Mobile Review: HTC Desire HD

Over the past few years HTC have enjoyed a meteoric rise from being a fairly low-key OEM handset manufacturer to becoming one of the leading names in the mobile phone market. Their winning combination of attractive hardware and intuitive software has won them accolades both at industry and grass roots levels. With the Desire HD being their ‘biggest’ release to date, can they continue to persuade legions of consumers to invest in their brand?

Hardware

I’m going to begin this review with a timesaving note of advice to our valued readers. If you’re looking for a small, lightweight mobile phone, the kind you can slip into a pocket and forget about it being there, you don’t need to read any further. This isn’t the phone for you.

At a finger stretching 123 mm tall, 68 mm wide and 11.8 mm thick, not to mention 164 g in weight, the Desire HD pushes the envelope of credibility when referring to itself as a mobile phone. There are those who would claim that with dimensions such as these it strays more into mini-tablet territory, like the Dell Streak. Nevertheless, there does appear to be a fairly small but vocal niche market here for people who find standard sized smartphones just too small to effectively meet their needs but who don’t want to resort to carrying around a full-blown tablet device either.

The rear and sides of the device are largely constructed out of a unibody aluminium shell, which gives it a rock solid feel in the hand. Unfortunately this is interrupted by a series of rather less durable soft-touch plastic panels, one around the dual LED flash assembly, one on the side which covers a disappointingly underpowered 1230 mAh Li-ion battery and one on the bottom under which can be found the SIM and microSD cards. Of these plastic inserts the last one doesn’t quite meet the aluminium shell with the level of precision one would expect from HTC resulting in a small but noticeable gap between the two. Some of the internals are visible through this gap, which potentially leaves the device susceptible to humid or dusty environments.

There are only two physical inputs on the device, a power button on the top and a volume rocker switch on the left. Both of these are virtually flush with the body of the phone, are hard to locate by touch alone and don’t have much travel to them which means it’s not always apparent that you’ve engaged them as intended. A 3.5 mm headphone socket and a microUSB charge/sync port are located on the very bottom.

The front of the device is dominated by the massive 4.3″ SuperLCD screen that has a 480 x 800 WVGA resolution. As this is exactly the same resolution used by its smaller cousin, the Desire, it’s surprising that HTC didn’t take the opportunity to raise the bar here. Still, the display offers up a nice crisp image and has a refreshingly natural colour balance that is easy on the eye. Those who complain that they could never watch a whole movie on a phone might be forced to eat their words if they tried such a thing on the Desire HD. Just under the screen are four touch sensitive buttons for home, menu, back and search functions.

One thing I did take issue with wasn’t so much to do with the display itself but rather they way it’s set into the device. The screen in actually recessed ever so slightly which means when you sweep across the screen, be it with finger or thumb, and you reach the edge, you are met by the raised metal surround with diminishes the flow of the touchscreen experience. Now this may sound like nit picking (as may some of the other points I’ve raised earlier) but this is one of several design elements that are sub par with my expectations of an HTC device. Rather than taking this solely as a criticism one should instead regard it more as a note of genuine surprise given my personal experiences with their generally high standards. It seems that, with the Desire HD at least, the devil really is in the detail.

Which leads me onto what I see as being the biggest overall design flaw on this handset – the 8 MP auto-focus camera on the rear. The camera itself is of a good quality producing sharp and undistorted images in optimal lighting conditions and the 720p HD video output is impressive enough to encourage the budding moviemaker in us all. No, my problem isn’t with the camera but rather the placement of it. It protrudes significantly from the rear of the device, which prevents you from being able to lay the handset down entirely flat on a table or similar surface. There’s nothing to stop you from laying it down and trying to use it but each prod of a finger causes the handset to rock back and forth hindering speed and accuracy of input. Besides, for a lot of camera phone aficionados, the mere thought of placing a handset down where a lot of the weight of the device rests on the camera unit itself is an alarming thought.

Sound quality was crystal clear when engaged in a telephone conversation and, as before, I attribute this as much to the robust nature of the 3 mobile network as I do the handset itself. There is built in Dolby and SRS support for use when watching media content. Neither of these seemed all that effective in significantly enhancing the audio of a movie and after tinkering around with them for a while I was quite happy to do without them.

Another admirable feature that HTC have built into the Desire HD is the ability for it to recognise the fact that it’s in a pocket or bag and ring louder than it normally would or to turn the ringer off entirely when you place the handset face down thereby avoiding embarrassing situations where you have to fiddle with volume or mute settings when the phone rings at an inopportune moment.

Software

The Desire HD runs Android 2.2 (Froyo) which is as fast and as responsive as one would expect being driven as it is by a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Application launching and switching was executed without any hint of lag and the only time I found it to be even remotely sluggish, and I’m talking about only a momentary stutter here, was after I had opened up a whole load of resource hungry applications. It’s here that Android reveals one of its few shortcomings, having no built-in task manager/killer, and one of these was the first thing I downloaded from the Android Marketplace. Even if the processor can handle a mighty workload without breaking out in a sweat, the more things running in the background, the faster the battery will drain – more on that in a moment.

Being an HTC device the stock look and feel of Android is enhanced by their Sense UI overlay which is much nicer looking and far more polished than Google’s bare-bones effort. There is a stunning level of customisation possible ranging from a choice of widgets and/or shortcuts on one of seven ‘home’ screens to the skinning of interface elements themselves, right down to a bewildering array of wallpapers, some of which are even animated. All this gives the owner the opportunity to truly personalise the device to his or her own tastes and needs. Of course one of the biggest drawbacks to this level of customisation is the temptation to go over the top and with loads of widgets pulling down information off the Internet on regular intervals and with nice, but otherwise useless, animated wallpapers in action, one can find that it all contributes negatively on the battery life. It’s a crying shame that HTC chose to use the previously mentioned 1230 mAh Li-ion battery rather than the 1500 mAh variety found in other handsets of this class because as it stands the battery life is underwhelming.

As well as bundling in their own widgets, HTC have also included a number of their own applications to rival the stock Android ones and in virtually every instance I encountered one of these I found them to be the better of the two. An all-round range of applications are installed by default, including HTC’s own ‘Friend Stream’ social feed. If you want more you can always visit the Android Marketplace but take note, in terms of mobile application stores this has much more of a wild west frontier feel to it than the heavily curated App Store on iOS devices. Here lurk some truly shoddy apps that would have been shown the door by Apple long before getting anywhere close to being let into their store. Some apps are ripped off and hastily repackaged versions of ones already out there and some of these have malicious payloads intended to catch out the unwary, thinking they’re buying the real deal. It’s a matter of record that quite recently a number of infected apps were removed from the Android Marketplace and, for the first time ever, Google initiated a ‘remote kill’ protocol to forcefully remove them from the handsets of users who had already downloaded them. It’s no surprise then that the second item of software I downloaded was a virus scanner that examines any potential purchases I make from the Marketplace.

This really isn’t intended to be a scare story to cause potential buyers to avert their gaze away from Android handsets and look elsewhere. The number of malicious apps is actually quite small in comparison to the wealth of legitimate ones available, but it is intended to be a point of caution. When it comes to the Android Marketplace, take the advice of the Romans and remember, CAVEAT EMPTOR!

HTC have even extended their level of influence to the camera application, which raises it above the average level of most bundled camera utilities with the inclusion of a number of filters. These are a fun addition that encourages people to experiment when taking shots or composing movies.

One of the additional features that HTC have rolled out is their HTCsense.com website which you can register with and link your phone to. Doing so gives you a means by which, if you’ve misplaced your handset (and provided it’s still switched on) you can see its location on a map, make it ring to alert the nearest person to its presence, remotely lock the screen, provide alternative contact details and even leave a message, no doubt asking the finder to kindly return it to you. There is also a section called ‘Footprints’, which keeps a track of all the locations your phone has been to which is both handy and fun for those who travel a lot. There is an area where you can view and interact with messages sent to the phone (although I couldn’t get this to work) and an area called ‘HTC Hub’ which gives you access to lots of additional content that you can obtain to further customize your phone.

Conclusion

It has to be said, this phone certainly provokes a real mix of reactions. On the one hand it’s big, and heavy, has an inadequate battery life, and is beset with a number of surprising design flaws. On the basis of that you would think the outcome is a clear-cut decision. But it’s not. There are enough things that do work, that are well thought out, and which keep you coming back to play with. Sure, this device may have a limited appeal to the general smartphone seeking masses but, as I’ve said before, there is a target audience out there for whom the negatives are outweighed by the positives and I say if you’re one of them and are willing to tame this beast, then grab on tight and enjoy the ride!

I score the HTC Desire HD a GeekNative rating of 7 out of 10.

Review handset provided courtesy of 3 Mobile who have recently confirmed they will be stocking both the 3G and Wi-Fi versions of Apple’s iPad 2 in the coming weeks. The iPad 2 is expected to hit general retail channels in the UK on the 25th of March.

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