly unscientific tests, 24 hours of minimal use with the 4G feature turned off would only use up about an eighth of the battery; less than four hours after WiMax was turned on, the battery was half gone.
There are also questions about the long-term future of the WiMax technology. The two largest U.S. wireless carriers, Verizon and AT&T Inc., are both working on 4G networks using a different standard -- LTE, for Long-Term Evolution -- which has also been embraced by many international carriers.
Of course, LTE networks remain hypothetical, while Sprint’s WiMax network is a reality for millions of people -- as long as they live in one of those 33 areas, and have an electrical outlet close by. But if WiMax suffers against the competition, Sprint customers will too.
Just as Sprint was introducing its 4G network, Apple was unveiling its new iPhone 4 -- which, name aside, runs only on 3G networks. Despite the initial interest in the EVO and in Sprint’s new technology, in any battle of the 4s, Apple is likely to remain No. 1.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)