(Pocket-lint) - The HTC Desire Eye is an odd device. Its headline feature is the 13-megapixel front-facing camera, which - let's get straight to it - is a little extreme. That's paired with a dual-tone front-facing flash too, so on paper it out-specs rival handsets easily.
But that's not a true picture of reality for this quirky device. Dive deeper - literally if you want, as it's waterproof - and there's a lot more going on here. This is HTC reacting, being disruptive, showing how quickly it can move to market trends. It's HTC producing a device that is, perhaps, entirely of the moment.
Whether that translates into setting trends or blithely following them is an altogether different question. But priced at around £350 - or from £27 a month on Three - it comes in cheaper than many flagship rivals, and also cheaper than the HTC One mini 2, while far out-specifying it.
The Desire moniker in the name means that the Eye falls into HTC's notional mid-tier family. It runs all the way from the budget to the popular 820 and is typically characterised by a plastic body, rather than the metal construction that you'll find in the flagship One family.
That's true of the HTC Desire Eye. It has a dual colour design with contrasting sides and back. It feels like good quality bodywork, more Nokia-like (as the pre-Microsoft company was) than the sort of bendy plastic you might associate with Samsung. It's free from creaks, offers plenty of grip and is undeniably a solid build.
We like the fact the Eye has a flat back. It sits flat on a desk, so you can poke it without it wobbling around. Although we've praised the HTC One M8's curves, the larger dimensions of the Eye - it measures 151.7 x 73.8 x 8.5mm - makes it feel a little closer to the verge of being too big for deft one-handed operation.
READ: HTC One (M8) review
When a phone is that size, we've found it increasingly common to set it down on a table to use as a companion alongside a PC. It's still manageable with one-handed use, but even with ample hands, it's something of a stretch to reach across the 5.2-inch display. Still, it's a comfortable device to hold and at 154g, and it's not too hefty either.
There's an added advantage that the Eye is waterproofed. If we're going to play bandwagon bingo, HTC chocks up a point here.
Waterproofing has been aggressively pushed by Sony's Xperia range, it was adopted by Samsung with the SGS5 and the Desire Eye's IPX7 rating - waterproof to 1-metre for 30-minutes being the official stance - makes a statement for HTC's intentions for waterproofing in the future (the M8 quietly rolled-out with an IPX3 rating). Being able to drop the Eye in the bath when taking that slippery-handed selfie will be an assurance to some.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Of course, there's that big lens on the front, along with the flash, which detracts slightly from the overall design which isn't as minimalist as of the others in the family. There are two colour options and in the UK, Three has the "coral" and Carphone Warehouse has the blue.
But the Desire name might be slightly misleading. The Desire Eye isn't a mid-tier proposition as its price tag suggests, it's distinctly flagship. It might not have the premium build, but it has the power and the performance to happily sit alongside rivals in terms of delivering a flagship experience.
There's a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset - that's the same as its M8 brother, the Samsung Galaxy S5, LG G3, and Sony Xperia Z3 - along with 2GB of RAM. Some will argue that the hardware loadout is slipping away from the top-rung, and certainly with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Nexus 6 offering newer chipsets, that's a valid point.
But the important thing is experience and we found it to be slick and fast in operation. Its handling of Android 4.4 KitKat, the platform on which it launches, along with HTC's Sense 6, and the full HTC Eye Experience is nice and sharp.
This is as much a testament to HTC's software as it is the hardware: but having enjoyed the delivery on the HTC One (M8) it's no surprise to have a repeat experience here.
The Desire Eye has 16GB of internal storage, with support for microSD cards up to 128GB. If you're a huge gamer then you might find 16GB a little restrictive with those big games, especially as there's only 8.9GB left for you to fill with your own content.
You also get a full loadout of sensors, so the Desire Eye offers the same motion gestures as the M8, such as tap to wake, as well as support for the Dot View case.
In operation the Eye doesn't get as noticeably warm as some of its contemporaries and we found that a blast on Real Racing 3 saw it running cooler than the LG G3 or its stablemate the HTC One (M8).
The move to a 5.2-inch display, we believe, is an indicator of where HTC will head with its next-gen flagship - which we expect to be the One M9. We can't really see the justification or the necessity for 5.2-inches on a device that's trying to sell the selfie message with its choice of cameras. Yes, it gives you space to compose images, but it makes it a little more tricky wielding it at arms length.
Putting that gripe to one side, the good news is that this is a great quality display. It sticks to 1920 x 1080 pixels (not exactly "mid-tier") and spread over the 5.2-inches that results in a pixel density of 423ppi. It's pretty sharp and, unlike some of the expanding 720p displays (like the LG G3 S's 5-inches for example), you'd need keen eyes indeed to pick out the pixels here.
Resolution aside, we love the clarity of the display. It might run a little brighter than some rivals, but there's punch and vibrancy to colours, without running into the realms of the unrealistic. It might not offer the contrast of some of the great AMOLED displays out there, but it acquits itself well, with good viewing angles too.
Its colour balance appears to be a little warmer in presentation than the HTC One (M8), which makes the whites a little more yellow, but the colours a little bolder overall.
The HTC Desire Eye has a 2400mAh battery, which sounds a little low-capacity for a device of this size.
It's not as bad as it might first seem though. On busy days, yes, as the evening draws on you'll be reaching for your charger, but keep the usage light and you'll get through without a problem. We didn't find it to have the endurance that we typically expect from the M8, so there's a small compromise to be had here.
Compared to the Xperia Z3, which has excellent battery performance and is close to the Desire Eye's specs, Sony's handset delivers better endurance. So if anything, the concession to the mid-tier comes from the battery, but little else (and that'll cost you £200 extra).
READ: Sony Xperia Z3 review
Sound and calling
On the Desire Eye, HTC has made a shift in how BoomSound is handled, moving away from the micro-drilled grilles and over to speaker slits. The volume is still pretty impressive, as is the stereo separation you get, bringing real lift to games and movies.
However it falls slightly short of the standard set by the M7 and M8 before it. There isn't quite the same depth as the M8, with the Desire Eye losing out on some of that rich bass and becoming a little shrill at times. It's still a good deal better than something like the SGS5 or LG G3 though.
READ: LG G3 review
Calls sounds good and we had no reported problems with clarity from callers. One thing we noticed about the speaker slits, however, is that they like to attract debris. Fortunately a quick rinse under the tap will see things tidied up. But perhaps that's why this handset is IPX7 rather than IP67 rated, as it's not dust-proof - not that will matter much to most users.
HTC software experience
Much of what makes the HTC Desire Eye shine comes down to software. We've written a lot about Sense 6 previously and here you'll find the experience very close to the HTC One (M8). The tweaks that HTC has brought to Android match those of the flagship, and it was the Eye that debuted the new camera software.
We won't lengthen this review taking longer on software than we necessarily need. If you're interested, then you can read up on HTC Sense 6 via the link below. The camera experience, on the other hand, there's plenty to say about in the section below.
READ: HTC Sense 6.0 review
HTC is in the process of preparing Android 5.0 Lollipop for its devices and there's no confirmed date for when the Desire Eye would receive it, but the nature of Android's updates through Google Play means you'll already enjoy some of that experience through Google's apps, like Gmail.
We've found that apps are fast to load on the Desire Eye and the large display makes this a great choice for watching movies and playing games. It's another string to the Desire Eye's bow: the software experience doesn't let the side down.
Cameras go to crazy town
When it comes to the cameras, things step into the twilight zone. There's a 13-megapixel camera both front and back, with dual-tone flash for each. Resolution aside, the big difference between the Eye's front camera and other smartphones is that it utilises autofocus, rather than fixed focus.
There's a slight difference in the other core camera specs: the front is a 22mm (equivalent) wide-angle, whereas the rear is a 28mm (equivalent). The front is f/2.2 and the rear is f/2.0, with a different choice in optics destined for their different uses. The sensors beneath the glass, however, are otherwise the same both front and back.
Changing from front to rear cameras needs a simple swipe across the display and you also have the option for a split-screen mode. Having matched front and rear cameras means you're getting comparable quality on both sides, rather than one that's obviously lacking against the other.
HTC's autofocusing is fast and we like the simplicity of the camera app. The only thing we think is critically missing is the option for auto HDR (high dynamic range), which would remove the need for some of the additional button presses in daily use.
Talking of buttons, the HTC Desire Eye also introduces a physical camera button. This can be used for quick launch (like Sony Xperia handsets) and you can define which of the cameras to launch.
In operation, we think the button needs to be a little more distinct in its action. A half press fixes focus and metering, the full press thereafter captures the shot - much like a "proper" camera. But it's not responsive like a shutter button on such a camera, so we often found ourselves capturing a burst rather than a single shot, especially in low-light conditions where everything seems a little slower than you might like.
Tapping the on-screen button gives a faster and more positive result, so we tended to use that instead, which isn't the case with Nokia or Sony devices with dedicated camera buttons that we've used in the past.
The rear camera offers the sort of experience you'd expect from a modern smartphone. Given good light, it will give some great results. Low-light images are ok, but of course blighted by image noise as the light levels drop.
The dual tone flash is pretty good at preserving skin tones for the rear camera. For the front camera it will illuminate you, but it's so bright you'll be dazzled for a while after. This is really where the Desire Eye distinguishes itself from other devices. If it's dark and you want that selfie, then you have that flash option. If it's dark it will tend to lose the background, but you do escape the typical blurred underexposed selfies that emerge from places like nightclubs.
The front camera performance is good, therefore, if a little lacking in logic. Do you need 13-megapixels on the front? Not really, because your subject - that being you, and maybe a friend - is invariably close to the lens. The higher resolution advantage of being able to crop into a shot a bit is perhaps unnecessary in this situation.
There's only one real case for the higher resolution (combined with the voice trigger for selfies) and that's for taking groufies - yes, we used that heinous word - with your phone propped up somewhere. In this scenario you can see the display to compose your shot, have the resolution to pull through the detail of all the people and can trigger from a distance. But really, you could just ask someone else to take it for you.
The front camera does produce slightly saturated shots, especially compared to the slightly muted results of the HTC One (M8). This is probably a deliberate post-processing move. It gives eye colour a boost and might bring a little flush to the cheeks. It also might result in you having lips that are a little redder than you like (for chaps) or a nose that's a little rosey (for all but Rudolph). It also isn't the best low light performer around, tending to be slow, giving you soft images when the light drops if you opt to avoid the flash.
There are also some insane face-blending modes where you can "beautify" or merge two faces together into the one shot, often with hilarious results.
Gone from the Desire Eye are the UltraPixel sensor and Duo Camera features of the HTC One M8. We can't say we've especially missed them in using this newer device, but we can't help thinking that the front-facing camera could be an UltraPixel sensor and benefit from a lower resolution with larger pixels - but that's another argument completely.
We've previously detailed the HTC Eye Experience, so if you're interested in a more granular breakdown of what that software offers, then be sure to click through below and keep reading.
The HTC Desire Eye is a great smartphone. The design might be plastic, but it's a solid, well constructed and weather-proofed handset pitched at a fair price point. It's good in use thanks to having plenty of power on board, and has a great display too - albeit a large one. Sitting in the Desire family does the Eye no harm, even if it's arguably approaching flagship on some levels.
The software experience is lovely and although we're waiting to see how HTC incorporates the latest Android Lollipop enhancements, there's oodles of refinement as it stands. It's close to the experience of the flagship M8, but here you're getting more display for less money, and accepting the loss of the premium metal body.
But the 13-megapixel camera isn't the selfie golden bullet some might expect it to be. It offers enhanced performance in good lighting conditions, so those day shots in scenic places will look great, but when the light drops, if you opt not to blind yourself with the flash, you're still looking at soft results with noticeable image noise - and at a resolution that's probably far in excess of what you actually need.
The HTC Desire Eye is a great phone despite the twin 13MP cameras rather than because of them. We daresay that this handset, with these internal specs, in this body, at a price of around £350, but with a front-facing UltraPixel sensor would be just as appealing. Perhaps the biggest downside is the relatively low capacity battery, which compared to something like the Xperia Z3, doesn't offer the greatest endurance around and is about the only nod to mid-tier compromise that the Desire name brings.
If you're looking for flagship performance at a more affordable price then the Desire Eye might well be it. It's something of an oddity and that front camera might be an eyesore, but it's a desirable handset nonetheless - and one not just for the selfie obsessives as its name might suggest.