Summary:

I recently said the HTC Sensation 4G may be the best phone on T-Mobile’s network. Now that the myTouch 4G Slide is available, has my opinion changed? The new phone does have some trade-offs, but you gain a hardware keyboard and a fantastic 8 megapixel camera.

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T-Mobile customers seeking an Android smartphone with keyboard and support for the carrier’s 4G network have a new choice: The myTouch 4G Slide launched on Wednesday for $199 after a two-year contract. In many ways, the smartphone is similar to its predecessor, the myTouch 3G Slide. HTC builds both phones, so that’s not too surprising. But the new model boasts several improvements, such as a faster processor and what T-Mobile calls the “most advanced camera of any smartphone.”

I’ve been using a review unit that T-Mobile loaned me for the past few weeks. Overall, the new myTouch 4G Slide improves upon an already solid design and offers easier-to-use software, plus better overall performance. And while I’ve seen a few cameras on phones that produce better results, images from the myTouch 4G Slide are far and away better than any prior T-Mobile-branded phone I’ve used.

Hardware

This isn’t the thinnest phone on the market, but that’s due to the slide-out QWERTY keypad. It has four rows and is backlit when needed. The slide mechanism is smooth and solid. I like the very light touch of the hardware keyboard, but others I showed the phone to felt it to be “sponge-like” and “soft.” Of course, you can always choose between the two included software keyboards: Swype and a standard keyboard.

The 3.7-inch display uses what I’d call the minimum resolution for a high-end Android phone, 800×840, but the Super LCD screen looks sharp and bright, both indoors and out. Instead of capacitive touch buttons under the display, the phone has physical buttons for home, menu, back and the Genius feature, which is used to place calls, search, send text messages and more through voice commands powered by Nuance. Between the buttons is an optical trackpad. I’m generally not a fan of these, but I like how you can wake the phone with the trackpad button. For a full overview of the hardware, see my recent video look.

Like most currently available smartphones at this price point, the myTouch 4G Slide is powered by a dual-core processor. A 1.2 GHz Qualcomm chip is the main engine, and T-Mobile says the handset has 768 MB of memory to run programs. I recently reviewed the HTC Sensation 4G which has very similar components but the new myTouch feels slightly faster: No matter how many applications I ran, the phone kept up admirably.

Perhaps the biggest hardware upgrade, and the centerpiece of the new phone, is the 8-megapixel camera. HTC isn’t known for using the highest quality camera sensors, but if all of their future phones use this one, that perception will change quickly. I’ll talk more about the camera software later, but the images I captured with the myTouch 4G Slide were impressive. The phone has two LED flashes next to the camera, but in many cases you won’t need them.

The camera uses a wide aperture lens of f/2.2, which brings in more light, even in dim situations. That means better pictures at night and indoors. There is a dedicated hardware button for the camera shutter: Tap to focus if needed, and press to capture an image. Pressing the camera button at any time will quickly fire up the camera software as well.

Another key feature is the 21 Mbps mobile broadband radio that supports T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network. Various speedtests averaged around 6 Mbps download speeds and nearly 2 Mbps back up in my area. I had expected slightly higher speeds, because I live near a network area that now supports 42 Mbps speeds and the phone’s radio should gain some advantage in terms of bandwidth speeds. However, for a phone, I find 6 Mbps more than adequate for most tasks.

The phone runs on a 1520 mAh battery, which will last a day for all but the highest of power users. The only time I could run the phone battery down in a single day was after watching many videos and relying on the device more than my laptop or tablet for email and browsing tasks. As a phone, the new myTouch works well with callers hearing me loudly and clearly, even in a hands-free setting.

 

Software

T-Mobile is shipping the myTouch 4G Slide with the most recent version of Google’s software: Android 2.3.4. That means unlike many other smartphones, there’s no waiting months and months for the upgrade. I did notice, however, that the phone doesn’t support video calls on Google Talk, which is available for Android 2.3.4. Instead, Qik is pre-loaded for video calling through the front-facing camera.

Instead of the bland look of Android, HTC Sense 3.0 is used, making for a simple but effective user interface. This adds custom HTC widgets, five home screens that float around a 3-D-like carousel, more intuitive interfaces and smart customizations to the standard Android notification system. I’ve been impressed with HTC Sense 3.0 on other devices, and it works just as well on the new myTouch. One feature I really liked in the software, however, is missing on this phone. Called the Active Lockscreen, it allows you to add up to four shortcuts to the lock screen. Dragging any one of these into a ringed area quickly unlocks the phone and opens up the application. I first saw this on the HTC Sensation 4G and wish it was on the myTouch 4G Slide.

While the standard camera software was always adequate on HTC’s phones, the myTouch adds several new functions that take full advantage of the 8-megapixel camera sensor. SweepShot is useful for taking wide panoramic images: Simply press the shutter button one time and then sweep across your image as if you were taking a video. The software processes the image into a wide view. ClearShot HDR snaps several images in a range of exposures to create high-definition-range (HDR) pictures, beautiful for outdoors where the sun can overpower the foreground. And BurstShot takes five images in succession to make sure you capture the picture you want. I found it useful for fast-moving objects.

For those interested in “crapware,” or the software that carriers often pre-load on handsets, T-Mobile seems to be reducing the amount; and the software it does include is fairly useful. KidZone allows for a custom configuration so that kids can’t mess up the apps and widget setup on your handset, for example. Netflix is on the phone for movie and television programming, and the new Zinio Reader app is there for magazines.

Aside from the Wi-Fi calling app — the phone supports voice over Wi-Fi without the use of voice minutes — there’s very little T-Mobile software on the device. Suprisingly, I actually liked the new Name ID service, which is like the old Caller ID of yesteryear. Smartphones can tell you who’s calling if you have the caller as a contact on your phone. But Name ID shows most every other caller name too, which I found helpful when using the phone.

Conclusion

Android fans that crave a keyboard should consider the T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide, but they should test the keypad to see if they like the light touch. The phone offers solid overall performance, and the camera is much improved. At 6.5 ounces, some will find the handset to be bulky or heavy, but that’s often the price one pays for a hardware keyboard. And even those that aren’t fans of HTC’s user interface could be swayed by the new Sense 3.0 software.

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