(Pocket-lint) - One of HTC's surprise successes over the past year has been in the Desire family. The Desire 816 sold well in Asia, was updated in the Desire 820 on review here and has a newer model waiting in the wings, the Desire 826.
The success of this handset - which is behind the rapid step-up through models - comes down to the combination of size, price and quality of build. But if you're looking for a new mid-ranger, is the Desire 820 where the smart money is at?
Design and build
The Desire family differentiates itself from the top-end One family through its use of plastics - but high quality plastics. The Desire 820's build is solid and as it's a sealed body construction, so there are no unsightly seams.
It's a simple design, with softly curved corners typical of HTC phones, and soft curves to the rear meeting the flat back. We like this approach as it's comfortable to hold, and isn't too fat.
The Desire 820 measures 157.7 x 78.74 x 7.74mm, so although it's big for a 5.5-inch handset it's size and 155g weight mean it's still manageable in one hand. HTC's BoomSound speakers sit above and below the display, meaning it's taller than it might need to be. Placing it alongside the LG G3 - also with a 5.5-inch display - makes the Desire 820 look a little large.
However there's something rather playful about the Desire 820's design. The white plastic, perhaps, looks a little more toy-like than the seriousness of the One family, but we're really taken with the Hellenic pairing of white and blue on the Santorini White model pictured here.
With a slightly glossy finish, we imagine that the darker model will need frequent polishing to remove fingerprints, but they don't show up so much on the white back. Overall the build and design helps make the Desire 820 stand out, and is typical of the good quality we expect from HTC.
Hardware and performance
One of the headlines of the Desire 820 is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 chipset at its core, which is a 64-bit octo-core chip paired with Adreno 405 graphics. That's paired with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, making for a handset that's powerful and capacious enough for everyday needs.
The chipset is designed to bring octo-core and 64-bit efficiencies to the mid-range, although the latter part won't swing into effect until the Desire 820 gets updated to Android 5.0 Lollipop from its KitKat launch state, thus bringing 64-bit software support. Currently there's no timeline on that, but it potentially means that the phone's performance will get better in the future.
We had the dual SIM version in for review, but this model might not be available in all territories. In addition there's a microSD card slot for storage expansion, the slots for which lie under the flap on the left-hand side.
Although the Desire 820 is in HTC's mid-range model, it's still a 4G LTE handset, so it provides a fast data connection. It doesn't, however, offer NFC and it doesn't have the full array of sensors, so lacks all the fun features of the HTC One: there's no step tracking, no double-tap to wake, and no motion gestures.
However the Desire 820 isn't the most powerful device graphically. Although that's not a problem when watching catch-up TV or streaming movies, you'll notice it a little more when it comes to high-demand gaming. Games such as Real Racing 3 are perfectly playable, but there's some judder as the camera pans and longer loading times which more powerful handsets don't suffer from. It also heats up quickly under these loads.
The overall performance is good, handling everyday tasks with aplomb. You'll have no problem cracking through emails, browsing and enjoying the screen space on offer.
Much of the interest in the Desire 820 is around its large display, fronted with 5.5 inches, which is a great size for media consumption. However, such scale puts it in the same size category as the LG G3, so it's verging on the phablet space.
The viewing angles are respectable and there's plenty of brightness, although you'd be advised to keep that in check, because a big display means greater battery demands.
But the Desire 820's £280 price tag means there has to be a sacrifice somewhere and it's mostly in screen resolution. It offers 1280 x 720 pixels, which equates to 276ppi. That's reasonable - it's still HD quality after all - be we could easily make out those pixels at normal viewing distances.
That means the visuals aren't as smooth as you'll find elsewhere and things can be a little grainy. The HTC One's display is half an inch smaller, but at 440ppi is so much finer and much better looking in all things.
But aside from resolution, the Desire 820 uses an LCD 2 panel, whereas LCD 3 is HTC's latest display. That's reflected in the delivery of colours: it isn't the most punchy or vibrant phone out there. For example the bold red header of the Gmail app's new material design looks slightly diluted; whites have a slightly yellow tinge; and blacks aren't as deep as they could be - but there has to be some compromise for the price.
For a handset of this size, the 2600mAh battery is a little on the small capacity side. The result is that on busy days, the Desire 820 will be gasping for a charge by mid-afternoon. You don't get the sort of all-day endurance that some bigger handsets typically offer.
We've found that on most days we've had to top-up the battery during the day before charging fully overnight, even with HTC's power saver mode engaged. There's also the extreme power saving mode that engages to get you home at the end of the day, stripping you down to basic functionality.
Overall, we wanted a little more from the battery, which a device of this size really needs.
Calling and sound quality
The Desire 820 carries HTC's BoomSound speakers above and below the display. They aren't quite as skilled in delivery as those on the HTC One M8, but they are still good performers.
They add punch to audio on games or movies and we found that the wide soundstage when watching Gravity helped add to the immersive effect. They handle high volumes well, although there's a little vibration through the case at the top levels.
When it comes to calling, you benefit from great sound quality too. We found that callers came across well and reported no problems hearing us.
Android KitKat and Sense 6.0
As we hinted earlier, there's no Android Lollipop on the Desire 820 at the time of writing, so it's not as up-to-date as some other devices. But the operating system is paired with HTC's Sense 6 user interface, which has plenty of refinement, which we've pulled apart in greater detail via the link below.
In reality, not sitting on Lollipop isn't a huge disadvantage for the Desire 820, because Sense 6 is a very good user interface. The default experience uses BlinkFeed, HTC's content curation service, just a swipe away from the home screen, as well as a host of other goodies.
If you don't like it, then simply switch over to the Google Now Launcher for a home screen experience that's a lot closer to stock Android. But HTC's influence is keenly felt through things like the great array of quick settings, the integrated contacts experience and the excellent Gallery, heavily interlinked with HTC's funky Zoe remix videos.
Importantly, the Sense and KitKat pairing is lovely and smooth in operation. There's very little sign of lag moving around the user interface - folders snap open at pace, while switching between apps is nice and fast. Paired with the latest enhancements from updating Google apps, it's easy to be productive on a device this size.
There's a 13-megapixel camera on the rear of the Desire 820 and an 8-megapixel camera on the front, both capable of capturing 1080p video. That's a fairly healthy allocation of megapixels not always found in the mid-range tier.
It has HTC's Eye experience, offering the latest HTC Camera app, so is simple to use, with plenty of options available. This has some fun features in it, letting you swipe between front and rear cameras to grab selfies, as well as offering a Split Capture mode to snap front and rear shots at the same time.
The rear camera is fast to focus and capture shots, offering some great results in good light conditions. There's also an effective HDR (high dynamic range) mode, which, although not automatic, will let you get more balance out of scenes with highlights and shadows.
As the light dips things get a little noisy and indoors you'll find softer images with some image noise in the shadow areas, but that's not uncommon. Low light also sees autofocus speed drop, with the camera struggling to get a grip on what you're looking at. So even though there's a 13-megapixel camera, the Desire 820 doesn't feel quite like a photography master.
The front-facing camera offers a high 8-megapixel count, which is perhaps more than you need given that you're typically shooting something that's only a metre from the lens. Perhaps that's why the Desire 826 (the device that will ultimately replace the 820) swaps the front camera to the 4MP UltraPixel instead.
It is a capable snapper, offering some great shots. Again, however, image noise tends to eke into shots when you might not expect it - we found image noise across subjects which is evident when you zoom in to take advantage of all those megapixels.
Another criticism of the front camera is that the image preview can be a little harsh: even with the makeup features turned off (which might be behind some of the skin smoothing and edge sharpening), the preview makes you look a lot worse than the actual photo it takes.
Overall, despite the high megapixel counts, the Desire 820 doesn't house the most capable pair of camera's you'll find on a phone, but they will perform well enough in a range of conditions to satisfy.
Price and opposition
One of the obstacles facing the Desire 820, however, is price. HTC has it listed for £280 and Carphone Warehouse is offering it on contract from £22.50 a month, a recent addition to its portfolio.
We've mentioned the LG G3 a couple of times in this review (because they share the same screen size, but the LG hosts a significantly higher resolution) which is available from £26.50 a month on contract, or £287 SIM free on Amazon. By comparison the LG is distinctly flagship, out-speccing the HTC in just about every aspect. Then there are devices like the OnePlus One, available from £229. Again, it's a handset that offers more on the spec sheet than the Desire.
HTC perhaps offers greater software refinement and those great speakers, but at this scale aggressive pricing from the competition flattens out the mid-range.
The HTC Desire 820 has plenty to offer: it's a refined day-to-day experience, with the Sense 6 interface offering plenty to set it apart from the competition. And we're sure it will be updated to Android Lollipop at some stage in the future, which will bring a number of benefits, including support for the 64-bit hardware beneath the phone's plastic skin.
There's plenty of power for daily tasks, a large screen to consume content and cameras that can offer some great shots, even if the high megapixel count doesn't immediately translate into the best results. However, as much as we like the design and build, this handset sits squarely in the mid-range and the hardware experience confirms that, especially when it comes to the screen quality.
Ultimately, the Desire 820 suffers due to the competition, with flagship models such as the LG G3 now available at a similar price point. So be sure to shop around to make sure you're getting the most for your money.