Sprint’s Evo 4G is first mobile phone to make video chat possible


Think talking on a cellphone in public is anti-social?

Just wait. Soon, folks might be staring at their phones as well as mumbling into them.

Video chat on mobile phones has arrived.

On Friday, the HTC Evo 4G — the first U.S. phone able to access the speed-enhanced 4G cell network — went on sale, with Sprint Nextel as its exclusive carrier.

Tapping the 4G network enables the Evo to do faster Web browsing and downloads, in addition to higher-quality video streams and the aforementioned video chat. Sprint is the first cell provider in the U.S. to roll out 4G service.

But the honor of having the sole, mainstream video-chat phone could be short-lived. On Monday, Apple Inc. is expected to unveil an updated iPhone that is rumored to also offer video calling (although some rumors about new products from the super-secretive company always turn out to be false).

Just how good can video chat be on a cellphone screen?

Surprisingly terrific, judging from a test of the Evo. That is, after a lot of fussing.

A couple of days before the phone went on sale, I did a video chat with Scott Steinmetz, Sprint’s project manager for the product, who was in his Overland Park, Kan., office.

It took much finagling to get the call to work, only partly because the system was not quite fully activated.

To make a call work, both participants have to have a Google Gmail account, which is no surprise because the Evo’s operating system is Google’s own Android 2.1. Then you have to configure the Qik video app, which took some time to get up and working.

Finally, after numerous attempts, Scott appeared on the screen of the Evo I was testing. His face was slightly elongated due to the lens on the phone’s camera. But the image was so clear that I could comment on the Southwest-themed painting on his wall and antique slot machine in the background.

Meanwhile, he could see the less interesting, blank wall behind me in my living room (I’m painting the interior).

Most important, we could easily see each other’s expressions, providing a reminder of how nice video chat can be. The small screen was not a major barrier.

But there are three major caveats, two of which might be temporary.

At this point, you can use video chat only with people who also have Evo phones. For a while, that probably won’t be a lot of folks — the Evo is not cheap to buy or own. It costs $200 if bought with a two-year Sprint agreement. The data plan, which is unlimited, is $70 a month. And finally, it costs $10 extra a month to use the 4G network (more on that in a bit).

Second caveat: Video chat works only at 4G speeds on cell networks, and Sprint has not rolled that out to all cities yet. One of the spots that does not have 4G is a little place called Los Angeles. It won’t be here until later this year — the company would not specify just when.

The Evo can also use Wi-Fi for calls, which is how I did them from home and the office.

Finally, just how badly do we want video chat? It’s handy on computers for business meetings, or for talking to loved ones far away. But in general, video calling has never much caught on. After the famed Picturephone was demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair, futurists — as we now call people who make wild guesses — predicted that it would one day be part of daily life.

It turns out that for most real-world calls, voice is just fine.

Enjoy your status, Evo, as the leader in mobile video chat. The iPhone could be striving to take that away from you soon.