HTC’s Magic fixes almost all of the complaints we had against its predecessor, the Dream, with better hardware, a refined operating system and a smoother overall feel. Pricing issues, however, remain its achilles heel in the competitive consumer-led smartphone space.
From a distance, the HTC Magic looks much like any touchscreen based mobile. There’s a definite point of similarity between it and the recently released Telstra-exclusive MotoSurf A3100, for example.
The Magic is HTC’s followup phone to the HTC Dream, an Android-based smartphone. Android is Google’s take on smartphone software, with a focus on open source development and a more open attitude to new features and functions.
The hardware within the Magic is very similar to that within the Dream. That means you’re looking at the same 528MHz processor, 3.2″ TFT screen and 3.2 megapixel display screen. Connectivity is via Wifi, Bluetooth A2DP and HSDPA/WCDMA on the 900/2100Mhz wavelengths, although download rate is limited at 7.2Mbps. All of which is still perfectly acceptable in the modern smartphone market.
What’s less acceptable is the continued and annoying omission of a 3.5 mm headphone jack for music listening. All you’ve got is a USB socket at the base, and a USB to 3.5 mm headphone jack will cost you extra.
Hardware may be similar, but the software isn’t. The Magic runs the 1.5 version of Google’s Android operating system – more informally known as “Cupcake” – and this brings a number of new features into play, most strikingly an onscreen keyboard, as well as new onscreen animations and some video recording functions. For the Magic’s purposes, it’s all about the keyboard, although it’s worth noting that the Dream models sold in Australia through Optus should shortly receive the 1.5 update, making the same keyboard available to Dream owners.
As a Google supplied operating system, it’s not surprising that Google’s own services predominate, with quick access to search, Google Mail and Google Docs available out of the box, and most search functions within the unit resolve directly to Google. This also enables the Magic to perform some party tricks, like using Google’s Streetview and its inbuilt compass to allow you to “walk” around a streetview map simply by turning the phone. It’s not an everyday function, we admit, but it’s certainly a great attention getting device.
Android’s marketplace for third party applications has improved since we assessed the Dream, with a wider variety of available applications. It’s not quite as slick as the iTunes App store, but to cover most basic application needs it’s sufficient. At the time of writing, however, paid applications were still “coming soon”, which is the exact same story we got when the Dream launched. As it stands, that limits you to largely self-coded small applications, and blocks some applications for Australians entirely.
The Magic is currently being offered by two carriers — 3 and Vodafone. For once, the differences between them are more than just pricing and coverage. Vodafone’s version of the Magic (officially the “HTC Magic With Google) offers software updates over the air and allows you to use the GPS to geotag the location where photos were taken. 3’s version — which is supplied directly from manufacturer HTC, and is officially just the “HTC Magic” has to be updated from the PC only, features more inbuilt memory (288MB versus the Voda’s 192MB) and a preinstalled Microsoft Exchange client, as well as document viewers for office files. Most of the features missing from one version could conceivably be added to the other via the Android marketplace, save for the over-the-air OS updates and the higher inbuilt memory. We tested with the 3 version of the Magic, and arguably the differences aren’t so great as to tilt in favour of either carrier at this point, although plan differences do tilt slightly in Vodafone’s favour at the time of writing. With 3 and Vodafone merging, it may well be a moot difference in very short order anyway.
There’s not too much to report within the Magic’s hardware that you couldn’t deduct simply by picking up a dummy unit in your local mobile phone store. It feels good in the hand, although those with chunkier fingers might struggle with the smaller buttons. There’s no dedicated camera button, with the trackball click taking shots for you. HTC’s beefed up the battery with the Magic to 1340mAh, and during our test period we managed to exhaust it in a day’s heavy usage. If only moderately used, we could extend that to a couple of days without difficulty.
Cupcake does supply some new features, but it also solidly adopts the “if it’s not broken” mantra by keeping the Android OS slick and easy to use. We still like the flick-based notification screens, multi-tasking and quick response of Android. One of the bigger inclusions with Cupcake is the onscreen keyboard, and to date, we’ve only been really impressed with one onscreen smartphone keyboard implementation – on the iPhone – but with the Magic, that number jumps up to two. It’s intelligent, easy to type with and offers good autocorrection, allowing for speedy typing. About our only complaint is that the shortcut for number entry is oddly on the right hand side of the keyboard rather than the left, which takes some getting used to.
On the apps front, we were able to add apps and functions to the Magic easily, but as with the Dream, the quality varies quite a bit, and we were sometimes struck by how amateur the presentation of some apps was. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s noticeably less polished than competing application offerings.
The Magic is an excellent smartphone with a clever and easy to understand operating system. There are still some rough corners within Android – especially relating to third party apps – but they’re getting better all the time, and the fact that the operating system is evolving is a very positive step.
The Magic is undoubtedly a direct attack on Apple’s iPhone 3G, but is it worth buying over the iPhone? At the time of writing, pricing for the Magic was essentially identical to that of picking up an iPhone on a decent data plan – and it’s possible to get an iPhone a little cheaper if your data needs are more modest.
Given the iPhone’s music and video capabilities, and the more evolved nature of the iPhone app store, we’d suggest a slightly cheaper Magic might sell a lot more units, but a comparatively priced one is a tough sell. It’s certainly a contender, but it’s not an iPhone knockout punch in one single hit.