HTC Desire Review: HTC has been on top of its game in the past year. Following on from the Hero, the HD2 their newest Android-packing handsets the Legend and the Desire are out to put the pressure on Apple. But has the Desire really got the moves to make Jobs fidget in his seat?
Right now, let’s put aside that dumb phrase “iPhone killer”. The fact that a phone is better than Apple’s all-conquering, landscape-changing, gadget-genre-inventing device doesn’t “kill” it, any more than Chelsea defeating Man United means that that particular football team is dispatched to the Araldite Glue League (Northern Area). But make no mistake: this phone is better than the iPhone.
It’s been coming, let’s face it. The last two months have seen the launch of the Google Nexus One, which is considerably more powerful than the iPhone, the HTC Legend which pretty much beats it on the UI front and also on looks, amazingly enough.
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Both those phones also lagged behind the iPhone in certain areas but now, the Desire blends the oomph of the Nexus One with the brilliant usability and social networking talents of the Legend. Needless to say, it rocks.
Packing a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, a huge 3.7-inch OLED screen and the latest Android 2.1 OS, the Desire looks a lot like a Nexus One, but without the erratic touchscreen keys – dropped in favour of proper, moving ones – and potentially unreliable trackball – it’s now a refined optical trackpad.
More importantly, the newest edition of Sense, HTC’s patented OS, overlays Android 2.1, adding a wealth of very welcome functionality.
With seven home screens and a large stable of widgets, you can customise the Desire to within an inch of its life with music, weather, stocks, favourite friends and more to download too.
As we mentioned, the Desire is one of the most powerful Android phones on offer, and it shows when you pick it up for the first time. It reacts to your slightest touch, slipping between home screens without a hint of slowdown, and allowing you to open multiple applications without destroying the user experience.
Another addition to the new Sense UI is Leap View – basically pinch the display in and the home screen explodes into seven separate little icons so you can jump to another pane. It’s a much easier way of navigating rather than swiping through, and is a little addictive too – like when you find yourself constantly sliding a phone open and shut.
HTC Desire: Contacts and messaging
HTC has also ramped up the power of the contacts screen, much like we’ve seen on the Hero and Legend – you can link your buddies on your phone to their Facebook profiles easily, with the Desire making helpful (and accurate) suggestions when you begin linking for the first time so the process doesn’t take an age.
This is another upgrade over the Nexus One, which admittedly does have integrated contact info, but nowhere near as detailed as that offered from the Desire or the Legend.
New to the latest version of the Sense UI is Friendstream, an application/widget that sits on the home screen and provides a list of all your Facebook, Twitter and Flickr contacts’ updates. It’s a little battery sapping if you have it updating constantly in the background, but it’s a nice addition.
Crucially you can modify it to only show one ‘stream’ from a social network – so if you have a number of boring Twitterers as friends, or everyone keeps telling you what they’re doing on a mythical farm in Facebook, you can bin it.
The messaging on the HTC Desire is great too – and not just because you’ve got such a large number of modes of communication to choose from.
The on-screen touch keyboard is among the best in the business, and eerily accurate in use. Even if your typing is terrible the Desire will often work out which word you’re really after and suggest that instead. You can flip the phone into landscape mode to open up a larger keyboard, but we’ve found you don’t need to – the basic version is good enough on its own.
It’s not just the humble text message on offer here – we’ve got SMS, MMS, Gmail, other webmail accounts, Exchange push email and Twitter all supported natively on the Desire.
When you turn the phone on for the first time you’re asked to set up Gmail, Twitter and Exchange, and the phone then intelligently downloads the settings and by the first time you’ve started it up, all the accounts are up and working.
Peep, the inbuilt Twitter client, will give you access to all the usual Tweeting functions (be it @replies, direct messages or searches) and lets you know quickly of new notifications too.
HTC Desire: Internet
But this is an Android phone, and it’s more than just good calling and messaging that makes it so powerful – it’s also got one of the industry-leading web browsers on board as well.
Like the iPhone it’s built on the WebKit framework, but it matches and beats Apple’s device in nearly every area for surfing on the go. It’s got multi-touch pinch and zoom, cut and paste and text resizing as standard, but it also has Flash video on board, something we think Apple will never be on board with.
We’d even argue that the pinch-and-zoom functionality is the superior of that on the iPhone, thanks to the sensitivity of the larger display. And the text reformatting function is brilliant – basically you can keep zooming in on the words from a webpage as much as you’d like and the Desire will keep on resizing the text to fit the screen.
This makes the phone great for those with not-so-great eyesight, as well as those sites with less than optimum word sizes – no more squinting at your phone is something we like.
Flash video loads quickly, both within the web browser and as a full screen option, although it doesn’t seem to work on protected content, like that on BBC iPlayer. However the update to Flash 10.1 is coming in the near future, which should solve that problem – meaning you’ve got a fully functioning Flash player in your pocket.
Whether via Wi-Fi or 3G, the Desire’s browser will have you steaming through the web, loading up even complex sites at high speeds – faster than a netbook in some cases.
We were similarly impressed with the web performance of the HTC Legend, but the Desire just feels that much slicker through a general surfing session over both Wi-Fi and the 7.2Mbps HSDPA, largely thanks to that more powerful processor and the extra inches of screen real estate.
HTC Desire: Media and connectivity
Media-wise, the HTC Desire is also pretty well set up as well – especially as a video player. The 3.7-inch OLED screen is a high-resolution 800x480 pixels. Combined with a dedicated graphics processor it makes video looks sumptuous.
While the internal storage is nothing to write home about (a shade over 500MB, and you’ll need that for downloading apps) there’s a microSD slot under the battery, offering expansion up to 32GB, which is more than enough for day-to-day use.
Music is also well thought through on the Desire, with large and easy to hit buttons making navigation easy, as well as Dolby-boosted audio to make tracks sound better. The player is nothing to shout about, but it does everything you’ll need it to do and it comes with an iPod-stye cover-flow view.
The bundled headphones are of average quality and feature an inbuilt hands-free kit. As there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on top, you can always plug in your own cans.
The camera on the Desire is also probably the best we’ve seen on a phone from HTC – the five-meg snapper with LED flash performs quickly and takes some decent snaps too. There are a range of options to play with, such as contrast, saturation and sharpness, as well as the usual negative/sepia/black and white effects on offer too.
The LED flash is impressive as well, with even very dark scenes lit evenly and in focus, which is still a rarity in today’s cameraphones.
The video recorder can take movies at up to 800x480 resolution, but thanks to a constant autofocus system videos come out a little blurry and juddery. It’s adequate, though, and certainly not a deal breaker.
As with most Android phones, there’s a huge range of connectivity to play with. Google mandates each phone has Wi-Fi, GPS, HSPDA and Bluetooth (2.1 with A2DP on the Desire) on board, and all work well and are easily switched on and off via the dedicated power widget on the home screen.
GPS worked particularly well – Google Maps was quick to load and locate you, and easily held your position even when in a car or surrounded by buildings.
We’re a little perplexed about the decision by HTC to only put a 1400mAh battery under the hood, when many other smartphones out there have a larger capacity. It thankfully doesn’t hurt the Desire too much, although with all the widgets and Exchange email synchronising constantly, as well as the heavy internet usage you’ll inevitably end up achieving, you’ll need to charge the Desire every day.
We’re used to this with most smartphones though, and if you slow down on the updates a little you’ll easily get two days’ use out the Desire.
HTC Desire: T3 Verdict
Overall, we’re very impressed with the HTC Desire. Not only does it combine top-end hardware with the latest version of Android, it knits it together in a simple and easy to use way.
It might not have the noise-cancelling call quality of the Nexus One, nor the voice search or speech to text capabilities, but it’s also a darn sight cheaper, and Sense beats the vanilla Android 2.1 experience hands down.
The HTC Desire is a strong contender for phone of the year, outranking the Legend in terms of spec, if not looks – and that’s not to say it’s an ugly device. It’s going to be the number one phone for technophiles without a doubt.
Above all, the Desire beats the iPhone 3GS in just about every area. Apple may trump it on music playback and with its various Stores and a bigger choice of apps and games, but other than that the Desire is the better phone. Let’s see what Apple comes up with to fight back…