The HTC Magic; 3 steps from perfect

by James Whatley on 28th May 2009

“Oh oh oh, it’s Magic!”

So sang the great 70′s British pop band, Pilot.

Little did they know that 30 years on, their lyrics would be used in conjuntion with my love for this wonderful device. This, the second of the Android OS handsets to hit the industry as we know it – the Vodafone exclusive HTC Magic – has been a joy to use and has also, shockingly enough, kept me away from my much-loved N95 8GB.

Shes a beauty

She's a beauty

Yes. It really is that good.

However,  just like the aforementioned 1975 chart hit, when you move deeper, you see a different story. The next lyrics in the song being…

“Never believe, it’s not so.”

Sometimes, you spot the wires.
Sometimes, you see the cards slide under just there.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that can shatter the illusion.

You see the Magic gets so many things fantastically bang on the money, so perfectly right, but under closer inspection – cracks begin to form.

Let’s put this into context, some of you may remember when I trialled the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1. I said at the time, quite openly, that I wasn’t a fan.

The hardware was (and still is) very, very basic – you might even say toy-like – and  is extremely creaky. The software was first generation; great if you’re Google-centric, painful if not.

And I quote:

Anyway, the point is, as simple and as (supposedly) easy it is to sign up/in into a G1 phone – if you don’t have a Google-centric life, then this phone is not for you. Think about it. Think about it a lot. Then think about it again.
And on top of all that, the camera’s crap and the phone feels like a fisher-price toy.

One thing I said about the G1 that carries through to this day, in regards to the Android OS at least, is that you get the BEST experience if your communications are Google-centric.
I doubt this will ever change.

But what about the Magic? That’s why you’re here right?

Well, look and feel wise the hardware is a massive improvement over it’s predecessor and overall, not since Nokia released the E71 have I found a phone such a pleasure to hold. The plastic casing belies a smooth, almost seamless finish which slides into the hand effortlessly. This phone implores you to play with it.

Upon switching on the first time you’re greeted with the gushing bright redness of the Vodafone welcome screen, and of course, the now as-standard Android/Google sign-in process. Something that should be pointed out at this moment is that since my first play last year, I’ve moved all my comms over to Google Apps. It’s only something I’ve done recently, but after too many annoyances with Yahoo’s still-born attempts at anything mobile, something had to be done and, if I’m honest, I’m loving it so far.

Being able to sign into the Magic with my Google Apps account makes a world of difference. This is the shape of communications devices of the future, without a doubt.
Google Talk IM integration, Google Maps, push email, OTA sync with contacts and calendar, the list goes on. When it comes to consuming content of any kind; texts, emails, IMs, web pages, this phone truly shines.

Then there is of course Google’s own app store, the  Android Marketplace. The few games and apps I’ve downloaded have proven useful and fun in equal measure. Extra points go to both Robo Defense and Abduction for quenching my Flight Control thirst that I seem to have acquired of late. The paid apps were simple enough to purchase too. I was hoping for operator billing to handle it all on the back end, but instead found that it was all run through Google Checkout. However, I popped my debit card details in once and that’s it, job done. Perhaps Ovi could learn something here, what do you say Ben?

The Magic’s camera is 3.2mp, and even though it lacks flash, the picture quality is surprisingly good.
See below for comparison shots between the Magic and another 3.2mp camera phone, the Nokia 5800.

Can you tell which one’s which?

But when we return to the hardware, we arrive at the drawbacks that make me tug on that invisible string that I’ve secretly attached to my beloved Nokia. The one aspect that lets the Magic down is content creation. Yes, the image above looks great, but the angle required to take the photo annoyed me. The Magic, not having a dedicated camera key, means that the image capture button is actually on the screen. Not a deal breaker admittedly, but it niggled.

Next, the sharing of that image. The default options are Gmail, MMS or Picasa, none of which I’m interested in. This means I had to download and install an app specifically for this function, Pixelpipe to be precise and – ugh – what a terrible, terrible UI. I was unsure of what images were going where and/or how to upload them. This resulted in erroneous Twitpics, un-titled photos and ultimately, a very unhappy Whatley.

Finally, and this one is the deal breaker for me, we get to the one thing that – if done correctly – would put the HTC that little bit closer to being my N95 replacement.

Text. Input.

The Magic comes with Google Android v1.5 – aka ‘Cupcake’ – out of the box. That means it has the on-screen touch keyboard (which is handy, given that unlike the G1 before it, the HTC doesn’t flip out to reveal qwerty-based goodness underneath) which can only be described as infuriating. The keyboard, either in portrait or landscape makes text input such a long drawn out process that it borders on painful. Writing something as simple as a text message, is such an arduous task that it requires a level of concentration that I’m simply not used to when it comes to such a simple undertaking.

Bear in mind that this is coming from someone who can write text messages in his pocket, without looking. You can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating this is for me. So close, so close to being perfect, but let down on something so basic.

I was discussing the Magic online recently when I said:

“Using the HTC Magic is like upgrading to the latest Swiss Army Knife, only to discover that your favourite parts are missing.”

And I stand by that. The Magic is an awesome, awesome phone. It (much to Ben Smith’s annoyance) even comes with Latitude – something that T-Mobile are yet to switch on here in the UK – which is again, more bags of awesome. Not only that but also, the Magic has arrived on my beloved Vodafone; super-fast, super-quick and super-connected.

However, when it comes to picking  a new phone, text entry matters, for me at least and the on screen keyboard trails a paltry third place behind the 5800 and the iPhone.

You’d think that after all that, I’d be back on board with my N95 8GB. But no, the Magic is still going strong. I’m putting up with the niggles and the faults, for now.
I tried to switch back to my Nokia at the weekend, the result? With sadness in my eyes, I looked down upon my 5MP lovely and said outloud:

“This just isn’t fun anymore”

I am under the Android spell… now if only I could put it on my Nokia.

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