It's a cliché but it's true. The iPhone 3GS has been top of the smartphone pile for nearly a year now, and its reign has been pretty much unchallenged. Now, as the new iPhone 4 looms, there are two rivals worthy of the name: the HTC Legend, and the Desire.
The Legend is a gorgeous piece of kit, with a body machined from a billet of aluminium, an optical four-way control set minimally into the phone's subtle "chin", and soft touch pads on the rear to prevent the silver finish being scratched. Its profile - all sensuous curves, not-too-sharp edges and rounded corners - means the Legend is a fabulous phone to hold in the hand. Even the battery compartment is smart; instead of the rear panel clipping on and off, the SIM card, battery and microSD slot all sit beneath a small rubberised cap on the bottom edge.
Turn the Legend on and its tremendous OLED screen glows into life. Colours take on an almost hyper-realistic hue, which helps UI elements, graphics, video and web pages leap from the screen. Another advantage is the brightness, which keeps things clear and readable even when dialled down to one step above minimum to conserve battery. We've seen well-built phones before, but this handset could teach Apple a thing or two.
The beauty of the Legend isn't just skin deep, however; there's plenty of substance behind the perfect facade. For starters, it runs Android 2.1 (aka Eclair), which means you get a unified email inbox, support for multiple Gmail accounts and five home screens. The Legend also implements pinch-to-zoom gestures, just as the Hero did before it, for iPhone-esque web browsing.
What you don't get is the full array of voice control that you do with Google's Nexus One nor Google's turn-by-turn navigation application. You can, however, download the Voice Search app from the Android Market if you're desperate to look an idiot shouting search terms into your phone.
Then there's the latest version of HTC's Sense UI added on top. The key benefit of this is that it unifies contacts, pictures and updates from Facebook, Flickr and Twitter into one location. The updates come via the Friend Stream app, preinstalled on one of the home screens. But it also adds a home screen overview mode: on the main screen, hit the home button, or pinch your fingers as if to zoom out, and up pops a thumbnail view of each of the Legend's five home screens. Another tap takes you to the screen you need, and you can even temporarily zoom in this view to take a closer look and then back out again.
Elsewhere, the HTC Legend boasts all the hardware you'd expect to see in a phone of this class. There's fast HSDPA data, strong call performance anywhere in the world with quad-band GSM support, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, an FM radio tuner and GPS. There's a full array of sensors, including a digital compass, accelerometer, plus light and proximity sensors. The 5-megapixel autofocus camera is good too. Images boast good contrast with less of the washed-out look we've seen with HTC phones in the past, and there's a single-LED flash on the rear for emergency use in low-light.
What makes the jaw drop lower than anything else, however, is this phone's sheer speed. It responds to finger gestures as if reading your mind, with web pages and menus whizzing by at express speed. Nothing judders, nothing lags and there are no delays. At the time of writing, only the iPhone 3GS can match it for sheer alacrity.
Surprisingly, this responsiveness doesn't appear to stem from sheer horsepower. The Legend's CPU is rated at only 600MHz, and it didn't put in a particularly stellar performance in our browser tests. It loaded the SMH homepage over Wi-Fi in an average of 14 seconds and scored 93 in the Acid3 test. Several phones are speedier than this, including the iPhone 3GS, which also scores higher in Acid3.
Neither is battery life particularly impressive. With just a 1300mAh lithium-ion cell inside, that isn't surprising, but we'd prefer to have seen more than 40% remaining after our 24-hour test. This involves 30 minutes of calls, an hour of music playback, an hour of the screen on idle, plus a 50MB download, with background Gmail synchronisation. It's below average, and lags behind the iPhone 3GS by a notch.
Two final complaints are that the strip of buttons that rest in the angle between the phone's chin and screen feels a little plasticky next to the quality of everything else, and the amount of storage is low. There's just 512MB of integrated storage and a 2GB microSD card in the box.
In the context of the phone as a whole, though, these are relatively minor complaints. It's wonderful to finally have an Android smartphone that stands toe to toe with Apple on design, speed and ease of use. Better still, the HTC Legend manages to do so without costing the earth. The iPhone 3GS just about shades it, thanks to its superior app selection and slightly better battery life, but there's barely a hair's breadth between the two.