The launch of the HTC Rhyme saw the Taiwanese manufacturer tiptoeing around its words. With a cleaned-up homescreen, colours that were anything but black and a name that lacked the usual superstar aggression, HTC did everything it could to avoid saying that the Rhyme was a phone designed for girls.
Before we started on our review, we passed it around to of these aforementioned girls to gauge the reaction. The first was that it wasn't pink. Some still eye the pink LG Chocolate as the pinnacle of female-focused design; some remind us that the iPhone nestles in the hands of many women and they're perfectly happy with it. The tech presses tell us that women find pink gadgets patronising, that they don't want to be pigeon-holed so narrowly.
With that conundrum in mind, is the HTC Rhyme a phone that only appeals to the fairer sex, or is this a naïve supposition?
The Rhyme doesn't break too far from the HTC mould when it comes to design. One glance and you'll recognise it as an HTC device, differing only slightly from the likes of the HTC Radar. It uses Some of HTC's unibody design approach, the biggest implication of which is that you can't access the battery. The metal body which surrounds the screen runs around the back of the phone, almost looking like a strap holding the thing together. The top of the back section is finished in plastic, to aid reception.
The bottom half of the back of the phone can be removed and is finished in a tactile material to aid grip. This slides off to reveal the SIM and microSD card slots, as well as concealing the Micro-USB connection with a flap. This isn't something that HTC normally do, but as we'll discuss later, they plan for you to dock the Rhyme to charge it, rather than fiddle with cables.
The corners and sides are nicely rounded, meaning the Rhyme sits nicely in the hand. Buttons and controls are conventionally placed for an HTC device, with volume on the right and the standby button on the top, along with the 3.5mm headphone jack. Across the bottom of the display you get four conventional Android controls: home, menu, back and search.
The curved top edge makes the HTC Rhyme a comfortable phone for holding against your ear when it comes to making calls, and we found that call quality was perfectly good, with no problems hearing callers. The external speaker is a little tinny and almost entirely muffled if you place the phone flat on a table.
We found the battery life was better than we expected. It has a capacity of 1600mAh, so not the largest capacity, but we found with light use we got it to last though 2 days, which is pretty rare. This is probably down to the smaller screen and single core processor and continued software refinement. Heavy use will see it needing to charge every night, but overall we're impressed.
Display and hardware
The display is a 3.7-inch 800 x 480 pixel screen, the same as the likes of the HTC Desire S. It is bright and vibrant, with a nice saturated punch to reds tones, reflecting the screen's slightly warm colours. Viewing angles aren't the best, but they're good enough and the brightness on offer keeps things visible in brighter conditions.
Sitting under the hood you'll find a 1GHz single-core processor, backed by 768MB RAM. This is respectable configuration for an Android device and although it doesn't pack the most power you'll find out there, the experience doesn't feel hampered by it. Every day navigation and use is snappy, with little sign of lag when navigating the device or opening applications, but the odd tell-tale sign, like a slow response on opening up the widgets menu, lets you know it could be faster.
Internally you get 1GB of memory, but an 8GB card is bundled in the box, with support for expansion up to 32GB.
Software that makes Sense?
The HTC Rhyme arrives with Android 2.3.5 and HTC Sense 3.5. This is the latest version of HTC's user interface which brings with it a few tweaks, the most obvious of which is a new set of homepage "scenes", making a departure from the HTC Sense of old.
Just to clarify, this change isn't unique to the HTC Rhyme: the entry-level HTC Explorer also features a simplified homepage arrangement. Elsewhere, you'll find the HTC Sensation XL, also with Sense 3.5, looks very much like HTC devices have since the launch of Sense on the HTC Hero back in 2009. So Sense 3.5 differs from device-to-device.
Previously there was a curved dock at the bottom of the screen which contained things like access to the menu, phone and personalisation options. Now, instead, the homepage contains just two icons, one on the left giving you app tray access and one on the right taking you through to calling. It's much cleaner than previously, dominating less of the screen than before.
Where there was once the default "HTC clock", you'll now find a Shortcuts & Clock widget. Although that distinctive clock is still available, should you want to restore it, the alternative is actually very useful. You can allocate five shortcuts and in some cases you get a slide-out tray to expand what's on offer.
For example, the camera shortcut will slide-out and offer your last three photos, the calendar will pop-out with the details of next appointment. None of this is earth-shattering, but it's convenient and nicely done.
With that in mind, the HTC Rhyme is refreshing at first glance, but delve a little deeper and you'll find that it offers you all the regular features of HTC Sense, with all the settings, options and tweaks sitting where you'd expect them too. If the Rhyme appeals because it looks simpler, then you might be in for a shock, as overall it isn't, which is both a pro and a con.
You'll get to add all your social accounts into HTC Sense for use with Friend Stream, set automatic sharing of images to an account of your choice (Facebook or Flickr), you'll get access to HTC Watch for movie rental and a whole lot more. HTC's skin on Android makes more changes than any other manufacturer and everywhere you navigate you'll find a little tweak has been made, more so in HTC Sense 3.5 than ever before.
Obviously you won't get the latest version of Android at launch, and compared to stock Android, HTC Sense can be a little overbearing at times. Take the notification tray. This not only compiles your alerts and music controls, but also gives you access to your recently used apps and a separate tab to take you over to quick settings controls. Some might find this convenient, for others it might be too much.
There are also a range of apps preinstalled, such as Dropbox and Endomondo. Dropbox offers you extra storage space once you log-in and is free, although we note the extra capacity you get with your HTC device only lasts for 12 months. Endomondo is a fitness app and will offer to track your runs around the park and so on.
HTC have tweaked the keyboard, although the experience is pretty much as it has been in the past. The touch response and correction is good, but it is a little busy in portrait mode. If you don't like it, there are plenty of alternatives you can install from the Android Market, such as the excellent SwiftKey X.
Being an Android device you get all the normal access to Android Market and a growing selection of apps, as well as the connected goodness and seamless support of Google accounts, along with Flash in the web browser.
A veritable box of tricks
Slip the HTC Rhyme from the box and you'll find a lot more on offer within. The biggest element we've already alluded to is the dock. This connects to that charger at the back, so you can slot the Rhyme into the dock and it will charge via the contacts on the back of the phone.
That's not all however. The dock is also a Bluetooth speaker, so when you dock your handset, it connects to the speaker. Music playback is much better than through the built-in speaker. It's a nice touch, just remember to turn off Bluetooth when you leave the house, if you're not using it.
Using the dock also fires up a Dock Mode display. This dims the screen, switches to landscape and puts the calling and calendar functions at your fingertips, perfect for bedside operation. If we had one criticism, however, it's that the dimmed screen isn't that well done: it's still a glowing rectangle at the side of your bed and those screen viewing angles don't help - if your bedside table is the wrong height, you won't be able to make out the detail on the screen at all.
You'll also get the controversial Charm. This is a plug-in accessory that is essentially an LED on the end of a cable that will alert you to incoming calls or messages. The idea is that the phone can be in a bag or pocket and the Charm somewhere visible so you can react as needed. HTC even suggest that you can pull the phone from your bag using the Charm, but as one of our willing ladies so elegantly suggested "it's just going to get tangled up in all my other shit". Quite so.
But the HTC Rhyme isn't about the Charm: if you don't want it, leave it in the box. You do get a headset however, it isn't Beats Audio, so you don't get the best offering in the box. The anti-tangle cable is welcomed, even if the performance is pretty average from the headphones themselves.
Finally there is a white leather case, which certainly looks pretty smart.
One area where we appreciate the effort, but don't completely like the execution, is HTC's handling of media streaming, or connected devices. The HTC Rhyme will happily find sources to "play" media from, including things like online photo albums from your connected accounts, or from a local sharing media drive or device.
Performance is generally good, although it is a little hidden in the customised Gallery app. You'll have to use the drop-down menu at the top to find "media servers", before navigating through to find your content. You can then play media locally on the Rhyme, with reasonable support for video file formats.
However from this app you can also opt to send the file to another device, using the "output" option. Elsewhere you'll find a "connected media" app which also offers to play your content via the same mechanism, but it seems a little confusing to have two routes to the same thing, one offering half the functionality of the other.
However, you can share movies, photos or music via the same method, so long as you have the right devices on your network. Music is enhanced by the inclusion of SRS Enhancement or a virtual 5.1 surround option when headphones are connected, and in the absence of Beats Audio, it does make a difference.
The HTC Rhyme is equipped with a 5-megapixel camera on the rear. It's been given the full makeover with all HTC's goodies. There is a lot packed in, much of which you'll probably never use, but we like the fact that the effects have been expanded to include more popular options like Vignette (more of a "Lomo" effect, as below), along with a panoramic mode, a skin smoothing, portrait mode and backlight HDR, which aims to pull detail out of shadows.
The results are reasonable in good lighting conditions, quickly snapping off shots ideal for sharing, although it isn't the best phone camera on the block. It suffers in lower light conditions things get very noisy, the flash producing an unnatural colour cast over shots. This is common to other mobile phone cameras too, so nothing to be too worried about.
Video capture comes in at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720, although the frame rate isn't always as consistent as we'd like, often giving you around 23fps. It offers touch focusing, so you can change the focal point during recording, which is fast with only a minor pulse as it does so. There is no continuous autofocus during video, so you'll have to manually touch to keep everything in focus.
Overall there isn't much to dislike about HTC Rhyme: it's a solid performer, and despite the aim of cutting down on some of the geekery of HTC Sense, you'll still find it is fully-functional. Sure, there are places where we think it is a little over-engineered, but you certainly get a lot in the HTC Rhyme package.
The run of accessories is welcomed, making the HTC Rhyme feel like a complete offering. But at the same time there is nothing that really makes the HTC Rhyme stand out: you'll find better screens, better design and better cameras elsewhere. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S Plus and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S are a similar size but give you more screen space, even if they don't offer such a comprehensive overall package out of the box.
But the question still stands: is this a phone only for girls? No, it isn't. There are no moon charts or shopping apps, nothing that stinks of crass stereotyping: it's just a respectable Android mobile phone. The perception of a female identity may well deter male shoppers, but this is really about branding, rather than functionality.
Good all-round performance and a battery life that caught us by surprise do the HTC Rhyme credit, but it faces tough competition.