HTC Desire C review

3.5 out of 5
£169.99

For

Good sized 3.5-inch display but in small package, latest software, great design and build

Against

Camera lacks autofocus, battery life is poor, looks a little pricey compared to other budget models, Beats turning on and off suggests a software bug

The HTC Desire C sits at the bottom of the company's range of Android handsets. It's difficult to ignore the choice of name for this particular phone, picking up on the heritage of the Desire family.

As a quick reminder, the HTC Desire was a fantastic handset back in 2010 and a handset that we still see out and about: it's stood the test of time, but we were then taken by HTC Desire HD, landing in late 2010. Both were flagship phones at the time. 

So it's strange now, in 2012, to find the Desire name put on a budget phone. We can only guess that the "C" is for compact, but to anyone who knows HTC's family of devices, it's difficult not to look at this phone and call it a replacement for the HTC Wildfire S or the HTC Explorer. We won't let nomenclature get in the way, but the message could have been clearer from HTC. 

But at the affordable end of the market, can HTC still thrive when faced with cheap network-branded devices like the Orange San Francisco II or the T-Mobile Vivacity?

Design

Of course the thing about affordable phones is that at some point you have to make a compromise. Often that compromise is in the design or the build quality. Both the phones we mentioned above, while offering similar specs, don't get anywhere near the HTC Desire C when it comes to design. 

The Desire C reflects many of the design trends that the flagship One X offers. For example, the sleek front features micro-drilled holes for the ear speaker, rather than a grille. The same is true on the back. The choice of materials is good too - the tactile matte finish to the white review sample we had looks and feels great. 

It might only be a plastic cover - that's good enough for even the Samsung Galaxy S III after all - but it all feels like good quality. There is some flex to the back, but nothing critical, but importantly, it's around the sides and around the display that things feel nice and tight.

Pull off the back cover and you'll find that HTC has been up to its own tricks, making the innards of the Desire C bright red. The plastic inside is red, as is the battery, and you'll find a touch of red detailing around the Micro-USB port, a nod to what lies within. It's perhaps a small detail, but you can't help feeling that HTC is having a little fun here.

The curves make it a comfortable phone to hold and it's diminutive 107.2 x 60.6 x 12.25mm dimensions will fit into any hand. It feels secure there too and unlike some devices we've seen recently, it never slipped. At 100g it's light, so this is a good choice for someone who doesn't want to feel like they are carrying round a small book. 

Despite the modest frame, HTC has managed to slip a 3.5-inch display into place. It might look and feel small by modern standards, but you get enough space to take advantage of some of the flexibility that HTC Sense's customisation offers.

Hardware and controls

The positioning of a phone in the Android world often comes down to the hardware configuration and the HTC Desire C quickly shows it's true colours. A 600MHz single core processor with 512MB RAM powers it, although the 4GB of internal memory can be expanded thanks to the microSD card slot.

As mentioned there is a 3.5-inch display, but the resolution is strictly limited at 480 x 320 pixels (165ppi), resulting in a display that will require a lot of zooming in and out to read text clearly on websites, for example. It isn't the latest and greatest display of the sort you'll find on the HTC One X either, but typical of this level of device.

The display is bright enough for most conditions, but we did find ourselves wishing it was slightly brighter in sunny conditions. 

Across the bottom of the display are three touch controls, which makes the HTC Desire C a little more exciting, as the back, home and recent apps icons immediately indicate that this phone arrives with Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich, so it's up to date. Although the size is small, these controls have plenty of space, so navigation is straightforward.

Elsewhere you'll find a power/standby button on the top and a right-hand volume rocker as you'd expect.

Befitting the budget status of the phone, some hardware features are missing. Around the back you have a 5-megapixel camera, but there is no flash as you might expect. It's also fixed focus which, as we'll see, ultimately limits its performance.

Software and performance

Many affordable phones are found languishing with an old build of Android or somewhat quirky modifications to the user interface. In the case of the HTC Desire C, you get both the latest version of Android and the latest version of HTC Sense. 

The result is that you have a nice and sophisticated user interface, with plenty on offer out of the box and the normal integrated experience that HTC offers. Signing into the numerous integrated accounts will flesh out your contacts and connect everything up, although as you'd expect, you don't get all the features of Sense that you do on more powerful HTC devices.

But the refinement that comes with Ice Cream Sandwich, packaged by HTC, means that some features work well. For example, the swipe away notifications are useful with a small screen, as is the ease with which you can swipe across emails in the Gmail app. 

With HTC Sense 4 offering a lighter touch than previous versions, the home screens are closer to native Android, with the option to customise the launcher to your liking. This means you can drop your favourite app shortcuts, make folders or whatever else, to make the phone your own.

You get HTC's polished widgets, with things like animated weather and all the other trimmings that you'd expect. 

The hardware does have an impact on what this phone will do, however. You miss out on some of the connected features, so you can't access a media server from the gallery for example, but you are saved from HTC Locations, HTC's own mapping solution. This is actually an advantage, as the HTC Desire C just uses Google Maps, which we much prefer.

Overall the lack of power is telling as the HTC Desire C isn't as snappy as more powerful phones, with everyday tasks taking a fraction longer than comfortable. Opening apps and navigating around the phone and you'll get a much smoother experience from an older handset with more power, if you can find one at an agreeable price.

Media does suffer, so if you plan to spend your time watching a lot of video on the go then you might struggle: although, for example, the BBC iPlayer app will run, playback was lacking in quality. You'll also find that other demanding apps won't run and as Google Play becomes more sophisticated, there is more to miss out on. The just launched Xbox Live companion app won't run, for example.

Music, however, is nicely handled, with music apps sitting in HTC's Music hub. You'll probably have noticed that this is a Beats branded device, so fire up your music, connect your headphones and you'll get Beats swing into to boost the audio performance. We like the sound of Beats, but we found that on the Desire C it would occasionally turn off and on during songs. It's most likely a software bug, but something to watch out for.

But in the core tasks the HTC Desire C acquits itself well enough. We'd take more power and a larger screen given the choice, but when it comes to something like messaging, emails or calling, there isn't much of a difference. You still get that connected, sharing Android experience too, so as a social mobile, the Desire C is a pleasure to use.

Naturally the smaller display means there is less screen space for HTC's tweaked keyboard. The keyboard is responsive, although in our opinion it performs much better once you turn off all the haptics. HTC's keyboard is pretty good, although the predictions aren't as useful as some others and you may well find that a third-party keyboard makes better use of the limited space.

As a final word on performance, the HTC Desire C offers the niceties of HTC Sense, so things are well polished and cleverly integrated, but as with many phones at this price, you have to accept compromise. It isn't going to be a great multimedia device, so best suited for those who want a connected messenger, with a little more diversity than something like the BlackBerry Curve.

Camera and video

The camera on the back offers a 5-megapixel sensor, hitting a point on the spec sheet, but it is fixed focus and lacks flash, so isn't going to give you the best results. The camera interface benefits from HTC Sense's recent tweaks, offering both photos or video at the press of a button.

Being fixed focus means that macro shots, or anything close, isn't really possible. From about 1 metre and further things are better, but won't rival autofocus models. As usual, you'll find that low-light shots get very noisy, but at least the Desire C doesn't show signs of lag, it just grabs your shot.

Video is also limited, not only by the lack of focusing, but the maximum resolution of 640 x 480 pixels. This is fine for sharing, but won't stand up on a larger screen and these days looks pretty shoddy on the likes of YouTube. 

Battery life and calling

As a phone we had no problems with the HTC Desire C. The micro drilled holes mean that you need to have the phone in the right place to be able to hear properly, but the small size means it's no problem to adjust it. The external speaker also worked well enough.

Usually lower spec phones bring an advantage with them and that's battery life. Hardware that doesn't draw so much power and a smaller display usually means you have a phone that will last you through the day. The 1230mAh battery in the HTC Desire C sounds sizeable enough to do this, however it didn't.

Surprisingly, we found that the HTC Desire C would only give us about eight hours in typical use. On a long day out of the office, this meant we had to charge it mid afternoon to ensure it got us home - just the same as we've come to expect from much larger devices.

It feels as though something isn't right here. Peering into the power section of the settings, it reveals that the display has drained the battery, despite not being used to a high degree, but gave no other clues as to why the life was so short. Perhaps this is a software issue, but it's something to keep your eyes on.

Verdict

When you set the HTC Desire C down alongside rival affordable devices, it's pretty easy to see what you get. You get better design and build and you get a user interface that has some really nice refinements in Sense 4. What you don't get is a huge difference in core spec, so your device may not be any more capable.

You can get your hands on the HTC Desire C for around £15 a month on a 2-year contract. As a monthly cost that doesn't sound too bad, but in two-years' time, you'll probably be well past wishing for something more powerful. 

Priced at about £170 on PAYG, the HTC Desire C sounds expensive, especially considering that there are similar spec devices for less. This really then boils down to what sort of deal you can get and how much HTC's quality finish appeals to you.

We like the HTC Desire C: it's cute, it looks nice, it works as a basic Android phone and we've had no problems carrying out our daily core functions with it. But the battery life is a concern for us and the camera isn't terribly exciting.