Review: HTC Desire – You Know You Want It

HTC-Desire-front
The HTC Desire came out on U.S. Cellular last week, offering another opportunity for those who were sitting on the fence with the Nexus One. The Desire packs in a bit more RAM, a new kind of display, and the Sense custom user interface, but it’s otherwise just like the N1. Given Google’s experiment in handling the retail experience themselves more or less failed and the phone pulled from stock, the hardware was still solid, so it’s good to see it living on in the HTC Desire.

The Desire was born into a much different world than its predecessor, however: there are Android phones out there now that rock WiMAX, like the EVO 4G, way bigger screens, like the Droid X, and even ones that manage to do both and include a physical keyboard to boot, like the Epic 4G. The Desire might have had a fighting chance in Europe when it was released there a few months ago, especially without the stiff competition in the U.S., but can it really stand up to the competition over here?


HTC Desire
Available for $199.99 w/ 2-year contract from U.S. Cellular, $79.99 w/ 3-year contract on Telus

Specifications (Specs – sheet)

  • 3.7-inch WVGA (480 x 800) capacitive touchscreen
  • 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, 576 MB of RAM
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
  • Dual-band HSPA 3G, quad-band EDGE, Wi-Fi b/g
  • GPS
  • microSD (support for up to 32 GB)
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Android 2.1 with Sense
  • 390 minutes talk time, 360 hours standby
  • 119 x 60 11.9 mm and 135 g

The Good

  • Sharp display
  • Highly responsive and snappy navigation
  • Tight, solid construction
  • Sense customizations largely useful and well-polished
  • Android Market offers wealth of excellent apps

The Bad

  • Battery doesn’t stand up to a full day of heavy use
  • Social networking widgets lack some functionality
  • Virtual keyboard needs time to learn


Hardware

The build quality of the HTC Desire was commendable, with no creaking or looseness of parts, and had a good solid feel of density, though the matte finish left little in the way of grip. As far as sheer style goes, the shine from the etched earpiece definitely caught the eye. I’m still not sure that I dug the dusty mauve colour, but it’s inoffensive enough to ignore most of the time. Similarly, the smooth round contours made for easy pocketing, but I found the lines were kind of bland and lacked character.

I found using the optical trackpad was a little tricky. Maybe it was the lack of any real tactile feedback, compared to, say, BlackBerry’s trackpad, or maybe it was overly sensitive, but it was hard to tell if I had moved my thumb far enough to commit a command until it showed up on screen. I only really needed to use it for fine manipulation of text cursor when the predictive text screwed up, and it was jumpy enough to be a hassle.

The lack of a camera shutter key really threw me for a loop. Good photo opps have a small window of opportunity, and as such I wanted to be able to launch right into the camera from a standstill, without having to muck about in menus to launch the app.


Software

It’s going to be really, really hard not to gush too much about Android 2.1 and HTC Sense, mainly since I’m new to the platform. It’s probably old hat for Android veterans, but there was just such a difference when switching to the Desire from the Torch last week that I sometimes asked myself, through a cloud of guilt for the mobile platform I’ve been dedicated to for the last couple of years, “why do I use a BlackBerry again?”

Let’s step back for a second and take stock of what’s available on the HTC Desire. It runs Android 2.1 (though 2.2 Froyo seems like it would just be right around the corner after being released on Vodafone), with HTC’s custom user interface called Sense. Sense provided a variety of home screen widgets, not to mention a few extra home screens above and beyond what stock Android. The three pillars of Sense are “make it mine”, “stay close”, and “discover the unexpected”, which are far-reaching philosophies that impacted the device in a lot of ways.

The clearest example of “make it mine” that I had found was Scenes, which saved and loaded entire home screen layouts depending on what I was doing. For example, I had a work layout with home screen widgets showing multiple e-mail accounts without having to launch into any app, along with an RSS feed widget so I could keep combing through news for the split-second that I was away from the computer. After work, I had a “location” Scene for when I’m on the move, including Foursquare, Latitude, and Gowalla widgets to see where my friends were at a glance. The Google Maps live wallpaper was mostly just neat rather than useful, but I could include shortcuts for Google Navigation to give me turn-by-turn directions to regular spots in two clicks from the home screen.

“Stay close” was embodied in some solid contact management. Being an Android device, obviously your Google contacts load in and sync up with little problem, but HTC allowed social networks to plug in as well, populating your address book with information from Twitter, Facebook, and other sources. There was a lot of integration with Flickr, which was neat, but that’s not a network I tend to use too often. HTC’s home screen widgets for contacts were also great. A 1 x 4 bar let me scroll through some favourites, and offer one-tap access to some preferred forms of communication with those contacts. The Friend Stream widget was nice for cruising through a lot of updates from Facebook and Twitter, but there was frustratingly little interaction; pressing an update only opened up the Peep twitter app, not any links that were posted in the update. I also couldn’t see any threaded conversations, so it was hard to tell where @ replies had come from at any given point. There was also no option to use Twitter’s native retweet, which some prefer to quoting tweets. All of that being said, you’re much better off just using the official Facebook and Twitter apps, even though their widgets aren’t quite as  good.

“Discover the unexpected” seemed like the flakiest of HTC Sense’s guiding principles. The core experience was location aware in a pretty basic sense – the weather and clock changed depending on where I was, but that only kicked in when you changed cities or time zones. Of course, Google’s implementation of Latitude is pretty solid in Android in general, letting you quickly see how close your friends are with the help of a home screen widget. Search, like usual, was great thanks to a dedicated physical key and integration with various apps. Many of the HTC-flavoured apps had a bar along the bottom called Perspectives, which filtered app content to common criteria; e-mail included conversations, VIP, unread, and attachment filters, while Peep, HTC’s Twitter app, lets you see @ mentions, direct messages, and and favourites in separate views. I didn’t end up using that too often, and would have generally preferred to have a couple hundred more pixels to play with instead.

The messaging capabilities I had mixed reactions to. Notifications don’t come in quite as fast and furious as on a BlackBerry, and e-mail rendering was rarely in rich HTML. The lack of a unified inbox made for a lot of shuffling between e-mail accounts and social networking apps. Finally, the software keyboard I didn’t find especially great. Not terrible by any means, but it would get at least one word predicted wrong every day. I would hope that over time and teaching it all of your non-standard words, prediction would improve, but after getting Swype installed, I saw no reason to touch the native keyboard again.


Web browser, Multimedia, Camera

Browser

The browser was high quality, as you’d expect from Android. Although it doesn’t come with the full Flash 10.1 support promised in Froyo, it does include Flash Lite, which I have found handles basic stuff like embedded YouTube videos just fine. Even Flash-based ads load up after a little bit, though I wouldn’t suggest trying to play Flash games on there; simple cartoons seem to play fine. Pinch-to-zoom is also implemented and runs smoothly, if that’s a priority for you, and tabbed browsing works smoothly.

Multimedia

The WVGA SLCD screen produces exceptionally good video viewing, and the 1 GHz processor rendered everything at a good clip. As far as video compatibility goes, I was able to download an 84 MB, VGA .WMV file over their and play it at 30 fps without any problem whatsoever; streaming a larger 392 MB .MP4 worked just fine, though it wouldn’t quite swallow HD.

At one point, I had the HTC Desire’s screen side-by-side with an iPhone 4, and could tell little difference in quality. I still need a chance to put it next to Samsung’s Super AMOLED, but I have a feeling it will fare reasonably well. Music has been decent, though some playlists I had on my microSD memory card didn’t make it over for some reason. Third party apps like Slacker can offer nice options for music, and HTC’s music widgets have extra pizzazz above and beyond Android’s default home screen music controls.

Camera

I had a chance to pit the iPhone 4’s 5 megapixel camera versus the HTC Desire’s in low-light conditions. As you can see, the iPhone 4’s colours are a little saturated, but a lot of people prefer their shots that way. The iPhone 4 handled low-light adjustment much better, filling in the background with more detail, while the Desire seemed stuck on anything within the flash radius. It’s worth noting that I didn’t fiddle too much with the HTC Desire’s numerous camera settings, which include brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness, artistic effects (like sepia and grayscale), white balance, and ISO. If you’ve got the time to line up your shot and fiddle with settings, it strikes me that you could take some pretty good pictures with the HTC Desire in any conditions.

Video recording quality was mediocre, and wouldn’t stand up to the claims of HD video recording that a lot of upper-end Android phones are boasting now.  However, Android 2.2 will enable 720 p video recording, and since Vodafone got that update for the Desire not long ago, I would expect it to come state-side soon. In any case, both still and video quality was good enough for Facebook, which is all most folks need anyhow.


Call Quality and Battery Life

Usually I find call quality pretty interchangeable between phones, but in this case, the HTC Desire didn’t perform especially well. Sound felt pretty muffled when calling, and battery life didn’t do so well either – there’s no way I’d expect the HTC Desire to get through a busy day, though it might survive a moderate one. If you spend the better part of your day at a desk with access to a charger, or even if you have access to a plug at just one point mid-day, this shouldn’t be a problem at all.


Verdict

The HTC Desire is a really great phone, and after loading it up with apps, I’m going to have a hard time sending it home, let alone going back to my BlackBerry Bold 9000. However, there are some caveats that remind me why I stick with BlackBerry. The speed that e-mails and social networking updates come in will be too slow for anyone who’s used to push, for one. There’s still some simple stuff like HTML e-mail rendering and unified inboxes that strike me as no-brainers at this point. It also seems ridiculous that I have to root the damn thing just to get a screenshot. Android’s been around for two years, and has plugged a lot of gaps, and though it is by and large a fully-functional mobile OS right now, it will still take awhile before it’s fully matured.

Still, the power of the rich home screen widgets provided by HTC Sense can’t be denied, and the ability to switch modes on a dime thanks to Scenes makes that power all the more versatile. The screen is sharp, colourful, and responsive to touch, the app market is populated with high-quality software, and the variety of social network integrations make the HTC Desire an extremely attractive proposition.

The only sticking point I would have before taking the plunge is the pricetag. In Canada, it’s going for $80 on a three-year contract with Telus, which is an excellent price for a high quality mid-range phone. In the U.S., however, U.S. Cellular is pricing it on par with Verizon’s Droid X at $199.99 on a two-year contract, which is just plain unrealistic.  The Droid X has a bigger screen, better camera, mobile hotspot, and more internal memory, and as such is punching at an entirely different weight class than the Desire. That doesn’t mean the Desire’s a piece of crap by any means, but it should be priced according to the competition.

At the end of the day, I would suggest the HTC Desire to casual smartphone users who want a high-quality experience the few times they check their phone every day. Quick access to information and contacts should rank high on your priority list, as the HTC Desire excels at useful home screen widgets, and Android as always provides excellent search features. Diehard smartphone users will either want to get something with higher-end specs, or with better battery life.

  • AL7AIR

    HTC Peep and a few other clients out there are broken as of today, since the Twitter API switched off the simple username and password authentication in favor of the token based OAuth. So you better switch to another app from the marketplace to tweet until a firmware update or an updated HTC Peep version from the Marketplace re-connects it to the service.

  • Peter

    I got mine in July this year and i have never even thought about another phone. The only downside is there is no possible way till now to connect to the TV and watch the videos from the phone (TV out). I know HTC are coming with something but till it comes this is the only downside of HTC Desire

  • Peter

    I got mine in July this year and i have never even thought about another phone. The only downside is there is no possible way till now to connect to the TV and watch the videos from the phone (TV out). I know HTC are coming with something but till it comes this is the only downside of HTC Desire

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