HTC Desire S Review

Posted May 7, 2011
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About one year ago around this time, HTC released their high end Android smartphone – the HTC Desire, which went on to become one of the most popular Android devices of the yesteryear. Sure it was a Nexus One variant, but it offered a customized experience, and frankly performed much better in the market compared to the phone it was based on. Along with the 3.7” Desire, HTC also launched their mid-range 3.2” Android offering, the HTC Legend (which continued the protruded chin design) and the 4.3” flagship HTC Desire HD. The screen sizes clearly defined HTC’s market segment approach – 4.3” for the flagship, 3.7” for the high end and 3.2” for the mid range.

 

Fast forward a year, and now HTC has another screen size to factor in. While the 4.3” still remains the flagship size with HTC Sensation almost around the corner, we now have the 4” Incredible S which has taken the role of the high end consumer phone. This leaves the 3.7” Desire S at a more mid-range segment – and it takes on the new role with full enthusiasm. It has the same protruded chin and the unibody design introduced with the HTC Legend. And despite the fact that the Desire line was bumped down a notch in the market segment, it did still took on some welcoming new features. The processing duties are now handled by the second generation Snapdragon chipset running a 1 GHz Scorpion processor and the Adreno 205 GPU.

 

These are complemented by a healthy 768 MB of RAM, and 1.1 GB of ROM. The 5 MP autofocus with LED flash is present and accounted for, but is accompanied by a VGA secondary camera on the front side for video calls. Along with that, all the regular list of features you’d expect from a modern Android device are present and accounted for, including Wi-Fi N with Hotspot capability, A-GPS with Qualcomm’s QuickGPS, a Gorilla Glass protecting the 3.7” Super LCD and a healthy 1450 mAh battery to power them all. Sure the phone looks good on paper, but how does the thing perform in the real world? That’s what we’re going to find out today.

Specifications

 

Physical_Attributes
Dimensions (width x height x depth) 59.8 x 115 x 11.63 millimeters (2.4 x 4.5 x 0.5 inches)
Bounding;Volume / Mass 80 cube centimeters / 130 grams
Software;Environment
EmbeddedOperating:System: Google Android 2.3.2 Gingerbread with HTC Sense 2.1 UI
Operating;SystemKernel: Linux 2.6.35
Microprocessor,;Chipset
CPU:Clock: 1000 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: SDRAM
RAMcapacity: 768 MB
System ROM;type: Flash EEPROM
System ROM+capacity: 2 GB, including 1130 MB user-accessible non-volatile storage
User ROM;type: MicroSD High Capacity
User ROM+capacity: 8 GB MicroSDHC card included
Graphical:subsystem
Display+Type: Super LCD (TFT) Display
DisplayColor_Depth: 24 bit/pixel (16777216 scales)
Display:Diagonal: 3.7” (94 millimeters)
Display_Resolution: 480 x 800 (384,000 pixels)
Viewable_Display;Size: 1.9” x 3.17” (48.36 x 80.6 millimeters)
DotPitch: 252.1 pixel/inch (0.10076 millimeter/pixel)
AudioSubsystem
Audio_Channel(s): Stereo Sound
Analog/Digital Converter (Recording): 16 bit nominal quantization48000 Hz sampling frequency
Digital/Analog Converter (Playing): 16 bit resolution 48000 Hz holding frequency
Microphone(s): Mono Sound
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, Google Maps 5.1 Navigation
Built-in_Digital;Camera
Sensor;Type: CMOS sensor
Resolution: 2560 x 1920 pixels (4.92 MP) Primary, 640 x 480 pixels (0.31 MP) Secondary
Autofocus(AF): Supported
Optical_Zoom: 1 x
MacroMode: Not supported
Built-in_Flash: LED Flash
Camcorder: 1280×720 pixels , 30 frame/sec
Recordable:Image;Formats: JPG
Recordable;Video:Formats: 3GP, MPEG4
PowerSupply
Battery:Technology: Lithium-ion battery
BatteryBuild: removable
Battery_Capacity: 1450 mAh

Design

One look at the HTC Desire S and you’d realize that the phone screams of HTC’s industrial design. The trademark long speaker grill at the top is present and accounted for, and so is the aluminum unibody construction.

The front face of the phone is mostly taken up by the large Gorilla Glass panel that’s protecting the 3.7” Super LCD screen beneath it, as well as the four standard capacitive buttons you get on every Android phone these days. The top and bottom edges of the phone are slightly tapered where they meet the screen. This gives the Desire S its chin – a design element HTC has managed to keep for a third year in the row.

The right side of the phone is clean. Yes that means there is no dedicated camera shutter button as well. The left side houses the large volume rocker and the Micro USB port. I personally had mixed feelings about them both. The volume rocker was large enough to locate easily but it was a bit flush to the aluminum body which made it harder to press and depress. As for the Micro USB port, it is located almost at the middle of the phone, which makes it a problem to hold the device while its plugged in. This also created a couple of rather bizarre problems which I’ll get to later in the review.

The back side of the phone has two large chunks of Teflon like soft plastic material on the top and the bottom for the camera assembly and the battery cover respectively. The camera compartment has a slight extrusion, and also plays host to the LED flash and the loudspeaker. The bottom half which makes up the battery compartment was bit hard to pry open – which has been an issue with almost all the unibody designs. Once you do find the strength to open it however, make sure you don’t loose it because it is a part of the phone’s antenna.

HTC have finally solved the problem that plagued earlier unibody designs where the battery would slip out if the cover was removed. They’ve now added a lock and hinge mechanism which keeps the battery in place unless you release it manually.

The SIM card and Micro SD slot are located beneath the battery so you would have to power down your phone if you want to change either of them. Our review unit came with no MicroSD card installed but from what we’re told, retail units will ship with a 8GB card packed in.

The wake/sleep button is located on the top side of the device. It is a bit more extruded and therefore easier to push compared to the volume rocker. In fact, I had no trouble accessing it half asleep in dark environments during the night. Also located on the top side is the 3.5mm headphone jack – which is the placement we personally prefer.

Overall, the Desire S has a pretty nice build and feels very light to hold despite the fact that it has a aluminum unibody. The slightly curved back and tapered top and bottom help the ergonomics of the phone and make it fit the hand comfortably.

Performance

Like all other recent HTC handsets, the Desire S is also running the second generation Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset. It might not pack a dual core CPU, but still the 1 GHz Scorpion packs quite a punch, and at only 45nm, it is power efficient as well. Not being a dual-core chip doesn’t hurt it much as well since most Android apps right now aren’t optimized for multiple processing cores anyways. And don’t forget that the Adreno 205 GPU is twice as powerful as last generation’s Adreno 200 which was used in the original Desire. And the amount of RAM has also been bumped up by nearly 50%.

The spec bumps are easily reflected in the benchmarks as well where the Desire S easily posted scores around 1200 to 1300 in Quadrant – which is more than twice of the original HTC Desire. But compared to other recent HTC handsets I’ve reviewed, like the Incredible S and the HTC Desire HD, the scores Desire S posted were consistently lower despite running the exact same hardware platform. The only logical reason that comes to mind is that HTC hasn’t managed to optimize the Sense experience on Gingerbread yet like it did with Froyo. Because the Desire HD and Incredible S on Froyo constantly scored north of 1700 in my Quadrant benchmarks.

This difference of performance is visible in everyday use as well. While you wont notice much of the subtle differences in performance when using only the Desire S, putting it side by side with an Incredible S or Desire HD quickly puts the device to shame. The UI transitions and home screen swipes just aren’t as smooth as on those devices. There are also other areas where the phone starts to act up as well.

While the phone was plugged into a charger the touchscreen fails to respond to input in real time. Typing becomes a horrendous task, and if you rest the phone flat on its back on a hard surface, it would completely fail to respond to swipes unless the aluminum body comes in contact with human skin. I’ve never seen this kind of behavior before from a device so I’m not really sure what causes this. But it does happen every time and I can easily reproduce the problem. The HTC Incredible S did have some slight responsiveness issues with the touchscreen while plugged in, but they weren’t as profound as the Desire S.

As for the screen performance, the HTC Desire S is running a modern Super LCD panel which is capable of going head to head with the AMOLED panels on the original Desire. The colors are vivid and the on screen text is shard thanks to a higher pixel density on the 3.7” screen. Performance under daylight which is know to have a vampire effect on modern day displays was surprisingly above par as well. HTC clearly choose to use one of the best Super LCD panels for the device. Of course Super AMOLED does still have the advantage in terms of contrast ratio and overall brightness, the Super LCD screens aren’t no slouch either and the Desire S proves just that.

Camera

The camera appears to be one of the components of the phone which didn’t receive an update with this iteration. It still counts up to 5 mega pixels but we all know that the number of pixels don’t mater as much as the amount of detail and variance it can capture with each pixel. Not to sound like a broken record, but there is no dedicated camera key on the phone which makes it a bit difficult to take stable shots on the device. You are partially aided by a rather good touch to focus implementation which will also refocus as you move the camera, but landing a stable shot with the Desire S is still kind of tough.

HTC’s custom camera app gives a lot more features compared to the stock Android camera application you find in Gingerbread. HTC packs in a number of filters in the device which you can access with a tap of the button and see the effect in real time. You also have one touch access to video mode, front camera and gallery. Opening up the menu gives you access to more advanced features like white balance, image adjustments, ISO and auto focus etc.

The overall photo quality of the Desire S was between average and good. Daytime shots and those taken it well lit environments generally looked great. There was a bit of processed feel in the images because of the noise reduction blur but that’s pretty much what you get on all the mid range phones these days. As for night time shots, the camera performance was average at best. The 5 mega pixel sensor on the back couldn’t find enough photons to make a clear image so all you got was a bunch of noisy shots unless you were using the Flash. Speaking of which, you better keep your subject at a distance when taking a shot with the flash on because it has the tendency to wash out everything with pure white light.

Moving on to the video front, the phone can take 720p video at 30 frames per second but you’d again be hard press to quantify any real advantages in quality over a standard definition video clip besides a larger size. The ever dominant rolling shutter is present here as well so high motion video is definitely a no go on the Desire S. Frame rate also tends to drop during low light and can even go as low as 15 frames per second for 720p content so you better have the flash on.

The front camera’s only purpose is video calling though HTC doesn’t bundle an app for that, and neither does Google. So we were stuck with those available on the Android market like Fring, Qik and Tango (Skype isn’t available here right now). The video calling experience on the Desire S was mediocre at best. The problem wasn’t with the camera of the phone – it was actually the mic and the loudspeaker that failed to keep up. Our friends on the other end were hardly able to hear our voice despite being in a quiet room and we weren’t able to make out their as well due to a low performing loudspeaker on the device. Hopefully these issues can easily be fixed with a firmware update down the line.

Software

The Desire S is the first HTC device to ship with Android 2.3 Gingerbread out of the box, and therefore has some minor enhancements in the Sense experience as well. You might have seen most of these new additions with the HTC Incredible S already, but some are new in the Desire S.

The most significant change came with the App Drawer which now has a vertical page list instead of a continuous grid of icons. This is a rather unique approach and can help your organize your apps but it also means you’d have to make more swipes to get to the top and bottom of the list respectively. The drawer is also tabbed now, so you get three tabs, first of which lists all the apps you have on your phone. The second tab only shows the sixteen apps you frequently use so that you wont have to hunt them down in the main application list. The third tab shows you all the apps that you downloaded to the device yourself making it easier to hunt down all the custom apps you got from the Android market or side loaded on the device yourself.

The home screen experience hasn’t changed much but HTC has thrown in a lot more widgets this time around with a couple of smaller ones that don’t take the entire 4 x 4 grid available to the user. The notification drawer also gets a slight revamp and now lists your recent apps as well as a tab to access quick settings like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and mobile data. The HTC Hub is also present if you’d like to download more widgets, skins or wallpapers from the HTC Sense cloud service.

Speaking of which, the HTCSense.com service works like a charm on the Desire S. Setting up an account is a simple and straightforward task. Once done, the service will track the current location of your phone so if you happen to loose it, you can find it on the map, make it ring or even lock and erase it remotely. You can also use HTCSense.com to forward your calls and messages to another number until you can recover your device. HTCSense.com is a unique and one of a kind service on the Android platform at least, akin to what Apple has done with MobileMe and Microsoft’s MyPhone and Windows Phone Live services. This is one area where HTC has a clear advantage over the competition.

Other regular Sense features still remain including FriendStream, which is a social stream of all your connected profiles, and HTC Locations, which is an upgraded version of HTC Footprints and offers turn by turn navigation with locally stored maps instead of using cloud services like Google Maps. This is handy in situations where you don’t have a network signal and still need to find your way around. The improved browser interface is here as well though it can often be buggy while doing pinch-to-zoom.

Overall, HTC is giving a much more polished experience with Sense than just about any other custom UI on Android. For those of you who can’t stand the stock, barebones Android UI, HTC Sense is your number one option.

Battery Life

And of course no Android phone review can be complete without bashing the battery life right? Well you’d be disappointed this time because the HTC Desire S was a surprising star when it came to battery performance. At the time of writing, my unit still has about 8% juice left after being in use for 20 hours and 36 minutes and about 54 seconds. My usual mix of apps including Seesmic (for Twitter), Foursquare, Google Maps, Facebook, and IM+ were all present and accounted for and the phone was under heavy Wi-Fi and data usage.

Tweets were being pulled down every 5 minutes while Facebook was also set to update every 30 minutes. Not to mention HTC services and Go Weather were also running in the background with a live wallpaper. The Desire S easily managed to last an entire day despite all that use, every single time. This is one of the best performers in terms of battery life when it comes to Android at least. The Incredible S also had an incredible battery performance but the Desire S goes even beyond that. The 3.7” screen does aid it in this regard as well.

But again I would remind you that the phone was pretty much unusable while it was plugged in so you have to make sure you avoid the charger until you are ready to turn in for the night. Otherwise you’d have to give up using the phone for a while until it gets juiced up a bit.

Conclusion

The HTC Desire S certainly has its highs (the overall construction, software features and an amazing battery life) and its lows (slightly sluggish performance by today’s standards, and average camera). HTC have done their part to make it one heck of a device, and quite frankly, if it didn’t actually have these slight flaws, it would be eating into the Incredible S’ pie as well.

Compared to its predecessor, the HTC Desire, the Desire S is a marked improvement and a great step forward. Sure its role has been relegated to a more mid range device, but the phone does carry on that role with pride. It has an improved screen, processor, GPU, memory and overall design while maintaining a great battery life. And since it has inherited HTC’s mid range chin, it is ready to take on the role previously handled by the likes of the HTC Legend as a more pocket friendly device. Of course if you are looking for a better camera and performance as well as a larger screen, then you might be interested in checking out the HTC Incredible S instead.

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