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KELLNER: HTC Inspire 4G is nice, but no iPhone

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Starting Sunday, $99 — and a two-year commitment — will get you a smart phone with a huge color display screen, tons of available applications, high-speed data communications and usability in about 220 countries. However, it doesn't come with a 10,000-mile extension cord that you might need for regular, annoying recharging.

The HTC Inspire 4G is a smart phone based on Google Inc.'s Android 2.2 operating system. In many ways, the phone is a solid competitor to the Apple Inc. iPhone 4, which Verizon will begin offering, alongside AT&T, on Thursday.

But where the basic iPhone will set you back $199 for a 16-GB model, or $299 for the 32-GB version, the Inspire 4G has only 8 GB of RAM, though this could be upgraded via the open market. A 16-GB micro-SDHC-format memory card that I had worked perfectly in the phone, and such cards can be had online for between $55 and $75. A 32-GB card — which would give you the same potential storage of the high-end iPhone 4 model — can be had for between $75 and $96.

According to Reston, Va.-based comScore Inc., Android-based smart phones, with a 28.7 percent market share in the last quarter of 2010, trail only the 31.6 percent of users buying Research in Motion's BlackBerry platform and outdistance the iPhone's 25 percent share.

Although your buying decision likely will not be based on market share, usability and performance likely will come into play. The HTC Inspire 4G is a highly usable phone, with touch gestures for menu and screen navigation. Call quality is very good. When headphones are connected, music quality is superb. The device features an 8-megapixel camera that also records video. And HQ video playback from YouTube is certainly fine. (AT&T, which provided the phone for review, didn't authorize its "Live TV" app, which streams cable and broadcast programming, for use in my testing.)

But after a day, just one day, of having the phone on in "standby" mode, battery life was cut in half. After two days with the device powered on but with no real activity, I was down to 5 percent battery life and had to turn off the phone before recharging. Plugging in the phone for two hours brought it back to a 90 percent charge level. Contrast that with the iPhone, which advertises a 300-hour "standby" time, six times the Inspire 4's performance.

A spokesman at HTC's public relations agency said of my battery life question: "It's all dependent on what you are using the device for. If you have widgets open, push e-mail at a regular pace, and are generally consuming a lot of data (i.e. streaming music), you'll likely have to charge the device on a regular basis. The battery life remains a function of usage."

But why would HTC, which is very experienced in the mobile handset game, think users wouldn't put the Inspire 4G to the same kind of heavy usage that many iPhone users do? And why does the iPhone 4 have such stunning battery life by comparison?

Worse still, in my estimation, is the question of wired headset performance. Having a headset of some stripe is more or less de rigueur, but having a wired headset is the best way to listen to music on the go. But guess what? Where you can control music volume on wired headsets for the iPhone, you can't do that with the same headsets — or, apparently, any wired headset, for the Inspire 4G. Says the HTC spokesman, "The headset is designed to scroll back and forth through songs, answer calls and end calls, but will not control volume."

Bummer. If I want to save my hearing, or that of a loved one, I'd have to go through a cumbersome process and potentially expose my Inspire 4G to, say, anyone on the Metro who wants to try and grab it. This isn't wise, and it should be an easy fix.

My verdict: Go with an iPhone 4, even though the upfront cost is a bit higher. You'll get better performance in several crucial areas. If, when and as HTC improves the Inspire 4G, it would be worth serious consideration. Right now, in my view, it's just something to admire as you keep on walking.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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