IN DEPTH REVIEW: HTC Desire outguns the iPhone?

IN DEPTH REVIEW: HTC Desire outguns the iPhone?


The phrase iPhone-killer gets thrown around a lot
usually about phones that have a spec sheet as long as your arm but are
butt-ugly and horrible to use. Clunky Windows Mobile 6 and Symbian S60
phones might have more bells and whistles than the iPhone but once
you’ve experienced the touchscreen joy of the iPhone OS it’s impossible
to tolerate such cumbersome devices. I know having ditched my bloated
i-mate JasJam for an imported iPhone 2G and later upgraded to the iPhone
3G – still my day-to-day phone.

I’ve been an iPhone fan for a long time and I’m
eagerly awaiting the iPhone 4G but the new Android-powered HTC Desire has thrown down the gauntlet. The iPhone 3G S was merely Apple playing catch up but Android has been improving in leaps and bounds. The
next iPhone must be far more than an incremental upgrade to keep pace
with the new crop of Google-powered smartphones.

The iPhone’s
initial strength was usability something which it certainly lorded over
the HTC Dream HTC’s first Android outing which
still felt like a proof of concept. The HTC Magic was a significant improvement but
it wasn’t until last year’s HTC Hero that we really saw HTC’s Android
phones come of age. The secret ingredient – HTC’s Sense UI interface.
Initially designed as lipstick for the pig that is Windows Mobile HTC
ported the Sense UI interface to the HTC Hero running Android 1.5 -
giving the smartphone the one-two punch of a beautiful interface
combined with a strong feature set. Suddenly Apple had some serious
competition on its hands.

So we come to the HTC Desire running
Android 2.1-update-1 with the Sense UI interface. HTC comes up with some
pretty wanky names for its phones but whoever named the Desire was
spot on the money. It’s one of the few smartphones that makes an iPhone
feel cumbersome. At 135 grams it’s exactly the same weight as the iPhone
3G S although I swear the Desire feels slightly lighter. It’s probably
just an illusion due to the fact the Desire is slightly thinner (11.9mm
v 12.3mm) and narrower (60mm v 62.1mm). The pronounced chin on the
earlier HTC Android phones is all but gone. The dimensions are so close
to the iPhone that you can even squeeze the Desire into some iPhone
accessories such as the Navigon iPhone car mount.

In Australia the Desire is available exclusively on Telstra’s Next G for the next six months selling for $0 upfront on a $60 plan or outright for $779. (It’s worth noting though that the $60 plan is not a cap plan unlike other telcos so you get minimal calling and data usage allowances.)

The Desire is 3.5mm
longer than the iPhone but HTC has put that extra space to good use.
The boffins in the lab have crammed in a big 3.7-inch AMOLED display
offering a very impressive 480×800 resolution (compared to the iPhone’s
480×320). It’s meant sacrificing the Hero’s dedicated answer and end
buttons plus the trackball has been replaced with a tiny optical
trackpad.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Desire's screen test & specs#]

The Desire’s extra screen real estate and sharper
resolution are most obvious when browsing the web where the Desire can
fit more on the page (see left). The extra resolution also gives the
Desire more flexibility when reformatting text on the fly although it
tends to favour larger text rather than displaying more text (see below left).

The
Desire’s screen is brighter than the iPhone with cool whites and vivid
colours such as the blue APC masthead at the top of this page. The fonts are
also slightly smoother thanks to the extra resolution. To be honest the
iPhone’s warmer colour temperature yet slightly more muted colours are
perhaps more accurate but I don’t think colour accuracy is most
people’s highest priority on a mobile device – they’re more interested
in a vivid image.

Unfortunately for the Desire as for many
devices with a vivid display the trade off is screen glare. The bright
screen means it’s still quite usable outside on an overcast day but in
direct sunshine on a bright day the Desire’s screen is certainly harder
to read than the iPhone’s. Of course you can compensate for glare by
shielding the phone from the sun using your body so it’s more
forgivable than the terrible screen glare on a larger device such as the
iPad.

The Desire’s secret weapon is the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon power
plant under the bonnet accompanied by 512MB ROM and 576MB of RAM. The
extra grunt makes the Sense UI interface sing turning the Desire into
the phone the old HTC Hero aspired to be with its lowly 528MHz Qualcomm
processor. The Desire’s menus are very snappy but once again it’s the
browser where the extra grunt really shines through. The pinch to zoom
and tap to zoom features are far more responsive than the old HTC Hero.
The Desire is far more responsive than the old iPhone 3G and still comes
in slightly ahead of the faster iPhone 3G S.

After experiencing the old HTC Hero’s
horrendous Flash implementation I began to suspect that Steve Jobs might
be right to ban Flash from the iPhone but Flash on the Desire is a
revelation. Flash is far more responsive on the Desire than the Hero and
it plays extra video content that the Hero baulked at. It’s even
smoother than a Flash-compatible browser such as Opera Mini or Skyfire
on the WinMo-powered HTC HD2 (which features the same 1GHz
Snapdragon processor). If the iPhone 4G features the same powerful
processor as the iPad Apple surely won’t be able to blame hardware
limitations for the lack on Flash on the iPhone.

The rest of the
Desire’s spec sheet also makes impressive reading;

- Bands:
HSPA/WCDMA 850/2100MHz GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz
- Data: GPRS EDGE
3G (7.2Mbps)

At this point it’s worth remembering that in
Australia the HTC Desire is available exclusively from Telstra for now
thus the use of 850/2100MHz HSPA rather than the 900/2100MHz bands used
by the Desire in other countries. The ability to access Telstra’s 850MHz
network might make the Desire a better choice for Telstra customers
than an imported 900/2100MHz Google Nexus One (which otherwise features
almost identical specs to the Desire) although there is apparently a
work-around to get the Nexus One to run on Telstra’s 2100MHz metro
network.

- GPS

Google offers free turn-by-turn satnav
software in some countries but it’s not supported in Australia yet.
When my review unit first arrived the Google Maps application offered
the Navigate option but returned the error “Navigation to your
destination is not available”. Updating to the latest version of Google
Maps (4.1.1) saw the navigate option disappear from the menus. Some
Australians had success getting the navigation features to run locally
on earlier HTC Android phones (try searching Whirlpool) but it’s much
easier with the Desire. Downloading Nav Launcher from the Android
Marketplace offers a workaround with limited functionality although
it’s still no threat to TomTom or Navigon on the iPhone. Voice commands
are patchy and often issued too late plus the accent and pronunciation
are terrible. Even so I can see a lot of potential in the interface and
when the full version is finally supported in Australia it should be
impressive.

After complaints from early users HTC Australia
recently confirmed the Desire’s GPS accuracy is buggy and a firmware
update is on the way.

- 5 megapixel auto-focus camera with
flash video capture geotagging and face detection
- Bluetooth 2.1
with A2DP stereo
- microUSB port
- 3.5mm audio jack
- SD card
slot (supports up to 32GB)
- FM radio
- 1400 mAh battery (390 min
talk 360 hour standby)
- USB tethering + USB storage device
-
multi-tasking

The FM radio is the real surprise here. It seems
that HTC smartphones are evolving into a Nokia N-series
jack-of-all-trades but obviously far more elegant and with extra grunt
under the bonnet. Of course the iPhone proves that there’s more to a
smartphone than the spec sheet but as I said the combination of
Android 2.1 and Sense UI lets the Desire stand tall in terms of both
features and usability.

[#PAGE-BREAK#HTC's remodel of Android#]
The leap from Android 1.5 on the Hero to Android
2.1-update1 on the Desire brings with it many improvements mostly
listed at the Android development site (2.1 is only a
minor update on 2.0). Most notable are native Exchange support with
combined view for multiple inboxes plus a refreshed browser (HTML5) and
refreshed virtual keyboard. The Android camera app also supports digital zoom flash and macro focus (the Desire seems to lack
macro focus but the auto-focus in still very good for close-up shots).

On
top of this HTC has continued to improve the Sense UI interface. Sense
UI has been dissected elsewhere so I won’t cover too much old ground
but the interface is comprised of seven home screens which can be
accessed by flicking left or right (similar to the iPhone). The Desire
features a range of live widgets some HTC-specific with the ability to
download more from the Android Marketplace. The widgets make it easy to
monitor your inbox calendar SMS/MMS social media weather and news
feeds. It’s sort of like the old WinMo Today screen but far more dynamic and
not as ugly.

The Telstra-centric customisations on the
Australian Desire can be rather annoying although you can hide most of
them by switching “Scenes” from Telstra to HTC or one of the other
presets – which shuffles all the widgets on the desktop. Setting up one
Scene for work and another for play would be very handy and help
maintain your work/life balance by keeping those pesky work emails out
of sight after hours. This doesn’t change the fact that many of the
Desire’s online features use shortcuts to the Telstra WAP gateway so
you get dead links if you’re on a wifi network that’s hanging off a
non-Telstra connection. It’s bloody annoying and you’ll need to spend
some time delousing the Desire of Telstra’s “helpful” features.

Sense
UI’s tight social media integration is impressive automatically
importing profile details from your Facebook account and cross
referencing it with your address book. From within a contact entry in
your address book you can view recent calls emails and text messages
and well as recent Facebook and Flickr activity. iPhone OS has only
taken baby steps in this direction by fleshing out the recent calls
menu I’d love to see it expand the contact list to incorporate
Facebook Twitter and Flickr.

Android and Sense UI could still
learn a few tricks from the iPhone – for example the Desire doesn’t
automatically display the contents of an incoming SMS when the screen is
locked. At least now you can press the Desire’s power button and see
the SMS text on the lock screen.

The latest version of HTC’s Sense UI
adds a feature called Leap or Helicopter View which lets you pinch any home
screen to see a thumbnail of all seven screens at once. It’s just eye candy like the rotating interfaces on other smartphones
designed to brag about graphics performance. Pressing the home button
when you’re on the central home screen also launches Leap
while holding home presents shortcuts to the six mostly recently used
applications.

To be honest I’m not all that impressed with HTC’s
new Friend Stream widget either. It combines your Facebook Twitter
and Flickr feeds in the one interface but I think the dedicated widgets are far
more useful. Updates you publish from Friend Stream go to both your
Facebook and Twitter accounts but I hate it when people constantly CC
their Twitter updates to Facebook and vice versa.

One area where the Desire is found
wanting is as a media player. The problem is certainly not format
support as it handles AAC AMR OGG M4A MID MP3 WAV and WMA audio
files along with 3GP 3G2 MP4 and WMV video files (DivX is reportedly coming in a future update). The hassle is
getting the files onto the phone. The easiest way to get music on the
phone is to mount it as a USB device and drag your content across. There
was a time when I would have seen this as a godsend but these days I
lead such an iTunes-centric lifestyle that I would really miss the tight
integration between my smartphone and iTunes. Of course this is my
fault not the Desire’s. Once you load your music onto the Desire the
slick music player holds its own against the iPhone’s iPod interface and
replicates most of the functionality – letting you view your music by
artist album playlist and genre. You can even add a music widget to
the Desire’s home screen.

The Desire’s exquisite screen ensures
it’s also a great portable video player matching most of the iPhone’s
video functionality. DVDs ripped to MP4 using Handbrake look just as
sharp on the Desire as they do on the iPhone plus the vivid screen
gives it a little more punch than the iPhone. The Desire lacks the
iPhone’s generous onboard storage capacity but the Desire’s cheaper
price tag lets you put aside money for a 32GB microSD card.

To be
honest the Desire isn’t really found wanting as a media player it’s
just found wanting as an iPod – because obviously it’s not. If you’re
not wedded to Apple’s ecosystem this won’t bother you. If you are wedded
to Apple’s ecosystem tight iTunes integration is something you might
not want to give up. The iPhone’s ability to remotely control iTunes and
an Apple TV streaming music around the house to Airport Expresses
using Airtunes is a feature I would certainly miss if I abandoned my
iPhone for the HTC Desire.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Android apps have come of age#]

Don’t give up hope if you’re an iTunes
user with an eye on the HTC Desire. Android Marketplace offers plenty
of apps to replicate the iPhone’s relationship with iTunes such as
TuneSync and DoubleTwist for content syncing and TunesRemote for remote
iTunes control. They might lack some of the elegance and advanced
functionality of their iPhone counterparts for example TunesRemote
doesn’t offer Airtunes remote speaker selection but they’re certainly a
step in the right direction.

The iPhone’s killer punch is direct
access to the iTunes store specifically the Apps store but Android
Marketplace is making progress and you might find everything you need.
There’s still a long way to go to match the depth of Apple’s App store
although you have to admit the bulk of the iPhone’s apps are $1.19 crap.
Still you know that interesting new applications are more likely to
appear on iPhone OS than Android – at least at the moment. Once Android
Marketplace reaches a critical mass Apple’s heavy-handed approach to
vetting applications could encourage more app developers to turn their
attention to Android.

The HTC Desire is living proof that Android
has come of age. It rivals the iPhone in terms of usability while
leaving Apple’s wunderphone for dead in terms of specs and
functionality. The Desire’s only weakness is that it’s not an iPhone so
it lacks access to iTunes the iTunes store and the app store. No
Android device will ever play as nicely with your iGadgets as an iPhone
will although Android app developers are making progress on this.

This
Apple ecosystem is the iPhone’s remaining advantage over competitors
such as the Desire but enjoying an iCentric lifestyle means living
under Steve Jobs’ benevolent dictatorship – trading liberty for
convenience. Of course some people deliberately avoid the “convenience”
of the Apple ecosystem because they’re not prepared to sacrifice
functionality and freedom.

Right now there’s a lot riding on the
iPhone 4G and the next iPhone OS update. As it stands once you take the
Apple ecosystem out of the equation the HTC Desire certainly outguns
the current iPhone. Personally I think my life is too iTunes-centric to
abandon the iPhone. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.