Sprint's Shift Won't Move Many Phone Buyers

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Who could have guessed that the dull task of keeping small firms connected would be the hot new darling of the cell phone biz?

But behold, the once and future king of business smartphones, the BlackBerry ( RIMM) line of devices, now faces stiff competition from such manufacturers as Motorola ( MOT), Samsung and HTC. Cell carriers such as Verizon ( VZ), AT&T ( T) and T-Mobile have been gobbling up biz-oriented smartphones from these producers of late. These units, including the Motorola Droid Pro, are usually smaller than their glamorous, all-touch smartphone cousins such as the Droid X. But they have traditional qwerty keyboards, usually are of a more durable design and support for-business tools such as company email.

Sprint ( S) entered this market recently with the HTC EVO Shift 4G ($150, with two-year plan), a riff on the company's all-touch, fast and 4G-enabled HTC EVO. I have been giving this unit the small-biz once-over. My verdict? While the Shift is solid, and can fill a role in a small business, several dings in design and execution mar the phone's overall value.

What you get
The Shift is a decent, if imperfect, alternative for business types who want to stay connected on the road.

The Shift is mostly what uber-phones such as the HTC EVO or the Samsung Epic are not. It is blissfully less massive than the EVO -- a reasonable 5 inches diagonal by my measure. So unlike the EVO it is not a pocket or bag dominator. And the business-ready slide-out qwerty keyboard gives those of us who have real work to do the means to do it.

I also liked the tough rubberized exterior, which spares us all the nonsense of add-on smartphone protective cases. And I appreciated the preinstalled business apps such as Adobe Reader and Quickoffice, along with neat downloadable apps from the Android Market such as Qik, an interesting video tool.

Overall performance is impressive. The Shift supports Sprint's excellent 4G network and has a perfectly fast 800 MHz processor. Critical business tasks such as email, calendaring and document management can get done when they need to get done.

No question, at $150, the Shift is a legitimate choice for business use.

What you don't get
This Shift falls short of having a truly flawless design, a truly easy-to-use keyboard and a truly svelte size.

Call me a phone snob, but as effective a business tool as the Shift might be, this unit is simply not HTC's best effort. First off, although it is not a monster like its cousin the EVO, the Shift is surprisingly bulky. I measured its thickness at five-eighths of an inch -- fairly honkin' for a smartphone. And the keyboard, as big and spacious as it is, is surprisingly clunky, with keyboard cursor control being in particular a challenge. The headset jack is also poorly designed, and the memory slot hard to deal with.

To be honest, using the Shift left me feeling underwhelmed.

Bottom line
For sure, the Shift is worth a small business' time to consider. It's fast, affordable and certainly earns its keep. For dedicate Sprint customers, it is a solid choice. But, overall, the imperfect design and layout keeps the Shift out of the first tier of keyboard-enabled smartphones.

I am fairly certain that, with a bit of shopping, you will find a business smartphone that truly meets your needs. It's probably not the Shift.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.