Following the commercial success (and technical disappointment) of the original Wildfire -- which featured a miserly 528MHz CPU and QVGA display -- HTC has returned with the Wildfire S ($290). Like the Desire S and Incredible S, the company is sticking to its formula of providing incremental updates to stay competitive for 2011. Not only is this little one sporting improved hardware, but this time it's strutting around with Gingerbread. Will this be HTC's budget-line breakthrough, or will it fall face first into the land of mobile misfits? For the answer, check out the full review after the break.

Hardware

HTC Wildfire S

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The Wildfire S is HTC's response to every consumer allegation that smartphones are getting too big and unwieldy. Measuring in at 3.99 inches (101.3mm) tall and 2.34 inches (59.4mm) wide, it's actually smaller than the Wildfire it replaces. The handset measures 0.49 inches (12.4mm) at its thickest point, but a curved back and beveled front ensure it maintains a svelte shape that's very comfortable to hold. Naturally, the device keeps its signature chin, which allows users to easily grasp the phone with one hand in landscape orientation. Aside from its chrome accents on the power button, speaker grille, volume rocker (and two thin rings surrounding the display and camera lens), the Wildfire S has a very simple appearance. We tested the tri-color version of the phone, which has a metallic sheen on the front and a darker matte variation on the soft-touch battery cover, with the lightest hue encasing the camera pod. Despite the number of contrasting shades, we never felt that its design went overboard -- or posed a threat to anyone's masculinity. If you can't stand the idea of purple (really, it's quite attractive), there are black and silver models, too.

Unlike the physically flawed Wildfire, the Wildfire S feels carefully made. At 3.7oz (105g), the phone has a dense feel without being heavy. The raised volume rocker (found on the left side of the handset, above the micro-USB port) is long and slim, and feels very solid and tactile -- for instance, we were able to adjust the loudness at most points along its length. While the power / lock button (located up top with the 3.5mm stereo mini-jack) exhibited a small amount of wobble, you're unlikely to notice this effect so long as you press it with entire pad of your finger. On the front, you'll find four illuminated capacitive buttons for navigation. They work quite well, but became quite annoying when typing in portrait mode. With the space bar in such close proximity to the back button, we inadvertently dismissed the keyboard numerous times -- ultimately forcing us to type solely in landscape orientation. A green / amber light is hidden within the speaker grille, which conveys the charge status and delivers customizable notifications -- a nice touch, indeed.

The 3.2-inch HVGA (480 x 320 pixel) TFT LCD display is a marked improvement over its QVGA predecessor. Despite being fashioned out of Gorilla Glass, the capacitive touchscreen is susceptible to scratches, though it does redeem itself with a bright panel, vibrant colors and decent viewing angles. Unfortunately, it's also extremely glossy and easily doubles as a mirror when it reflects light. On the back of the phone, a 5 megapixel autofocus camera is paired with an LED flash and a dedicated loudspeaker.

Internally, the Wildfire S is powered by a Qualcomm MSM7227 SoC with a 600MHz CPU and an Adreno 200 GPU. We received the international version, which supports quadband GSM and dual-band HSPA (2100 / 900MHz), which unfortunately limited us to EDGE connectivity in the States. Thankfully, HTC sells a variant for our native (1900 / 850MHz) 3G bands. Considering its entry-level positioning, the Wildfire S features a comprehensive assortment of goodies, including: 512MB of memory, WiFi b/g/n (which functions as a mobile hotspot), Bluetooth 3.0, AGPS, and FM radio, along with a compass, accelerometer, proximity and ambient light sensors.

Performance and Call Quality

Featuring only a 600MHz processor, the Wildfire S immediately positions itself as a budget offering. That's a shame, really, because there are plenty of users who would appreciate a compact phone that's also speedy. While the handset responded nimbly when we navigated menus, viewed galleries, and browsed the internet, it noticeably faltered when we stumbled on pages with Flash animation. We also noticed that the menu in the camera application is horribly sluggish -- nearly to the point of being unusable. Put simply, the software provides a live image preview even while the user is more concerned with tweaking the settings. Unfortunately, this is too much for the Wildfire S to handle. HTC would have been wise to disable the live preview to make adjusting ISO, white balance and whatnot actually tolerable. If you happen to be listening to music at the same time, the procedure is all the more excruciating.

Fortunately, if you're interested in using this phone as, you know, a phone, you'll be glad to know that call quality is superb. The earpiece is quite loud even at the medium setting, and voices sound clear and distinct even when the volume is very low. Although our friend's voice came across as sharp and edgy when we called her Verizon iPhone, we never had difficulty understanding what she was saying. Placing a call to a landline was a thoroughly rewarding experience, with natural tones on our end that were crisp and full of depth. In both cases, callers commented on the clarity of our voice, although the microphone may be overly sensitive, because they were able to distinctly hear the sounds of children in the background. If you speak quietly or have trouble hearing, the Wildfire S could be a true blessing.

Battery Life


With a 1230mAh battery, the phone could meet, disappoint, or exceed your expectations -- and this will all come down to how you use it. In our first test, we started with a full charge and fresh boot, enabled WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS, set the display to 50 percent brightness, configured one push email account, and set Twitter and Facebook to poll every 15 minutes and one hour, respectively. When playing Lego Star Wars on a continual loop, the handset kept going for five hours and 15 minutes.

In another battery torture test, we kept these settings and went about the town listening to one hour of music, capturing 60 photos (with location tagging), using GPS navigation for five minutes, talking for 20 minutes and sending 20 text messages -- all the while checking our email periodically. We then returned home to surf the web for another 20 minutes over WiFi, and managed to squeeze in 20 minutes of Angry Birds before the battery gave out. This added up to approximately five hours of use.

In our final test, we disabled Bluetooth, reduced the backlight to 40 percent, and attempted to use the phone in a more tame manner. After 25 minutes of voice calls, 30 minutes of music listening, capturing ten photos, sending 20 text messages, and intermittently browsing the web and checking our email, the phone managed a full 30 hours before it hit the ten percent mark.

Camera

HTC Wildfire S sample shots

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The five megapixel AF camera on the Wildfire S is a fine performer in ideal conditions, but it's held back by a wide range of limitations. For instance, while the phone captures a reasonable amount of detail in the near-field (which is beautifully assisted by the tap-to-focus feature), distant details will look muddy no matter where you place the focus. We also noticed the image sensor was continually overwhelmed in bright areas, which resulted in blown-out pockets. Shooting indoors is a mixed bag, where you're bound to get quite a bit of noise. Fortunately, we had better luck when manually limiting the ISO or leaning on the LED flash for assistance. Speaking of the built-in bulb, it's quite good when lighting an indoor scene that's otherwise completely dark. Unfortunately if the flash hits anything glossy, again the sensor will be overwhelmed.

When we took the camera out at dusk, it struggled mightily to make sense of the situation. The software would often compensate by cranking the ISO between 600 and 800, making the scene appear as a very grainy daylight. That said, depending on the effect you're going for, it produced some interesting results at low ISO settings, which you can also manipulate with your point of focus. Video capture is limited to VGA (640 x 480) on the Wildfire S, which is a drastic improvement over the original Wildfire, but the CPU struggles to deliver a frame rate that properly conveys fluid motion. It will certainly work in a pinch, but don't expect anything mind-blowing.


Software

HTC Wildfire S screenshots

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One of the Wildfire S' key selling points is the inclusion of Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread), and naturally, it comes with Sense 2.1 layered on top. Upon setup, users are given the option to transfer information from their previous phone over Bluetooth, login to a WiFi network, choose how data is synced, opt-in to Google's location services, and configure their email and social network accounts.

The handset we received was free of carrier customization, which meant little bloatware and just the usual hybrid of Google and HTC apps. Along with the seven home screens and a plethora of widgets, you'll find the HTC Hub, which allows users to further personalize their phones with a free assortment of sound sets, themes, wallpapers, and yes... more widgets. A less useful offering is HTC Likes, which aims to bring a social component to the Android Market, but its app sharing feature is largely superfluous and the software selection is a disappointment. Given that internal storage is always at a premium, we'd greatly applaud an option to remove redundant applications such as this and HTC's Twitter client, Peep.

Which brings us to an interesting point. As is, HTC Sense is a "love it or leave it" proposition. While there's no doubt the company has spent a great deal of effort to refine and polish the interface, certain aspects of it continue to frustrate just as many as those who find it charming -- we're looking at you, keyboard and dialer. Given that Sense was originally created to bring ease of use to the forefront, we'd like to see an option that allows users to pick and choose between HTC and Google applications. Say you love the Sense Music app, but long for the Android calendar -- two clicks later, and that could be yours. Sure, you'll lose the cohesive interface, but why not have the choice? Given Android's openness, communication between the apps shouldn't be an issue. Put simply, if HTC were willing to let users choose their own personalized blend of Sense and Android, it wouldn't be giving away the crown jewels, but rather doubling them.

Wrap-up


At the end of the day, the Wildfire S is a handset that many shoppers will choose based on its size (or color) alone. Fortunately, it's a rather good option. Despite its limitations, the phone offers a compelling set of features at a price that's hard to ignore. Yes, a faster processor, less glossy screen, and more thoughtful button placement could make this phone truly outstanding, but the device provides a respectable balance when form factor is the biggest concern.
HTC

HTC Wildfire S

Pros

  • Excellent voice clarity
  • Solid build
  • Good camera w/ LED flash

Cons

  • Sluggish when multitasking
  • Highly reflective display
  • Average battery life
Conclusion

The Wildfire S is a compact handset with strong voice quality to match, but it's held back by a weak CPU.

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