HTC Desire HD review
- Terrific general performance
- Flawless browser
- Aluminum unibody plus jumbo screen
- Fit and finish issues
- Poor battery life
- Camera lens left unprotected
We might as well start at the beginning, which in the Desire HD's case means... its case. Back in February of this year, HTC introduced a new aluminum unibody design -- wherein the chassis of the phone is carved out of a single slab of the lightweight metal -- with its Legend handset. The benefits of this unibody construction are that the outside shell also serves a structural role in making the device more rigid and durable, and thereby reduces the necessary bulk to make a phone that can be relied on over the long term. Fast forward to a few months later, and this bit of clever engineering has managed to trickle its way up into HTC's top-tier handsets, as exhibited on the recent 7 Mozart for Windows Phone 7 and the Desire HD we have before us.
Upon picking HTC's new Android hotness up, you'll immediately recognize the benefit of moving to this more rigid, metallic construction. It simply feels like a solid, cohesive block of technology and there's little about the way it's put together to raise concerns about long-term durability. It might in fact be fair to say that the Desire HD may be one of the more resilient flagship devices we've handled this year. That's helped by the understated matte styling, which doesn't look like it'll scratch too easily, and the relatively uncomplicated external design. What little deviations there are from simplicity -- such as the three plastic elements breaking up the plain aluminum back -- are made to accommodate functional elements of the phone rather than to spice up your life with unnecessary flamboyancy. Much like the HD7 we reviewed quite recently, the Desire HD also has very good ergonomics, both in the hand and in the pocket, which really makes you question why you'd ever consider a smartphone with a smaller screen; there's almost no negative to moving to the 4.3-inch size in terms of daily portability.
We were also disheartened by a couple of other issues, which are perhaps even more significant than the foregoing. Firstly, as mentioned above, the aluminum casing fails to perfectly align with all the other external elements of the phone it comes into contact with, which is most unpleasantly apparent at the front, where it frames the display. The trouble is that the aluminum sticks out about a millimeter in front of the screen, generating a ridge that your finger flicks against when performing swipes on the phone. What results both feels and sounds like flicking paper at the end of (almost) every screen-transitioning gesture. The problem is apparent on both sides of the display and it's also something we noted in our 7 Mozart review, so it doesn't seem as though we got a uniquely poor Desire HD unit, it's just a failure on HTC's part, whether at the design or manufacturing stage. The second big problem we have here is with the camera on the back, which sticks out from the rest of the body, but is not protected from bumps or scratches in any meaningful way. When laid on its back, the Desire HD rests directly on the lens itself, which anyone serious about photography would both cringe and curse at.
It's worth bearing in mind that although we've spent more time detailing the negatives to the Desire HD's curvy exterior, the positives of a robust construction, good ergonomics, and a svelte body (disregarding the camera extrusion) are more pronounced in day-to-day use.
If you really care about your smartphone performance, you'll already be familiar with the 1GHz QSD8255 chip (with Adreno 205 graphics) powering the Desire HD and its capabilities. It's a second-generation Snapdragon built under a 45nm process and promises to give you quite a bit more punch whatever you're doing. For us, it made using the Desire HD a legitimate pleasure and generated one of our smoothest Android experiences to date. It can also chug through 720p video (both recording and playback) and lends a hand in turning in some stellar browser performance from this Froyo-based handset. It comes supported by 768MB of RAM, which is as cutting as your smartphone edge can get at this moment in time.
You might think that all these gloriously fresh innards would necessitate a cost-cutting exercise elsewhere and indeed they have. The Desire HD comes with a 1230mAh battery, which falls short of most current smartphones' standard equipment, and is especially low if you consider HTC managed to fit the EVO 4G with a 1500mAh unit. We took the new Android handset out to Portugal with us recently for our Nissan Leaf test drive and intentionally left the charger at home. Sadly, we can't say we were impressed by the result. Leaving the house with a fully juiced Desire HD at 11AM, we got to enjoy some very light browsing at the airport, a 30-minute round of Angry Birds while in the air, a few pictures taken en route to the hotel, and then some WiFi-based web exploration at our resting place before the battery gave up on us in the evening. Sure, it lasted "a whole day," but our use was minimal and the wireless radios were throttled by the phone being in airplane mode for half the time. Take that for what it is, it shows that you can squeeze a day's worth of frugal usage out of the Desire HD, but only if you're careful and plan it ahead of time.
The overall vibe for us was that the Desire HD was power-hungry, and we never felt perfectly comfortable doing anything intensive with it while we were away from a tether of some kind -- which doesn't exactly cast a brilliant light upon this device's otherwise stellar variety of available functionality. Adding insult to the 1230mAh injury, the way the rear of the phone's designed looks set to make it difficult, if not impossible, for third-party case makers to provide extended batteries the likes of which you can get for the EVO and other heavy-duty smartphones.
That sentiment can't be extended to screen technology, however, where the Desire -- whether in AMOLED or Super LCD form -- easily outdoes its HD counterpart. The Desire HD has a decent, but not altogether impressive LCD panel, which we're almost certain is identical to that found inside the HD7. To tell you the truth, unless you're a perfectionist or a purist when it comes to having the very latest screen tech in your device, you won't find yourself disappointed by this phone's display. It gets the job done for the vast majority of the time, though we might have appreciated it if HTC had put a less glossy coating on it -- you know, for the odd occasion when we step out of our underground lairs and into the sun.
The 8 megapixel imager on the back of the Desire HD performed adequately to very well in our testing, but we were somewhat limited by adverse weather conditions, which lent us only overcast days and stormy skies to contend with. So, we can't tell you much about the best case scenarios with the Desire HD, but we can certainly tell you about some challenging ones we encountered along the way. Firstly, let's get the boilerplate warning out of the way that low light will not be a friend to your photographing experience with this phone. Harsh noise and chromatic aberration will invade your pictures if you turn down the lights too low, while focusing also takes a predictable hit and you often end up with some slight image blur as a result. Then again, we managed to luck our way into taking a pretty gorgeous sunset shot with the Desire HD, so perhaps those who dare to tweak the settings and commit some time to it could still extract some admirable imagery. The general point is that all cameras struggle when there's not enough light to feed their sensor with and the Desire HD is no different.
Moving on to our dreary day in London, we were actually very impressed with what the Desire HD was able to produce. While there was some late afternoon daylight to be had, it was of the decidedly uninspired variety, and we'd expect even a pretty competent point and shoot camera to have had its difficulties. The Desire HD managed to collect some telling detail in its tour, which you can explore in the gallery below, and left us with a very positive impression. Noise-masking blur is distributed very well, in our opinion, and works especially well if can content yourself with downsizing the images from the max 8 megapixel size. All in all, a highly competent camera that dealt with what we threw at it admirably.
HTC Desire HD sample images
Speaker / earpiece
There's nothing that really stands out about the Desire HD's loudspeaker and earpiece. Call quality was on par with any other handset that's come out lately, while ringtones and audio were conveyed reasonably well. The top volume of the speaker seemed a little lower than we'd prefer (we like the maximum to be too loud so that we always have that "turning it up to 11" option), but on the whole it did a decent job. HTC has added Dolby and SRS sound options for video playback, and while they generate tangibly different ouputs -- SRS makes the actors sound like they're breathing into their webcam mic and Dolby adds an extra layer of bass to proceedings, whether necessary or not -- our conclusion was that they were just poor in different ways. As ever, using the speaker on your phone for anything more than call and messaging alerts seems an ill-advised idea here.
The browser stood out to us in particular, as it loaded content-heavy pages in a very snappy manner and responded to our touch in a pleasingly alert fashion. Scrolling has now simply been perfected, as has pinch-to-zoom, while portrait-to-landscape transitions are also nearly instantaneous. The list of good things about the web on this phone also includes some stellar rendering performance, as we weren't able to incite any aliasing or content issues out of it, including the playback of those hallowed Flash-based YouTube videos. Notably, Flash material took quite a bit longer to load than lighter stuff, but when it did, it played back reliably and smoothly. We imagine the roomy RAM apportionment and speedy processing chip are playing their part here in making the Desire HD look like a champ.
An additional note should also be made regarding Android's multitasking methodology. Or, to be honest, the lack thereof. The OS basically doesn't kill anything you get going, which is stunningly handy when you only have brief moments where you're able to look at your phone and don't want to have to constantly restart an app, but it has its downsides too. Firstly, on the positive front, we love not having to worry whether our gaming session would lose its progress while we delve into the calendar or jump into the camera app to shoot some impromptu masterpieces. Having everything exactly as you left it makes the phone feel like a cozy and welcoming place -- unlike, say, Windows Phone 7, which tends to act like a neurotic housekeeper that'll tidy away your cup before you've finished enjoying your tea.
Where the bad side of Android -- and yes, even two-dimensional caricatures can have a bad side -- comes in is in the fact that all those apps that are never fully closed tend to suck down resources. And with resource utilization comes the worst penalty of all: battery depletion. That's particularly unenticing on a handset like the Desire HD, which already exhibits the signs of a battery biting off more hardware duties than it can chew. So what's the solution? Well, we ended up downloading Quick Task Killer and were immediately struck by the sheer number of apps that were running without us even doing so much as glancing at them. Seriously, what was the Stocks app doing in the background when we hadn't even given it a cursory thought? The sheer number of alternatives to QTS that Android Market offers for managing your app load indicates that Google still has a way to go in perfecting its formula, but we should also say that once we had the app on our phone we felt much more confident that we weren't going to burn out battery out by leaving a horde of CPU-tapping programs running in the background.
And just to add a note to this rapidly expanding note, the Desire HD itself actually acquitted itself sterlingly during our testing. Even with a bunch of apps queued up in its window shade, the phone kept on ticking without a sweat. We have absolutely no qualms about its performance, but the point about how efficient that performance is and what it does to your phone's autonomy still stands.
The first new feature you'll encounter on HTC's refreshed Sense phones is a significantly accelerated boot-up time. The Desire HD and Z, the two phones that mark the beginning of the latest version of Android-based Sense, are claimed to be able to boot within 10 seconds, but we had something of a rough time with that. We had some wildly divergent results at first and it took us some time to figure out what the causes were. On some occasions, the wait for the lock screen to appear was as long as 35 seconds (as you'll have seen in the video above), whereas at others the Desire HD showed us that welcoming graphic almost instantly. As it turns out, the longer boot times were owing to us taking the battery out, which in turn is leading to whatever background caching HTC is doing to be wiped out. Preloading content is only part of the story, however, as HTC is also being a bit cheeky and showing you the appearance of a phone ready for action before it's actually ready. Something Windows users will be pretty familiar with from the times they've seen their desktop about 20 seconds before the computer is finished loading.
HTC has also given the phone's ringer an education, endowing it with the ability to ring louder when it senses it's in a pocket or a handbag, and throwing in a real favorite of ours: turning off the ringing sound entirely if you flip the phone over. It's a brilliant little evolution of some very basic and often-used functionality, and it keeps embarrassing moments down to their bare minimum.
This app impressed us when we saw it at HTC's launch event for the Desire HD and nothing has changed since. Well, we now know that TomTom will be providing the mapping data, but the general premise and execution are still as solid as the first time we laid eyes on it. HTC Locations aims to outdo Google's own Maps Navigation by downloading all the local data you need ahead of time and thereby offering "zero-wait" navigation when you jump into the app looking for the nearest delicatessen. That claim is (inevitably) too bold to be supported by the software itself, there's still tangible lag as you move around within the application, but the delays encountered herein are far smaller than what you'd get while relying on your 3G connection to pull down the next square of map info -- and 100 percent more useful when there's no data signal to be found.
This was the very definition of a mixed bag for us. Firstly, it merits noting that HTC exchanged our initial Desire HD with a second unit equipped with an updated, supposedly better, firmware on board. Funnily enough, our first handset worked perfectly with the company's new web interface whereas the "improved" version led to the amusingly dysfunctional demo video you'll find below. We'll tell you about what this service offers when it works and just assume that we happened upon a rare glitch in HTC's systems.
HTCSense.com is the Taiwanese phone maker's play for getting itself into the cloud service conversation. The People and Messages sections let you tweak and review their eponymous content via the web, while HTC Hub offers an exhibition area for additional apps, ringtones, and other customizations for downloading onto your phone. The real attraction here, though, is the Dashboard area which throws up some very handy options for when your phone's absent without your leave. You can lock the phone and insert a message on its display for any finders you hope won't be selfish enough to become keepers. You can also completely wipe your personal data off the device remotely, and you can redirect incoming calls and messages to a separate number. All that and there's a map tracking your phone's current location (provided it's on, of course). In our earlier testing, we noticed almost no delay between enacting something on the site and having the phone react, while the phone-locking mechanism in particular struck us as a very well thought out and valuable tool to have. Accessing this bounty of cloud functionality is as easy as selecting a username and logging yourself in. You've got to tweak some well signposted settings on your phone to give the site permission to interact with it fully, but after all -- provided you're not dealing with our moody review unit -- you should be good to go.
If there's one thing that might undermine HTCSense.com going forward, it's the fact that Google already does a pretty sterling job of backing up all settings, downloads and changes you make to your phone. The People hub here, for example, seems utterly superfluous now that Gmail finally has a Contacts section worth using, and we were impressed -- upon the arrival of our firmware-upgrade handset -- to find most of our tweaking didn't have to be repeated thanks to Google helpful (bordering on creepy, as ever) monitoring and backing up of our choices.