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HTC Amaze 4G hands on: First impressions

What do we think about the dual-core Android baddy that T-Mobile claims has the most advanced camera on the market? Not bad, HTC, not bad at all.

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Yesterday T-Mobile announced two new dual-core Android smartphones for its upgraded HSPA+42 network--the Samsung Galaxy S II and the HTC Amaze 4G. We were already pretty familiar with the Galaxy S II family at its kick-off event in New York, and we've also reviewed the unlocked version. The Amaze 4G, however, was new to us.

We were lucky enough to go hands-on with the Amaze at an event last night, and it turns out that the phone wasn't as "new" as T-Mobile would have led us to believe. In fact, the Amaze is very similar to the HTC Sensation 4G. Considering we gave that phone a CNET Editors' Choice Award, that's not at all a bad starting place.

Specs 'n' stuff
Let's start with the specs. Like the Sensation 4G, the Amaze 4G has a 4.3-inch qHD SuperLCD touch-screen display. It's clear, bright, and pretty, and on its own, that's great. Hold it up next to any of those absolutely brilliant Samsung Galaxy S II phones, however, and it fades in comparison. Still, as I said, the screen definitely looks good regardless.

Android Gingerbread 2.3.4 is what's running under the Amaze 4G's hood. It's not the absolute most current version--that honor belongs to Android 2.3.5--but it's pretty darn fresh and fast. Speed is the name of HTC's game, and making the phone faster still is the 1.5 dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor, a step up from the 1.2GHz processor on the Sensation 4G.

Then there's T-Mobile's bid on speed. We were asked not to load any Web pages or run any speed tests on the phones, which suggests that T-Mobile either wasn't confident in the coverage of our venue, or the HSPA+42 network isn't quite ready to go. Still, on that network, the Amaze and the Samsung Galaxy S II are able to theoretically reach 42Mbps down, T-Mobile's fastest implementation of HSPA+, whose network tops out at 14.4Mbps down. In practice, speeds in San Francisco are typically a fraction of the theoretical threshold.

The Amaze takes after the Sensation 4G in body and build. The size and shape are very similar, with a flat, ever-so-slightly recessed face and a gently curved back. The patterns on the back are different, however--a metallic panel abuts soft-touch material--and the buttons and fit and finish materials have their own character.

The handset comes in two colors: black and white. Both will be available at the same time.

As usual for an HTC Android phone, the Amaze 4G comes with HTC Sense preinstalled, and it's the most recent version 3.0. It remains attractive, fun, and easy to use, and is one of our favorite manufacturer customizations. While skins can be known to slow the upgrade cycle, Sense adds enough functionality that we enjoy having it around. For more on Sense 3.0, see the Sensation 4G review.

The T-Mobile Amaze 4G from HTC T-Mobile USA

The Amaze 4G comes with several preloaded apps to take advantage of the phone's speed and high-resolution screen, like T-Mobile TV and HTC Watch. While you can't point your finger at it, the handset also supports NFC, or near-field communication, so you'll be able to tap it to NFC terminals to make a mobile payment or exchange information.

More than any other feature, HTC and T-Mobile tout the Amaze 4G's camera. We've heard this claim before, with the T-Mobile My Touch 4G Slide (we even tested that camera in depth).

Two features purportedly take this 8-mexapixel shooter beyond. One is a new shooting mode called SmartShot, which works with portraits of people's faces. It takes five shots in quick succession and automatically brings the "best" elements of them all together. If you're blinking in one picture, making a strained expression in another, and moving your chin in the third, the final image should show open eyes and a smile, while all in focus.

We played around with SmartShot a bit (see it in action in the video above), but the oversaturated pink lighting of T-Mobile's launch party didn't do us any favors as photographers, and this is one of those features that requires us to suspend judgment until we spend more time testing it out.

The second new camera feature, PerfectPics, isn't part of the camera at all. Instead, it's a gallery feature that takes the top 10 percent most technically correct photos from your camera roll and automatically combines them in a separate album. From there, you'll be able to share them and interact as usual.

What do we mean by a technically correct image? Simply that the lighting levels, colors, contrast, and so on meet certain predefined parameters. There's some manual flexibility, too, to remove or add photos to PerfectPics as you see fit. Lest you get tired of the same images, the Amaze 4G refreshes them weekly, and alerts you to the update.

The idea with PerfectPics is that it'll skim your best memories and remind you of photos you took. It'll be most useful to the busiest shutterbugs, and might be pretty lean for the photographically shy. However, with a strong camera phone like this, we suspect most Amaze owners will leave their point-and-shoot cameras home more often than not. Still, we're not totally sold on PerfectPics, so more judgment to come on that one.

Pricing and availability
The Amaze 4G costs $259.99 with a new, two-year contract and is available in stores starting October 12, but you can get it on T-Mobile's Web site on October 10.

Final thoughts
We had only a short time to inspect the HTC Amaze 4G, but it left us pretty impressed. It builds off the Sensation 4G's general body and specs, adds a one-upped T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide's camera, and runs on T-Mobile's fastest network to date. With ingredients like these, the HTC Amaze 4G has the makings of an excellent smartphone.

The main thing that dampens our enthusiasm so far is the price. For $30 less, the Samsung Galaxy S II has the same network capabilities, the same dual-core processor, and an even slightly newer version of the Android Gingerbread OS. Plus, it has a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and its camera features are also excellent. In some shots, those photos taken with our unlocked version of the Galaxy S II came out even better than those of the MyTouch 4G Slide upon which the Amaze 4G's camera is based.

Still, carriers are known to reduce their pricing through promotions, and the Amaze 4G will definitely be up there as one of T-Mobile's top smartphones.