The White Whale of Android smartphones finally emerges on a handful of regional carriers
There's something quite satifying about the HTC Merge on US Cellular. Maybe it's the sleek design. Maybe it's the excellent slider keyboard. Or maybe it's because it's our White Whale.
The HTC Merge (codenamed Lexikon) first made an appearance as a dual CDMA/GSM World Phone in early September 2010 when the FCC outed it, pictures and all. At the time, it was clearly branded for Verizon. And it was the Verizon version that we got an exclusive look at it just a month later. At that time, the Merge still had not been announced by Verizon.
And so days went by and turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Still no word on the Merge. Meanwhile, the Motorola Droid 2 (another horizontal slider released that fall) had already been revamped and gained a GSM radio, so it, too, would work outside the United States. Whether that's the reason the Verizon held back the Merge, we may never know. But on February 25, 2011 -- nearly five months after its inital FCC showing -- HTC announced that the Merge would be coming to "multiple carriers" in the spring.
It first saw release on Alltel and Cellular South. And, this June, on US Cellular. One thing those carriers have in common? They all piggyback on Verizon's network. That's not a coincidence. (And you actually can buy a Merge at a third-party retailer and actually use it on Verizon.)
And so we finally have the HTC Merge. This is its story.
The video hands-on
Youtube link for mobile viewing
With that much preamble, it should be readily apparent that the HTC Merge is no longer on the cutting edge of smartphone technology. There's no dual-core processor to be found. No super-display-technology-of-the-week. It's not lighter than air. In fact, it's a bit hefty, at 198 grams. No, what you're presented with in the Merge is one solid Android phone.
First off, the Merge has a 3.8-inch display at the usual 480x800 resolution. Not too big, not too small. It's capacitive buttons beneath the screen, in the home-menu-back-search configuration. The search button -- like the earpiece and function keys on the physical keyboard -- is highlighted in a dark red color. Presumably, that's a throwback to when the phone was inteded for release on Verizon. (See the original highlights on the HTC Droid Incredible.)
Just under capacitive buttons you have the HTC logo and a nice little design feature; you could call them dimples; flanking the logo like that, they almost give the appearance of wings. (See it now? Keep looking.)
Atop the phone is the usual power switch (accented by a nice silver ring) and 3.5mm headphone jack. The left-hand bezel has the volume rocker and microUSB port.
Flip the Merge over and you're greeted with the 5MP camera and flash, plus the rear speaker, which is decent enough. The battery cover is deceptive, made of brushed metal and soft-touch plastic, almost giving the phone a unibody appearance. But it pries off easily (use a fingernail on the little slit at the bottom), revealing the 1400 mAh battery, microSD card ( our review unit came with a 8GB card; it's held in by a little tab you'll have to depress) and SIM card slot (which is what makes it a world phone).
Like the newer HTC ThunderBolt, there's also a little design flare tucked in under the battery cover. You're not likely to ever see this in actual use, but the vibrator motor is exposed. Neat.
Of course, one of the bigger selling points of the HTC Merge -- and one whose praises we've been singing since we first got our hands on it -- is the physical keyboard. The screen slides up, automatically changing the screen to landscape (horizontal) mode. The transition is noticable, but it's not horribly laggy. Once open, you're presented with four rows of keys. The It's a staggered design, meaning the letter keys don't line up on top of one another, and that's a good thing. The keys themselves have rounded edges and are perfectly spaced. Small, but not too small, they're also completely flat, save for the F and J keys, which have raised dots on them to help you find your way by touch.
As is the case with physical keyboards on Android devices, you also have dedicated buttons for home, menu, back and search. There's also a host of function (FN) buttons, which you access by first tapping the red-accented FN key. There are dedicated comma, period, question mark and @ keys, with the latter a nice surprise. Too many phones forego it an instead include smilies or something even less useful.
There's a user-programmable key on the keyboard as well. Beneath the Enter key (and just above the arrow keys) is a button labeled AP1. As we sort of noted in our initial review of the Merge, while we love the idea of a user-programmable button, "AP1" isn't really intuitive. The good news is that when you press the button for the first time, you're asked if you want to assign a hardware shortcut to it. Say yes, and you can add an application, or bookmark, direct dial number, text message address, navigation, location, e-mail inbox, music playlist, contact or settings.
What's under the hood
So the Merge is an aging device. It doesn't have a dual-core processor. And we're just fine with that. What it does have is an 800 MHz Qualcomm proc. And for what you'll likely be doing on the Merge, that should be powerful enough. The Merge doesn't have HDMI out or anything, so you're not going to be pumping out high-definition video to a TV set anyway.
As for memory, we've got about a gigabyte of internal storage available, and 363 MB or free RAM with witch to run applications.
The Merge also sports the usual accelerometer, magnetometer, orientation, light and proximity sensors, and GPS and Bluetooth, of course.
As is kind of becoming a theme with the Merge, it's not running the latest version of Android, having launched with Android 2.2 Froyo (same as what we saw last fall). We're willing to bet it'll get an upgrade to Gingerbread at some point, but there's nothing official on that just yet.
The Merge sports HTC's Sense UI. It's not the newest version of Sense (ahem), but aside from the sweet lockscreen you get in Sense 3.0, you'll be right at home here. You've got seven home screens to customize, but US Cellular has them preloaded for you with a e-mail widget, text message widget, a slew of app icons, the iconic HTC clock, Favorites widget, Bookmarks widget, Youtube widget and a few settings toggle switches.
You can change out any of the widgets and icons you want. And there's also HTC's "Scenes" function, which gives you six pre-configured sets of home screens. Or you can choose "Clean slate" and do things your way.
A big distinction between US Cellular's HTC Merge and the Verizon version we first saw: This one hasn't been all Binged up. Verizon stripped out some of the Google services (like it's done on a few other phones) and replaced them with Microsoft Bing. US Cellular has done no such thing. Google Search is intact. Google Maps is there. And the world is as it should be.
Along with the usual Google apps, the Merge comes with: City ID (yay!), HTC's clock apps, Facebook, Flashlight, FM Radio, Footprings, Frienid Stream, a US Cellular contacts backup program, Peep, Quickoffice, Stocks, Teeter, a Wifi hotspot app, and a smattering of others. That's your basic loadout for an HTC smartphone these days.
Worth checking out is US Celluar's live wallpaper that comes on the Merge by default. Who doesn't love parachuting Bugdroids?
The Merge has a 5-megapixel camera with flash. There's no front-facing camera, and we're just fine with that, seeing as how we almost never use one anyway. The camera is controlled with HTC's custom app. It's decent enough, but we prefer the camera app in Sense 3.0, which gives you quicker access to some of the settings, and to toggling between still and video shots. Speaking of the video camera: It's set to 480p recording by default, and you can crank it up to full 720p resolution in the settings.
Images below open in full resolution in a new window. You've been warned.
Youtube link for mobile viewing
Boiling it down: The HTC Merge just feels like a great phone. We use the word "solid" a lot in regards to HTC devices, and we're going to do so again with the Merge. It's just solid. The slider mechanism on the keyboard is perfect -- not too stiff, not too light. The keyboard is among the best we've used. The phone is powerful enough to do most of what you're likely to be doing.
The Merge is not (yet) a hacker's delight. You can attain temporary root via Visionary, but don't expect the Merge to get the attention of the other devices out there. So who's going to be buying an HTC Merge? If you're in US Cellular's coverage area, it's almost a no-brainer at $149 on contract, especially if you're looking for a phone with a physical keyboard. Having global GSM access is just icing on the cake.
We've said it a few times throughout this review: The HTC Merge really isn't top of the line anymore. And some would argue that even when it looked like it was going to launch in the fall of 2010, it already was slipping behind. And you know what? We're perfectly OK with that. Not everybody needs the bleeding edge. And yesterday's HTC technology is a slight shade better than some manufacturers' builds from today.