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The Most Over-Hyped Features

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Jan 14, 2011, 5:17 PM   by Philip Berne

Do you really need a 4G, Full HD recording, NFC-capable super-phone? Some of the best features you're hearing about are over-hyped. Find out what's worth skipping.

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Intro 

Reading through criticism about Apple's new iPhone 4 for Verizon Wireless, I was struck by some common, recurring themes. The biggest criticism leveled against the new iPhone seemed to be the lack of 4G LTE networking support. Apple and Verizon addressed this issue in their joint press conference, saying that they wanted to deliver a product sooner, based on customer demand, and the 4G technology available today is not sized to fit the thin, stylish frame of the iPhone 4.

Still, on our Phone Scoop forums and elsewhere, users bemoan the lack of 4G in the upcoming iPhone. This got me thinking about all of the technology that potential buyers crave, even when they probably shouldn't. There are tons of new features appearing on flagship devices that seem to be key selling points, but in practical use these new features usually don't come close to living up to the hype.

The Features

4G 

There are two real issues here. First, besides Verizon Wireless' network, 4G networks are not ready to deliver on the promise of ubiquitous, high speed networking, comparable to your cable modem or fiber optic connection at home. There are moments of greatness to be found. In the right spot, you'll see super-fast download speeds on Sprint and Clear's WiMAX network, or on T-Mobile HSPA+ networks. Even AT&T claims to match and perhaps beat T-Mobile's fast network capabilities, though we haven't had first-hand experience to match this claim.

So, it's true that, depending on where you stand (literally), you might find tomorrow's networking technology today. But if there's one thing that my extensive data networking tests proved to me, it's that performance varies wildly. You might see 5-7 Mbps downloads through Sprint's 4G network in one spot, then barely break 1 Mbps in another.

What's truly important to most customers is not the raw data network speeds or the bombastic claims the carriers make. It's how these speeds affect the real features and services you want to use. In layman's terms, current 4G networks are not going to satisfy your urge for continual movie watching through Netflix or other streaming services. Quality will suffer, and you won't see HD content streamed reliably. Web pages will not open at speeds that rival your desktop, and Flash content will take even longer. High-def video uploads to YouTube or other video sharing sites will still take a long time, if they are even possible.

At the moment, with very few active users, Verizon's network seems like the fastest bet, but even The Network's impressive LTE service comes with some caveats. Don't let the pre-production prototype phones from CES fool you. It will be a couple months at least before the first LTE phones hit the market, and these phones will probably see much lower battery life than their 3G counterparts.

The 4G phones I handled from LG, Samsung and HTC were all the thickest smartphones I've seen in a while. The network connection was still buggy and imperfect, and it failed frequently in the demonstrations I was given from Verizon reps. I'm hoping that these problems are ironed out by launch, especially because there is plenty of time until then. The four LTE phones Verizon has been showing off will be released over a period of time stretching to June. Phones announced this Spring and Summer will probably not go on sale until the fall, if not the 2011 holiday season.

It's too early to start complaining about a lack of 4G networking on new releases. That doesn't mean enthusiastic buyers shouldn't consider a 4G device, but these phones are not for everyone, at least not yet.

Video Calls 

Have you seen the commercials where T-Mobile criticizes the iPhone 4 for a lack of video calling support over cellular networks? There's a good reason Apple has skipped on allowing FaceTime to work over 3G. It looks horrible.

I've tried every major video calling service available, on every cell network. I've tried Qik, Fring (using Skype), Skype video calling, and Tango. They all look horrible. The framerate, at best, hits a chugging 15 fps or so, and at worst can stutter to only a few frames per second, or worse.

I'm an avid video chat user. I Skype with my parents in Baltimore and my sister in the Netherlands. But I chat from home, using my laptop and my fast Wi-Fi connection. My sister, mother and I all own Droid phones or iPhones, and we've tried using the other services, but nothing even comes close to the desktop experience. That's especially disappointing because even the desktop experience isn't perfect.

The best experience on a phone is Apple's FaceTime, but since it uses a Wi-Fi connection, it hardly counts. After all, there are few spots where I have Wi-Fi on my phone, but I can't use my laptop for video calling as well. The phone is easier to hold, but the laptop has a larger screen. In any case, even Apple is not offering a good video calling service using a cell network.

I haven't used video calling on a Verizon Wireless LTE phone yet, and it will be a major selling point for the company's new phones. Still, I've used Sprint's WiMAX phones and T-Mobile's 4G devices, and none have provided a satisfying, or even acceptable video calling experience. Video chat might be a nice bonus feature to consider if you're buying a smartphone today, but don't expect the feature to live up to the hype, or look the way it does in commercials.

Dual-Core 

There is a lot that goes into making a phone feel fast. Sometimes, an updated system might make all the difference. Android phones updated to version 2.2 felt noticeably more responsive and snappy. I'm not a huge fan of Symbian's interface, but there is no doubt that Symbian phones perform comparably with slower processors inside.

Dual-core processors are starting to appear in smartphones, but their usefulness so far is dubious. The Tegra 2 chips are so far showing up primarily in Android smartphones, but all of these phones are shipping with Android 2.2, which doesn't take advantage of the dual-cores, at least not to the extent that we'll see when these phones use Android 2.3. A 1 GHz dual-core chip is still very fast, but it isn't yet living up to its potential.

There is also the question of battery life. More cores usually equals more power consumption, especially if they aren't being used most efficiently by the system. The "most powerful smartphone" I saw at CES, the Motorola Atrix 4G, uses a dual-core chipset, but also the largest battery I've ever seen in a smartphone, a 1900+ mAh cell that is almost a third larger than the average 1500 mAh battery you'll find in most popular devices. That might be a good indication of what to expect from battery life on these devices, though chipmakers like NVIDIA have certainly claimed that their dual-core chips have energy saving features built in, as well.

More power does not necessarily equal a better phone. The T-Mobile G2, for instance, was clocked a bit slower than the T-Mobile myTouch 4G, but there was no noticeable difference in the speed of the interface or apps running on that phone. Slight differences in clock speed won't make as much difference as generational differences in the processor families, especially as phones offload more and more work (like Flash video decoding and 3D gaming) to dedicated graphics hardware. In other words, the new 800MHz chip in the T-Mobile G2 easily outperformed 1GHz chips in older smartphones, thanks to other improvements in the hardware.

That said, one of my favorite phones of the year was the Motorola Defy, a phone that claims no bragging rights in terms of processor speed. But it has a great, rugged design, a solid interface with plenty of extra Motoblur features, and tons of appear. For some users, the most powerful processors will make a difference, but faster chips won't make everyone happier.

HD 

Technically, HD video recording refers only to the number of pixels recorded. If your phone records 1280 by 720 videos, you get 720p HD recording. If your phone can manage 1920 by 1080 pixels, congratulations, you're recording in Full HD. But does it look good? For most devices, the answer is a definite no.

I wish the phone market would learn what the camera market figured out a while back. The megapixel war isn't making anyone happier. If you make hardware that takes horrible pictures at 11-megapixels, your gear won't take better pictures at 14-megapixels. In fact, your pictures might look worse.

What makes a photo look good isn't the number of pixels. It's the size of the pixels themselves. So, you don't necessarily want more pixels; in fact, it's better to have fewer pixels on a larger sensor. If the sensor size is the same, I would take a 5-megapixel cameraphone over an 8-megapixel (or even 12-megapixel) cameraphone any day.

The camera market stopped counting pixels and started improving other aspects of shooting, especially low-light sensitivity. Some manufacturers, especially Casio, started focusing on high-speed shooting and video recording. It's rare to find a manufacturer break the 14-megapixel barrier for sensors, and you're more likely to find camera makers bragging about ISO sensitivity than pixels.

On phones, HD video recording may indicate a larger video with more pixels, but HD is not a good indicator of quality. The best HD camcorders on smartphones would be considered horrible for a dedicated camcorder (anything better than a cheap Flip HD recorder). Videos might look wonderful on your camera screen, which can't show even half the pixels its shooting, but blown up on a large computer monitor - or, gasp, a large-screen HDTV - you'll think your videos were shot underwater from a sinking ship.

I was disappointed when the Samsung Nexus S shipped with only 480p video recording, especially with rumored 1080p hardware around the corner. But I have never seen a camcorder phone that would make me leave my inexpensive Canon HD camcorder at home. Phone makers need to improve the lens quality and especially the sensor quality before the public should get excited about HD recording on a phone.

NFC 

I would bet that near-field communication (NFC) is going to be the next big thing in smartphones. I'm sure that some day, maybe soon, I'll be waving my phone at a cash register, or maybe even at an ATM machine, to make payments and withdraw cash. It seems so obvious that cell phones replace wallets, since they are replacing just about everything else. Plus, the technology is already in use in Japan and elsewhere, it just hasn't caught on in the U.S.

Actually, that's not what's holding NFC back. In order for NFC to work, there needs to be considerable cooperation between carriers, phone manufacturers and major financial institutions. So far, there are numerous working groups trying to come up with a plan. Just search the Phone Scoop news archives for "mobile payment" and you'll see that every major carrier, OS maker and manufacturer has hooked up with various large banks and credit card companies. But until some of these groups actually release a working product - or until they start to move towards a common payment standard - these technologies are dead in the water.

In other words, NFC is going to be a big deal, but there's a lot that has to happen first. It's definitely premature to consider NFC a must-have feature on your next smartphone. There are few smartphones on the market now with NFC capabilities, though more will certainly come soon. But you'll most likely have to wait for your bank or credit company to act, then wait for your local stores to adopt the new technology. By the time NFC is a real convenience, or a necessity, it will be more of an afterthought in smartphones. No need to jump on board early.

Under-Hyped 

So, my advice is to ignore many of these over-hyped features, especially as the basis for a phone buying decision within the next six months or more. It will be some time before these features have fully matured, and while they may be useful for bragging rights, they may not live up to your expectations.

That said, there are a few features I would call out here that are under-hyped and worth keeping an eye out for. First of all, I hear so many complaints about call quality that I'm surprised more people don't base buying decisions on special sound technology. I've tried a few different phones with dual-microphone configurations, and these usually perform better than your average device. The microphone on back helps to filter out background noise, and in my tests this feature usually makes a huge difference.

Cameras are another wildly popular feature, but instead of megapixels, look for a few other camera features. A 2-stage camera button always means auto focus, and being able to aim your shot before you take the picture can be a big help. I also look out for touch focus cameras, and a Xenon flash bulb, which is still a rarity on phones, but produces a more balanced color than LED.

If you love text messaging, be on the lookout for a phone that uses a threaded messaging style to display both sides of a conversation at once. All smartphones have this feature, and it's slowly working its way down to less expensive, quick messaging devices. If text messaging is how you spend most of your time on your phone, this feature will help you make sense of your long chats.

In other words, instead of focusing on the coolest new features at the bleeding edge of technology, find some features that will really make a difference for you, based on how you use your phone.

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Comments

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This forum is closed.

IRIE4IPIER

Jan 17, 2011, 3:46 PM

Is this guy kidding?

Sounds like you want us to go out and buy a stupid iphone 4? Well guess what? A lot of us have moved on from that stupid phone, obviously you havn't. You sound like another Android hater, how else can you explain calling dual-core processors over-hyped? Take a long hike and don't post such non-sense on this site again. We get it, you love the Apple way, keep it to yourself. Sounds like you've been drinking a lot of hateraid and you sound discussed at how Android is coming along. We are looking for a desktop experience on these phones, killer ass processor along with 1 GB of ram and a big battery, all inside that thin body(atrix) i would be jealous too if i owned an iphone. The only thing that will hold this phone back is moto blur and AT&T.
Hey, calm down! Sounds like you hate Apple much more than he hates Android!! He has some good points, and if there is room for correction, you can explain it in a nice way!
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If an Operating System and its Software are not written to take advantage of multiple cores what real world benefit do you have using a multiple cored processor?

sounds like you are a TROLL
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something tells me phillip is a virgin apple fan boi. I bet he has justin Beaver or whatever his name is cd's.
illogical

Jan 20, 2011, 11:33 AM

You've gotta be kidding...

Apple would much rather withold technology so they can release an incrementally better device (the iPhone 4G) a year down the line, forcing everyone to upgrade; it's their modus operandi.

And the line about current 4G technology not being able to fit in the iPhone housing has to be total bullshit. It's hard to believe a company so "innovative and cutting edge" couldn't manage to fit an antenna into their phone.
I think its a half truth, I'm sure there is going to be a 4g as in LTE iPhone, the point is to get you to buy twice. I even doubt this upcoming this June will have LTE support, I don't doubt it will have hspa+ if you're on a gsm carrier. I don't thi...
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illogical said:
And the line about current 4G technology not being able to fit in the iPhone housing has to be total bull****. It's hard to believe a company so "innovative and cutting edge" couldn't manage to fit an antenna into t
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casualsuede

Jan 31, 2011, 4:36 PM

Dual Core.

According to the data I received, dual core procesors will be an energy SAVER compared to Snapdragon single core processors by a decent value.

However, just because you have two cores, doesn't mean it's twice as fast as a single core of the same clock speed.
Dollgrin

Jan 15, 2011, 9:00 PM

I completely agree with this statement!

"In other words, instead of focusing on the coolest new features at the bleeding edge of technology, find some features that will really make a difference for you, based on how you use your phone"

SOOOOOO many people worry about having the "latest and greatest" that they end up with phones that they hate, or that they feel are overrated. It's because they worried about what was flashy and sounded good coming from a sales rep or advertisements instead of thinking about what they REALLY need and do on their phones.

Thanks for giving people another view on the "hype"
Good job, excellent work!
reidme

Jan 19, 2011, 10:54 AM

Tool, Toy, or Ego Boost?

Great article. Packing all that technology into such a small device inevitably results in trade-offs, but the marketing hype makes people think they can have it all. Almost every smartphone on the market today would have been considered a miracle a few years ago. Find what works for you and quit bashing all the rest just to prove you were "right".
Yeah the bashing does get old. People try to get all "football" about it or even religious. It's just technology folks. I confess I've been fanboy about stuff before but I actually try to be fair about it now.

As for Tool, Toy, or Ego Boost - on...
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iamthephonemaster

Jan 20, 2011, 12:58 AM

Customizability!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Im not sure this is a iphone vs android article. Although i do get the feeling he had a pretty glass iphone in his pocket when he wrote it. lol one feature that i know is under-hyped is the ability to customize your phone. Both through software and hardware. This is something that android FAR and away beats all its competitors at. Especially the iphone which hasnt had a major software change since the original. And no folders and semi-multi tasking dont count. I mean the ability for widgets and apps together on the screen i mean the ability to have interactive weather widgets and sports widgets right on the screen with no need to go into an app to find out the score of a game or the weather outside. Im talking about being able to root your ...
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I completely agree with you. That is the one thing I tell all my customers. If you want a phone that you can completely customize to suit yourself than go with an android. If you just want your phone to work and not have to worry about it than get an ...
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Bai Ganyo

Jan 21, 2011, 4:49 PM

So in other words....

if the iphone doesn't have it, nobody needs it and its no big deal and all over hyped. Rolling Eyes But every iphone function is truly "necessary" and vital to life itself. Like an app store full of farting sounds and Family Guy sound boards. Who needs 4G or video chat if you have a cigarette app that burns itself down and makes little puffs of smoke. Apparently, a network capable of making and receiving calls and using 3G data is a frivolity as well. Who needs it? It's all hype!

Actually, there are millions of cell phone users who don't need advanced features.... And they're on Jitterbug, Consumer Cellular and Tracfone Laughing
doctorparadox

Jan 14, 2011, 8:19 PM

4G isn't true 4G but also is not overhyped

first of all, could you make it any harder to comment on this site? By the time I figured out where to comment, registered and confirmed my email I had no trail back to the original thread I even wanted to comment on. also, apparently not a single person has mentioned 4G in the forums
https://skitch.com/doctorparadox/rjxn2/forum-search- ... »

Anywho -- there are certainly many things being hyped and over-hyped by carriers and phone manufacturers alike but the idea that 4G might not be objectively better than 3G I find to be untrue in real-world experience. I may not have 4G coverage absolutely everywhere on my Sprint Overdrive, but to my sheer delight I find I do in most of the use cases I apply it to and when I do, it is fa...
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It's just because they had to put something together quickly. Heh, Verizon iphone.

How stupid. Not you, the phone. I hate the iphone. I'm not a droid snob, in fact I gave the iphone a really big chance. It let me down on so many levels. It wo...
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I have to agree with you. First, according to almost every WiMax review on phonescoop, I must be the luckiest guy(along with several of my friends and colleagues with WiMax devices) in my 4G area because I very rarely get slow speeds on my devices(I h...
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Hey, I don't really need my device to play HD content. But on my current VZW phone, a standard web page (like Amazon, or phonescoop) thakes to open about 25-40 seconds, at best! This is painfully s-l-o-w!!! I would take 4G mainly for that matter, so t...
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HzD incredible

Jan 20, 2011, 10:40 PM

hype 4g for nothing.

4g coverage will be great like any new tech, but the fact that it is in a very limited area with sprint and verizon just gave a glimmer of hope to wide span 4g by end 2011, there is no reaosn to be to excited. and the people who are mad at apple should realize its an apple iphone even with a 4g antenna its not going to be able to get any better signal strength considering it never shows good service even in a good service area on 3g.
settsu

Jan 19, 2011, 3:30 PM

My #1 "feature"

The top "feature" I'll look for on a new Android device is ease of rooting. I've tasted freedom and it's Gingerbread-flavored.
i want ginger-sense. ive tried 2.3 ginger bread raw and it was quick but lacked alot of features that come standard with 2.1-2.2 sense. like good camera features.
JoshuaATverizon

Jan 17, 2011, 12:31 PM

How much did Apple pay you to write that?

The release of the Iphone is what prompted this 4g bashing. Apple better get them phones out fast.Its their fault Verizon is doin away with Annual upgrades anyways. 4G (needed or not) is the way of the growing trend. Android has already began the takeover and will dominate 2011.
JoshuaATverizon said:
The release of the Iphone is what prompted this 4g bashing. Apple better get them phones out fast.Its their fault Verizon is doin away with Annual upgrades anyways. 4G (needed or not) is the way of the growin
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JoshuaATverizon said:
The release of the Iphone is what prompted this 4g bashing. Apple better get them phones out fast.Its their fault Verizon is doin away with Annual upgrades anyways. 4G (needed or not) is the way of the growin
...
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he didn't bash or promote an iphone in anyway. is the truth that painfull that the iphone doesn't have 4g? carriers barely have 3g under control.
misschris

Jan 20, 2011, 12:04 PM

Hyundai's first hybrid, 2011

Let me start by saying I am NOT a fan of Apple. I think they make decent products, and then cripple them by being control freaks.

That being said, this whole discussion about no 4G in the VZW iPhone reminds me of an add I saw in Motor Trend the other day. It read something like this:

Why is it 2011 and we're just now releasing our first hybrid?

Answer: they weren't ready to sacrifice power for fuel economy. They waited until they could make a hybrid they were willing to put their logo on.

Enough said.

~ miss chris
DownhillDude

Jan 17, 2011, 3:05 PM

Swype Keyboard

Personally, my new must-have feature is the Swype keyboard. I tried a Samsung Focus for a week, and while the touch response and the keyboard was fantastic, it didn't have the Swype entry system, so I went back to my Galaxy S. I don't want to use a keyboard if it isn't Swype. I can even enter text into my Tab one-handed (hold the Tab by the edge, and Swype with my thumb). Other hands is holding my coffee, or the subway pole. Can't do that with my iPad. Love the Swype!
You want Swype (for most phones)?

Google, my friend, Google...
GettingSleepy

Jan 14, 2011, 8:17 PM

Call quality?

Pssshhh, no one makes calls on their phone now a days. Smile
Haha. True. Minus when Mom calls. Pretty much use your minutes up in one phone call.
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Then why does anyone care about a Verizon iPhone? Why are people complaining about AT&T? Razz
bluecoyote

Jan 14, 2011, 6:34 PM

Skype Video Over 3G

I used Skype on my iPhone 4 over 3G and found the quality to be terrific, even with only 3 bars of AT&T service.

Qik and Fring are significantly worse (not even worth mentioning as a legitimate competitor) , but Skype Video was legitimately good and useful.
bluecoyote said:
I used Skype on my iPhone 4 over 3G and found the quality to be terrific, even with only 3 bars of AT&T service.

Qik and Fring are significantly worse (not even worth mentioning as a legitimate competitor) , bu
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I agree with you on this. I've tried Skype video calling on my iPhone over 3G as well and it really does work good. There's a slight difference in quality when on WiFi vs 3G (WiFi being better) but it's the best I've seen on any other video calling ...
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xmguy

Jan 17, 2011, 8:47 PM

Camera Pixels / HD Recording & 4G

I too agree that the pixel count doesn't make a good quality image. For example I used a 1.3 Mp Sony Floppy disk camera a few years back that took GREAT images.

I have the Droid X now. I use it at 5MP not the highest of 8MP (hoping that if capable of more that using less well help). I also use an app called Vignette to give more options that matter. Like white balance, ISO metering, etc. I'd rather have a low MP camera that takes good pictures than 12MP camera that took poor quality pictures.

Same with HD Recording. I keep my X set to D1 or 640X480 or 480p vs the HD 720p which doesn't look that good anyway.

As for the rest like 4G. My Droid X does what I want fine. I don't need the speeds that 4G offers nor the added costs. I use m...
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in other topics I have said in the past, for the vast majority a good 3g signal 1 or 1.2 Mp's on a phone is going to give a good experience. Streaming video needs a little more for good results. Where 4g and hspa+ really help is if one tethers.
marufio

Jan 14, 2011, 11:37 PM

HD Video

I do not think this feature is overhyped. the iphone takes very good video at hd 720. Video has come a long way on phones especially hd. 4g, video chat is overhyped.
I think what he was saying is that it's not something you should base your entire smartphone decision on. Speaking from personal experience, owning a kazillion phones (unlocked, upgraded, etc.) ... some of my lower quality phones had pretty awesome v...
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Indeed. But I think the point was that on most phones, HD video capture stinks. There are a few good ones, but people should beware of merely buying a phone because it has that "checkbox".
Has come a long way? Sure! But is it comparable to any dedicated camcorder? Heck no! (and the same is true with cameras! Who needs an 8 megapixel camera on a phone? or even 16 megapixels in the new cameras seen at CES? Give me a 3-4 megapixel with goo...
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AndroidRules

Jan 15, 2011, 3:12 AM

Tango isn't bad

I've used it with my myTouch 4G getting 5mbps down in NYC and talking with a friend who has an iPod Touch. It wasn't bad at all considering it wasn't wifi on my end. Yahoo sucks. Haven't tried Fring or Qik yet.
Yeah, but compared to a friggin' desktop or a laptop its' total S***. Very Happy
I have an evo and so does my friend and we live in portland oregon and video chatting sucks. we have tried all over in different places, driving, 4g, 3g, everything, it plain ol sucks. video chat plain sucks here and i highly doubt that the guy talkin...
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Yankees368

Jan 15, 2011, 2:13 AM

I disagree

I disagree that 4G won't get you through streaming video. With my clear iSpot running at 6mbps, it was more than enough to stream netflix movies with absolutely no problems.
It's not that you can't stream netflix or that it's not good. The point is that you may not have consistent quality while viewing streaming videos. I've been in places where I can barely get the video to pull up, let alone play, and then I've been in ...
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