- Elegant design
- Brilliant screen
- Well built
- Easy to use
- No camera shutter button
- Not dual core
- Camera fairly poor
HTC has produced a whole raft of great smartphones over the years with its more recent Android models picking up our recommended awards like they were free memory sticks at a tech trade show. Its latest offering is the HTC Desire S that doesn’t pack in a headline grabbing dual-core processor, fancy camera, or ginormous screen but is a beautifully made, classy smartphone that should be high on your wish list.
As ever with HTC devices, the Desire S makes an unassuming entrance in its plain white box but as soon as you clap eyes on the device itself you know you’re in for a treat. Largely wrapped in an aluminium frame, and with a sizeable slab of glass adorning the front, it just exudes class. Not that this is anything new for HTC, with its Desire, Desire HD, Desire Z, Legend and 7 Mozart, to name but a few, having proved the Taiwanese company knows how to make beautifully crafted handsets. Like the Desire HD, there are a few gaps here and there where you can see through to the circuitry below, which is a bit unnerving but we doubt this should cause problems in normal use.
Said aluminium is finished in an anodised black while two soft-touch black plastic sections on the back allow the internal aerials to do their job. Set into the top section of plastic is the camera, its flash, and the speaker while the bottom section slides off to provide access to the battery, SIM slot, and microSD card.
Due to the way this housing works, you can’t hot swap SIM or microSD cards, so you will have to power down the device every time – a small grievance but a grievance nonetheless. The phone comes with a decent 1.1GB chunk of internal storage for storing apps on while the 768MB of RAM will help to ensure you seldom run out memory.
It’s not just the overall design that pleases with the Desire S, it’s the little touches as well. The bevelled edges that surround the earpiece and front facing camera have a touch of class while the silver strips that are the power and volume buttons feel solidly planted yet have a wonderfully light but defined action. On the left edge you’ll also find a microUSB socket for hooking the phone up to a computer or charging via an adapter, while on the top edge is the now obligatory headphone jack.
Just below the earpiece cut out, and set into the glass surface, is a small LED that glows red when charging and flashes green when you’ve got a new message of some sort.
Below the screen, and also incorporated into the same sheet of glass as the display are the four standard Android buttons. Sadly they don’t have the funky rotating feature of the HTC Incredible S, whereby they flip round to match whichever way you’re holding the phone, but they’re tidy and responsive. One slight inconvenience is that, because they’re not physical buttons, you can’t press one of them to activate the screen, leaving you having to always stretch to the power button to unlock the phone.
There are a couple of further slip ups as well. The lack of a dedicated button for the camera is the big let down as it means you’re left to prod away at the screen when taking shots, which isn’t always the easiest action to perform while maintaining a firm grip on the device. Also missing is a miniHDMI socket for piping video straight out to your TV. Frankly, the latter is not something we would miss as we don’t really see the point of it but it’s something some rivals, such as the Motorola Milestone Xt720, do offer.
Smartphone screens really have stepped up a gear as of late and the Desire S doesn’t buck that trend. The 800 x 480 pixel panel is incredibly bright when needs be, produces strong vivid colours, has a very high contrast ratio ensuring whites are white and blacks are black rather than shades of grey, is pin sharp and its viewing angles are excellent – there’s almost no colour or contrast shift when viewed from even the most acute angle. Some may lament that this is an LCD panel rather than AMOLED, which pumps the colour saturation and black levels up even further, but we certainly aren’t among them. The only issue we did have was that the automatic screen brightness setting (the mean level of which can’t be adjusted) was too bright when sat in a dimly lit living room.
The touch sensing of the display is also excellent with the glass providing an effortlessly smooth surface for your fingers to glide over. Helping it feel so responsive is the phone’s processor, which is a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255. This is a second generation Snapdragon that features the improved Adreno 205 graphics processor, which helps keep all the phone’s interface animations super slick. Comparing to an older generation Snapdragon powered phone, the difference is clear with the older device having what was almost a signature Android sluggishness to interface elements as compared to the latest iPhones. The faster GPU will also help keep 3D games and other 3D apps running smoothly.
The CPU itself is only single-core so inevitably is trumped by the raft of dual-core phones that will be hitting shelves soon. However, the true advantage of these two-chip phones isn’t yet known. While some apps will be developed to utilise the extra power, the general phone interface doesn’t see any benefit. When playing with the likes of the Motorola Atrix, LG Optmus 2X and Samsung Galaxy S II at various trade shows in the last few months we didn’t find them noticeably faster than single-core 1GHz phones for day to day tasks. Indeed we’re sure some of the credit must go to HTC for optimising the phone’s firmware to run super fast. Something that’s demonstrated by the fact this phone can boot up in around 7 seconds compared to the 30+ of most Android devices. That said, we’d still recommend you wait and get our full verdict on the dual-core wonders before deciding.
As we’ve come to expect of HTC phones, the Desire S has a heavily customised version of Android running on it. Sadly it’s based on the 2.2 version so lacks the few most recent interface tweaks, support for NFC, and improved copy/paste features of Android 2.3. However, not only will an update arrive eventually but in the interim this phone doesn’t really feel like it’s lacking any.
Seven homescreens are what you have to choose from, with three either side of the default central one. As ever you can fill these with widgets, app shortcuts and app folders and HTC makes this process particularly easy by having a dedicated button in the bottom left for personalising your homescreen styling.
HTC also has some of the most stylish and useful widgets going, with its signature clock and weather viewer and FriendStream social network feed. In truth, we’re not ones for using many gadgets as they tend to suck up battery life, affect performance and offer limited functionality compared to the full app but we’re always happy to keep the HTC weather and clock app, it’s just that good.
Other changes include the redesigned button layout along the foot of the screen. We’ve mentioned the personalisation button and to the left are buttons for the dialler and the main menu/app launcher. Tap on the dialler and as well as being presented with a set of buttons for tapping out a number you can also see your contacts list hidden behind. Simply grab the list and start scrolling and the dialler will disappear leaving you to effortlessly scroll through your contacts. You’ll also find, once you’ve logged into your myriad email and social networking accounts that your contacts have been populated with profile pictures and info from those accounts.
One annoyance we did have with this interface is that it’s all too easy to accidentally start calling a contact, rather than simply opening the contact to have a look at their information.
Other tweaks to the interface include the notifications drop down that in one clear view shows your running apps and notifications, and with the tap of a tab, brings up a quick settings menu for turning on/off Wi-Fi, GPS and such like.
Pinch your two fingers together on the homescreen, or press the home button, and the interface zooms out to reveal a set of thumbnails representing all the homescreens. Called Leap this interface is quite a nicely executed concept, though again we don’t actually find it all that useful.
One change we’re not sure we’re keen on is the app launcher, which has been broken up into vertical pages, with each one requiring a quick flick to move past. We can see the logic but it doesn’t seem any easier to use than the default of one long alphabetical list. The same sort of applies for the tabs along the bottom for accessing favourites and downloaded apps. We can see how they’d be useful but surely the whole point of a customisable homescreen is that you can put your favourites where you want?
The changes continue as we look at some of the core apps like the gallery and music player. The former includes tabs for Facebook, Flickr and media server photos while the rest of the interface is a fairly typical arrangement of lists and thumbnails, which is quite nice to use. The music player meanwhile defaults to a now playing view with a CoverFlow-esque interface for flipping through tracks. You then have to tap an icon to get to the Artist/Album navigation. Again, it’s fairly superficial stuff that neither particularly enhances or degrades the experience, though.
When it comes to playing back videos, there’s nothing too clever here though DivX and Xvid are supported along with mp4 and avi. We tried a variety of clips and found that most 640 x 480 avi files were fine but move into HD territory or more obscure formats like mkv and you’re out of luck, with the player either not coping or not even recognising the files. You can of course download alternative players but regardless of what software you use we’re not quite at the stage where you can play Blu-ray quality files on your phone.
Looking at the messaging services, you get an entirely typical SMS interface that arranges your messages neatly into conversations. There’s also GoogleTalk on hand for instant messaging while you get the standard Gmail interface as well as a customised email inbox for any other accounts. This provides quick access to email conversations, favourites, unread emails, and attachments by using the tabs along the bottom. It’s nothing revolutionary but is a simple and effective way to keep on top of your messages.
Typing on the onscreen keyboard is also a breeze. HTC has again customised things slightly, and again we’re not entirely convinced all the tweaks are needed but it’s still very nice to use. We particularly like the text editing feature. Simply hold down your finger on some text and like the iPhone a little magnifying glass pops up to help you place the cursor, then cut, paste and copy the text.
While most reasonably high-end Androids are able to play Flash content in the web browser once you’ve downloaded the app, it’s nice to see HTC has gone to the trouble of installing Flash for you so you can get straight down to watching embedded videos and interacting with other flash elements on your favourite websites. Multi-touch is also supported so you can pinch to zoom, or you can double tap to zoom in and out. We also like how, when you zoom in, text is re-wrapped so that it fits to the width of your screen, along you to read a large block of text without need to scroll left and right. As with the rest of the interface, it feels really snappy, though flash content can slow it down somewhat.
Social networking is taken care of by the standard apps for Twitter and Facebook, both of which are really nice to use, and there’s the aforementioned tie-in with your contacts. If you want access to any other platforms you can of course jump into the Marketplace where you’re bound to find the appropriate app.
As well as the standard Google navigation tools of GoogleMap, Latitude, Navigation and Places, HTC has also added Locations which is a 3rd party sat nav and points-of-interest app. It can do both directions for walking and driving and presents them in an easy to read manner. It’s a nice addition that has some definite advantages over Googles alternatives, though we wouldn’t be surprised if most people stick to what they know.
HTC has also added an e-book reader, which works almost exactly as you’d expect with a library interface for choosing your books and a simply interface for reading the words therein. There are no fancy page turning animations but thanks to the sharp screen it’s a nice enough reading experience.
Other preinstalled goodies include SoundHound, for helping you name that tune, QuickOffice for viewing and editing Office documents, Mirror that utilises the front facing camera to help you put your makeup on, and Car Panel. The latter gives you a car friendly interface for accessing some of the phone’s key functions that you may need when driving, like tying in with the Locations sat nav app. It’s a nice touch but most of the features it links to aren’t also optimised for use in this situation.
All told, as you may have gathered by now, HTC has gone to town on modifying the Android installation to take what is already the most capable and feature-rich smartphone platform to another level. Some of it is very welcome whereas other bits seem a bit unnecessary but overall this is still a device that should please any and all comers.
In something of a turn up for the books, the speaker on this phone is actually quite good, which isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Androids. Call quality is also good, though not the absolute best.
We’ve only had the phone a day or so, so can’t make a definitive judgement on battery life quite yet but with us having used the phone a lot over the last 24 hours the phone’s 1450mAh battery has held up well and we expect it to deliver a fairly typical two to three days of average usage. We’ll update the review accordingly when we’ve had a few more days to judge.
Sadly it didn’t take log for us to realise the front facing camera is particularly poor quality, at least in poor lighting conditions. It suffices for video calling but notably the iPhone delivers a much more natural picture. The same can be said to a degree about the rear 5-megapixel unit. It gets the job done and the LED flash comes in useful but there are no records being set here – our sample shots look particularly nice simply because it’s such a lovely day.
Finally we come to look at price and its here that the Desire S really starts to make sense. Priced at ”only” £399 SIM free, it’s a full £100 cheaper than most similar handsets. Obviously contract deals will vary but we would also expect to see this saving reflected in your monthly rate or upfront cost.
The HTC Desire S certainly isn’t the flag bearer for a new era in super fast smartphones, with it lacking the headline dual-core processor. However, it is a well crafted, elegant, easy to use, fast and very capable smartphone that thanks to HTC’s tweaks stands it apart from the Android crowd. Where it actually falls down is on a couple of mundane extras, namely the lack of a physical button for the camera, the quality of said camera and the lack of an HDMI output. Thankfully, these omissions are made up for in its price, which while not bargain basement is very competitive.
(centre)”’Front facing camera”’(/centre)
”’Video clip to come soon”’
Score in detail
- Performance 8
- Design 8
- Value 8
- Features 7