Wednesday, April 20, 2011

HTC Desire S review: Droid cravings


Powerful hardware, large high-res screen and the latest Android version in a single piece of solid metal – the recipe did wonders for the original Desire so no wonder HTC are in no mood to experiment with the sequel. Take the best and make it better pretty much sums up the game plan. Oh well, we’ll take quietly brilliant even if emphasis is sometimes on quiet. In other words, the Desire S is a phone we’re ready to like. But make no mistake – it’s not meant to be the flagship its predecessor was.

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HTC Desire S official photos

HTC has the Sensation to send against the heavyweight competition. The new Desire is given a different, though no less important role. Ideally, it should be the smartphone that has broader appeal, the one to offer as reward to loyal upgraders. The phone to give you – wait for it – more bang for your buck than we’ve come expect from HTC.

Here’s what it puts on the table summarized.

Key features

  • Quad-band GSM and dual-band 3G support
  • 14.4 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • 3.7" 16M-color capacitive LCD touchscreen of WVGA resolution (480 x 800 pixels)
  • Uses the best screen from HTC so far (along with the Incredible S)
  • Android OS v2.3 Gingerbread with HTC Sense
  • 1 GHz Scorpion CPU, Adreno 205 GPU, Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255 chipset
  • 768 MB RAM and 1.1 GB ROM
  • 5 MP autofocus camera with LED flash and geotagging
  • 720p video recording @ 30fps
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n and DLNA
  • GPS with A-GPS
  • microSD slot up to 32GB (8GB card included)
  • Accelerometer and proximity sensor
  • Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
  • Stereo FM radio with RDS
  • microUSB port (charging) and stereo Bluetooth v2.1
  • Smart dialing, voice dialing
  • Front facing camera, video calls
  • DivX/XviD video support
  • Compact aluminum unibody
  • Gorilla glass display
  • HTC Locations app
  • integration
  • HTC Portable Hotspot
  • Ultra-fast boot times (if you don’t remove battery)

Main disadvantages

  • No dedicated camera key and no lens cover
  • Poor camcorder performance, jerky 720p videos
  • Below-par sunlight legibility
  • Wi-Fi signal degrades when you cover the top part of the back panel
  • microSD is below the battery cover

Those coming from the original Desire will certainly notice the absence of the optical trackpad and that now capacitive keys replace the hardware buttons. It’s a different way of interacting with the phone but by no means less comfortable. Other than that, the new smartphone certainly does well to upgrade the original. You get more RAM, a slightly more compact and lighter body, which is still solid enough thanks to all the metal, along with the latest Android and a more powerful GPU.

Video-chat enthusiasts will cheer the front-facing camera, while those who want lots of apps installed on their smartphones will appreciate the extended built-in memory.

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The HTC Desire S at ours

The bad news is the Desire S is – in more than one way – running against the clock. A year is a really long time in cell phone terms and there’s no guarantee the updates are enough to make it competitive in a market that’s embracing dual-core and pushing beyond the 1GHz mark.

The easiest way to dispel the doubts would be to sail smooth through this review. So why wait – unboxing coming up right after the break.

Pretty decent retail package

The HTC Desire S comes in a pretty small box, but it still has room for the essential accessories. There’s a socket charger, which needs a standard microUSB data cable to connect to the phone. Such cable is, of course, included.

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The HTC Desire S retail package

There is also a headset with music controls. Unfortunately, it’s of the one-piece variety, meaning you can’t replace the headphones with third-party kit without losing the remote functionality.

Finally, there’s adequate storage right out of the box, thanks to an 8GB microSD card, which was inserted in the handset itself. The usual paperwork was also here, but it’s nothing you cannot find online anyway.

HTC Desire S 360-degree spin

While the HTC Desire S keeps the screen size of the original Desire and even throws in several new features, it manages to fit into an even more compact package. The difference is not quite prominent in width (59.8mm vs 60mm) and thickness (11.6mm vs 11.9mm), but the height has shed some 3mm, which is certainly not bad.

And the weight has been reduced too, though marginally. At 130g, the HTC Desire S weighs 5g less than its predecessor. We do appreciate its solid build and quality feel though.

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The HTC Desire S sized up against the iPhone 4

Design and construction

The HTC Desire S is a looker. With a large screen on the front and metal unibody for the rest you can’t really go wrong. Plus, we can trust HTC for a solidly build smartphone.

The only downside is that it’s hard to really tell form a slew of recent HTC handsets. Still, the black color scheme and the subtly changed contour and controls below the screen are probably enough to make it stand out among its siblings. After all, there aren’t too many ways to design a touchscreen phone.

The Desire S comes with a 3.7” S-LCD screen. And while you won’t get to experience any AMOLED blacks, you’d still get one of the better LCD screens in business.

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The S-LCD screen is a nice step forward for HTC

We saw the first of the HTC units worthy of the name Super LCD on the Incredible S and we are happy that the Desire S is treated to the same high-quality LCD. You get a display with punchy colors and very broad viewing angles. As far as LCD goes, image quality doesn’t get much better than that.

The only area where HTC still lags behind is sunlight legibility. The display isn't particularly bright and it's obviously pretty reflective so using the Desire S outside on a bright sunny day is not exactly an easy task.

And here come the results of our now traditional display brightness and contrast test. As you can see, the Desire S fares pretty decently against its peers.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
HTC Desire S 0.14 113 803 0.21 193 914
Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc 0.03 34 1078 0.33 394 1207
HTC Incredible S 0.18 162 908 0.31 275 880
iPhone 4 0.14 189 1341 0.39 483 1242
Motorola Atrix 4G 0.48 314 652 0.60 598 991
Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo 0.05 68 1324 0.10 134 1295
Samsung Galaxy Ace 0.23 160 701 0.34 234 683
LG Optimus 2X 0.23 228 982 0.35 347 1001

You can learn more about the test here.

As to screen sensitivity, the Desire S performs just as you would expect a capacitive unit. The gentlest of taps do the trick.

Moving on, a video-call camera is right next to the earpiece above the display. There are also a couple of hidden sensors there – proximity and ambient light.

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There’s a video-call camera right next to the earpiece this time

Underneath the screen, we find four capacitive keys. Frankly, we wouldn’t have minded regular keys like on the first Desire, but we’ve no reason to complain. The haptic enabled controls are well spaced and very responsive. Plus, the transition from the touchscreen is smooth.

The keys (Home, Menu, back and search) have extra functionality upon a long-press (task switcher, virtual keyboard, voice search).

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There are four capacitive touch keys below the display

There’s no trackpad on the HTC Desire S. With the whole interface designed for touchscreen use it was redundant to begin with, probably only usable as a shutter key.

The long and thin volume rocker and the microUSB port are on the phone’s left side.

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The volume rocker and the microUSB port on the left side

The right side of the smartphone is perfectly bare with no controls or ports whatsoever. A camera key would have been nice, but we’re in no luck yet again.

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The completely bare right side

At the top we find the 3.5mm audio jack and the Power/Lock key.

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There’s a standard 3.5mm audio jack and a power/screen lock key on top

As usual, at the bottom of the phone, you will see the mouthpiece.

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The microphone pinhole is located on the sloped bottom

The HTC Desire S rear features the 5 megapixel camera lens and the small loudspeaker grill. There is also a tiny LED flash but, as you know, you shouldn’t get your hopes too high for night photography.

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The camera lens is flanked by the LED flash and the loudspeaker grill

The back plate consists of three parts – a metal piece in the middle and two parts of soft rubbery plastic either side. The upper one hosts the lens, flash and speaker, while the lower one opens to grant access to the card slots and the battery.

Unfortunately, we discovered that placing your hand over the top part of the back panel quickly deteriorates the Wi-Fi signal the Desire S is getting. You wouldn’t usually place your hand over there when you’re browsing the regular way in portrait mode, but when you switch to landscape grip, it’s quite easy to go for this death grip.

While with a strong Wi-Fi signal around, covering the back panel with your palm may only lower your download speed, with a more flimsy connection, it can stop a data transfer in its tracks.

Going further down the back, we get to the battery cover. It’s a bit hard to slide the cover open and then undo the battery holder but it’s not a major flaw on its own.

However to access the microSD slot you need to undo the battery holder. There’s nothing to keep the battery in place so you need to prop it with a finger unless you want to turn off your phone.

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Gaining access to the battery is harder than usual

The 1450mAh battery inside the HTC Desire S is quoted at up to 455 hours of stand-by or up to 9 hours and 50 minutes of talk time. In real life, it does pretty well. Our test unit gave us two full days of fairly heavy use (quite a bit of web browsing, the usual set of photos, a few minutes of calls and fiddling with the interface and testing the apps).

Generally the HTC Desire S is one of the best built smartphones we have seen recently. Its aluminum body is a joy to look at and handle.

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The HTC Desire S felt nice in our hands

And there are only a few problems in terms of pure ergonomics too – the lack of a dedicated camera key and the sub-par sunlight legibility are probably the biggest issues, but the rest of it seems fine. Pretty good marks overall for the HTC Desire S in the hardware department.

We now move to the software part of this review. Starting on the next page, we're going to look into the nuts and bolts of a Sense-skinned Gingerbread Android.

Sense UI and Gingerbread out of the box

The Desire S is the first phone HTC release with Android 2.3 Gingerbread out of the box. The latest (this is not the Sense 3.0) version of HTC Sense UI brings two major improvements – a Quick Settings tab in the Notification area and a revamped Main Menu.

On the surface, the HTC Sense is familiar enough, with some welcome refinements under the hood.

At the bottom of the screen, there are three virtual keys and a scrollbar. The left key launches the main menu. The middle key is a shortcut to the Phone app and the right key brings up the "Personalize" menu. The latter contains various customization options for the display, homescreen and sound notifications.

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The lock screen • some of the homescreen sections

The scrollbar at the bottom is just an indication of which homescreen pane you’re on – it can't be used for actual scrolling.

There’s Leap view instead - tap the home key (while on the center homescreen) or do a pinch gesture to zoom out to display the thumbnails of all seven homescreen panes at once. With a press and hold you can rearrange the homescreen panes as well.

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Leap View lets you quickly switch between the available homescreen panes

Seven homescreen panes is all you get though – there’s no add or delete option. With all those widgets (which are quite useful too) you’ll want to keep all of them anyway.

HTC Sense has Scenes enabled – essentially six custom homescreen setups (Work, Travel, Social, etc). Each scene changes the wallpaper and the widgets on the homescreen. For instance, the Work scene has a Stocks widget, while the Social offers a Twitter widget. Those can be customized, of course.

You select a Scene within a fancy-looking 3D card interface. You can modify existing scenes (older Sense versions prompted you to save modifications as a new scene) and you can get more scenes at the HTC Hub.

Switching between scenes takes a couple of seconds but sure allows wide customization – the business and personal modes that some competing phones offer seem quite limited compared to the HTC Scenes.

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Preset scenes • Social scene and Travel scenes

The HTC Sense has another customization option called Skins. Every skin changes the look and feel of most of the onscreen buttons, application screens, option menus, and other items. They also come with unique wallpaper and can set different colors to various UI elements. They can also replace the standard dock, lockscreen and widget frames with custom ones or change their shape.

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Preset skins • different skins

The main menu has the typical grid layout, but you can switch to a list. In the list layout, there’s two-finger alphabet scrolling, which makes locating apps faster.

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The grid layout • settings

The main menu has been updated with the tabbed layout available in different Sense elements (such as the phonebook). There are three tabs available at the bottom – all apps, frequent apps and favorites. They are quite useful especially when you have lots of installed applications.

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The list layout • alphabet scroll

Tapping the Personalize button brings out a whole screen of things to choose from – for the display (scenes, wallpapers and skin), for the homescreen (widgets, shortcuts, folders, etc.) and even sounds (ringtones, alarms, notifications and Sound set).

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The Personalize menu

In the widget section, both types of widgets (custom HTC and stock Android) are placed on the same page. There are so many of them you may find the seven homescreen panes short. You can download new widgets off the Market or the HTC Hub.

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Plenty of HTC widgets • the Settings widgets are simple one-tap switches

When you select a widget you are prompted to choose between several versions – most widgets have at least two styles. The different versions typically offer at least two sizes of the widget and different skins. For example, there are thirteen different clocks.

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Some different styles of the Clock widget

Some widget styles even offer different functionality. One version of the Friend Stream widget for instance shows updates for the people you follow and lets you tweet/update status. The other version is more compact and only allows status updates and tweets. A third one is also available showing only your friends’ status updates with no option to update yours. There's nothing stopping you from using all of them, of course.

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The three versions of the Friend Stream widget are functionally different

The notification area features a list of recent apps (in addition to the notification list), just like a task switcher. A press and hold on the Home button works too. It seems HTC has listened to users and decided to add another tab with switches for WLAN, Bluetooth, GPS, cellular data or the Wi-Fi hotspot. There is a shortcut to the full list of settings too.

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The new notification area doubles as a task switcher • the regular task switcher • the quick settings tab

Text selection is available almost everywhere. The Gingerbread implementation involves two large pointers either side of the marked text. You can drag each of those easily to make the selection you need. Then you have Copy/Cut/Paste/Quick Lookup options. It really doesn’t get much simpler than that.

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Text selection and options

The HTC Desire S is one of the best single-core droids (until better ones come our way) and managed to play 720p Flash videos within the web browser hassle-free.

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HTC Desire S benchmarks

The fast boot feature is enabled in the HTC Desire but it won’t work if you have removed the battery – in that case it will do a regular slow boot.

The cool things is apps preserve their state after the restart – so if you were browsing a web site before shutting the down phone, the browser will restore your session.

Our guess is, HTC has used some sort of Suspend or Hibernate logic as we know them from regular computers to implement the fast boot.

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