The HTC Desire was the phone of 2010. It got in early, was considerably better than the competition and by the end of the year was still very much holding its own against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S and the Apple iPhone 4. Fast forward a year and the marketplace and the choice offered to consumers is very different. The Desire now has plenty of competition, from within HTC and other manufacturers. Within HTC it has got the larger screened HTC Desire HD and the HTC Incredible S to contend with.
Elsewhere you’ve got the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, the Samsung Galaxy S II, and the LG Optimus 2X, Optimus Black, and Optimus 3D. The days of the Desire being “the” flagship phone are over. So in steps the HTC Desire S, a refresh of the Desire bringing with it new toys and new features, but is it enough? Should you still want it over the range of choices now available to you?
The biggest physical difference with the HTC Desire S over the HTC Desire is a new design. Measuring 115 x 59.8 x 11.63mm and weighting 130g it’s a touch smaller and lighter than the original Desire, which for the record had dimensions of 119 x 60 x 11.9mm and a weight of 135g.
Side-by-side and there is little in it - they are both smart looking phones. You can see the design process has moved on, albeit only slightly, and you get the feeling that from a design perspective the Desire S is what HTC wanted the Desire to look like, but had to use the HTC Legend to hone the new manufacturing process.
The screens are virtually identical. The Desire S sports a 3.7-inch Super LCD display, instead of a 3.7-inch AMOLED one, but the resolution remains the same at 800 x 480. The screen now fills most of the face with the frame getting narrower. On the front that means losing the physical home, menu, back and search buttons and replacing them with touch sensitive buttons that are run into the main glass display. Gone too is the optical trackpad - we never really used it anyway.
In is a bigger speaker above the screen, the introduction of a front-facing fixed focus camera and a more pronounced chin over the previous model - it gives you something to grab when you dive into your pocket, as well as saving the screen from rubbing on the table when you place it face down. Also in is a new manufacturing process and design. Rather than the two piece construction of the original Desire whereby you had a metal exo-skeleton design with a plastic back cover, the Desire S, like the HTC Legend, is manufactured from a single piece of metal that has been hollowed out, allowing the electrical components to be slipped in.
That, like the Legend, leaves two black plastic plates on the back, one for camera and speaker at the top and a second for the battery, microSD and SIM card slots at the bottom. They are less pronounced than on the Legend as the phone is black rather than silver, but they are still easily spotted. HTC has used the same trick here as they use on the Legend and the HTC 7 Mozart allowing you easy access to the areas you’ll need.
The new design means the Micro-USB charging socket is found at the side of the device alongside the volume controls, rather than the base of the phone where it is normally situated. It’s not a major factor to be bothered with, but it’s worth pointing out as we found it clumsy when we had the phone charging and needed to make a call.
The design also houses a 3.5mm headphone socket, a power on/off switch and a 5-megapixel camera. The design is good, strong and solid. We liked the HTC Legend and the HTC Desire and this really is the amalgamation of the two models from last year: a logical progression if you like.
As we’ve said the phone’s design is dominated by that 3.7-inch Super LCD display running at 800 x 480 and that’s your main point of access to the Android operating system inside. The screen is, as with all HTC smartphones we’ve played with in recent months, responsive, giving us no problems when using it. Colour reproduction is reasonable, although whites are reproduced as more of a greyish colour compared to the Apple iPhone 4. In isolation, it is not something you should be worried about, but it isn’t the best display around.
While the competition are embracing dual-core chips and stacks of memory, with bigger storage options, HTC has resisted that temptation here. You get a 1GHz MSM8255 Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with 768MB RAM. There is just over 1GB of internal storage for the device and of course the ability to bump this up with more via a microSD card.
Connectivity comes in the guise HSDPA (up to 14.4Mbps download speeds) and 5.76Mbps upload speeds. You get GPRS, EDGE, Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth for voice, music and data. There’s also GPS for mapping alone with a G-sensor and digital compass.
Camera wise there are two: the one you’ll mainly be using is the rear camera that looks to be the same as HTC are putting in other devices like the Desire HD. It comes with autofocus and an LED flash. As for the quality of the images, they are bright and colourful, but soft and noisy when you look up close. The camera struggles with finer detail, not uncommon with this type of device.
Recorded video we found to be better, with jerk-free capture. The auto focusing worked well enough for you not to see it as an issue. This is a smartphone after all, but after the experience we had with the Incredible S we would have liked its 8 megapixels here too.
As for focusing when in stills mode there is a big “focus” on making it show you that it is refocusing to your needs from touch focusing with an overbloated zoom noise, and then confirmation, if it has achieved what you asked. The results are varied and there are times where you wonder whether it has made a difference or not. Ultimately the process seems slow and unwieldy. When it comes to the camcorder, that process appears faster but again you get this double-take focus with a pulse as it hones in on the subject.
As for the front camera, at the moment it is more of a future proofing exercise than one that’s actually any use, unless you’re a fan of Fring of course. HTC don’t offer an app that allows you to make calls with it and Skype on Android doesn’t support video calling at the moment. Fring does, but we had problems.
Power up the phone and you’ll be presented with the HTC Sense user interface that you’ll either love or hate. If you hate it then you’ll know by now that a customised UI isn’t going to work its magic for you and we'd recommend a device that is closer to a vanilla Android experience, or one that has been less heavily customised certainly. If you are a fan of HTC Sense then you’ve come to the right place and we're not going to exhaustively cover HTC Sense here because we've written about it extensively in the past - see the HTC Desire HD review for example. For the Desire S, HTC has based the system on Android 2.3.3 the latest version of the Google mobile operating system and the one that will give you the most support for features going forward. It’s the company’s first 2.3.3 phone to hit the market, the HTC Incredible S we saw recently launched on Android 2.2. Android 2.3.3 is the version that supports NFC, although HTC hasn't included that hardware here, comes with a new keyboard and application manager.
Not that you’ll tell that Android 2.3.3 is present as HTC does such a good job of hiding the Google OS that at times you’ll not be able to tell the difference. You get all the HTC Sense customisable widget panels on the homepages, FriendStream that lets you combine your Twitter and Facebook accounts so you can see what’s going on, and the ability to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to eight devices for free (take that iPhone users).
A Quick Settings panel is accessed from the drag down notifications panel at the top of the screen. Here you can quickly turn on or off the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Hotspot, GPS, Mobile Network and access all your settings. It’s really handy if you are power managing your device and we’ve found it useful for turning on and off Wi-Fi for example.
Zip over to the menu system and rather than a constant flowing grid of apps, you get panels of apps that are divided into 4 x 4 grid giving you 16 to a page, but you can’t manage the actual position of them (a la iOS) so you’re left to sort by Alphabetical or Date. Not that that will be a problem as you can drop app shortcuts on to the homepages in a flash.
Since the previous Desire you also get Car Panel, Reader, Connected Media, Adobe Reader pre-installed, Amazon MP3 pre-installed and integrated into the music player, SoundHound pre-installed, and Twitter, although you HTC tries to push you to its own Twitter client Peep. These were elements that came to HTC Sense with the launch of the Desire HD in September 2010.
One area we’re not so sold on HTC's approach to navigation. HTC offers 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 Desire 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 Car Panel.
Connected Media is the one that impressed us the most. Without any setup - all we did was press play - the device found our Sonos music system and started playing music that we had on the phone via the Sonos speaker. That’s pretty cool in our books and it’s not just Sonos-enabled systems, but other DLNA systems you have on the network too. To retrieve content from a media server or sharing PC, you have to do this via the Gallery, so it’s a bit of a faff overall, and it would be much cleaner if all the connected media functions were in one place, rather than partly duplicated across a couple of apps.
Music is enhanced by, in the grander scale of things, decent speakers front and back of the device and movie playback is good. We had no problem playing back the 720p Sucker Punch trailer we sideloaded to the device. Playback formats supported include 3GP, 3G2, MPEG4, WMV, AVI (MP4 ASP and MP3), Xvid (MP4 ASP and MP3), while the camcorder records in 3GP.
Elsewhere it’s business as usual with Sense doing its best to get you connected as quick as possible. That means entering your Google, Facebook, and Twitter accounts amongst others at startup and the phone doing the rest with no need for a PC. It’s one of Android’s greatest features exploited by HTC and meant that we were fully connected and ready to go in around 6 minutes, with HTC weaving all the contacts into a connected web over the ensuing hours.
Making a call is as straight forward as you would imagine. Everyone we phoned reported back good call quality and we could clearly hear them too.
Drawbacks to all the above? Well as usual with HTC it has to be the battery and the lack of staying power. We have to admit we are heavy users, constantly getting emails, constantly on Twitter and constantly getting phone calls. With that in mind we’ve yet to get from bed in the morning to bed at night without having to panic about where we can get some charge from. Perhaps realising this HTC do have a Power Saver mode that kicks when you have 15 per cent of battery life left, shutting everything down apart from the call connection so you can limp home, but it’s still the Achilles heel here and we expected more from the 1450mAh battery.
The HTC Desire S is a solid performer than will suit most, but we felt it was a tiny bit sluggish at times. A cop out might be to refer to benchmarking stats to prove our point, but in reality it’s more of a gut feeling. Whether it was accessing data on Google Maps (over Wi-Fi) or accessing contact information the phone at times just felt like it needed a little more snap. It is, it has to be said, noticeably faster than the HTC Desire, the device it replaces.
Finally we have concerns about the finish scratching off. Coming to the end of our time with the Desire S we’ve already noticed that we’ve scratched some of the black off the casing revealing silver underneath. If that’s what we can achieve after 5 days, we hate to think what it would be like in 5 months let alone 2 years time when it comes to renewing your contract.
The HTC Desire S is a perfectly good phone that, combined with HTC Sense, brings a smartphone that will serve you well, giving you a super-connected out-of-the box experience. However it is no longer the high-end smartphone it once was, making this the HTC Legend for 2011. It’s a device that offers something solid, but we feel something in the upper mid-range.
As we said at the beginning that’s all well and good, but while this would have been classed as a high-end smartphone once, it is no longer the case. Of course, if you start to look at it that way you would be better off opting for something like the HTC Desire HD with its bigger screen, or if you’re looking for something more meatier still, the LG Optimus 2X with its Tegra 2 processor or the Samsung Galaxy S II, which looks to have every piece of tech going when it comes out in the next couple of months.
The S in the Desire S should stand for “solid”, but in the fast-paced world of smartphones, it’s no longer the market leader it once was.