HTC Incredible S review

The HTC Incredible has broken out of the US, had an “S” refresh and landed on our fair British isles. It’s the first of a refreshed line of handsets from HTC, riding high on what was an excellent 2010. But does the first arrival bring with it a sense of excitement? Will 2011 be an incredible year for HTC? Welcome to our HTC Incredible S review.

The first thing to note about the HTC Incredible S is that it brings a new and popular screen size to the HTC line. Stepping in at 4-inches, it is the same size as the popular Samsung Galaxy S, and in terms of screen size sits between the HTC Desire HD and the new HTC Desire S handsets. In big screen sizes HTC now have something for everyone.

But the most distinctive thing about the Incredible S isn’t the size, or the user interface, or the spec read-out, but the design. Rather than being a unibody design like other handsets from the Taiwanese manufacturer, the Incredible S offers their inside-out design. The back cover looks a little like it was vacuum formed over the handset, so there is a distinctive bump in the rear where the battery lies, and the curves around the 8-megapixel camera lens gives it a cool look.

It’s certainly a good-looking mobile phone, continuing a design approach that the Verizon Droid Incredible offered in the US last year. The differences are distinct enough from its forbear - it has a larger screen, the optical control is gone and there are some internal spec changes too. The design is slightly softer, so it doesn’t look quite as aggressive, but it does perhaps have more manly appeal - despite attracting the attentions of Sarah Harding - with its rugged good looks. It is a little concerning that the biggest feature of the Incredible S is the design of the back cover, rather than any new outstanding feature.

The soft feel of the Incredible S is quite different from the metallic sheen of HTC’s other handsets. It feels secure in the hand, even if it is a little large. Measuring 120 x 64 x 11.6mm it is hardly fat; at 135.5g it feels chunkier and more substantial than the Samsung Galaxy S (which some will say is a good thing), but is noticeably smaller than another 4-inch rival, the LG Optimus 2X.

Around the body of the phone buttons are kept to a minimum - the days of the physical Android buttons seem to be moving on, the Incredible S offering four backlit touch controls under the screen. One advantage these offer is that the icons can now rotate with the phone, so if you are watching a movie, they’ll switch round into landscape. It’s a minor point, but highlights (excuse the pun) the attention to detail that HTC lavish on their phones. We couldn’t, however, find a way to get those control keys to dim, so when watching said movie in bed, we had the four symbols shining out at us as well as Clash of the Titans.

The sides of the phone only offer a volume rocker and if we’re being really picky we’ll say it is a little too easy to change the volume. With the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone (along with the power/standby) key, whenever we pulled the phone from a pocket we touched the volume controls too, finding it would go from no volume to full blast in a flash.

There is no dedicated camera key, which is something of a shame as the Incredible S comes equipped with a rear-mounted 8-megapixel camera ably assisted by a dual LED flash. A front-facing 1-megapixel camera opens the door for video calling should it ever land in earnest on Android.

One thing we instantly noticed about the Incredible S is the profile of the top of the phone. This offers up the signature wide speaker grill housing the LED indicator light that will alert you to charging status or if you have a message. The curve of the top makes the Incredible S comfortable to hold against your ear when making a call, an oft overlooked feature on a device that is still to be used in a conventional sense for making phone calls.

Internally you’ll find the HTC Incredible S equipped with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 768MB of RAM. There is 1.1GB of internal memory and our review sample came with an 8GB microSD card bundled in the box, although it will accept up to 32GB, if you feel the need for that much memory. Of these specs, the only thing that might raise a question is why HTC haven’t stepped up to a dual core processor anywhere in its current line of handsets.

But the question should really be whether you need a dual core processor. Is there currently a task that you conduct on your phone that is just too slow? Sure, dual core processors may improve performance across the device, but will they make a noticeable difference outside of specific tasks like gaming or HD video handling? In straight application handling we tried a few side-by-side tests with the LG Optimus 2X and didn’t find it significantly different. The dual core Tegra 2 handset performs better in conventional benchmarking tests, but when it came to opening web pages or firing up a video from BBC iPlayer, the two appeared comparable in performance - at the moment at least - in 6 months time that might not be the case as software adapts to the new hardware.

Whilst we are talking about this direct comparison with the LG Optimus 2X it’s worth returning to the screen. Offering up a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels, the HTC Incredible S is par for the course in this department. The screen is bright and vibrant, but it doesn’t quite have the clarity that you’ll find on the LG Optimus 2X, which has whiter whites and more authentic colour reproduction overall. We also noticed that the Optimus 2X is crisper, so returning to the BBC iPlayer example, with both set to stream high-quality video from the Android app, the 2X just looked better.

When the HTC Incredible S was launched at Mobile World Congress there was a feeling that perhaps HTC hadn’t done enough with their new devices. Certainly there were some murmurs from existing HTC owners that they were expecting something more. Perhaps that’s why we have the HTC Incredible S first because there is something about it that feels like the best of last year’s devices. It is, in experience, close to the HTC Desire HD, but with the mobile phone business moving so rapidly, we wonder if the Incredible S will be in a strong position in 6 months time? Perhaps those murmurs were right - the Incredible S might not have evolved far enough.

The fact that the Incredible S ships with Android 2.2 is an easy point to pick on, especially as Android owners like to worry about which version of the Google mobile platform they have on their device. To us, at this point, the differences between Froyo and Gingerbread are slightly academic: Froyo gives you the entertainment benefits, like HD video capture and Adobe Flash 10.1 compatibility, and access to apps like Skype: we’re less concerned about missing out on Gingerbread features that make little difference to what your phone will do in the short-term. HTC has confirmed that a Gingerbread update will be coming to the handset and we’re sure it won’t be too long.

Then we arrive at the user interface and things take on a more positive note. We’ll credit HTC Sense with going a long way to making Android more user friendly right from its launch on the HTC Hero back in 2009. Of all the customisations of Android that we’ve seen, HTC Sense is the deepest. It’s also one of the most considered, with modifications throughout the device that bring with it an almost unparalleled feature set. From the clock to the settings menus, HTC has adapted Android with all these small touches that can make its devices highly personal - some people will never appreciate the level of customisation that you can achieve, or the number of different widgets that HTC provide you with.

The standard homescreen arrangement should now be familiar to anyone who has used an HTC, or even an Android, phone before. This being the latest version of Sense you’ll be able to change the “skin” to a different appearance - wood or metal for example - as well as being able to chop and change the widgets and wallpapers as you see fit. The widgets now seem to run a little more smoothly than they did on previous devices, the increased power and continued refinement obviously contributing here.

HTC Sense is uber-connected, letting you sign in to various online accounts to integrate all the details in the People app, so you can have a people-centric view of your interaction with the world, rather than it being a straight list. Signing into Facebook and Twitter will not only incorporate these details (and updates and photos) to your contacts, but also feeds FriendStream, which appears as an aggregator of this content.

FriendStream will let you post updates, letting you decide where you want your update to appear and will let you add app recommendations, locations or pictures. It also filters your content out so you can easily switch over to photos, links or notifications making it easy to consume your content as you see fit. This is in addition to HTC Peep, a fully featured Twitter app in its own right. These tie together nicely because you only have to sign into your Twitter account when setting up the device to have access to Twitter enabled.

If you decide to use the conventional Twitter or Facebook apps (the latter you’ll need if you want to use Places in the very least) then you can opt out of HTC’s provision but you’ll find various things, like Friendstream, no longer work for you. You’ll also find that some of your contact images may revert to lower resolution alternatives - in the Favorites widget for example. So there is a certain degree of HTC wanting you to do things its way and that’s fair enough as on the whole HTC Sense provides a premium user experience.

One area we’re not so sold on HTC's way is navigation. HTC offers up its own Car Panel in place of the regular Car Home app. Through Car Panel you get access to Route 66 navigation, but only for a 30 day free trial, after which you’ll have to subscribe. The system seems to work well enough, but we suspect that the vast majority of users will want to use Android’s free navigation solution in the form of Google Maps. Google Maps goes from strength to strength with every update and the HTC Incredible S will offer you the latest version of the app, so you get the full vector drawing and rotation, but sadly it doesn’t interface with its Car Panel.

Of course you get all the goodness of the Android Market, so there is a growing selection of apps for you to download and play with, the offering getting more comprehensive by the day. That’s on top of the range of apps that HTC supplies on the device, which do cover most of the main functions you’d expect. You can stream media from your media server or share content on your device fairly easily, although HTC has taken a slightly fragmented approach, offering a “Connected media” app which only offers to share content, as well as offering to share and retrieve content from the Gallery directly.

This isn’t the only area where HTC Sense seems to double up. You also get a multitude of search shortcuts that seem superfluous - you get the search soft button beneath the screen, then you have a Google Search menu shortcut, as well as Quick Lookup, Search Anywhere and Search People - in many cases you can access most of the search options using the soft key in the relevant app.

There is also a Reader app, powered by Kobo, but also offering Adobe login. We tried this with a protected EPUB file and it failed to read it despite having our details, but arguably the screen is a little small for reading. Alternatively if you have any Amazon books, the Kindle app offers an alternative and we’ve always been fond of the OverDrive Media Console, which will let you access your local library to loan books for free (assuming you’re a member and the library offers that service).

HTC has made some minor alterations to the browser, but not significantly so. It is fast to render pages and given the Android 2.2 status, will offer up Adobe Flash videos in the browser for a more complete internet experience. This is in addition to the YouTube app. Video support in general isn’t fantastic, but it covers the basics. If you want wider support you’ll have to find a player in the Market that better suits the file types you have - or convert them specifically for use on the device.

HTC has changed the keyboard fairly significantly. The response is good and this is one of the first devices where we’ve felt that the haptic feedback doesn’t hinder the entry of text. The keyboard is rather cluttered and it doesn’t seem to have evolved much from the original keyboard HTC used on its earlier Android devices. It’s still good, but we’ve seen impressive enhancements to text entry from the likes of SwiftKey, which leaves the HTC keyboard now looking a little cluttered. However, the experience is still above par, better than the stock keyboards you get from the likes of Samsung or LG, and on a device of this size we were able to enter text quickly and accurately.

The 8-megapixel on the back of the camera comes with a range of settings and effects that you can use to tweak your photos. These settings are easy to get to as well offering excellent results in good conditions. The dual LED flash does boost its capabilities in low light, so those shots in the dark recesses of a pub will come out better. You also get direct flash control, so if you want to try a shot without the flash, you simply tap the icon and take your chances. Low light shots do tend to be noisy without the flash.

Touch focusing is offered and this applies in video too. Video capture is offered at up to 720p, the final results are reasonable rather than exceptional, perhaps lacking some of the finer detail we’ve seen from 720p elsewhere. The ability to re-focus at will means you can create some crude focus pull effects, but there is a twinge as the camera seeks for the focal point you’ve selected. Again, if you want illumination you can toggle the LEDs, but don’t expect too much range - this is strictly for those Most Haunted moments.

Much of this we’ve seen before from HTC and the same applies in the media player and the radio. They are solid performers as are other areas that have been daubed with a little HTC finesse to make them that little bit brighter for day-to-day use - too numerous to cover here.

Finally we come to battery life. We had no problems getting a day out of the Incredible S 1450mAh battery. It isn’t the highest capacity battery around, but we found the performance to be average for this type of device, employing the normal power saving measures like dimming the screen. That said, you need to be prepared to charge it every night, and if you are extensively using the media functions or camera, you might find it needs a top-up during the day too.

Verdict

We’ve been downbeat about a number of things the HTC Incredible S offers. It’s worth stating again that this is an excellent phone and the experience is very good. But it isn’t so far removed from HTC’s most recent Android phone. Sure, it is snappier and more fully featured than the Desire of last year, but in terms of performance it isn’t that different from the Desire HD. The Desire HD brought with it plenty of wow factor at the time and we feel that the Incredible S suffers not because there is inherently anything wrong with the design or the experience, but because the industry is moving so fast around it, and in itself it doesn’t offer anything remarkably new.

HTC has been an innovator in Android devices for a good 2 years, but the competition is facing up, with high profile devices that offer headline features aplenty. Some of these things you might put down to gimmicks and that is one thing the Incredible S is mercifully free of. The experience is solid, but there will be other devices that catch your eye this year. 

Buy the Incredible S because you want a competent device which gives a good showing for itself and offers the friendly experience of HTC Sense. But be prepared for devices with better displays, more raw power or enhanced camera skills vying for your attention just around the corner.

Thank you to Carphone Warehouse for the loan of the HTC Incredible S.