This time last year, HTC had two Android smartphones for the mainstream: the 3.7-inch Desire, outfitted with the latest and greatest, and the 3.2-inch Legend, which was humbler in specs but offered the novelty of an aluminum unibody construction. After seeing that strategy pay off handsomely, the company's come back in 2011 with a similar proposition. The 4-inch Incredible S is now the higher-end device, while the 3.7-inch Desire S is the smaller, aluminum-shelled handset. What's curious this time, however, is that the Desire S has exactly the same 1GHz Snapdragon inside it, the same graphics, same WVGA resolution, and the same 768MB of RAM as the Incredible S. Throw in the fact it comes with Gingerbread preloaded and a few new tweaks to the Sense UI and you've got to wonder if this might not be the more, um, desirable of HTC's new Android duo. Only one way to find out, right? Full review after the break.
Built like an aluminum tank
Solid performance and responsiveness
The chin lives on!
Capacitive keys don't always light up
Onscreen keyboard could be better
Sense UI is improved, but showing its age
HTC is rightly proud of its aluminum unibody construction method. It goes beyond what other manufacturers do -- such as Nokia with the aluminum-clad N8 -- by using just one piece of the lightweight metal, which is wrapped around the phone's internal components and acts as both its case and frame. On the Desire S, there are a couple of plastic-covered rear compartments, one to accommodate the 5 megapixel camera, LED flash, and loudspeaker, and the other to permit access to the 1450mAh battery and SIM and MicroSD card slots. The latter chunk of soft-touch plastic also acts as the Desire S' antenna. You might expect the move to a metallic construction to incur some penalties in terms of weight and bulk, but the Desire S is five grams lighter than the original Desire at 130g (4.59oz), 4mm shorter at a height of 115mm (4.7 inches), and just slightly thinner and narrower than its predecessor. Another appreciable upgrade over the original Desire is that the display now sits closer to the glass at the front of the phone, eliminating what was a noticeable distance between the two on the older device.
In day-to-day use, we found the Desire S stupendously easy to operate, thanks to its well curved back and subtly protruding bottom end. It's the old chin design that the Hero and Legend sported so proudly, but done much more delicately. The 3.7-inch screen size makes it easy for most thumbs to reach both the top left corner and the Search capacitive button on the lower right without resorting to the use of a second hand. That's a marked improvement in ergonomics over the original Desire and even betters the Incredible S. The verdict on the Desire S' physical characteristics, therefore, is an uncomplicated two thumbs up, however there's one small software foible that we must relate. The capacitive Android keys -- sorry, Desire fans, no hard buttons or optical trackpad here -- don't always light up when they should. That becomes a pretty major problem when using the phone in the dark, as without a visual or tactile indicator of what you're about to press, the only information you can get from those keys is the haptic feedback after you've pressed one. In our experience, the determinant for whether the backlight would come on seemed to be sheer randomness, and we've heard of others having the same issue so can't put it down to just having a defective unit. Still, that strikes us as an eminently correctable flaw, even if it's a frustrating one while it persists.
Delving inside the blue-hued aluminum body, you'll find Qualcomm's extremely popular MSM8255 system-on-chip, which you may also know as the second-generation Snapdragon. In our Incredible S review, we took a look at its performance relative to the older 1GHz part and found it to be approximately 15 percent faster. In general use, the chip proves itself perfectly capable of handling Android's demands, making HTC's Sense UI look light and airy. 768MB is a generous chunk of RAM to include as well, as it's 256MB more than competitors like Sony Ericsson are bundling with this particular Snapdragon part.
The loudspeaker doesn't actually go up all that high, but it has a pleasing, almost surprising, clarity to its output. Bass, however, is as absent on the Desire S as on any other smartphone's speaker. Carrying out the now auxiliary function of making phone calls is also no problem for the Desire S -- it neither sets itself apart in terms of call quality / reception, nor trails the pack.
Perhaps the biggest fault one could find with the original Desire was its short battery life. It gave you a great screen to look at and a ton of capabilities to exploit, but nowhere near enough endurance. Thankfully, the newer Snapdragon hardware is much more efficient with its energy use and makes the 1450mAh cell inside the Desire S look like a standout. It had no trouble matching the similarly specced Incredible S for runtime and you can rest assured that you'll get a busy day's worth of battery from it. With lighter use, there's no reason why you won't be able to go a couple of days between recharges.
The Desire S makes use of the same Super LCD tech as the Incredible S, leaving us to only echo what we said of its bigger sibling. You get vibrant, well saturated images, which also benefit from excellent viewing angles. The only weakness is readability in direct sunlight. One thing we omitted to mention in the Incredible S review was that the screen is protected by Gorilla Glass, a feature that has naturally been included on the Desire S as well. We've made no secret of our admiration for the Gorilla tech, which you may check out in the demo video below. We'd do one for this particular handset as well, but doubt HTC would appreciate us trying to destroy its tenderly crafted device.
Aside from their divergent dimensions and construction materials, the biggest difference between the Desire S and Incredible S is in their camera sensors. It's not always true that more megapixels equal better image quality, but in this case, the 8 megapixel imager on the Incredible S is markedly ahead of the Desire S' 5 megapixel unit. You won't notice this advantage while perusing images on the phone itself or even when sharing them over the web at resolutions of 1 megapixel or below (e.g. 1280 x 720), but if you care about quality at the full 2592 x 1552 size, you'll be left a little disappointed. HTC very actively compensates for camera noise by blurring areas of similar color while simultaneously sharpening edges where it finds them. For the most part, this software solution to an underwhelming sensor works very well, but photography purists will be cringing, and so will anyone else who might be interested in taking broader shots and cropping them down to the areas of interest. Chromatic noise also makes an unwelcome appearance but does so relatively rarely and is hardly noticeable in lower-res pictures. The Desire S' camera can be considered great at 1 megapixel resolutions and merely okay at the full 5.
This handset also comes with the latest trendy add-on, a front-facing camera, but just like the vast majority of them, it's a fixed focus VGA imager with decidedly poor image quality. Noise, of every color and creed, dominates proceedings, though if you're in some weirdly dire need to use it, you can obtain half-decent results from the front camera in well lit situations. HTC's picture-taking software is quick and snappy, and comes with a set of fancy / gimmicky filters you can apply both when you're shooting and afterwards. There are also options for cropping and rotating photos, both of which we appreciated having. Video is recorded in .3gp format and stretches up to 720p. The phone handled the processing task with ease, though the usual rolling shutter effect was readily apparent and we found the Desire S seemed a bit more sensitive to subtle movements and vibrations than other phones. Image quality in the captured video wasn't anything to write home about either, regrettably. Check out a sample video below.
Both Android and the Sense UI adorning it will be familiar to you already, but there are a couple of fresh additions that merit discussion. Firstly, the aforementioned absence of an optical trackpad isn't a bother for the Desire S, which now lets you place your cursor precisely within text using a magnifying glass overlay and offers a couple of draggable pointers for defining text selections. It's the exact same set of functions as you'll find on the Incredible S, but relative to the Desire, it marks a significant upgrade in usability. Unless you were totally in love with that trackpad, of course.
Where the Desire S differs from the Incredible S is, firstly, in the underlying Android OS, which tastes of Gingerbread (2.3.3), Google's latest mobile flavor. There aren't actually a lot of noticeable differences between the two devices on that account, but HTC has also taken the opportunity to tweak Sense on the Desire S as well, with a set of changes you'll notice more readily. One of them is that the jumbo clock / weather widget now has an alternative clock / social feed option, whereby you get the latest update from your Facebook or Twitter friends as a little blurb under the time. More valuable, however, is HTC's integration of a Quick Settings menu alongside the usual Notifications in the drop-down Android menu. This gives you close to instant access to options you'll likely want to use quite often, such as toggling the WiFi, GPS, or mobile hotspot functions on and off. We'd be even happier to see this menu take over the position of the Personalize item next to the phone dialer at the bottom of the home screen, but having it at all is a move forward.
HTC also preloads the Kobo ebook reader on the Desire S, which it outfits with a neat selection of classic books to get you going. We've never been massive fans of reading on our smartphones, but as e-reader software goes, this one's perfectly dandy. Rotating between landscape and portrait mode is accompanied by a red underline of some of the text so that you don't lose your place while the content reformats itself. Overall, it left us with the impression that's it a well thought-out, useful little slice of software.
Sense also gets an overdue upgrade to the way it manages applications -- with the icon grid now scrolling up and down in a paginated fashion and being accompanied by subcategories for your downloaded and most frequently used apps -- but our overwhelming feeling remains that we've seen this all before. In spite of its small iterative steps forward, Sense is now a user interface that's beginning to show its age, with oversized widgets that fail to make the best of the space available to them and that egregious omnipresent menu bar at the bottom that takes up far more space than a couple of links to your apps and phone ought to. Most other Android skins have now taken to using that as an app launcher dock, but HTC insists on giving you instant access to things like personalization options (which, in themselves, are hardly all that varied) instead of giving you the only option you truly want -- to clear that junk away from the screen. The onscreen keyboard HTC uses is also not the best in its class. We found ourselves reverting to landscape mode to type comfortably, which is a little galling on a 3.7-inch device when the 3.5-inch iPhone has shown that portrait touchscreen keyboards need not be a chore to use. All in all, we're left wanting to see some more of that fancy new 3D-ified Sense UI that HTC showed off on the recently announced EVO 3D. It's a shame the Desire S couldn't partake in that new goodness.
The best way we can think of to summarize the Desire S is by comparing it to its nearest and dearest. Set alongside the original Desire, it's head, shoulders and elbows above its elder, thanks to a massive improvement in battery life, a far more rugged construction, better ergonomics and the natural evolution of better specs and software. Up against the Incredible S, things are a little less clear-cut, as the bigger brother packs a significantly better camera sensor and a larger screen. Still, the Desire S is priced a few floors below the Incredible S' penthouse ambitions, which makes it our choice of the two. Ultimately, the Desire S is a very well executed refinement on a formula HTC knows well, which deprives it both of any glaring faults and of any standout features. It's not novel, it's not surprising, it's just very, very good.