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.
That is not to say that the Desire HD's design is without its flaws, however. While we appreciate having access to the microSD and SIM card slots, we're not such big fans of their shared cover, which is made of a brittle plastic and fails to sit flush with the aluminum back. Similarly worthy of our disapprobation was the side-mounted battery lid, which has better adherence to the overall curvature of the phone, but is pretty much a nightmare to both open and close. Trust us, we've had our trained lab monkeys going over this, it's a massive pain. Oh, and when you do finally manage to pop it open, the battery compartment offers no retention mechanism for the power cell, which just slides out. Right next to the battery slot is the volume button, and we call it a button because, unlike a rocker, it has almost no travel and it's amazingly hard to differentiate whether you're pressing the top, bottom, or the middle of it. We're actually rather befuddled as to how HTC managed to mess up something so basic and routine in a phone as the volume toggle this badly.
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.
A prime reason as to why that battery runs down so fast is, of course, the inclusion of a jumbo 4.3-inch screen on the Desire HD. We said this with the HD7 and it bears repeating here: although the Desire HD has the same 800 x 480 screen resolution as the original Desire, the simple act of magnifying that resolution onto a larger display just makes operating the phone easier. Basically, you can fit just as much of Engadget on your Desire HD as on the Desire, but the text will be readable at a more zoomed-out level that on the 3.8-inch predecessor. Opinions will differ on this, naturally, as pixel density enthusiasts
will decry being able to (or imagining they're able to) spot the bigger dots, but we'll take improved usability and reading room over mildly (if at all) degraded image quality any day of the week.
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.