Android or iPhone? The Aria is an Android phone thrust into Apple's land, namely AT&T. As HTC's flagship phone, the device competes directly with the new iPhone 4. They both have a large touch screen display, 5.0-megapixel cameras and music players, Wi-Fi and high-speed HSDPA Internet and Bluetooth and GPS capabilities.
But there are slight differences between the two -- the iPhone 4 has a higher-resolution screen, while the Aria has an expandable microSD slot. Android integrates Google's online services -- Gmail in particular -- along with a sense of openness and hardware choice. Apple's iPhone has a best-in-class user interface, a stylish build quality, the largest available mobile app catalog and tight media integration through iTunes.
There is no doubt these two phones are top-of-the-line. So smartphone buyers will, no doubt, be asking: How does the Aria stack up against the iPhone?
HTC decided on a minimalist design. The Aria sports a black and chrome look, with a stylish dark face. It's also small -- nearly 10 percent shorter and 20 percent lighter than the iPhone -- for a very pocketable and very good feel in even the smallest of hands. But the trade-off is a smaller touch screen. And the Aria's 3.2-inch display is nearly a half-inch smaller than the iPhone's.
Below the display, four capacitive-touch buttons -- home, menu, back and search -- are etched into the glass. They're completely smooth, which means users will have to look at which button they're pressing. An optical joystick below that helps users navigate through the menus.
The back of the Aria has a 5.0-megapixel camera, without flash, and a speaker grille. When the back cover is removed, the battery and microSD card are revealed -- both which aren't accessible on the iPhone. Around the sides of the device, there's a micro-USB port for charging and connecting to a computer, a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack to use headphones and a volume rocker.
Overall, the Aria is a well-designed visual package: from the hardware to the software, everything is black with chrome accents and gives a cohesive and professional feel, rivaling the industry-leading iPhone. It's also very light and won't put a strain on your hand if you talk for hours. While the Aria is not a top-end smartphone, it can hold its own against its more expensive devices.
Out of the box, the HTC Aria comes with a standard battery, USB wall charger, headphones, the customary user guides and manuals, and an envelope to recycle your old phone -- all encased in an eco-friendly package.
The Aria sports a 5.0-megapixel camera, but it lacks the LED flash for low-light conditions. In properly-lit environments, even artificially-lit, the camera performs admirably. But it's unusable in dim environments.
The auto-focus found its target quickly and consistently. The face detection didn't always find its mark, but the people in my photos were almost always properly focused. The photos captured, while far from aren't ready for the Whitney, will do perfectly for the Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter amateur photographer's needs.
The camera has a few options as well. Users can adjust the resolution of the shots, brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness, ISO, and white balance. They can add various effects, including Sepia tone and Black and White. This is a nice range of options and settings.
To take a picture, users press the optical joystick. HTC could have included a dedicated camera button, but that would have taken away from the minimalist design. The company could have also added an on-screen shutter button, similar to the Evo 4G, but with such small screen space, every pixel ought to be taken up by the image. Overall, HTC included some thoughtful design choices.
The Aria can also capture video, albeit at the low 640-by-480 pixel resolution. This is roughly "standard definition video," just below DVD quality and far below the HD resolutions offered by the cameras on the Evo and the iPhone 4. I was disappointed by the lack of HD capture here; videophiles should look elsewhere for their HD capture needs.
The Aria is one of the most responsive smartphone on the market. There's zero delay between the fingers and the phone's response -- functions such as the on-screen keyboard, the app launch times, the different home screens, the notification bar, activating different widgets, and every other feature you can imagine -- they all performed instantly, without any delay or lag.
This is an impressive feat, and something on which the Aria gets the highest of marks. If performance is important to you, the Aria is a serious contender.
What can you do with all that responsiveness? That's the Android operating system with HTC's customized "Sense" interface. Android can be customized to an almost ridiculous degree. Every single part of software can be replaced or modified by hardware manufacturers, wireless carriers, and even individuals with the time and expertise to modify their mobile's operating system.
Android organizes the phone around "home screens:" editable rectangles of various bits of information. So, when you look at your phone, you might see a few shortcuts to app, a weather box, a clock, and a little picture frame -- all on the same screen.
You can then use the optical joystick or your finger on the screen to swipe right, and you are greeted with another home screen -- there are seven in total. You can then add some more shortcuts, applications, or widgets to this screen.
Perhaps you have a widget that displays the most recent sports scores, or the news in your area, or your friends' updates to social networks like Twitter or Facebook. These widgets display "at a glance" information, which means you won't have to launch an app or tap anything to get them to do their magic; they just update in the background, at your specified update frequency, so their information is ready as soon as you unlock the phone and swipe over to their screen.
The effect of all this home screen widget customization is that you get quick information without waiting. This is a very convenient way to organize your life: you can have a "calendar" home screen with upcoming events, a "sports" home screen with various scores and standings; a "people" home screen with quick links to call or message your friends, and so on.
This makes the Aria, and other Android phones like it, very easy to use: you don't have to launch an app to find out what your friends are doing, or how the Yankees did last night.
Combined with its unbelievable speed, this makes the Aria a very enjoyable handset to use. There was no problem calling up Twitter updates, Facebook pictures, and so on, all with blazing speed. And this is the Aria's biggest strength: the myriad information available to you in a very small amount of time beats every other kind of smartphone -- including the new iPhone 4. Kudos, HTC.
The basic phone functions are easy get to on the Aria: text and multimedia messaging, phone calling, dialing, and so forth. HTC's Sense adds a "phone" shortcut to the bottom of every home screen, so it is very easy to jump into the phone and make a call.
That small screen size gives the Aria a leg up on the competition when it comes to power consumption. With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on, and under light use, I drained only 20 percent of the Aria's battery in 24 hours. This speaks well for the Aria; battery life is a plus here. Heavy users should have no problems lasting the work day.
At 262,000 colors, the Aria's screen is bright enough, though not as vivid as, say, the iPhone 4's 16.7 million colors. It also has one-fourth the resolution, at 320-by-480 pixels, than the iPhone 4's 960-by-480 pixel display.
While it sounds bad, it isn't so much the Aria's inferior screen as it is the iPhone's superior display. In fact, aside from the iPhone, the Aria's display is considered high-end.
Text on the Aria is crisp at about 10-inches away from your eyes; move the handset closer, and it gets progressively blurrier. Unfortunately, since the Aria is so small, more than 12-inches means the text is unreadable, even with my corrected-to-20/20 eyes.
Combined with the relatively small screen size, the Aria's screen displays text clearly and images and video beautifully, though a tad cramped. If you have good eyes and don't read much, then the Aria is perfect for you. If you do a lot of reading on your mobile, then you might want to consider the iPhone 4.
The Aria can play your MP3 music files, as long as they lack the Digital Rights Management features that older iTunes tracks have. Google's Android Market also has quite a few apps for online streaming music: Pandora, Last.fm, Grooveshark, and so on. It also has a built-in FM radio for live music.
The Aria does not have a secondary noise-canceling microphone -- which the iPhone 4 features -- so voice calls will only be as good as your signal strength. There are no great strides in voice quality with the Aria.
The Aria's on-screen keyboard looks small, but it gets the job done very well. You might think that a larger display, such as the Evo 4G, with its extra 1.1-inches of diagonal space, would be worlds better. But it also means users will have to move their fingers longer distances when typing.
I was able to type just as quickly and accurately on the Aria as I have on the Evo and the iPhone. HTC has done a great job here of tuning the auto-correct dictionary to predict exactly the word I need nine times out of 10. That, combined with its ability to learn new words and store them for future predictions, makes the keyboard on the Aria a very attractive feature.
When you first power on the Aria, you are asked to enter your Google account username and password. For the millions of Gmail users in the country, this is a familiar process.
If you don't use Gmail, or any other Google services, you will have to create a Google account and associated Gmail address in order to use the phone. This might sound cumbersome at first, but I had no trouble creating a new Google account right on the phone. The entire process takes about three minutes, and is as painless as can be.
Once Gmail is activated, the Aria is an absolute dream. The new mail notifications come in instantly, and the Gmail app supports all the familiar Gmail features -- such as archiving, conversation view, and so on. The app is lightning fast, even with large inboxes.
You can also add other non-Gmail accounts via the popular POP3 and IMAP4 email delivery protocols. HTC has added support for Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync protocol for mail and contact syncing.
Unfortunately, the amazing Gmail app is only for Gmail. Other email accounts you add will be handled by a separate "Mail" app. This app is capable, and supports some handy widgets, but it is not as fast-performing or easy to use as the Gmail app. I am not sure why Google hasn't extended its Gmail app to the rest of Android's email functions.
The Aria has as many entertainment features as any non-iPhone smartphone out there. HTC didn't include any software for a PC or Mac, so you're on your own for getting music and videos on to the device from your computer. This is a big step down from the iPhone, which integrates perfectly with iTunes.
The Aria can connect to a PC via a micro-USB cord. In "mass storage mode," you to manually drag and drop music -- MP3s are supported -- onto the phone's 2-gigabye storage card.
The process seems simple, but it is by no means automatic, easy, or aesthetically pleasing. This is an area where all Android phones lack some iPhone polish.
Keep in mind that there are alternatives to this process: the third-party software Doubletwist. This is an iTunes replacement for PCs and Macs that allows you to manage your Android phone like it was on iTunes. This software is, unfortunately, not official or endorsed by Google, and it is relatively slow to use.
Consumers can watch videos on the Aria, and the Android Market, Google's version of the iTunes store, provides quite a few video playback options. The built-in video player supports MPEG-4 files. But remember, the encoding and copying tasks are up to you. And videos purchased from iTunes, or from almost any other online media store, won't work with the Aria, or any Android device.
The Aria's browser is very capable, and supports the "pinch-to-zoom" and "tap-to-zoom" features that the iPhone made popular. A nice feature here is that the browser will automatically reformat text to fit perfectly on the screen; once you zoom in, you won't have to scroll horizontally to read.
The browser also supports "Flash Lite," which allows some of the Adobe Flash content on the Web to be viewed as if on a Desktop browser -- something the iPhone blocks.
YouTube and other video sharing sites work properly, but not everything works. Most Flash-based games still require the full-fledged Adobe Flash plug-in. This plug-in is coming to Android with its next update, version 2.2, but there is no telling when this update will come to the Aria.
Running on AT&T's 3.5G network, the Aria clocks in at around 1- to 1.5-megabits per second -- the same as the iPhone 4, but much slower than the top-end Evo 4G for Sprint.
Android 2.1 allows apps to be installed to the phone's internal storage only. And the Aria comes with 512-megabytes of internal memory. The Android operating system takes up quite a bit of this memory and after installing only one or two apps; our Aria reported 150-megabytes remaining. Most apps are well under 0.5-megabytes, so this storage limit should not affect many users.
For media storage, the Aria comes with a 2-gigabye microSD card, tucked behind the back cover. While the iPhone 4 has significantly more memory, at either 16- or 32-gigabytes, there's no microSD slot. The Aria, on the other hand, can accept microSD cards up to 32-gigabytes for upwards of $100.
The Aria can connect to your local wireless network via Wi-Fi b/g -- but not the newer, faster "n" specification that's on the iPhone. Users can also connect various hands-free devices over Bluetooth 2.1.
Should you buy the HTC Aria? If AT&T is your wireless carrier, it really only comes down to two fundamental questions: Do you use Gmail? Does size matter?
If your answers are "all the time" and "the smaller the better," then give the Aria a serious look. You will have a very, very size-conscious device with all of the glorious Google service integration, and absolutely no user interface lag.
The Gmail interface on the Aria, like on all of Android, is simply perfect: no other mobile device offers a better Gmail experience, hands-down. But if you aren't married to Gmail or Google Calendar, and prefer to do heavy reading on your smartphone, then you should look to the iPhone.
The same applies if you are a music nut who wants an all-in-one device -- the sync situation on Android just doesn't measure up to Apple's elegant solution. Of course, this isn't such a big deal if you don't mind managing your mobile music collection manually.
The inclusion of a 2-gigabye card only, rather than a roomier 8-gigabyte or 16-gigabyte card, also hurts the Aria's chances here. A large capacity microSD card can be quite expensive.
Finally, given the Aria's screen size can be a bit small. Consumers who use smartphone readers -- like the Amazon's Kindle app, for example -- should be aware that the size means text must be squinted at.
All in all, the Aria will perfectly suit a fairly large niche market -- Google-addicted small-phone cravers. But I can't, in good faith, recommend it for the rest of consumers. There are simply more cost-effective and elegant options available, such as Google's own Nexus One -- which has no application restrictions, a bigger and better screen and faster Android updates -- or Apple's iPhone 4 -- which has a best-in-class screen, perfect syncing solution, stellar battery life and the best App Store available.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
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