HTC's Desire is undoubtedly one of the headline Android devices of 2010 so far -- and heck, when you're using the already-great Nexus One as a starting point and re-upping it with an optical pad, physical buttons, and Sense, it's hard to argue otherwise. US Cellular has now become the first carrier to bring the device to the States (nearly five grueling months since its first spats of international availability, we'd like to note), and because USCC's a CDMA carrier, this is naturally a slightly different device than you're getting elsewhere. Don't get us wrong, most of the thoughts in our first review of the Desire still apply -- but needless to say, this launch is notable enough to warrant a second look. Read on!
Desire (US Cellular)
Relatively clean, bloat-free firmware
Keeps GSM Desire's good looks
SLCD keeps us from missing AMOLED
No global roaming capability
No Android 2.2 yet
Given the trend toward ultra-efficient (read: environmentally-conscious) packaging in phones of all sizes and categories, we were surprised to see HTC and US Cellular opt for a relatively gigantic two-piece sliding box here. It's not a big deal, obviously -- and we always recommend that you hang onto your original packaging rather than tossing it anyhow -- but there's no question the could've stepped down to something smaller (just take a look at the Droid 2 and Droid X boxes for good examples of how to get it done). That said, the Desire's packaging is of a high quality and includes the usual suspects: a USB charger, micro-USB cable, headphones, and the typical assortment of documentation. In our case, the battery and 8GB microSD card were both pre-installed.
Without having seen this phone, you might have easily assumed that US Cellular would've altered the ID in some way; carriers like to make tweaks to their branded handsets more often than not, after all, and very rarely does a phone survive the jump from GSM to CDMA (or vice versa) without at least a few alterations -- look no further than the HTC Hero for evidence of that. Here, though, the phone we pulled out of the box was all but identical to the very first Desires we saw back in February at MWC, and we'd argue that's a very good thing -- the GSM Desire is an extremely attractive piece of kit. Everything from the colors to the soft-touch rear to the tasteful red ring around the camera lens carries over; to the untrained eye (and even to the trained one), the small US Cellular logo on the bottom rear is the only indication you have that this is a branded device. Interestingly, we had a hunch that this model was both heavier and slightly thicker than its GSM doppelganger, but it was just our mind playing tricks on us -- the specs have them listed as the same thickness, and the CDMA model is actually allegedly a few grams lighter. We're not sure we buy that, but regardless, the fact remains that this is a very faithful reproduction of the Desire you're already accustomed to.
Or is it a faithful reproduction? One feature that the US Cellular Desire quietly adds is the new 3.7-inch WVGA SLCD display that's going to be shoring up the AMOLED shortages that HTC has been wrestling with since it introduced the Nexus One and Desire earlier this year -- and we'll admit, if you've spent time looking at an AMOLED version of the phone, you'll likely notice the difference almost immediately. Thing is, we wouldn't say that's necessarily a bad thing. Yes, granted, this SLCD is less insanely contrasty with colors that almost seem to jump off the screen, but it still looks fantastic -- and more importantly, it doesn't completely wash out in daylight. Seems like a fair trade to us. And if you've never owned an AMOLED phone before, it's a complete non-issue -- all you'll know is that you're using what is probably the best display hands-down you've ever seen on a handset (stay tuned for a head-to-head comparison of an AMOLED and SLCD Desire to see exactly what we mean, by the way).
Perhaps the best single feature of this phone is actually the lack of a feature: crapware, that is. USCC has really held back on the Desire, limiting customizations beyond Sense itself to nothing more than a unique default wallpaper and three apps that we can see: City ID (a subscription service that maps phone numbers to locations; Verizon also bundles it), My Contacts Backup, and the carrier's Tone Room Deluxe service for buying ringtones. It's refreshing to see a branded device ship this closely to the way the manufacturer intended; of course, the jaded longtime smartphone user in us knows it's only close to stock because USCC hasn't developed as huge of a crapware ecosystem as its larger rivals -- but whatever the reason may be, it's a Good Thing and we should take a moment to sit back and enjoy it. Unfortunately, this phone ships with Eclair -- even when most other Desires have gotten a bump to Froyo already -- and we suspect it'll be harder for a phone with this small of a deployment footprint to get updated as quickly or consistently. We'll see. Linpack scores ranged between 6.7 and 7 MFLOPS, about what we'd expect for a Desire running 2.1.
Like the GSM Desire, US Cellular's flavor uses a 1,400mAh battery -- and we got pretty similar performance out of it in our informal testing as we did both with the original Desire and the Nexus One. In other words, you can eke it through a day if you're careful and you don't go crazy -- but for the sake of safety, we'd personally make sure that we're within range of a power outlet or a spare battery at all times.
Also the same as the GSM Desire? The camera, it seems, which features 5 megapixel resolution, autofocus, and a single LED flash. Like the GSM model, you've got access to both 4:3 standard and 5:3 widescreen still shot modes; there's no dedicated macro mode here, but we were really impressed with our touch-to-focus capabilities right down to the point where the lens was practically touching the object we were trying to shoot. Overall, our photos in decent lighting were clear, bright, and didn't suffer from the egregious compression you occasionally see in these kinds of devices; we wouldn't dare blow up a shot taken with the Desire and turn it into a poster, of course, but you can easy scale it down and make a passable wallpaper for your computer or the like. Low light, though, was another story; the Desire is more than happy to kick in LED assist for autofocus, but the problem is that it doesn't seem to give itself enough time to establish focus with the LED on before snapping the shot, leaving virtually all of our flash-on shots blurry (of course, considering the harshness and uneven nature of the typical cameraphone LED flash, that's not much of a loss). Oh, and as always, we'd like a physical two-stage camera button -- but considering how closely HTC followed the standard Desire recipe in every other way, we're not surprised that they didn't make any changes there, either.
Video quality was a similar story: decent, but nothing to write home about. Notably, US Cellular has shoehorned 720p capture into this phone, even though it's only running Android 2.1-update1 -- on global versions, users have had to wait for 2.2 to move out of the VGA realm. As usual, it's not going to replace your high-def camcorder (except maybe a Flip), and truth be told, for the kinds of quick and dirty videos you'd be taking with this phone, we'd probably end up recording at VGA most of the time anyway. We'd actually argue that the roadblock here isn't video quality, but audio quality; sound on our videos came across muffled with an almost AM radio quality to them.
Make no mistake: if you're a US Cellular customer looking for the best phone the company has to offer, the Desire instantly becomes the no-brainer choice now that it's been released at retail. And actually, looking at all of the larger regionals, you could make an argument that this is perhaps the best device any of them are currently offering. HTC has done a tremendous job carrying the Desire's personality over from the GSM realm to CDMA, and if you can get over the lack of Froyo and the occasional less-than-perfect shot from the camera, you can't really go wrong.