HTC Desire HD Review

Posted Apr 12, 2011
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So you might be wondering that why are we doing an HTC Desire HD review when its been almost six months since the phone came out. But bear with us because this isn’t going to be just another typical review. What we are going to do instead is to give you the usual hardware tour and then take a trip down modding and customization avenue, because lets face it – the Desire HD happens to be the last HTC Android super phone that the community has been able to crack open and customize. All the recent announced devices like the HTC Incredible S have a rather tight NAND lock on them which prevents permanent rooting and all other types hackery – for now.

With that out of the way, lets take a look at the Desire HD itself.

Announced back in September of last year, the Desire HD still is the top tier Android device by HTC and its throne will remain uncontested until the rumored HTC Pyramid/Sensation is announced and released later in the year. So until that happens, if you want the largest possible screen size in an HTC device without hampering portability, pocketability and usability, and Android is the only road you want to travel, then the Desire HD is your only option – (again) for now. But what about those other HTC Ace variants like EVO 4G, Thunderbolt and EVO 3D? Well all these devices are locked to their respective carriers and if you are in town for an open market device, then the Desire HD is the only game you can play right now.

But the lack of choice here isn’t necessarily a bad thing – its quite the opposite in fact. The Desire HD is one monster of a device. The 4.3” screen is powered by the second generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset – the MSM8255. The tech savvy among you would know that this particular chipset is powered by the 1GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor and the Adreno 205 GPU, and is assisted by Wi-Fi, mobile hotspot capability, Bluetooth 2.1, Assisted GPS with QuickGPS and a digital compass, as well as an 8 mega pixel OmniVision shooter on the back. Coupled with an Aluminum unibody design, the Desire HD clearly stands up to its name of being one of the most desirable handsets in the market right now.

But are all these numbers enough to make a solid smartphone experience out of the box? And how well does the Desire HD fare for the strong of heart who aren’t afraid to break the shackles of their stock ecosystem and throw in a bit of customizations? Well that’s exactly what we aim to find out in our review today.

Specifications

Physical_Attributes
Dimensions (width x height x depth) 68  x 123 x 11.8 millimeters (2.7 x 4.8 x  0.5 inches)
Bounding;Volume / Mass 98.7 cube centimeters / 164 grams
Software;Environment
EmbeddedOperating:System: Google Android 2.2 Froyo with HTC Sense 2.1 UI
Operating;SystemKernel: Linux 2.6.32
Microprocessor,;Chipset
CPU:Clock: 1024 MHz
CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8255
WidthofMachine_Word: 32 bit
CPUCore: Qualcomm Scorpion
Instruction:Set: ARMv7
Graphics Accelerator: Qualcomm Adreno 205 (OpenGL ES 2.0 capable)
Memory,:Storage+capacity
RAM+type: LPDDR SDRAM
RAMcapacity: 768 MB
System ROM;type: Flash EEPROM
System ROM+capacity: 2 GB, including 1540 MB user-accessible non-volatile storage
User ROM;type: MicroSD High Capacity
User ROM+capacity: 8 GB MicroSDHC card included
Graphical:subsystem
Display+Type: TFT LCD Display
DisplayColor_Depth: 24 bit/pixel (16777216 scales)
Display:Diagonal: 4.3” (109 millimeters)
Display_Resolution: 480 x 800 (384,000 pixels)
Viewable_Display;Size: 2.21” x 3.68” (56.08 x 93.47 millimeters)
DotPitch: 217.4 pixel/inch (0.11683 millimeter/pixel)
AudioSubsystem
Audio_Channel(s): Stereo Sound (Dolby Mobile, SRS Wow HD via headphone jack)
Analog/Digital Converter (Recording): 16 bit nominal quantization 48000 Hz sampling frequency
Digital/Analog Converter (Playing): 16 bit resolution 48000 Hz holding frequency
Microphone(s): Stereo Sound (Noise cancellation)
Loudspeaker(s): Mono Sound
Audio;Output: 3.5mm jack
Cellular+Phone
Cellular:Networks: GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS900, UMTS2100
Cellular_Data+Links: CSD, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA, HSUPA
Cellular;Antenna: Internal antenna
Call;Alert: 40 -chord melody (polyphonic)
Vibrating:Alert: Supported
Speakerphone;: Supported
Control_Peripherals
Positioning:Device: Capacitive Multitouch Touchscreen
Primary;Keyboard: Not Supported
Directional_Pad: Not Supported
Scroll;Wheel: Not supported
Interfaces
Expansion:Interfaces: USB 2.0 client, Hi-Speed (480 Mbit/s), Micro-B USB connector, microSD, microSDHC up to 32GB
DLNA DLNA Media Player
Bluetooth_(802.15): Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, Internal antenna
Wireless_LAN/Wi-Fi;(802.11): IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n, Mobile Hotspot
InfraredGate: Not supported
Multimedia+Broadcast
Analog;Radio: FM radio (87.5-108MHz) with RDS radio receiver Proprietary headset as antenna
Digital:MediaBroadcast: Not supported
Satellite;Navigation
Built-in+GPS;module: Supported
GPSProtocol: NMEA 0183
GPSAntenna: Internal antenna
Complementary+GPS;Services: Assisted GPS, QuickGPS, Geotagging
Navigation Suite HTC Location (powered by TomTom), Google Maps 5.0 Navigation
Built-in_Digital;Camera
Sensor;Type: CMOS sensor
Resolution: 3264 x 2448 pixels (7.99MP) Primary
Autofocus(AF): Supported
Optical_Zoom: 1 x
MacroMode: Not supported
Built-in_Flash: Dual LED Flash
Camcorder: 1280×720 pixels , 24frame/sec
Recordable:Image;Formats: JPG
Recordable;Video:Formats: MP4
PowerSupply
Battery:Technology: Lithium-ion battery
BatteryBuild: removable
Battery_Capacity: 1230 mAh

Design

At first glance, the Desire HD would remind you of the HTC EVO 4G or the HD7. That’s because it comes from a long line of 4.3” beasts which started with the HTC HD2 in 2009 and has now defined the upper limit of what most of us consider to be the perfect balance between size and portability. Sure there might be a few of you out there that think 4.3” is just too large (you might find the HTC Incredible S more appealing then), but for the vast majority, the size is just right.

The Desire HD – much like the HTC Mozart – is carved out of a single piece of Aluminum, which HTC is calling its unibody design approach. The matte finishing on the aluminum parts fends off scratches and fingerprints along with giving it a sexy look and appeal.

HTC augments the aluminum parts with a few pieces of high quality plastic which are necessary for some components like the antennae for the radios as well as the covers for the SIM card and battery compartments. The front side of the phone is covered with a single piece of glass, with a long horizontal earpiece on top and the four capacitive Android buttons on the bottom. The bezel on the screen is pretty thin as well.

The top side of the phone only has the Power/Sleep button while the right side of the device is clean. I still don’t understand why HTC doesn’t utilize this place and add a camera shutter button instead.

The bottom end of the phone houses the 3.5mm headphone jack, the MicroUSB port and the microphone.

The left side has a large volume rocker, which hasn’t been the best one I’ve seen from HTC. Its only slightly raised from the body and the travel distance isn’t too much either. You’d have to get a good feel from your fingers before you can comfortable toggle the volume here.

On the flip side, you get the usual assortment of the camera lens, dual LED lights and the loudspeaker. While its always nice to have a dual LED flash, the camera lens itself protrudes from the body and isn’t protected by any lens cover. This leaves it prone to scratches and smudges because the phone lays on the camera lens if you sit it down flat on its back.

Another issue with the unibody design is the covers for the SIM card and battery compartment. Not only are they hard to pop open, but once you do manage to pull them out, there isn’t an easy way to pop them back. Even after numerous tries, I still couldn’t figure out what the mechanism was for popping in the SIM card compartment cover. Oh by the way, the 8GB MicroSD card also sits in that same compartment.

While the Desire HD has an overall strong industrial design, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any flaws in there as well. But compared to the build quality and and the overall look and feel of the device, these flaws are negligible and in some cases, even a necessary evil.

Performance

I already talked about the performance of the 2nd Generation Snapdragon family in my HTC Incredible S review. Most of those observations remain unchanged. But since the Desire HD came a couple of months before the Incredible S, and was one of the first devices to actually use the processor, its performance isn’t exactly as fast as the numbers you get on the Incredible S. Of course the differences are so minor, that you wont be able to tell the difference without running a proper benchmark suite on the device.

The phone runs Android 2.2 Froyo, and at the time of writing, the Gingerbread update is expected in the coming weeks. On the official ROM, you get a healthy performance with the HTC Sense 2.0 experience. The UI is very responsive and the browser also does a commendable job at rendering the pages swiftly. Flash does tend to slow down things a bit, but that’s a problem with the software in general and not only a fault with the Desire HD. As for benchmark performance, the phone consistently scored above 1600 points on all our test runs on the stock ROM.

The screen on the phone might be large, but it is based on the last generation LCD technology. Its not AMOLED or Super LCD grade, but it does happen to be one of the best LCD panels I’ve seen. It doesn’t have any of the issues its cousins (HD2, HD7 and EVO 4G) had and actually looks pretty good unless you place it next to a Super AMOLED or Super LCD panel. Daylight performance was actually quite better than what we got an an HTC Desire.

Camera

The Desire HD has an 8 mega pixel shooter with an OmniVision lens. This is the most powerful camera configuration HTC has thrown on its devices, and it does show in the photos and videos we’ve taken with the Desire HD. The colors were accurate and the lens didn’t have any tinting like it did on the HD2/HD7. While the phone does lack a dedicated camera shutter button, it mostly makes up for it by having touch to focus, for both photos and videos.

Shooting in the daylight works really well and is on par with the quality of images you get from the other HTC devices, which have some decent cameras for a consumer smartphone.

While the phone lacks a dedicated Macro mode, it still is able to take pretty good macro shots on its own. The noise cancellation blur on these shots was a bit aggressive, but that’s the case with almost every smartphone camera I’ve tried.

Low light photography was a different story though. The Desire HD was gasping for more photons when we took it out for a night in town. There was a bit too much noise in the shots which suggests that HTC isn’t using OmniVision’s back side illumination technology in the sensor.

On the video front, the Desire HD clearly lives up to its name and can shoot 720p video at up to 24 frames per second. The video performance of the phone was actually better than the photos thanks to having tap to focus as well as the ability to refocus the shot while filming. The videos recorded from the phone looked great when played on the PC as well, which is usually not the case with mobile phones.

Software

The stock Desire HD comes with Android 2.2 Froyo with HTC Sense 2.1 UI running on top. All your favorite Froyo features are present and accounted for, including the new Mobile Hotspot capability and USB tethering for sharing your data connection with your computer (and other devices) as well as support for Adobe Flash Player 10.1 in the browser.

The new enhancements to the HTC Sense experience include HTC Locations – which is a turn by turn navigation solution powered by TomTom. Its specially useful in situations where you don’t have a reliable data connection since all the geolocation data is stored locally on your device. Another new feature in the Sense 2.0 experience is themes and skins which can change the look and feel of your Sense launcher a little bit. Some features from the Windows Phone Sense experience also make an appearance like making the phone ring louder when its in a pocket or bag, or muting the ringtone by flipping the phone on its back.

HTC has also introduced cloud services with the new Sense experience, which allow you to locate your phone if you had lost it. You can also make the phone ring or remotely wipe all your personal data in case you are certain you wont be able to recover the device. Apart from that, the new Sense cloud services let you manage your contacts and messages remotely from the convenience of your PC. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test these features ourselves because the HTCSense.com cloud services aren’t available in our region yet, but from what we’ve heard, they do work as advertised in supported markets.

Battery Life

HTC choose to power the Desire HD with a 1230 mAh battery. Yeah you’re reading it right, its not a typo – and we also can’t figure out why HTC was so cruel to this otherwise beautiful device. Our guess, it’s the unibody design that constrained the battery size. It’s a universally accepted fact that a large screen would draw more power no matter if it has the same number of pixels or not, and a 1230 mAh battery just doesn’t do justice to a 4.3” inch display.

On a single charge, I was able to get only about 7 to 8 hours of usage. To be fair, that’s with constant Wi-Fi, moderate GPS (geo tagging enabled for everything), and data usage with brightness set to auto. Also all the applications (Facebook, Seesmic, IM+, Foursqure, Latitude, and a couple more) were set to update at the minimum possible interval. This might seem like taxing the device too much but it is a good way to estimate the performance of the battery under extreme conditions.

On day with moderate activity (some web surfing on Wi-Fi, with only Seesmic using data in the background and a little bit of GPS for checking in), I was able to get about 14 hours of usage from the phone. That’s pretty much the upper limit you can get if you are careful in managing your resources. True that Android has lots of battery optimization issues, but that still isn’t as bad as what you get on the Desire HD. Oh and before you go online to order an aftermarket extended battery, you should know that the unibody design prevents any changes to the battery so aftermarket solutions are a no-go.

Modding and Customization

This is the first time we are doing a modding section in a phone review here at WCCF. That’s partly because the Desire HD has been out in the market for a long time now and has very excellent community support. And its partly because HTC allowed us to go ahead and play with the device to its full extent. One thing we should mention is that current firmware versions of the Desire HD (newer that 1.32) can’t be rooted so in order to do any of the customizations, you’d have to downgrade your device to an older Rom.

After unlocking our bootloader, and installing ClockWorkMod for custom recoveries, we set out to explore a number of community ROMs for the Desire HD and measure their performance. The latest versions of both CoreDroid and RCMix HD were based on the leaked Gingerbread touting Desire S ROM with HTC Sense 3.0. Some of the significant changes in the UI included multiple tabs in the app drawer for recently used and user installed apps. The application list had vertical pages which was a refreshing experience. Quite frankly, I wonder why no other launcher has figured this out yet and only offer horizontal pages (ala iOS) or plain vertical scrolling.

While both these ROMs supported custom kernels for overclocking, they required SetCPU to be installed – which being a paid app, wasn’t available in our region. Battery life was actually better on the RCMix HD compared to CoreDroid and even the original stock ROM, but the difference wasn’t that much.

Next we tried MIUI 1.3 which was also based on Gingerbread. This Android ROM had a pleasant UI with heavy influences from iOS, but certain design decisions made it really painful to use. For instance, they removed the app drawer and the application icons appear on the home screen instead. You also don’t get usual Android widgets and instead have to rely on the ones packed with the ROM.

Battery life was again better than the stock ROM but there were a lot of stability issues. The phone used to restart randomly and Wi-Fi seemed to disconnect every couple of minutes, sometimes refusing to restart until you reboot the device. The keyboard also had issues with some keys not being functional at all. The phone also performed a bit slow since the ROM used lots of animations.

Last but certainly not least, we flashed CyanogenMod 7.0 onto the Desire HD. This version of CyanogenMod is also based on Gingerbread with some further enhancements to the Android package. Its also heavily optimized to get that extra ounce of performance from your device. Anyone who has used CyanogenMod before knows about the deep customization options it offers. The best part perhaps is that you can overclock the CPU up to 1.5GHz directly from within the ROM without using any apps.

Of all the ROMs I tried, CM7 had the best performance. That was partly because it was heavily optimized, and partly because I had overclocked the CPU to 1.5GHz. Since its based on plain vanilla Android, you don’t get any of the HTC Sense enhancements. It’s a necessary trade off I guess, which some of you might love while others might find a bit annoying. CM7 isn’t all bells and whistles how ever.

Overclocking resulted in a much faster battery drain – which is an obvious side affect. The phone used to run out in about 6 hours. Another drawback of CM7 is that you loose some of the good stuff HTC has backed into Sense, like the cloud services or HTC Location and the excellent Camera and Camcorder apps. The stock CM7 Camera app doesn’t have touch to focus and the auto focus doesn’t work in video mode while recording.

At the end of the day, we couldn’t find a ROM that was universally good enough for every day use. All of these had their pros and cons, and quite frankly, some of them didn’t even provide enough incentive to void your warranty anyways. But if anyone does decide to take the customization path, then you’d have to do a lot of hit and trail until you find a ROM you like. My personal preference would be CyanogenMod since it had the most versatile feature set of all and the fact it provided an easy interface to overclock your CPU without using any premium apps.

Conclusion

Sure the Desire HD has been out in the wild since last October, but that doesn’t mean this beast has aged. Its quite the opposite in fact, and in a world which looks set to be dominated by devices running multiple cores, the Desire HD manages to hold out on its own. The 4.3” display on top might be last generation, but its one of the best last generation TFT panels I’ve seen. Paired with a gorgeous aluminum unibody design, the Desire HD is easily one of the best looking and performing Android devices out there right now.

But everything has a dark side of course. In order to make that gorgeous design, HTC had to make a couple of cutbacks, and it did so with the battery. The small 1230 mAh battery packed under the hood just doesn’t have enough juice to keep the 4.3” screen chugging along all day – and in most cases, you’d be reaching out for your charger mid day. There are occasional issues with low light photography and the overall camera assembly as well but these aren’t as profound as the battery issues.

To draw the bottom line, if you are in the market for a 4.3” Android super phone, then the Desire HD is your best bet. You might be gasping for a bit more juice out of the battery but that’s the price you’d have to pay for the large screen and the unibody design. Of course if you can settle for a slightly smaller display, then the 4” Super LCD powered HTC Incredible S would be the best choice out there right now.

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