On the HTC Desire S: A Review

Posted on 11/16/2011


I will come out and just say it, in most of my previous dealings with Android, I was left largely underwhelmed. I was first exposed to the OS on an HTC Desire back in 2010. Sure it had all the bling, being a Sense device, had a large screen and for the had a powerful engine, but it left me relatively unmoved. It was a bit slow and the whole experience seemed a bit cumbersome to my eyes. I was also impervious to touch input at the time, being heavily button oriented, and to a certain extent I still am, when I think about my love affair with the keyboard on the sadly departed Nokia E7.

But now it’s the tail end of 2011 and the time are changing. At this juncture it is impossible to consider a discussion without including or recommending a device powered by Android. Smartphones driven under the hood by the big Gs OS are now in Symbianesque ubiquity. The latest stats released had Android capturing 52% of the smartphone  market, the sort of numbers last seen since the days of Nokia’s heady days. This in part is driven by the sheer volume of devices being produced by original equipment manufacturers (OEMS). Android OEMS have flooded the market with everything from ridiculous high end devices to R600 (sub $100) volume pushers.

This has led to something that cannot be ignored when looking at Android, the F-word, fragmentation. In the last year or so, I have taken in a variety of Android devices, the HTC Desire, Wildfire and Wildfire S, LG Optimus, Motorola Milestone 2, Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro, even the ultra budget Vodafone 858, and what struck about all these devices is that there is no unifying Android experience.   The Touchwizz experience is nothing like the Sense experience which nothing like the Blur or Scape experience. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Brand loyalty is a big thing these days. I know lot’s of people who swear by Samsung phones and others yet who swear by HTC. Now if that’s your philosophy then it simply becomes a case of picking the best user experience and running with it. But switching OEMs while it could get complicated becomes just like switching brands and OSs but with a shallower learning curve, since all the devices are linked by a common core of Google services and the Android Market.

Now out of necessity, a story that does not be expanded upon for the purpose of the review, I recently picked up an HTC combo special consisting of the HTC Flyer, a 7″ tablet and the update to the original Desire, the Desire S. I have been using the phone extensively and that is the focus of this review.

The HTC Desire S

The Physical Examination

At face value, the Desire S is just like any other HTC slab. HTC has perfected the nondescript slab design. The size of the screen aside, this bears a striking resemblance to the HTC Wildfire line of phones. The design is pleasing in some ways, the appealing rounded corners, the raised lip at the base of the device, and the predominant blacks. It also feels nice in the hand, being, screen aside, predominantly aluminium and rubberised.

The understated HTC Desire S

The front of the phone is dominated by the 3.7″ Super LCD (S-LCD) touch screen, with the four capacitive buttons below. At the head of the device is a surprisingly large earpiece with the front fracing camera to the right.

The front of the Desire S is dominated by the 3.7" S-LCD screen

At the rear end of the device at the top, surrounded by gripy rubber we find the rather unimpressive 5 MP camera with the rather unimpressive single LED flash, as well as the tinny, low volume speaker.

The HTC Desire S's 5MP camera with single LED flash and rear mounted mono speaker

In fact from a component perspecttive this is a very unremarkable device. Now I’m not talking about the engine, a 1 Ghz single core Snapdradon processor, dedicated graphics and 768 Mb RAM, which keeps things ticking along nicely as I will explain, but everything else. The screen is great indoors. You often hear of the difference between the AMOLED derivatives on Samsung devices and others like Nokia, but in general, the average consumer will not be fussed…until you head outdoors. We are having a brilliant Highveld summer in 2011 here in Johannesburg, and while I was out giving the camera a good going over, it turned into a lottery as the screen washed out horribly. The N8 on the other hand, which doesn’t have the best AMOLED screen on a Nokia, never the Samsung units, was always visible. This means texting on the go etc will prove a tricky task in sunny climes like our own.

Moving on, the speaker is rather poor. It’s is incredibly quiet and tinny. I’ve been using the Adidas miCoach app for training with voice coaching, and on the N8 I could slip it into the back bouch of my shorts or tights, go out and hit the road knowing that I would hear all the voice save for when a lot of cars were about.  I don’t run with earphones as I feel this is incredibly dangerous. The HTC Desire S is at times almost inaudible.

While the phone maitains good signal, call quality leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe I’ve got sensitive ears, but I have  noticed a deterioration in call quality since I have been using the device.

The rather large earpiece on the HTC Desire S

And when it comes to connecting to Wifi, I have noticed an Apple iPhone 4 antennagate-esque propensity to drop signal and even lose the connection when the phone is held in a certain way. It looks like the wifi radio is at the top of the device and when I cradle the phone in may hand, the signal drops very quickly. This is constantly reproducible and I have to make sure I hold the device at the lower end, which with my smaller than average hands, and couple with the reasonable sized 3.7″ screen, hampers one hand use. So over Wifi I use the device with two hands. It’s not a train smash by any means but on Saturday and Sunday I had the phone switch to 3G constantly until I remedied my grip.

Overall though, there is a solid feel to the phone with no plastic to be seen or felt. The phone feels incredibly light, though it weighs in at 130g, 14g more than the much larger Samsung Galaxy S and only 5g lighter than the N8 which feels so much substantial. Part of that I feel is to due with styling and the slimness. The device might not stand out but it also means it’s not outlandish. The SGSII of course is incredibly big but the slimness is the obvious draw (or flaw if you think like me), while the N8 is a beast, with that camera humb and imposing all metal shell. The Desire S on that hand is sleek and understated and it’s a design that has honestly grown on me.

The Sixth Sense

As I said, outside of the Market apps and Google services, many of these Android devices are unique with the obvious mark of the associated OEM. While the appeal of Android is that you can safely hack away at the system and essentially create your own experience, the majority of people I know who use Android are non geeks with virtually untouched devices. And on that level I would argue that Sense UI probably has the best user experience out of the lot.

My unit is running Sense 2.1 on top Gingerbread, version 2.3.3. Now both of these have moved on, with sense at 3.X and Gingerbread at 2.3.5.

Sense UI is a graphically rich and fresh looking UI skin, with oodles of eye candy, the practicalities of which will depend on the preferences of the user. There are seven homescreens, with a universal dock with links to Apps, Phone and Personalisation. Pinch zooming works nicely to show an overview of all seven homescreens but disappointingly you can’t delete them which is a shame. Moreover, with HTC Scenes, you have five scenes available to you, each with seven homesceens, so if you are widget happy you could have up to 35 homescreens setup. Madness I say! Additional customisations a re five skins to modify the erm skin,  which change the appearance of the dock, and colour and styling of the status bar.

HTC Desire S homescreen with 'Slate' skin

The landing page is the central fourth screen and additional screen are accessed by swiping left or right. I’ve kept my device to three homescreens and I struggle to fathom why anyone would need SEVEN homescreens and the additional scenes. Essentialy I have a simple setup. The main screen is the clock widget and key apps, to the left is Play with the music widget and quick access to social and web services, and to the right, Work, with my productivity apps  and a calendar widget.

The phone shortcut on the dock is the quickest way to access your contacts but be warned this pulss contacts stored on the phone or on the SIM and there is no way to filter this out. My SIM card is merely a backup (one of many) and I don’t particularly want these duplicated.   Something thing I do like about it though is that about the list here is that it begins with a log of your most recent activity, texts and calls. Tapping on a name/number by default will dial and a long press brings up a contextual menu with more actions. Tapping on the options button and selectinng People will send you to a better filtered contacts list but you lose the dial pad. Speaking of the dialpad, HTC has included smart dialling, something I take for granted these days. The feature here filters contacts by name and number, better implemented than on Symbian which only filters names.

Messaging is well catered for. Threaded SMS is of course supported. The UI to compose messages is delightfully simple, and very clear about where and how to input text, as well as send and attachment options.

Text input is pleasent, a far cry from the substandard experience that Symbian users are subjected to with a nicely laid out keyboard with nice keys. The keyboard supports long press for additional characters.  There is nice haptic feedback and the correction is good for when you make the expected errors.

Elsewhere, as a Gmail user it is great to finally have an all inclusive system that handles my mail, contacts and calendar. I did have an issue with some calendar events which were weekly recurring events and I initially thought it was privacy settings. However if I removed the repeat, synced and added the repeat back, the event was added correctly. I don’t like that there still seems to be no way to download attachments via the Gmail client. The default HTC client supports this but wouldn’t sync multiple calendars. The calendar app is also quite good. My only gripe is that month that support split agenda and calendar view something that I have always found very useful.

Elsewhere around the phone, I found the mutltimedia apps, music and video very pleasing to the eye and again very simple to use. Moreover, I appreciate the use of playback controls in the lock screen.

HTC Desire S Music player

Cover Flow

Music player controls on the lock screen

In terms of accessing settings, all these are found by tapping on the Options button and hittinh settings. Coming from Symbian it is great to have a more comprehensive set of universal setting. Symbian^3/Anna/Belle is good but not as comprehensive or as simple as the Android system especially when it comes to individual application setting. I also like that accounts on the phone can be tweaked here as well instead of having to go into each individual service.

Some of my gripes around Android, the back button and multitasking still hold. I genuinely believe that the back button is a bit of a lottery. I don’t like the fact that it is basically a system wide interaction, whereby pushing it essentially cycles through every instance of every interaction with the device. I would prefer it it was app centric and once you leave an app it takes you back to the menu or homescreen depending on where you opened the app from. Yes I can just push the home key but that leads my next gripe. Multitasking on Android is annoying at best. I don’t want the system to manage my running tasks. Really I don’t. I’m fully capable of deciding what I want to keep open and close. And on that point why is there no system of explicitly exiting an app. Using the back button exits an app in a handful of cases and in most instances sends them to the background and then the system decides what it wants to do with. And the half-arsed attempt at running tasks? I know it’s perfectly easy to adapt or download third party apps, but a core experience like this should not need to be ‘fixed’ with a third party solution.

I know that is not an exhaustive analysis of the software experience but suffice to say in most respects the HTC Desire S, with Android’s core and Sense Ui and it’s associated application is well stocked and is pretty capable out of the box

But is it any good day to day?

The measure of a good device is in how it works on a day to day basis, and moreover what the user expects a phone to be able to do on day to day basis. My primary use cases are productive and multimedia consumption and creation. This means I need a good email client, solid PIM, useable music player and a great camera. I’m also a clumsy clumsy character as the following two images illustrate, with battle scars for my near year old N8 and the brand new Desire S. So robustness is important

First battle scars for the Desire S

Potential damage - a scarred N8 (the first HTC Desire Sample)

To be honest, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much joy I have extracted from this device. I’ll start of with performance first, which I had no expectation. I have been lucky enough to have had a lot of play time on one of the finest smartphones doing the rounds, the SGSII, and just by following the spec sheets you would expect the SGSII to stomp all over this diminutive device bust rest assured the Desire S holds it’s own. The SGSII is visibly faster and more responsive but more importantly, the Desire S is no slouch. If this were a percentage game we would be looking at around 10%-20%. In real world terms not overly dramatic. Sense UI is also better than Touchwizz in my opinion, so using the device is actually more pleasurable.

My PIM data is precious to me and I have specifically chosen a system, cloud based with desktop backup, that ensures that moving from device to device is painless. Now I’ve had to jump through some hoops, using MfE, SyncML and third party services like GoogaSync, but the experience of simply typing in a username and a password was a breath of fresh air. And the issue with the recurring events aside, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Throughout my transition to smartphone usage, I have done my best to ensure that services that I use are as platform agnostic as possible, ensuring that transitioning between platforms would be as painless as possible. The advantage then of having access to the Android Market is that it’s simply been a case of perusing the store and pulling down an app. Thus far I have completed my complement of services with the exception of Simplenote for which I have not found a suitable app.

This leads me to a critical aspect of the Android experience, the integration. That pretty much every service is tightly integrated and there is so much scope for cross talk makes the Android experience very compelling. And of course all this apps have access to the drop down notification bar, so from a glanceability perspective the system is well designed. Which is also why I have eschewed the many widgets on offer, purely because a swift drag down the screen presents all the information I need. Something I like about Sense is that the drop down menu has been altered a bit. Notifications and quick settings (GPS, Data etc) can be switched by two tabs at the bottom and in place of where the quick settings usually is a side scrollable view of ‘recent taks’ much like holding the home button. I actually prefer to access my running tasks this way.

Pull down menu and quick settings

The camera. Oh the camera. In some ways I should be disqualified from passing judgement on this based on the simple fact that, for stills at least, I have been using the finest camera phone ever created and still not topped more than a year later. The Desire S gives up a lot to the N8, the resolution count, 60% less than the N8, is only significant because of the smaller sensor and the clearly inferior optics, as well the single spot light LED flash. And yes the images are average to poor, and in low light bordering on horrendous. There’s a lot of noise and clearly a lot of over processing to pull back on the noise so the images are littered with artefacts. But I actually managed to get pictures that on the phone screen and looking at them on my computer screen at the default view size, well pleasing to the eye, with vibrant colours. Even at these sizes the noise was visible though the average person will have to zoom in to notice the lack of detail and processing artefacts. Most of these pictures are going to end up on Facebook anyway and that service manages to bastardize even the N8s photos. So I’m going to argue that for a lot of use cases the Desire S camera will be fine. Until the sun sets that is, then you might as well not bother. I did not get a single low light shot worth keeping. Honestly. The fourth shot in the gallery is the best I got.


I think it is fair to say that these images for general purposes are actually quite usable. I’m going to keep my N8 around obviously but for quick snaps in good light the Desire S is not bad. One thing that it does well is macro. I found I could get much closer than The N8, even when the latter was set to close up mode.

I still have the usual misgivings about Android and data, with it being a connected platform. Just today, Youtube initiated an update all on it’s own, even  though I’m certain I unchecked the automatic download option. There is a general assumption in the way that the system is designed that presumes the user can gorge themselves endlessly with data. The annoying thing is that you have to go into each app individually to modify the automatic download setting. The should be universal all or nothing, over and above the individual option.

Also HTC Sense is very heavily geared towards social networks. I’m getting a little tired of the phone asking me to link contacts EVERY TIME I set up a new account. It works for some people I know, but I would prefer a more subtle system. My feeling is there a reason we have apps and web apps to access these services. I believe in keeping them apart. Maybe I’m just ‘old fashioned’ in that regard.

And so far I’m finding battery life standard. I charge every night. It’s really no more than I expected but I’m sure some people with less aggresive usage patterns could drag this well into a second day. I know I am pretty brutal on every phone I use and in fact struggle to remember a time when I could get even two days out of a phone battery.

Concluding Remark

The HTC Desire S is a strange little device. Especially for someone like me, who is very hardware century. I value things like build quality and component quality, camera quality and additional things. Hence why I got the N8 which really is the MacGyver of the cellphone industry, inelegant and app sparse OS or not. I can plug things into, play things out of it, charge things with (yes I have actually charged a friends Blackberry Curve 8520 using the USB on the Go feature), hook it up to stuff, throw it around, and the OS is getting better and better. The Desire S though from a gadget perspective is underwhelming. It’s built well enough actually but from a component perspective is a ‘lowest common denominator’ type device. Yes it’s got a fast processor and oodles of RAM but components is more than that for me, something more tangible.

And yet I love it.

Yes I do.

As far as Android devices go, this is the first one I have taken to and have been able to look past it’s oh so obvious flaws. I put that down to the unbelievably hooked up software experience. From a usability perspective, and balancing the performance with expectations, this is a stellar device. As I said, it doesn’t lose out as much as you would expect to the powerhouses like the SGSII, and is infinitely superior to the likes of the HTC Wildfire S. It’s also just the right size. I wonder how I would get on with the likes of the Sensation with the 4.3″ screen but I would wager that the form factor would be less enjoyable than the Desire S. At 3.7″ and the physical size of the device this really hits the sweet spot, and I say this having experienced a range of touch screen devices from 2.8″ through to 4.3″ For these hands the Desire S is the perfect size.

I also just don’t think right now with the experience that I’ve had with the Desire S that you necessarily need a gazillion cores and gargantuan screens to get a well rounded mobile experience. The Desire S is a wonderful balance of technology and usability. Yes there are compromises everywhere, but most bits are not too bad in the grander scheme of things. The camera would need work  but what not as bad as I expected. Given how most people use their phones and their expectations of camera phones the Desire S would not be that bad. Just look at how many pics shot on horrendous camera phones like the Curve 8520 are all over the net, and the Desire S is a better than pretty much any Blackberry camera I have seen.

It might never be as dear to me as the N8 ever will, and it might lack a certain utilitarian charm to it, but the elegance with which the Desire S goes about it’s business makes it a pretty darn good smartphone in my eyes.