AT&T has been in need of some real serious Android lovin’. The Motorola Backflip, while conceptually cool, failed to make an impact with its quirky design, and its outdated version of Android software seemed stale when stacked against other carriers’ offerings. It also didn’t help that the Google Nexus One was never obtainable subsidized through AT&T. Enter the HTC Aria, an AT&T Android handset finally worth talking about. The Aria ($129.99 with a 2-year contract) is a compact, excecptionally built smart phone that zips through Android 2.1 layered with HTC Sense seemingly as good as its much more powerful brethren, the HTC Evo and Droid Incredible. Still, this mid-range Android set is held back by the fact that AT&T prevents the sideloading of applications, leaving the Aria sandwiched between the cheaper iPhone 3GS and the more expensive, but more feature-packed iPhone 4.
If you’re thinking "Wait, I’ve seen this somewhere before," you’re right. The Aria shares nearly all of its aesthetics with the HTC HD mini we previewed during Mobile World Congress earlier this year. Gone are 5 touch-sensitive Windows Mobile Keys from the HD mini, replaced by touch sensitive Home, Menu, Back, and Search keys to compliment Android. There's also an optical control wedged between the menu and back keys that rests a bit lower, and is the same as the one found on the Droid Incredible; it’s very practical and makes navigating through Android and apps a breeze.
On paper, the 3.2-inch 480 x 320 resolution seems undesirable, but in real-world use it’s almost the exact opposite. Indoors, both images and video look good on the small screen, and colors weren’t as saturated as they were on the higher resolution Nexus One. In direct sunlight however, the screen was barely usable due to its high-gloss finish.
The Aria measures 4.6 x 2.3 x 0.47 inches and weighs a sturdy 4.6 ounces. Easy to fit into a shirt or pants pocket, it’s roughly the same size as the Motorola Cliq XT, but the Aria feels like a higher quality handset. It’s the little touches on the Aria chassis, like chrome accents on the volume controls and tastefully exposed steel screws on the back cover, that give the Aria a more luxurious feel than many of its competitors. The back cover has a nice rubberized texture boosting its slip resistance.
Physical buttons are kept to a minimum, too. To the left is a single button to control volume, and a power button (also used for hibernating the phone) is on top. A 3.5mm stereo headset jack is located to the left of the power button, and the Aria’s microphone and USB connector are located on the bottom. The design is well executed, and the simple, but thoughtful attention to detail is unmatched for an Android phone this size.
On one hand, the HTC custom virtual keyboard in Sense is far better in every which way than the stock Android virtual keypad. It’s functional, responsive, and even has subtle haptic feedback when inputting characters. The downside is the Aria’s limited screen real estate. We found ourselves making more errors than we’d like when e-mailing, texting, and using social networking applications like Twitter. What’s more frustrating is the fact that handy text-input applications, like Swype, cannot be used at all on the Aria. (More on that later).
The Aria is locked and loaded with Android 2.1 layered with the latest HTC Sense UI. It’s a matter of preference, but we love what HTC has done with its customizable skin to jazz up the vanilla blemishes that come with stock Android 2.1- which was already a nice visual upgrade from its 1.x siblings.
We say the more customized menus the merrier, and that’s exactly what Sense gives- 7 home screens over stock Android’s 5. A pinch on the capacitive multi-touch screen allows you to view all screens in gallery form, and one tap will instantly zoom in and open that screen. Each screen can be packed with a combination of applications, widgets, shortcuts, and folders. We like the fact that Sense isn’t one-sided. When choosing to add a music widget, for example, Sense will allow you to embed the HTC music widget or the stock Android one.
There's also a bar located at the bottom of the screen that remains in place no matter which home screen you navigate to. From this bar, you can tap the right side to add widgets, shortcuts, programs, and folders. The middle of the bar will launch the phone app, allowing you to make calls and check call history. To the left of the bar is the all programs screen. Here you cannot only scroll thru the installed applications, but perform such tasks as adding an application to a home screen by simply tapping and holding an icon.
We left the familiar Sense Weather & Desk clock application on the main home screen plus a few apps including our company mail, while another occupied HTC’s slick photo album widget. Then another home screen had a combination of wireless controls to easily toggle airplane mode, Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi; the next had a screen dedicated to favorite contacts listed by e-mail and telephone numbers, complete with a contact picture gallery.
With Gmail at the heart of all Android sets, configuring your account with the Aria is as simple as entering your e-mail address and password. Both Exchange ActiveSync and POP3/IMAP accounts are configurable for other e-mail accounts, and support for viewing productivity documents like Microsoft Word and Excel is implemented well. We did run into one issue where we had to manually configure our Yahoo account settings for it to function properly.
We were pleasantly surprised by how well the Aria handled the Android 2.1 OS with Sense. The 600MHz Qualcomm processor (the same CPU inside the myTouch 3G Slide, another swift mid-range Android phone) coupled with 384MB of RAM and 512MB of ROM far exceeded our expectations. Transitions when switching between applications were fluid; and our finger gestures didn’t miss a beat when swiping from one screen to the next or pinch-zooming. Google Maps worked butter smooth, and we were able to quickly switch over to check for incoming e-mails while downloading a few games. Even with every screen packed to the hilt with widgets and a few applications running in the background, there was no lag whatsoever. The Aria sets the bar for how smoothly a mid-range Android phone should perform.
The Aria supports AT&T’s HSPA 7.2 network, which wasn’t available in our area; still the Aria pulled off respectable 3G web performance . The Aria’s WebKit-based browser renders pages fast and accurately. Like most Android handsets; its browser is a close second only to the iPhone 3GS. CNN mobile loaded in a respectable 7.7 seconds over 3G.
Although the Aria lacks the range and speed of 802.11n, its 802.11g connection rendered the same CNN mobile page in a swift 3.1 seconds. 3G performance was also strong when downloading applications as we were able to download a 1.22MB program in just 8.8 seconds.
There’s so much to find in the 50,000+ apps on the Android Market that it can be a chore. Fortunately Android 2.1’s Marketplace is far more user-friendly than the one found on the Motorola Backflip running Android 1.5. Applications are organized well, and navigating through the Android Market’s intuitive interface is a breeze. Screenshots are available for each application, whether it’s a productivity app or game, and most paid applications offer trials. Some noticeable freebies include Google Maps, Pandora Radio, Twitter, Movies by Flixster, Yellow Pages, Shazam, and Google Voice. The Aria’s 512MB of ROM can hold a good number of applications, and a 2GB microSD is included for additional storage. The phone supports cards up to 32GB.
AT&T has preinstalled applications like AT&T Radio, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Maps, and MobiTV, which has more than 40 channels including ESPN Mobile TV, Fox News, and CBS Mobile. Unfortunately, all of these services cost a premium after the trial expires.
Here is where it gets ugly. It seems that AT&T hasn’t grasped the concept that Android is an open-source OS, because the carrier has placed the same sideloading restrictions on the Aria as it did with the Backflip. The result leaves Android users tied to only the Android Market for installing applications. That means useful apps like Swype are a no-go, because you’re required to download a separate application file, but there’s no way to load it onto the Aria because AT&T forbids these actions; try installing an app from an APK file and you will receive an error message.
AT&T’s decision also blocks large third party supporters of Android like EA Games, who host titles such as Monopoly on its mobile website. The Aria won’t allow these web-based installs either. No other wireless carriers impose these kinds of restrictions.
The stereo headset supplied with the Aria is decent, though we recommend anyone wanting to listen to music over an extended period of time purchase a higher quality headset. The buds were a bit too tinny for our taste when the volume was cranked high while streaming music from Pandora.
The Sense Music App is nicely done, more polished than the stock Android experience but not quite as refined as the iPod app on the iPhone. We uploaded albums from Usher, Lady Antebellum, and Beyonce quickly via USB, and album art was legible, but we wish it were larger. Streamed YouTube HQ content looked good and performed stutter-free over 3G. We kept the volume on the external speaker no higher than medium, otherwise the audio output became too distorted.
The Aria’s 5-Megapixel camera took fast blur-free images, and quality was great--in the right lighting conditions. We snapped photos all over Manhattan during the day, including everything from moving taxis to the Empire State Building, and the Aria produced images with good accuracy. Even little details in the background like store signage were legible. We captured video on a busy street corner near our facility, capturing pedestrians and vehicles moving fast and slow with the Aria’s highest resolution, 640 x 480 (VGA), at 28 frames per second. The high framerate produced smooth video, and video clarity was surprisingly clear.
Forget about shooting in dimly lit environments. scenarios. Without an LED flash, it was pointless trying to shoot images at night as nearly all detail was lost with the exception of headlights and building lighting.
AT&T Navigator is installed, and is feature-packed with options, but the $9.99 monthly premium you’ll have to pay to use it isn’t worth it, especially when Google Maps Navigation comes with Android 2.1 and has the same turn-by-turn, voice-guided amenities, in addition to street view navigation.
We took a drive to the Jersey Shore from Manhattan, and Google’s turn-by-turn directions worked without a hitch. It’s also a bit perlexing that AT&T couldn’t consolidate some of its map apps into one. In addition to Android’s Google Maps, AT&T adds AT&T Navigator, AT&T Maps, and AT&T FamilyMaps. AT&T maps provides directions as well, so it can be a bit confusing as to why there’s a need for separate map apps.
Call Quality and Battery Life
The Aria has great call clarity. We had no reception issues when making calls to both coasts, and call quality remained good even when we received a call from abroad. Once again, conferencing with the speaker was decent as long as there wasn’t too much happening on the receiving end. However, noise saturation would cause distortion when the speaker was cranked to full volume. We didn’t experience any dropped calls on AT&T’s network during testing. The Aria is a GSM phone that operates on 850/900/1800 and 1900MHz frequencies, so it can also be used internationally.
AT&T rates the Aria’s battery talk time at 6 hours. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which measures continuous web surfing over 3G, the Aria lasted 4 hours 32 minutes; which is slightly better than the HTC EVO 4G, and about the same as the recently released Asus Garminphone. You should be able to make it through most of a day with periodic usage (e-mailing, surfing, and running apps), but heavy users may need to keep the charger handy.
The HTC Aria costs $129.99 with a two-year contract from AT&T. Out of pocket you’ll pay $229.99, and then AT&T will send you a $100 promotion card within 60 days of your order. The Unlimited nationwide talk plan costs $69.99, add $20 for unlimited text. Heavy data consumers may want to think twice when it comes to AT&T’s data plans. The 200MB DataPlus costs $15 a month, and once you exceed that, you’ll be charged an additonal $15, and given another 200MB data cap. The DataPro is a much better deal at $25 a month for 2GB of data, with a fee of $10 per 1GB after the initial 2GB is consumed.
The HTC Aria is a pocket-friendly Android phone that offers better performance than what its small screen might suggest. You might even call it cute. But this handset would have fared better if AT&T didn't prevent installation of non-marketplace apps. Imposing restrictions that block functionality which other service providers allow is a head scratcher. In this price range, we prefer the $99 iPhone 3GS, but the Aria is worth a look for Android fans looking to stand out in the crowd. Want a more powerful Android handset on AT&T? Wait for the 4-inch Samsung Captivate.