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(Pocket-lint) - The HTC Wildfire S could be the darling of the affordable Android handsets. We say could be, because HTC have slightly muddied the water with the similarly-specced HTC Salsa, their touchscreen Facebook phone, as well as pitching out the Wildfire S into a market brimming with devices new and old. In the rawest sense the HTC Wildfire S is an incremental update of last year’s Wildfire, which was a phone that, when we reviewed it, seemed to drag its heels a little. 

The HTC Wildfire S betters its predecessor, now offering a more pleasing design reflecting the changes made to the Desire S, so you’ll find the largely obscure optical key has been removed and there has been just about enough of a facelift to draw admiring glances. It is, it has to be said, extremely pretty for a such a small phone, batting aside some of the budget pretenders with ease when it comes to pure looks.

The Wildfire S sees some of HTC’s characteristic unibody design, but the rear section is simply a plastic backplate. There’s nothing wrong with that, it still looks good, is free from too much flex or creaking, and the white finish we had looked smart enough. It is, it has to be said, a little too slick in the hand and on several occasions it was very nearly skidding across the floor of the drawing room as we put it through its paces.

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Internally there have been upgrades too. It now offers Android 2.3.3 (at the time of review) sitting on a Qualcomm MSM7227 chipset clocked at 600MHz with 512MB RAM. They’re entry-level specs and haven’t moved up too much from last year, but with HTC Sense (version 2.1) and Android moving on, the experience overall feels slicker and more efficient than its predecessor. Put next to a high-end smartphone and yes, it does suffer from slowdown when you push it, app opening lacks the snap of more powerful devices and you’ll find yourself waiting fractionally longer than you might expect on occasions, but this is fitting with the phone’s affordable status.

One step for the positive is the move from 320 x 240 to 480 x 320 pixels on the display. It won’t win the resolution race, but at 3.2-inches, it puts in a pixel density of 180ppi, so the final result looks reasonable. The resolution is the same as the rival INQ Cloud Touch, but the smaller screen means those pixels are tighter packed and at this level swapping space for a crisp result works in the HTC Wildfire S’s favour. The screen is admittedly small, too small for heavy browser use or to use as an impromptu ebook reader, but it is backed up by a touch response that means it doesn’t critically fail.

Touch response can make or break a phone, especially when the display is small, but we found that the Wildfire S coped just about well enough. It will never be a device where you can spend a lot of time bashing out messages, but on the flip side we didn’t have a problem with day-to-day text entry either in portrait or landscape. The keyboard in HTC Sense is perhaps a little cluttered, but offers up reasonable suggestions when you mis-key a word. It can be bettered and we prefer the smart approach of SwiftKey, which will not only correct your mistakes, but predict your next word so you save yourself a lot of key presses.

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The handset itself measures 101.3 x 59.4 x 12.4mm and tips the scales at 105g. The result is a phone that packs a relatively good experience into a compact package and despite having a fetish for the high-end of Android, we’ve found that the paired-down HTC Sense experience that the Wildfire offers means you can stick to core functions of communication and social networking without missing out too much. Of course there are some major multimedia sacrifices you’ll have to accept along the way.

Although packing a recent version of Android, it falls below the specs that will offer you Adobe Flash Player, so you won’t be getting Flash video in the browser, or the offer of BBC iPlayer. Being a single core device with a small screen it also isn’t going to take chunks out of your HD video collection or offer you high definition recording from the camcorder. You’ll find too that in the trimming of HTC Sense the integrated multimedia is gone: there is no offer of network streaming as the “Connected Media” element is missing.

Video format support on the whole is not great, but then the Wildfire S doesn’t have the power to really get to grips with much video. We downloaded Skifta to take care of media streaming, but as it relies on video support on the device itself we were equally hampered when it came to streaming video. (However, it will serve up your music and photos without issue.)

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Music is better catered for, with HTC’s skinned music player taking care of your local music without issue, and offering up integrated Amazon MP3 if you fancy buying more tracks. The 3.5mm headphone jack means you can easily hook up your own headphones, which will get the best from the HTC Wildfire S when it comes to sound quality. You’ll also need to use the headphones if you want to take advantage of the FM radio. Thankfully, HTC’s music player sees music control from the lock screen, so you can simply and easily pause or skip tracks without having to unlock the phone and locate the music app.

Of course this being an HTC Sense phone it offers you integration of your social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Sign-in to these apps provided by HTC and you’ll find that the Friend Stream widget and app will regurgitate your online social life in one place, if you like such an approach. HTC Sense will also pull these details into the likes of People so the contacts listing is rich and you can arrive at a person, see their latest update and checkout their Facebook albums if you so desire.

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We’re not huge fans of Friend Stream as we often find that consuming updates through individual apps isn’t a huge bane. Fortunately, both the Android native Twitter and Facebook apps will also offer to integrate with your contacts, so even if you choose not to walk the HTC Sense path in its entirety you won’t find yourself missing out.

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In terms of core functions, Android pulls in your Google accounts and the phone populates itself with your account(s) in a matter of minutes. Detailed touches, like being able to pull up a map of the location of an appointment make the Android experience on the HTC Wildfire S feel complete, but in most regards, it’s core functionality that all Android users on recent versions of Google’s mobile OS enjoy. Google Maps is one of the strong points, with integrated GPS on hand to locate you can free Navigation swinging in to provide you with directions when you need them.

Control of the device comes thanks to the four touch buttons across the bottom of the display. Given the small frame of the phone they don’t have much space, but we didn’t find this to be too much of a problem: the occasional brush of the left-hand home button would see us dive out of an app, but this was a rarity. Elsewhere aside from the home, menu, back and search controls you have the power/standby button and the volume controls. 

There is no camera button, so controlling the camera comes in the form of touchscreen controls. This isn’t the basic Android camera either, as it too has had the standard HTC treatment. Rated at 5-megapixels, it holds up its end of the bargain supplying reasonable results adequate for sharing or sending to friends. The camera suffers the regular failings of mobile phone cameras, struggling in bright conditions and not really coping with high-contrast subjects. The on-screen autofocusing and shutter action means that you’ll often experience a delay before the shot is fired, so capturing moving objects leaves a little to be desired.

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If comparing devices on spec sheet alone, you might celebrate the fact that the HTC Wildfire S has a single LED “flash” on the rear, so low light capture is a little more possible, but it lacks power and once you get close enough for it to be effective, it tends to blow out details, so isn’t really worth getting excited about.

Fitting the restrained specs of the Wildfire S, video capture is limited to 640 x 480, the results of which are average. You can autofocus during video capture which is a nice feature, so you can touch the screen and it will refocus the camera. Wind noise is something of a problem, but this affects all mobile phones and the day we shot the sample video below was very windy.

In our time testing using the Wildfire S we found it to be stable, and didn’t detect any significant problems with the day-to-day running of the phone. Understand that this isn’t a powerhouse and you’ll get on just fine with the features it has on offer. The battery life isn’t particularly strong and you’ll still need to charge it every night to make it through the day, if you the sort of person who likes to keep your hand in with Twitter and Facebook every 5 minutes. Heavy calling or data use will take its toll on the device so keep your eye on the battery levels. When it comes to calling we didn't experience any problems with no complaints from callers.

To recap

Cute and compact, the HTC Wildfire S is limited in terms of what it will do, but what it does is delivered very nicely. Unless you are completely sold on the looks or the size, there are plenty of other choices out there

Writing by Chris Hall.