While phone release headlines are often taken over by top-end flagship handsets and future-thinking features that are just around the corner, there's still a market for those who want and need a more affordable phone. A phone such as the HTC Desire 12S.

This circa-£200 market has changed a whole lot over the years, with now heaps of competition able to offer pretty capable devices for a quarter the price of a flagship. There's Motorola, Honor, Redmi, and more, all vying for your cash.

But can the once highly respected HTC still kick it in this market, or is the Desire 12S confirmation that it's lost that desirable touch?

Design

  • 5.7-inch IPS LCD, 18:9 aspect ratio, HD+ (720 x 1440) resolution
  • Measures: 154.2 x 72.7 x 8.3mm / Weight: 150g
  • Top-positioned 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Rear-positioned fingerprint scanner

To look at the HTC Desire 12S is a mixture of good and bad. Before switching the phone on, its slim profile appeals, while the subtle markings on the rear - which, yes, is plastic, but what did you expect? - add an air of consideration to the design. It's slender, it's pocketable, it's got a pretty decent screen size, too, at 5.7-inches.

Pocket-lintHTC Desire 12S review image 2

Hold the power button to fire it up, however, and the Desire 12S is like looking at a phone a couple of years old. It has considerable top and bottom bezel, which means there's no notch - perhaps a positive, depending on your stance? - but with anolder version of Android running as its operating system, the on-screen control keys and all that bezel make the screen somehow seem smaller and more condensed.

We like the screen size, as it's not a million miles of what you'll find in many current handsets in terms of size, but the display lacks in other areas. It's dull, for starters, that LCD lacking any real punch to colour or brightness, while the auto-brightness is overzealous so the screen elects to be darker than it need be much of the time too. You can manually set brightness, but there are no colour profiles in the settings - only a warmer/cooler slider to adjust between.

To the rear there's a fingerprint scanner for simplified login, which isn't as fancy as a side-mounted or in-screen scanner, but it's a positive to have one. There's actually enough space for it to be on the front, though, given that bezel and black space. Plus this rear-mounted iteration doesn't work as well as the current top-tier scanners we're used to using, so the fail-rate is a bit higher.

Pocket-lintHTC Desire 12S review image 6

On the top edge is a 3.5mm headphone jack, a welcome addition that's increasingly vanishing from various phones.

Performance

  • Android 8.1 operating system with HTC Sense skin
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 processor, 3GB RAM
  • 3075mAh battery, Micro-USB recharging
  • 32GB storage, microSD card expansion

When it comes to budget phones you don't expect the pinnacle of performance. But so long as a manufacturer balances it in relation to expectations, price and the rest of the range then that's just fine. We've seen poor examples before with, say, the Huawei Mate 20 Lite failing to deliver on the promise of the rest of that series - it more or less undermined it, really - so it didn't review well.

Pocket-lintHTC Desire 12S review image 7

Now, HTC has some top-of-the-line phones, such as 2018's HTC U12+. The Desire 12S, however, is a far cry away from that handset. In fact, it makes even the criticised Huawei Mate 20 Lite look like a flagship. Which is simply bizarre, especially in a world where there are £220 handsets - the Moto G7 and Honor 20 Lite being two solid examples - that perform so much better.

In short, the HTC Desire 12S finds too many tasks to be taxing. Gmail doesn't scroll entirely smoothly. Apps aren't fast to load, which isn't a massive surprise with a small amount of RAM. But even the Qualcomm processor can't save it in terms of graphics performance: playing South Park: Phone Destroyer sees many textures fail to load at resolution, thus everything looks blurred and soft; lag is poor and the frame-rate is low. And that's not the most taxing of games going.

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Therefore, you'll need to think of the Desire 12S as a pocketable organiser. It'll stream video fine - although the pixillation on screen can be quite noticable at this resolution, while the brightness and colour lack - and browsing is fine, too, just not the fastest going.

In terms of software the older version of Android featured feels somewhat dated, partly because the trio of soft keys - back, home, expand - push the apps bar up. And with the already large bottom bezel that compresses the space available. There's also HTC's own software skin, called HTC Sense, running over the top - which tries to collate sign-ins, and offer a quick-glance feed, BlinkFeed, on a left-swipe screen. It all feels a bit Samsung circa 2017, which is harmless but not cutting edge in this fast-moving industry.

Pocket-lintHTC Desire 12S review image 3

Battery performance is reasonable, but not outstading. Given the auto-brightness dimming and low-spec processor we thought it'd last out longer per charge, but there's easily a day's use here. Shame the old style Micro-USB cable is the charging choice, again it feels older than the current USB-C standard.

Cameras

  • 13-megapixel f/2.0 single rear camera
  • 8-megapixel f/2.2 front-facing camera
  • LED flash front and rear
  • Full HD video (1080p)

While the rear of the Desire 12S might look like it has two rear cameras, it doesn't: that's a single 13MP lens with an LED flash to its side, arranged in a little protrusion that keeps fingers away from touching it when using the rear fingerprint scanner.

Pocket-lintHTC Desire 12S review image 12

Like the rest of its performance, the Desire 12S is a long way behind the competition. That single camera takes snaps that look almost milky in a washed-out kind of way, with detail lacking and a fair amount of grain. The performance is fine - click to focus, tap to shoot - but there aren't a great deal of options available. HDR (high dynamic range) can be set on or off, but it then inhibits some other settings.

You also won't get any night mode, any portrait/bokeh mode, or any of those attractive shooting options that are able to lure customers in. The front-facing camera does have a beautification mode to smear facial detail and hide any blemishes, but the quality is limited in the first place so we doubt you'll even need that.

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The lack of optical stabilisation can also really be felt. We've been struggling to keep daylight shots sharp in a number of instances due to hand shake, plus shutter lag meaning no instantaneous capture.

Verdict

We remember when HTC was the phone maker to go for. When the Desire name meant something. And as the Taiwanese company continues to make some decent top-end devices, we had hopes that the Desire 12S would be an upstanding example against its increasing competition.

Sadly, that's not the case. There are so many affordable phones to choose from in the market right now that the HTC Desire 12S fails to make an impact in any way. Sure, it looks slender and the screen is fairly large, but the Honor 20 Lite or Moto G7 - both of which are around £20 more each - walk all over this HTC in terms of both design and performance. There's very little to desire here.

Also consider

Pocket-lintMotorola Moto G7 review image 1

Motorola Moto G7

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Although we prefer the G7 Plus model, that's a little pricier, so the standard G7 - which is £20 more than the HTC - feels like the sensible, balanced option to go for. The G7 is well worth that little extra for the far better performance and greater screen-to-body ratio too.

Pocket-lintHonor 20 Lite review image 1

Honor 20 Lite

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Although the software won't be for everyone, the Honor is better designed, longer-lasting, far more premium and a lot more powerful than the HTC. Again, it's just £20 more - so it's a no-brainer by comparison.