HTC Desire HD review

Following the unibody design that started with the HTC Legend, the HTC Desire HD fuses the looks of its namesake 3.7-inch device with the form factor of the HD line, the HTC HD2 and HTC HD7. Essentially, adding the HD tag owes more to the form factor than the technical capabilities, especially when it comes to the screen.

The screen is a 4.3-inch 800 x 480 pixel resolution display giving you a pixel density of 216ppi. It is bright and vibrant, but can’t replicate the fine detail you’d get from the iPhone 4’s higher resolution display and it doesn’t have the punch of the AMOLED of the Samsung Galaxy S. That’s not to downplay the skills of the Desire HD’s display - it is still a glorious screen on which to live out your mobile life and consume all your content.

Across the bottom of the display are the usual four touch controls, offering home, menu, back and search. You get a volume control and the standby button but nothing else. There is no optical trackpad on this model, but with so much space on offer you don’t need it.

The build quality is exemplary; the luscious metal body nestles comfortably in a large hand, the soft curves of the edges providing enough grip without introducing any hard lines. It’s more comfortable to hold than the iPhone 4 and more comfortable to make calls with thanks to a softer top line, but the size - 123 x 68 x 11.8mm - will make it difficult to use for those with smaller hands.

Even with big hands, getting to grips with the HTC Desire HD can be something of an undertaking when using it one handed. It is still quite a stretch to get around the screen with a single thumb when you’re hanging on to the train with your other hand, but if you’re after a large screen device, then this bears all the hallmarks of quality: it feels good, it looks good and it is reassuringly weighty at 164g, something the Samsung Galaxy S’s plastic casing can’t boast.

There are a few notable points about the body design. Firstly it isn’t entirely metal - there are three rubberised plastic sections on the body. The first sits on the bottom, which gives you access to the SIM card slot and the microSD expansion slot, which you’ll need to expand on the rather miserly 1.5GB of internal memory. The second plastic section is on the side, which reveals the 1230mAh battery. The final plastic section is surrounding the dual LED “flash”. 

We’re not sure exactly why this section is plastic and some have already said that it spoils the otherwise clean lines, but we can’t say we mind it. It adds a little interest to the back, alongside the slightly protruding lens housing. The other final detail on the exterior is the cut out for the external speaker, which is a little tinny and doesn’t really give you anything to get excited about, and can be a little shrill at top volumes.

Power on the phone and you are greeted by the friendly face of HTC Sense. We’ve covered a lot about HTC Sense in the past so we won’t cover it all again here, but will give you the basics. HTC Sense it HTC’s skin that sits over the top of Android. It is a comprehensive and deeply integrated system that tweaks just about everything Android offers - it changes the look and feel and adds to the camera, browser and things like settings and music player, without actually changing the core features of Android.

The most significant core feature, of course, is integration with Google. The step-by-step start-up process that HTC guides you through covers a range of connected features: you get to sign in to your Google account first and foremost, giving you email, contact and calendar syncing. You get to sign into Facebook and Twitter, connecting those social networks as well as adding Flickr into the mix. Additional Google or other email accounts, including Exchange accounts can be added too. Finally, and new to HTC Sense with this device, is a link with HTCSense.com.

Once you have registered through the handset, you’ll then have access to a range of features. Through the companion website you’ll be able to track and find your phone and remotely erase it, a feature that was once the preserve of enterprise devices, but now becoming more widely available - Windows Phone 7 also offers a similar free service. HTCSense.com also keeps a track of your missed calls and text messages as well as offering to set up call forwarding if you happen to leave you phone at home when you go to work, for example.

We ran into a couple of problems with the HTCSense.com service which we’ll put down to being a new venture: our confirmation email was sent over in Czech; missed calls never seemed to register on the website; phone finder never found our phone (despite being enabled); contact links suggested some total strangers to hook-up with. Some polishing is needed here perhaps, but it’s a value added service that looks to hold promise in the future.

Heading back into the device and we generally like what HTC Sense offers. We like the integrated address book (although we are suspicious of some of the background handling of the data and a rising occurrence of duplicate entries in our Google contact info). But being able to mark a friend as “favorite” and have them appear in a widget, then being able to view all their contact options, their updates, their photos and communications with them all in one place is excellent.

HTC Sense bases itself around seven home screens. Each can be customised to your liking and swiped through. It isn’t greatly different to what you’ll get from other Android devices (including the native naked Android 2.2 itself), but the attention to detail in the widgets is always worthy of note. Some we aren’t so taken with, like FriendStream that can become overwhelming if you follow a large number of people on Twitter. You can, of course, remove the widgets you don’t want and use the ones you do, meshing those supplied by HTC and those native and extension widgets that Android gives you. There is still something of a delay whilst widgets update and HTC’s widgets are dependent on you using HTC’s apps, so if you don’t like Peep and you opt out, you can’t get Twitter in FriendStream.

One noticeable difference with HTC Sense on the HTC Desire HD is the speed at which everything happens. There are a number of factors coming into play here: it runs Android 2.2, the latest most efficient build of the mobile operating system to date, as well as the latest tweaked version of HTC Sense. It also has a second generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, still offering a 1GHz processor, but offering noticeably enhanced performance over the previous iterations of the hardware. It also comes with 768MB RAM, a boost over the typical 576MB we’ve seen previously.

All this sets the HTC Desire HD out as a hugely powerful device and you really feel it as you move around the place. Task switching happens in a flash, with a long press of the home button giving you access to eight of your recently used apps. We didn’t detect any sign of slowdown as we dived all over the place digging into everything. We had a couple of unexplained freezes (a particular level of Angry Birds froze on us a couple of times for example) but these were the exception rather than the rule and we’re yet to see a device that doesn’t crash at some point.

The sheer flexibility of the HTC Sense offering means you can adapt it to whatever your preference. If you like pages of icons in a grid then you can do that. If you’d rather get widget crazy, that’s no problem. We like to keep things simple and stick to the core applications and shortcuts - like Windows Phone 7 offers - and that’s easy too. You can not only customise the appearance of the interface with wallpapers or skins, but setup different “scenes”; the idea being that you have one for the weekend, one for business, one for travel and so on. We’d rather stick with one arrangement so you know where everything is all the time, but you can’t argue with choice.

Well perhaps you can. There is so much choice, there are so many settings and options, that it can take an age to really get to see everything. With HTC Sense adding functionality on top of the expanding Android features there is a mind-boggling array on offer, often with two different routes to everything. At times, compared to the simplicity of iOS4 or the new Windows Phone 7, the HTC Sense spin on Android can be a little overwhelming. This, perhaps, drives important emphasis on customisation: get your device working how you want it, so you have easy access to the features you actually need and disable those duplicate accounts you don’t.

There are plenty of new features on offer too. This being an Android 2.2 device, you get to deploy apps that support that version of the OS, the most talked about is Adobe Flash 10.1. We’ve been happy with YouTube support in mobile devices for some time, but the integration of Flash brings you closer to a desktop browsing experience with videos playing in the browser. The real benefit is the access to internet video that it offers you, but the downside is that more website adverts will now be up and running.

It’s perhaps surprising that the Desire HD’s YouTube handling doesn’t make the most of the source. Apple cleverly squeeze all the quality they can out of YouTube HD videos so they look stunning, but you never really get the same impact out of Android. Whilst on the video front, the Desire HD is obviously going to find itself set-up as a mobile movie platform, the 4.3-inch screen lending itself to movie watching on the move.

Video is one area where we discovered compatibility problems. The device will show you video files that it can’t or won’t play, and more often than not we found ourselves staring at a black screen before we had to force close. Some of this can be avoided by heading elsewhere for a video player and we found that RockPlayer took care of most of the formats we couldn’t otherwise play, but you don’t get any advanced audio options.

Offering to improve the quality of audio, the Desire HD carries the SRS and Dolby logos on the back, something that they’ve added to a number of new handsets. To access the “sound enhancer” you’ll have to find the option in the menu once in the relevant player and make your selection. The sound settings are designed to be deployed with headphones, with Dolby Mobile noticeably improving video audio and SRS bringing additional depth to your music.

The results are really impressive, once you get yourself a set of headphones that can do justice to the audio on offer. The HTC music player is nice enough, although we’re not so keen on how the menus aren’t available when in landscape. Otherwise, we like the fact that music controls are available on the lock screen, so all you have to do is press the standby button and you can pause or skip tracks, all lovingly set against the backdrop of your album art.

One of the new features that HTC have introduced with HTC Sense in the Desire HD is media sharing. We’ve seen this in place on a few devices before, most notably the Samsung Galaxy S with All Share. Although “connected media” gets its own app for sharing, you can access network content in a tab within the various video and photo browsers. We found it saw our Cisco home media server with no problems. It’s a shame that once viewing content you can’t do anything with it, so you can’t pick photos off a server to save on the device, or to add as images to your contacts for example.

But otherwise it will allow streaming to compatible DLNA devices, offering a more complete range of functions than similar software on the LG Optimus 7, but in some respects, not as flexible an offering as Samsung’s All Share. Still, for those who want to collect HD movies from their media server to watch whilst lying in bed, the world’s your oyster (file formats aside). 

Of course, the source of your content to share may well be the video camera on the back. Bumping up the megapixels to 8 (and having a noticeably larger physical lens than the 5-megapixel HD7), you also get video capture at 720p HD at 30fps. In daylight the results are very good too, with a solid frame rate and an acceptable level of detail. The video capture also offers in-video focusing, which is a bit of a rare feature. Some phones will offer continuous autofocus, but in the case of the Desire HD, you can touch the screen to refocus on a particular point. There is a delay and it hunts a little before hitting to focal point, so it will never give you slick focus pulls, but to re-centre on the action it will see you right.

You can also deploy the dual LED illuminator on the rear during video (with an on off toggle, which is more versatile than some that require you to turn it on before you start filming). There are also a range of effects that can be applied, with the normal greyscale, solarise and so on.

Moving to the camera, rated at 8-megapixels it steps above the 5-megapixel average for smartphones. It is capable of getting some great shots too. To add a little excitement there are some new effects you can roll out, like vintage, depth of field or vignette, but there is always an army of apps waiting to do similar on the Android Market. Overall we’re happy with the camera performance in daylight, but the dual LED flash can leave you with a yellow cast and needs to be used with caution to make sure it doesn’t blow out a close subject. Before you get excited, no, it won’t replace a compact camera.

Another new feature of the Desire HD is the Reader app. This offers an EPub compatible ebook reader, linked to Kobo which will offer to sell you books. You can also sign in to your Adobe Digital Editions account enabling you to read DRM protected EPub titles you might have bought elsewhere. However, despite authorising the device in Digital Editions on the PC and entering the Adobe ID on the device, we couldn’t open the DRM protected books we moved to the device.

The screen size just about gives you enough space to read on the move, although it probably won’t be a long-term solution. More a case of filling in time when sitting in a train waiting for it to get moving again, than a regular method of consuming ebook content. Of course, if reading is your thing, perhaps the Kindle app will serve you better, given that it offers to keep track of where you get to in a book so you can stay in sync across multiple devices.

We’ve mentioned the browser briefly already in relation to video. As well as being fast and offering multitouch support, the browser is littered with nifty little features. For example, zoom out all the way and the page pops into the “window” view so you can jump into a different browser page, rather than having to do it via the menu. Text re-flowing is good and it is generally fast to load pages. We wish that the bookmarks could be accessed easily without using the menu, but we’ll let this one go because HTC do supply a bookmarks widget which makes it really easy to get to your bookmarked pages from the home screen, or you can drop bookmarks directly as icons.

As always we are impressed with the touch response from the HTC Sense keyboard, with good use of smart corrections to iron out any mistakes you make when typing. In landscape the keyboard will let you type with some speed, and as ever, we found that the experience was much better with the haptics turned off - the vibrations just don’t seem to be able to keep pace with your fingers.

Copy and paste is offered, and we like the cursor option when you hold your finger in text you are working on - not only is it magnified, but you can slide your finger down the page slightly so you can see exactly where you are going to drop the cursor. For those who want to work on the move you get Quickoffice pre-installed too.

The other area where HTC has expanded this version of HTC Sense is in the mapping offering. Of course you get Google Maps with free navigation, but you also get Footprints, incorporating HTC’s Route 66-powered navigation. This is supported by a “car panel” view, giving easy access to key features and designed to be used with a dock in your car. Confusingly you can swap between Route 66 and Google Maps, so there is no sense of cohesion between the navigation offerings. What’s clear though, is that the Google Maps exists as it always did, and the new offering will try to push you towards buying the “premium” navigation with speed camera alerts and so on. It is also in this Route 66 mapping that you get the caching option, not in Google Maps. The whole experience left us a little lost (pardon the pun) so we stuck to Google Maps, which we think covers all the bases anyway.

We found calls to be good quality, with ample volume from the speaker and the addition of a rich array of in-call options on the screen - shut off by a proximity sensor when you put the phone to your face.

Finally we come to battery life. Without using the phone much we got just over 24 hours from it. It was just about enough to take off an overnight charge, carry around all day and all night and be spent in the morning again. This was with minimal interaction. Start listening to music, browsing the internet or using a lot of data and you’ll find yourself with a flat battery much sooner. The battery situation is to be expected - most devices of this type struggle in the same way, but some have a slightly higher capacity and most aren’t powering such large displays. At least you can change the battery, if you think this is going to be a problem, or be ready to charge at home and at work during the day. The battery is a 1230mAh capacity, lower than many rivals. It looks like HTC has struggled to find a way to incorporate a higher capacity battery in the frame of the Desire HD, which is unfortunate.

Verdict

So there is certainly no shortage of features on the Desire HD - and there will never be the space to cover everything in this review - as well as all the benefits of Android 2.2 sitting behind it with its app offering that is rapidly gaining on Apple’s App Store - beef up the gaming selection and we’d have a real contest.

There are some niggling issues - we had problems with some of the HTCSense.com services, the occasional freeze here and there, and the video support could be a little more substantial, but overall the HTC Desire HD is a phone to get excited about. It’s the sort of phone you can spend hours exploring and still find some little detail that will bring a smile to your face.

It might not be for everyone though. Some might think it is a little too large in the hand, or that they’d rather have a slightly tighter display on a slightly smaller device; some might prefer a more native Android experience. For some, there will be an eye on the future to see how HTC updates its 3.7-inch device. All, we suspect, will wish it had a higher capacity battery.

A new chipset, more RAM, combined with the latest that Android has to offer makes for a very fast experience, resulting in a hugely enjoyable mobile phone that has loads of features and loads of potential. Certainly one of the best devices available today.