Review: T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (HTC Magic)

By Gerry Blackwell

July 28, 2009

Could HTC’s new Wi-Fi-enabled 3G Android smart phones be iPhone killers? HTC and Google, which commercialized the open source Android mobile OS, no doubt hope so. But don’t count on it.

T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (HTC Magic)

http://www.t-mobile.com (http://www.htc.com/us/)
Price: about $199.99
Pros: Wi-Fi connectivity; slick touchscreen interface; international phone; great Google apps and synchronization
Cons: Fewer applications than iPhone; weaker e-mail experience than BlackBerry; no standard headphone jack

Could HTC’s new Wi-Fi-enabled 3G Android smart phones be iPhone killers? HTC and Google, which commercialized the open source Android mobile OS, no doubt hope so. But don’t count on it.

In terms of features and usability, the new HTC Magic and Dream phones do give Apple a good run for its money. But in terms of cool factor and availability of applications, they can’t really compete. Yet.

Not that the HTC products aren’t attractive. They are.

The comparisons in particular between iPhone and Magic—available in early August in the U.S. from T-Mobile, as MyTouch 3G—are hard to avoid. Like iPhone, Magic has no dedicated number pad or keyboard, but does have a very slick touchscreen interface, arguably better in some respects than iPhone’s.

Prices

T-Mobile will sell MyTouch for $199.99 with a two-year contract. In Canada, where Rogers is marketing Magic with HTC branding, prices range from about $90 with a three-year contract to $550 with no contract. In the UK, Vodafone offers the phone for free with two-year contracts starting at about $42 a month.

We tested the Rogers version of Magic which, according to an HTC spokesperson, is “virtually identical” to MyTouch 3G.

Like its sister product, the HTC Dream (which includes a slide-out QWERTY keyboard as well as the iPhone-like touchscreen interface), Magic is a quad-band GSM phone. It works on the highest-speed HSDPA and UMTS networks in the 850 and 1900 MHz bands, and older GSM, GPRS, and EDGE networks at 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz. In other words, you can use it virtually anywhere in the world.

Hardware features

Physically, it’s very similar to iPhone, measuring 4.45 x 2.19 x 0.54 inches and weighing 4.09 oz. (The latest iPhone 3G S: 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.48 inches, 4.8 ounces.)

The iPhone screen is marginally bigger—3.5 inches (diagonal) and 320x480 pixels versus 3.2-inches and 320 x 480 pixels for Magic. The smaller screen makes room on Magic for six small but well-placed and useful buttons—Home, Menu, Back, Zoom, Answer, Hang-up/Power—and a BlackBerry-like trackball, which seems unnecessary given the excellent touchscreen interface.

Magic includes all the in-demand smartphone hardware features: Wi-Fi (11g & b) and Bluetooth wireless connectivity, built-in GPS (but no turn-by-turn navigation software, just Google Maps) and 3.2-megapixel video-capable camera. Magic only comes with 512 MB of flash memory and 288 MB of RAM onboard, but the microSD card slot lets you add 16GB of flash memory for about $100, or 8GB for about $35.

The lithium battery is rated 1340 mAh. Information at the Rogers site claims battery life is up to 7.5 hours of talk time and up to 420 hours in standby. (The HTC product page doesn’t give information about battery life.) Apple claims comparable talk time for iPhone—5 hours on 3G networks, 12 hours on 2G—but only 300 hours of standby.

The Magic’s processor is the 528-MHz Qualcomm MSM 7200. It easily matches and in some respects surpasses iPhone 3G in terms of speed and responsiveness.

Touchscreen interface

The user interface also compares favorably with iPhone. In fact, it’s virtually identical, making use of the same flicking and swiping gestures for scrolling. It can’t match the sheer coolness of iPhone’s music carousel feature, but we found it easier to master. In particular, we found it easier and faster to type error-free on the on-screen keyboard.

Wi-Fiwifi.htc magic.black.jpg

As a Wi-Fi device, Magic worked reasonably well in our decidedly unscientific testing. Using online Internet connection speed tests proved impossible. Android does not adequately support the underlying technologies (Java, Flash) on which these tests are based.

Testing Wi-Fi range was also difficult because it’s virtually impossible to turn the 3G radio off in Android, and when Magic is out of Wi-Fi range, it automatically switches to the 3G network for data connections. (With the Wi-Fi radio on and in range, though, applications that rely on Internet connections—mail, browsing, YouTube, etc.— automatically switch to Wi-Fi.)

Web browsing is obviously not as fast as on a laptop or desktop PC using the same Wi-Fi connection because of the limitations of computing horsepower on a mobile. But it’s fast enough, and noticeably—if not hugely—faster than the Rogers HSDPA data connection.

The Wi-Fi connection was particularly impressive on high-resolution YouTube videos, which played flawlessly for the most part—a few were ever so slightly jerky.

Boo Skype, boo Google

One big disappointment: while there is a Skype client available for Android, it doesn’t deliver a true Skype experience. Even when connected to a Wi-Fi network and calling Skype to Skype, you have to make a data phone call. One can only assume this was done to appease Google’s mobile operator partners.

There is no hardware switch to turn the Wi-Fi radio on and off. You do that from a Wireless controls sub-menu of the main Android Settings menu—where you can also select the network, input WPA password, etc. For most networks, first-time set-up is very simple, and optionally automatic thereafter.

(What you won’t find in the Wireless controls menu is the Wi-Fi adapter’s MAC address, which you’ll need if your network uses MAC address filtering. You’ll have to temporarily turn filtering off and let Magic connect. The router software’s list of connected devices will then give you Magic’s MAC address, which you can then add to the filter list before turning filtering back on.)

Applications

Like other phones running the Android mobile operating system, Magic comes with a suite of mobile versions of the Google applications. In fact, with the T-Mobile version, you will need a Google userid to initiate the phone. The search engine, linked from the Rogers’ phone’s welcome screen, and YouTube and Google Maps, both linked from the home menu, are easily accessible, nicely tailored for the small screen and work well.

The application suite also includes clients for Gmail, Google’s Web-based e-mail service, which has a Contacts database and to-do list as well, and Google Calendar. You can set up the Magic applets to automatically synchronize with your online Google information.

Or you can set them up to synchronize with your company’s Microsoft Exchange server. If you use Microsoft Office Outlook, you can dynamically synchronize Google Calendar with your Outlook calendar on the desktop, using a free downloadable Google applet. The Gmail contacts database can only be synchronized manually with Outlook by exporting data to a flat file, then importing it into Google.

The Google e-mail and personal information applications are well-thought-out and will be perfectly adequate for many users. T-Mobile is reportedly offering a push-like e-mail experience for Gmail users (not the case with Rogers, according to HTC). But if e-mail is your killer app, Android at this point can’t really compete with BlackBerry.

Multimedia

As a multimedia device, it’s decent. The 3.2- megapixel (MP) camera may not be the highest-resolution available on a phone, and doesn’t include a flash, but it is auto focus rather than fixed focus, and it compares favorably with iPhone’s 3MP camera. Pictures and video looked good, for a phone camera—clear and reasonably sharp in good lighting. Of course, Magic can’t compete with a dedicated digicam.

Music sounded good, but as good as iPhone? Perhaps not quite as good. And HTC has made the unfortunate decision not to include a headphone jack. This means you have to use the provided earbuds that plug into Magic’s USB port. For earbuds, they’re reasonably good, but there is no option to use better phones.

Google does have the Android Market which appears to include somewhere in excess of 200 applications, many of them free. But this is a far cry from the hundreds of applications in Apple’s App Store for the iPhone. 

Bottom line

The HTC Magic and its Android operating system are impressive, in some respects out-performing the product’s main rival, the Apple iPhone.

But it’s up against well-entrenched competition—not just iPhone, but also RIM’s BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows Mobile-based devices. In the circumstances, how much market share can Android reasonably expect to win? Products like the HTC Magic at least give it a fighting chance.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist. He reviewed the HTC Magic in Canada.



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