The Incredible S is a beguiling little beast. Looking at its name, familiar rump, and mostly run of the Android mill specs, you'd think it little more than an incremental update. And yet, pick it up and play with it for even the briefest of instances and you'll realize that it's somehow a lot more than that. Seemingly slight changes to the screen, in moving from 3.7 to 4 inches and from an imperfect AMOLED panel to a crisp and clear Super LCD, have earned our eyes' approbation, while an upgraded Snapdragon under the hood, equipped with Adreno 205 graphics, infuses it with a fresh breath of firepower for those demanding HD videos and increasingly sophisticated Android games. Notably, the chip combo inside the Incredible S is the same as that contained within Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play, foretelling perhaps of a PlayStation Certified future for this handset. But that's the future -- right now, there's a big juicy review for you to dig into, so skip past the break to get started.

HTC Incredible S review

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HTC

Incredible S

Pros

  • Super LCD is super
  • UI is responsive, polished to a sheen
  • Excellent ergonomics

Cons

  • Some browser and video rendering issues
  • Doesn't have Gingerbread yet
  • No HDMI output
Summary


Hardware


Staring down the Incredible S' visage while it's turned off, the only word that comes to mind is "featureless." This was the phone previously known as HTC's buttonless flagship, a nickname earned by virtue of its unconventional capacitive buttons. They only light up while the phone is activated and, moreover, rotate into a landscape orientation when you're using a landscape-capable application on the handset. They don't roll all the way around, basically they've got one 90-degree turn in their arsenal of tricks, but they make us smile every time they do it.


HTC's true exhibition of flair on this phone can be found around the back, where the much-loved / -loathed Incredible back cover makes a return. It's not identical to the original, but the industrial theme is still there. The cover itself has a rubbery feel to it and is made of a highly malleable matte plastic. It provides a reassuringly durable feel, and even if you succeed in scratching it up, it looks like it'll wear its bumps and bruises well.


N.B. - In the above video we speculate about the golden connectors inside the back cover being used for some form of inductive charging. HTC just got back to us to say they hook the phone up to its antenna which is built into the rear casing.

A frugal apportionment of just two buttons frames the sides of the phone: a volume toggle mounted on the left and a power button at the familiar top right location. Beyond those, you'll find a MicroUSB port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a mic port around the device's countours, while its front gets a mesh-covered earpiece compartment that also houses a status LED and sits alongside a 1.3 megapixel camera. For real photos, however, you'll be wanting to use the 8 megapixel imager on the back, which is kept company by a dual-LED flash / flashlight and a single loudspeaker. Unlike the Thunderbolt, the single-bar volume button works well and has a pleasingly clicky feel to it -- though its sheer size and positioning mean that you'll occasionally find yourself lowering the handset's volume just by gripping it naturally.

Internals

Delving a little deeper, you'll find a 1450mAh battery, which is responsible for powering the same component set as was found in the Desire HD -- namely, a Qualcomm MSM8255 system-on-chip, 768MB of RAM, and an Adreno 205 GPU. Much as we noted with the Desire HD, this combination of hardware simply makes Android sing. You'll read more about that below, but rest assured that in spite of lacking a second core -- which is the trendy new addition nowadays -- the Incredible S has exquisite performance for the smartphone category. Watching it do its work feels little different from observing a thoroughbred horse trotting home to the finish.

HTC has thrown in an added bonus for those looking to enjoy multimedia on the Incredible S with the inclusion of virtual surround sound courtesy of SRS WOW HD technology. It adds a tangible improvement to the phone's audio, with a multidimensional sound that's far richer and better defined than HTC's default output. It's geared specifically for getting the best out of headphones, so you'll obviously be wanting to plug in a pair if you want to get the most of it.

That last note would be true even in the absence of the SRS stuff, however, as the loudspeaker on the back of the Incredible S is pretty mediocre. It can get loud, that's for sure, but it's tinny, there's almost no bass to speak of, and we didn't enjoy using it much to carry out handsfree conversations, either. Then again, the smartphones with legitimately useful speakers on them are few and far between. One thing the Incredible S is missing, though, is an HDMI output. Those little plugs are growing ever more widespread among modern handsets and the Incredible S certainly has the credentials to serve your HDTV with some gorgeous visuals, so we're a bit bummed not to see it included here. HTC isn't leaving you hanging completely, as it's added DLNA capabilities for communicating with your TV wirelessly, but that does tax the battery a lot more.

Display

The screen was a major highlight for us. Its vivid, punchy colors remain faithful even at oblique viewing angles and the pixel density of 800 x 480 dots within a 4-inch diagonal feels just sumptuous. In day-to-day use, you'll struggle mightily to tell a difference between this and Apple's Retina Display or Samsung's Super AMOLED stuff, the pair of whom represent the supreme panel technologies of our day. Leaving brightness to automate itself actually gave us a slightly higher setting than was strictly necessary, but it was testament to the Incredible S' battery stamina that we didn't care to readjust that setting ourselves. The one shortcoming of this panel was outdoor use. We've yet to come across a smartphone display that can really stand up to the vitality of almighty Sol, however seeing the Incredible S struggle in the sunlight stood out to us, perhaps because of its excellence in other conditions. It's not unreadable by any means, you'll just have to crank up the brightness and tolerate a certain loss of detail on sunny afternoons. Nothing anyone can really do about that until we get color E Ink displays capable of 60fps video.

Battery life

Returning to the aforementioned battery life on the Incredible S, it's pretty darn impressive. In one rundown test, we managed to pass the 12-hour mark with 10 percent of juice left in spite of watching a two-hour movie (Star Trek II, thanks for asking), handling our contraband gadget emails, testing out in-browser Flash playback, and setting aside a few minutes for Angry Birds. There were, of course, periods of the phone just sitting idle (mostly idle, Gmails never stopped coming in), but it's undeniable that the Incredible S leaves predecessors like the Desire and Desire HD looking at the ground in shame. That 1450mAh cell seems to be used judiciously as well, as we noticed the vast majority of power was being consumed by the screen or the apps we had running in the foreground -- exactly the way it ought to be. Should you be content with a slightly lower screen brightness and a little less multimedia action, we can imagine getting a couple of days out of the Incredible S on a regular basis.

Camera

Both cameras go a little heavy on the noise-reducing blur, but on a smartphone targeted at the mainstream consumer, that seems to have been a sound choice for HTC to make. Overall image quality is still among the finest the company has produced, arguably besting the output from the Thunderbolt, which scored some pretty high praise in our recent review.

HTC Incredible S camera samples

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Tap-to-focus functionality is available in both camera and camcorder mode, and in another departure from the Thunderbolt, light metering is done relative to where you choose your focus point. Ergo, in a shot where you have both sunlit and shaded areas, choosing to focus on one balances the camera's light intake specifically for that spot. Humorously enough, that most often results in either a washed-out sunny patch or overly dark shadows -- the camera lacks the dynamic range to conquer such contrasts in lighting -- but the ability to choose is much appreciated. A final, and perhaps conclusive, advantage over the Thunderbolt is that macro shots worked out rather beautifully on the new Incredible. It too lacks a dedicated macro mode, but as you can see in our galleries, shoving it up close to subjects produced highly respectable results.

HTC Incredible S full-res crops

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Focusing speed is generally fast and the time taken between shots is delightfully quick. HTC's camera software looks to have been optimized to the high heavens, as we could get from a locked phone to our first snapshot or video within mere seconds. And that still mostly involved the system waiting on us rather than vice versa. Very impressive processing speeds all around, another feather in the Snapdragon's hat.

HTC Incredible S camera filters

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HTC bundles a set of moderately useful filters with its software -- nothing new here, they've been part of Sense for a good long while -- which can be quickly accessed by a menu item, previewed, and slapped down immediately upon your photographic victim. You can check them out above. Other options you can tweak include ISO adjustments (up to 800), white balance. geotagging, aspect ratio, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and, of course, resolution. There's even a two- or 10-second timer for those who manage to somehow perch the Incredible S in a position where it can take a photo.


480p daytime video sample

We also liked what we saw on the video front, although the ever-present rolling shutter effect made itself apparent in the video above (see the bus passing by at the 1:14 mark) and some artifacting started showing up in our evening shots below. Notably, HTC's sepia and grayscale filters really pay off when used on nighttime video recording, as they help control the color difficulties the camera has at that hour and lend a more cinematic feel to your output. For a perfect example of what we mean, check out the black and white sequence at the end of the vid below -- London's 234 bus has never looked so glamorous.


720p nighttime video sample


Software


Performance

You want the difference between the old and new Incredibles? There it is in benchmark form for you. The Nexus One is basically an Incredible inside a less bodacious shell, so you can see that in general performance terms the Incredible S is about 15 percent better equipped to ride the lightning. That number really doesn't begin to tell the whole story, though. The Incredible S comes with HTC's ever-present Sense UI loaded atop Android 2.2 (yes, it's Froyo, stop grimacing!) and what strikes us about it, first and foremost, is just how awesomely responsive it is. There can be differing opinions on the value that such a tricked-out skin adds to a phone, but there's no questioning HTC's execution. Froyo has been around for a solid nine months now and HTC's familiarity with the source code is evident throughout the Incredible S user experience. For once, we're actually happy to see an Android device shipping without the latest version of the OS on board -- if only to experience the joys of a (nearly) lag-free smartphone. And worry not, this handset should be rocking Gingerbread by the end of June, anyhow.


The general theme of snappy performance was evident throughout our use of the Incredible S, whether we were shooting photos, messaging, browsing media files, playing games, using the iPlayer app, or Gooogling to see if we have the top result for our surnames. Navigating around Google Maps was also a pretty spectacular affair. Almost no time was taken to refresh the map when we were zooming in and out and the whole experience was faultlessly fluid.

Browser

The browser is fast, very fast. Feed it with a WiFi connection and the only delay you'll experience is in figuring out where you want to go next. Pinch-to-zoom and scrolling smoothness were also good, however not quite up to the iPhone 4's gold standard. Mind you, we had to put the two devices side by side to discover that, so the margin of difference we're talking about here isn't exactly overwhelming. A less excusable, though still somewhat minor, issue we encountered related to rendering of zoomed-out pages and content in motion. You'll find aliasing cropping up when you scroll through pages, which disappears as soon as you've settled down on a position and the browser's had a chance to essentially re-render the scene. It seems to be a little trick to permit faster scrolling at the expense of perfect aesthetics. Being the greedy types that we are, we'd rather have both. We also found zooming out from a page brought the jagged lines back, but again at a level that can't really be described as deal-breaking.

While we're having a whinge about software foibles, we also came across some dropped frames when playing back video. Flash playback in the browser was typically flawless, however on occasion we'd get a video stuttering along at not-enough frames per second. We also encountered this issue with video files we loaded onto the device and while playing back content from the BBC's iPlayer app. The odd thing about it was that it was an intermittent problem, telling us that the hardware is surely capable of churning through the workload but the software is holding it back on occasion. We shook off the missing frames by plugging the Incredible S into a charger, so this could potentially be an example of over-aggressive power management or something of the sort. Worth noting, but probably innocuous in the long run.

Sense additions

You'll have noticed above that we mentioned Google Maps and not HTC's own Locations app -- we very much prefer Google's default software, even though Locations does preload full maps to your MicroSD storage and thereby avoids leaving you stranded when out of range for wireless communications. Basically, our choice would be to use Google Maps first and HTC's mapping solution for when we no longer have that option.

The rest of HTC's Sense-hancements are similarly hit and miss. The FriendStream app that might have been innovative a year ago is nowadays obviated by mature dedicated apps for both Twitter and Facebook, and things like Peep should really just be set aside. Moreover, while third-party skins like the excellent LauncherPro will let you stuff your homescreen with a ton of apps, HTC still only gives you a 16-icon grid that's supposed to accommodate both your apps and any widgets you might want to use. It's kind of unacceptable that the HTC Hero from mid-2009 can fit the exact same jumbo weather + clock widget and eight icons as the far better specced and higher-res Incredible S.

HTC has made an effort to move things forward with the introduction of HTCSense.com -- a sort of MobileMe for HTC Androids -- and the addition of a couple of intelligent features when receiving calls. Looking at the latter grouping first, you're able to set the phone to ring louder when it's in an enclosed space such as a bag (using its proximity sensor to detect such circumstances), to reduce its ringing volume when you move it around (calling the accelerometer in for help), and entirely muting the ringtone when you turn it upside own (accelerometer again). Once you finally decide to pick up a call, turning the phone onto its screen automatically turns on the loudspeaker. Or it's supposed to turn on the loudspeaker -- we only got this to work twice out of a couple dozen attempts. The general point with these additions -- which were first introduced alongside HTCSense.com with the launch of the Desire HD and Desire Z about six months ago -- is that they're harnessing hardware that is already at the phone's disposal and, when they work, they're adding legitimate, albeit small, sprinklings of value.

Unfortunately, we couldn't test HTCSense.com because the necessary menu item for us to log in to the service via our phone ... wasn't on our phone. Another little trip-up for HTC with this service, which was quite a disaster when we first gave it a shot during our Desire HD testing. Not the most awesome attention to detail there, and the whole service should ideally have been perfected by now, but we can't gripe too much at HTC when this happens to be an added functionality that no other Android manufacturer is endeavoring to provide at the moment.

Wrap-up


Android, an operating system that has heretofore been characterized by constantly striving forward and pushing boundaries -- whether in terms of hardware specifications or the introduction of features wholly new to mobile devices -- has finally settled down and given rise to a truly mature product. Froyo has been with us for a good while, but that hasn't really tarnished its enduring excellence and HTC looks to have spent the time well in tightening up and optimizing its user experience. What's resulted is one of the most thoroughly refined Android handsets to date, whose case is enhanced by some dashing good looks, rock solid build quality, and a camera to be proud of. The Incredible S serves as a sterling exhibit of what can be achieved when devs and designers are given the time to polish up their work instead of having to reinvent the wheel with each and every new iteration. Of course, the flipside of that coin is that familiarity will inevitably breed some level of contempt, and this handset offers a compendium of good ideas from HTC's past rather than any revolutionary innovations of its own. Still, for those who disregard novelty in favor of a very well thought-out and produced device, the Incredible S delivers.

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