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HTC Merge (U.S. Cellular) review:

HTC Merge (U.S. Cellular)

HTC and U.S. Cellular both add some of their own custom apps to the mix, too, like the Twitter app Peep, Footprints, City ID, a second Navigation app, Contact Backup, App Sharing, Flashlight (we're suckers for this one), and U.S. Cellular's Tone Room Deluxe online ringtone store. You'll also find the Quickoffice productivity program, an FM radio, and a prettied-up version of the music app that features album art and lets you create playlists on the fly.

The camera and camcorder each have a home screen shortcut. With its 5-megapixel camera, the Merge took clear, colorful outdoor photos that looked great on the phone and when viewed in full size on the computer. Although the camera has autofocus and a flash, indoor photos were muddier and fuzzier, though not terrible.

The same goes for video. The Merge produced a very nice 720p HD video outdoors, but movies shot indoors were more blurred, and the camera sometimes struggled to find the correct exposure, especially if an overhead fluorescent light was adjacent to a window. Volume was our abiding complaint about the videos, however. The sound was tinny and fuzzy for both indoor and outdoor movies, regardless of whether they were shot in noisy or quiet surroundings.

Outdoor photos were pretty sharp and bright, but indoor photos were somewhat lower-quality.

The camera and camcorder software gives you face detection and adjustable scales for exposure, contrast, and saturation, plus there are the usual white-balance controls and a self-timer.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) HTC Merge in San Francisco on U.S. Cellular's roaming network. Call quality was pretty good most of the time, with acceptable volume and voices that sounded a bit muted and wavery, but mostly intelligible. Most of the time, the line was absolutely clear. However, on at least three calls we heard our voice echoed back to us, a huge distraction.

On their end callers said our volume was fine, but noted that we cut in and out, and sometimes sounded muddled and a little robotic. They also commented that the line was clear without any background noise.

HTC Merge call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone sounded good on both ends, and even sounded great to one caller. The line again was clear, without white noise or interruption. It could have been a little louder to our ears, but our listeners had no complaints. Voices had that characteristic tinny quality from our perspective, but we were able to have a hands-free conversation without too many problems.

In the age of dual-core smartphones, why would you want to settle for a phone with an 800MHz Qualcomm MSM 7630 processor like the Merge? It's what also powers the T-Mobile G2 and the Evo Shift 4G, both handsets we like. It may not be as lickety-split as some smartphones on the market, but we had no complaints about system performance.

Video streaming was also fine on the Merge, although the quality will heavily depend on your signal or Wi-Fi strength. We streamed several YouTube videos in high-quality (HQ) mode over Wi-Fi with good results. Turn off HQ mode, however, and the video quality will plummet from the 720p HD playback.

It took between 30 and 40 seconds to load the mobile-optimized CNET site over 3G, and between 40 and 60 seconds to load the full, graphically rich CNET site. The New York Times' mobile site loaded in a speedy 10 to 11 seconds, and we clocked the full site taking between 26 and 40 seconds to fully load, including the rich ads (these took about 10 seconds longer.)

The Merge ships with a 1400mAh lithium ion battery, rated for up to 6.8 hours of talk time and a standby time of up to 20 days. Our tests showed a talk time of 6 hours. According to FCC tests, the Merge has a digital SAR of 0.72 watts per kilogram.

The Merge is a fine smartphone, but it doesn't stand out in terms of features or value. It certainly isn't as exciting as some of HTC's other offerings, and there are some disappointments, such as the older version of the Sense interface, the flattish keyboard, and the weight and bulk. Still, there's little that's out-and-out wrong with it. We wouldn't recommend switching to U.S. Cellular just to get the Merge, but if you're already a subscriber (and a frequent globe-trotter), it's a decent choice and one of the best on the carrier's roster.

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