Since the HTC Merge is one of the few CDMA world phones in the U.S., it's fitting we first heard of the Android 2.2 slider at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, before picking it up for a closer look a few months later at CTIA.
The features are midrange by today's 4G, dual-core standards, but decent: like a 3.8-inch multitouch screen, an 800MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, a 5-megapixel camera with HD video capture, and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. There's also that SIM card slot beneath the back cover for slipping in an international SIM.
While we did encounter some design flaws, the Merge is decent value at $149.99 with a new two-year service agreement and after a mail-in rebate. That puts it on par with U.S. Cellular's other higher-end phone, the Samsung Mesmerize, also $149.99, but it pales in comparison with AT&T's HTC Inspire 4G, which is 4G-capable, and has a better camera to boot.
The HTC Merge is a whopper, not because of screen size (unlike the Inspire 4G, with its 4.3-inch screen that pushes it into jumbo phone territory), but because the Merge's thick, heavy body makes an impression the second you pick it up. It measures 4.8 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and weighs a stunning 7 ounces, thanks to the brushed aluminum on the back cover and rimming the phone face. HTC always does a nice job with a handset's look and feel and the Merge is no different. A few red accents spice up the speaker, keyboard buttons, and Search button, and a soft-touch finish contrasts with the cooler metal. Four touch-sensitive buttons reside below the Merge's bright but not exceptional WVGA (800x480-pixel-resolution) touch screen. (Find our screen comparison here.) When you have new messages, a small green indicator shines from the top left of the phone's face.
A volume rocker and Micro-USB charging port are on the left spine, and there's a power button and 3.5mm headset jack up top. The 5-megapixel camera and LED flash are on the back, and below the back cover is the microSD card slot. The Merge comes with an 8GB card, and holds up to 32GB total. There's no dedicated camera shutter button on the Merge, which is a bit of a disappointment. Beneath the back cover is the SD card slot. Also beneath the cover is the SIM card slot that transforms this CDMA phone into a world phone. It will not work with SIM cards from GSM carriers within the U.S., but you will be able to slide in a GSM SIM if you're out of the country.
We had some difficulty with the sliding mechanism. In addition to feeling a bit stiff in our hands, the Merge's rounded corners and beveled designs often fell in all the wrong places for our fingers, and left us frequently fumbling to access the keyboard, at least until we got used to it. While not everyone we had try it experienced the same problems, enough people did that we recommend that prospective Merge owners try out the phone in a store before they buy.
The Merge's QWERTY keyboard area is small, spanning just over an inch, comparable to the T-Mobile G2. (The Samsung Epic 4G, in contrast, gives you 1.5 inches to work with.) The fully separated keys never felt too small to our smaller hands, but they did feel thin and flat. Although they bounced back just fine, the keys weren't as snappy or tactile as on other physical keyboards we've used, which slowed us down a bit.
Just above the keyboard are two lights that indicate when you've got the Caps and function keys turned on. On the right side of the keyboard is the AP1 button, a customizable convenience key. You can assign the AP1 a function from a list of options in the Settings menu, such as accessing an application or quickly composing a message. You can also trigger turn-by-turn navigation or calling your mom, but keep in mind you have to open the keyboard first before pressing the button.
Like the rest of HTC's phones, the Merge includes the Sense interface. Disappointingly, it's running an older version, Sense 1.6, instead of the most recent build, Sense 2.3, reviewed here. Still, Sense 1.6 gives Android its characteristic seven customizable home screens that are preloaded with apps and widgets, plus the Leap screen that shows you thumbnails of all your screens when you pinch your fingers together. Press and hold the Home button and Sense will show you a list of apps you've recently opened.
In addition to adding a signature visual style and specific apps (more on this later), Sense plants widgets like the social networking Friend Stream and enhancements to stock Android apps like the music player.
Android 2.2 Froyo powers the Merge, but U.S. Cellular confirms that it will update the handset to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. In the meantime, the Android 2.2 Froyo features are comfortably familiar, so if you've handled an Android phone, then the Merge's unified inbox, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS won't come as a surprise, especially if you've used a phone with Sense before. The same goes for speakerphone, voice dialing, and text and multimedia messaging. The Merge also comes with a dedicated mobile hot-spot app, support for multiple social networking accounts, and the usual personal organizer tools like clocks and a calendar.
Additional Google services are also the norm, like Gmail, Google Talk, Google search, YouTube, Navigation, Places, and Latitude. As usual, you can download Google apps for services like Picasa, and apps and games from Android Market's more than 250,000 offerings.
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.
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.