We bring you an exclusive hands-on with the elusive global horizontal slider
Slim, sleek and ready to do business -- that's how we'd decribe the HTC Merge. The Merge (aka the Lexikon -- and both of those names are subject to change, by the way) on Verizon looks to be the Android smartphone you worldwide travelers have been waiting for. Take the best HTC has to offer -- hardware, build quality, physical keyboard, user interface -- toss it atop Android 2.2 and slap on a global SIM card. That's the Verizon HTC Merge.
Pique your interest a bit? We go hands-on -- all the way hands-on -- after the break.
OK, let's preface this hands-on with a couple of things: The device we took a look at feels pretty solid. But the phone hasn't even been announced yet, so specs and details are subject to change. And, yes, Verizon has put Bing on it. For the purposes of this hands-on, we all need to get over it. Or maybe we won't. read on.
HTC Merge video preview
The hardware - usual HTC greatness
So what we have here is a horizontal slider with a four-row physical keyboard. And let's start with that keyboard. If you had to pick one thing that HTC excels at, it'd be keyboard design. And they've pretty much knocked it out of the park here. The keys a near-perfect size. They're clicky and responsive and very well spaced. They're flat with rounded edges -- like the Sprint Epic 4G, but better, with not nearly as many crammed into such a little space.
The slider mechanism is a true slider, in and out. No weird hinge action. It's stiff, without much play that might otherwise leave you worried about it breaking down over time. Again, though, that's something we'll want to revisit with a production unit.
In addition to the usual letters and numbers, you get a home button, a menu button and an oversized FN button for secondary functions. And the FN button's size is nice -- no pecking around for it.
There's also a user-defined "API button." Note to all you budding designers out there: Never, EVER put the letters API out in front of your customers. Let's hope that's just a pre-production thing and that the button will get a more friendly stencil come go-time.
The secondary functions -- punctuation and numbers and the like -- are stenciled the Verizon red. Not sure if it was our unfamiliarity with them or if it was the color, but we had a hard time picking them out. And if your'e color-blind, well ... But that's a small thing. The color fits with dark red highlights, and we're OK with that.
The shell of the phone is done in a charcoal gray. It's just a tad plasticy, and the phone has a great balance to it. It's just weighty enough, but you don't worry about taking off a toe, like you might if you drop the Motorola Droid.
The HTC Merge camera is your basic 5-megapixel shooter. It can record video in 720p resolution.
The top of the phone is home to the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack, like you'd expect. The volume rocker and microUSB port are on the left-hand bezel, and the right-hand bezel is free and clear.
The screen -- we'll assume for the sake of argument that it's SLCD -- appears to be about 3.7 inches in diagonal, same as the Droid 2 and Droid Incredible. We've said it before about screen types -- unless you have a half-dozen phones in front of you, you'll never notice. And the Merge's screen looks just fine to us.
The Merge feels just a tad thicker than the Motorola Droid 2, but mostly they're about the same size. The Merge is pocketable and fits nicely in the hand.
Under the hood
The Android System Info app lists max processor speed at 800MHz, so that's what we're going with here. Max internal memory was listed at about 1.3GB, and there were about 363MB of RAM available to the user. (That's you.) Benchmark tests list the Linpack score at about the same as the Nexus One, and Quadrant has it above the Nexus One with Android 2.2.
The battery cover pries off to reveal, well, the battery and MicroSD card. The extra storage can be swapped out without first having to remove the battery, but it's held in place by a little piece of plastic that you have to depress while sliding out the card. It's a little tricky, but you get better at it with practice.
One feature that sets the Merge apart from just every other Android phone is that it's a "World phone." That means it also has a SIM card slot. Traditional CDMA (that's Sprint and Verizon) phones don't have SIM cards, little wafers of info that contain your phone's fingerprint and can be easily swapped from one GSM device to another. A "World phone" is a Sprint or Verizon phone with a SIM card, so it can work on GSM networks. But that's not to say you'll be using the Merge on AT&T or T-Mobile. No, it's intended for use overseas. And then you'll likely be tied down to some sort of Verizon (or Vodafone, more likely) roaming plan. But the upside is you get to use your phone. And hackers have cracked open this sort of thing before.
Android 2.2 is on board out of the box, so no waiting for a pesky Froyo upgrade. (And, really, that's the way it should be at this point.) HTC Sense is the user interface of choice, naturally. It's not the newer version that we're seeing on the Europen HTC Desire HD and Desire Z, and that's a shame, what with its quick-hibernation restore and UI improvements. Here's to hoping the Merge will get an update. Otherwise, we're looking at the usual Sense experience. There's also Verizon's 3G Mobile hot spot app, so you can tether at home, if you pay, of course. (Will that work overseas on GSM?)
The ROM on the device appears to be the same as what we saw from that leaked RUU a few weeks ago. That means it's looking pretty unlikely this will get the Droid branding.
We actually broke the bad Bing news a couple weeks ago. Yes, Bing's on board. (Read our review of Bing here.) And that Verizon has made it the default search and mapping option is B.A.D. But you can download Google Maps from the Android Market. And once the phone is rooted (and does anybody think that'll take more than a day?), we should be able to squash Bing for good. Don't hate the phone for Verizon's choice.
The HTC Merge is a phone that we can't wait to get into our hands in its final form. It's coming at a slightly odd time, as we all pretty much expect and know that Verizon is lauching its LTE service later this year, though we're not expecting any smartphones to take advantage of it for some time. But the Merge very much feels -- even in this unannounced, unleleased version -- that it should have some real staying power. Hats off to HTC.