Now that you can pick up touchscreen smartphones for pocket money prices, premium mobiles have to find other ways to differentiate themselves. 3D is the perfect solution, adding a gloss of techno-cool to imaging and gaming, and promising yet more to come (3D navigation anyone?).
The latest device intent on dragging us kicking and screaming into a new dimension is the HTC EVO 3D, a feature-packed Android phone available on the Sprint network in the US. With twin 5-megapixel cameras to capture 3D photos and videos, and a glasses-free 3D screen for playback, the EVO 3D promises nothing short of a multi-dimensional revolution.
It comes with a deafening array of bells and whistles, including the latest Android Gingerbread OS, a huge 4.3-inch screen, 1.2GHz dual core processor and 4G(ish) connectivity. Like its Korean rival LG, whose Optimus 3D handset is already available, HTC is clearly positioning 3D at the upper end of its range, a luxury feature that sets it apart from duller, flatter phones.
What is less obvious yet is whether there is any demand for mobile 3D, especially when it comes with weight and size handicaps, and uses first-generation technology that can still be annoying and even unpleasant to use.
Three’s a crowd
Some smartphones aspire to exist in only two dimensions, stripping away weight, features and ports in a quest for the ultimately slim profile. Not the EVO 3D. Unapologetically three dimensional, the HTC is nearly 12mm thick, 126mm long and weighs 1.25 iPhones. The 4.3-inch display occupies most of the face, covered by a sheer slab of glass that extends down over the four touch-sensitive Android keys.
The surround is solidly built from plastic and the plastic rear cover is slightly rubberised and heavily textured for grip. The design itself is rather anonymous, enlivened only by red detailing around the twin rear cameras (on the Sprint version, gold on others) and a shiny silver-ish shutter button. A physical switch nearby changes the camera between 2D and 3D modes.
Otherwise, the volume rocker and power buttons are a bit plasticky, and the 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-USB power/data port are uncovered. Rounded corners help the EVO 3D to sit naturally in one hand, although it is a little too easy to knock the camera controls by mistake.
Fire up the HTC EVO 3D and the first thing you’ll realise is that it’s a first class 2D phone. The 4.3-inch screen is qHD resolution (960 x 540 pixels) and looks sharp and very detailed. Colours are good and there are no issues with motion blur. However, contrast is a little lower than on some rivals and the viewing angle is limited, perhaps due to the parallax barrier needed for 3D playback.
The HTC Sense skin is, as always, a joy to use. The lock screen can be set to various useful themes (weather, stocks, social etc.) and the unlock circle jumps you straight into one of four favourite apps. There are seven home screens, some of which come pre-populated with HTC’s Friend Stream, bookmarks, calendar and other widgets. The screens are fast and responsive - perhaps a little too much so if you really get them spinning. Swype is pre-installed for speedy text input.
Throughout our tests, the 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon chip kept thing zipping along. We didn’t experience any slow-downs, even when multi-tasking several intensive apps. Having said that, the phone did regularly crash out of apps and return to the home screen, and even hung completely once while loading a game.
3D or not 3D
It’s still early days for 3D, with several different technologies out there and each manufacturer taking a different approach. Let’s start with photography. Clearly, you’ll get a more pronounced stereoscopic effect with a wider separation of lenses and the EVO 3D’s 5-megapixel snappers are a good 35mm apart (each with its own LED flash). That’s pretty good but it’s still only around half the average interpupillary distance in adults.
Enter the camera or camcorder, flick the switch to 3D and you can preview the effect. The first thing you’ll notice is a massive drop-off in both brightness and sharpness. The loss in brightness comes from the parallax barrier allowing only the correct direction of light from the screen to your left and right eyes. The loss in sharpness is because each full frame of your screen now has to provide a separate, half-resolution image for each eye, see the images below.
These losses aren’t too serious indoors but they make it very difficult to frame images outside on a bright day, and virtually impossible to read small menu text in 3D. The best thing to do is get your settings right - and even roughly frame shots - in 2D, before switching into 3D at the last moment. Switching modes takes 2 seconds, and there is about a second shutter lag in either mode.
Parallax barrier is one of the older 3D technologies now, and comes with some issues. As you move your head (or the phone), the 3D effect flickers in and out in a way that it as best disconcerting and at worst nauseating. The 3D-ness of an image also depends on how it was captured, and on the person viewing it. The Nintendo 3DS deals with all this by having a hardware slider to manually adjust the 3D effect, and such a control is sorely missed here.
In fact, there is no way of adjusting the 3D effect at the point of capture. When you review images in gallery, you can at least tweak the parallax effect in the editor for each individual image (though not videos). But there also needs to be a global way of doing the same thing.
When the stars (and lenses) align, the HTC EVO 3D is capable of some pretty decent 3D photos at a fixed perceived resolution of 2 megapixels and smooth, flicker-free videos at 720p. You’ll always get the best results by having a variety of subjects in both foreground and background. The camera throws in more than a little distortion and chromatic aberration (purple fringes on bright subjects) but the thrill of shooting real 3D images and viewing them in seconds stays fresh.
Back in two dimensions, 5 megapixel stills are light on detail and heavy on colour. Videos max out at 720p but look best at the screen’s native qHD resolution, sparkling with life. Around the front, there is a respectable 0.9 megapixel webcam.
The HTC EVO 3D is also a dab hand at consuming 3D content. YouTube is the best place to dive into 3D at the moment, with a bunch of 3D clips, trailers and ads to enjoy. The EVO 3D comes with the Ultimate Spiderman Total Mayhem game pre-loaded. The 3D effects here not only look good but can be dialled up or down as you like. 3D doesn’t make a huge difference to the gameplay but it does help mask some graphical rough edges.
That’s about it for 3D content for now. 3D navigation will have to wait until brighter glasses-free technologies arrives and 3D websites are a pipedream awaiting widespread roll-out of HTML5. Talking of which, the EVO 3D is a dab hand at web surfing. Sprint’s WiMAX service may not be genuine 4G but we saw download speeds of over 10Mbps in suburban Seattle. 3G reception and handover is a little dodgier but this is one fast phone ready for the brave new world of cloud services.
Music and memories
On the audio side of things, the supplied player is fair enough for listening to the odd track or two. Which is just as well, as the odd track or two is about all you’ll be able to squeeze in the miserly 4GB of on-board memory. The phone ships with an 8GB microSD card, under the battery cover, to bring storage up to the level of barely acceptable.
In the absence of an HDMI port, you’ll need a mysterious little cable called an MHL adapter (not tested) to watch 3D media on your fancy new 3D telly. And while YouTube accepts 3D videos for upload, good luck finding somewhere to share your 3D photos. One retro solution is to upload them to Fujifilm at www.fujifilmreal3d.com for printing out as scratchy 3D prints (from £4.29 each plus £5 delivery).
Battery life is painfully predictable and predictably painful. With modest usage, you might get two days from a charge, but use the 3D camera or hammer the 4G web regularly and you’d better be carrying the charger with you. (Like Cinderella at midnight, the 3D camera turns back into a 2D pumpkin when the battery falls to 15% capacity.)
Dependent on contract
Some innovations are push and are others are pull. When DVD first arrived, people couldn’t upgrade from VHS fast enough. But when Blu-ray rolled around, the day-to-day advantages were not so clear. 3D definitely falls into the latter camp. It’s great for making first impressions, adds a little something to gaming, and kids just love it. But it’s not yet fully prepared for real life. Shooting in 3D is almost impossible in daylight and the dull, flickery display can generate as many headaches as smiles.
Luckily, the EVO 3D is more than just a one-trick pony. This smartphone stallion can juggle multiple apps at once, leap tall websites at single 4G bound, and comes with a well-developed 2D camera and camcorder. It’s fast and simple to use, makes the most of the HTC Sense interface and only rarely lets the awkwardness of Android show through. Forget the patchy 3D tech - even without it this impressive high-end Android phone is worth a second look.