HTC Desire Review


I've had the HTC Desire for a week now. Time for a review.

The Desire comes in a rather small box. It contains the phone, a USB cable, wall socket interface for USB, headphones and some manuals. There's also a 4GB micro-SD card, but in my case this was already inserted into the Desire. Note that the SD also contains some software, which you'll need to tether and sync.

The phone itself feels light and thin. But coming from an HTC TyTN II, that's not so hard to accomplish :) The phone also has a rubbery back, which makes it feel rough and prevents it from slipping through your fingers.

The phone has a 5M camera, which works fine so far. There is one button on the side (volume up/down) and one on the top (power / keylock). On the front-bottom there are four navigational keys and an optical trackball. From my experience so far, I can tell you this. The search button, you never use. The trackball, you never use (or by accident, being annoying as hell). The back button is the one you'll always use (I'll come back to that later) and the menu button is required to get to certain configuration parts of most apps (more about that later as well). The home button is the only one that you sometime use, but could have done without. Search is something you don't use very often, and even so, Android's interface gives you this option as well.

At the bottom there's a micro USB connector. This was initially the biggest let down, since I hadn't even seen micro USB up to that point. However, I've been told that micro USB will be the "next thing", so I guess (or hope) it'll work out for the best. For now, I'd better not lose my cable or I'll be screwed.

At the top there's the last hole meant for a headphones jack. In the train, when tethering, it means there's a cable coming from both sides of the phone (I'll refrain from jokes here... ;)). This means you can't just keep it in your pocket. Not sure whether that's a bad thing though.

The touch screen works fine. Biggest let down is that you need to touch it with your finger. It (or Android...) doesn't seem to respond to a nail or a sharp pointer kind of touch. The biggest problem with this is that you can't seem to touch the interface very accurately. And having big fingers, that's a little annoying at times. Although you get used to it after a while... There's also no pen for the Desire, something I had completely overlooked when ordering it :p

So much for the hardware. Onwards to the software. The Desire comes with Android 2.1 installed, and HTC's "Sense". It's supposed to be this awesome UI enhancement to Android. However, I've never used Android so I guess I don't see the difference. The TyTN was a Windows Mobile phone so any change was welcome here :p

It seems that buying an Android phone is much like buying a laptop. It comes with all kinds of pre installed applications which are crap but cannot be uninstalled. After playing around a little, the thing I missed the most was some kind of running application manager. It is impossible to actually exit an application. None of the apps have an exit/stop button. So it is quite impossible to know what the hell is running and what is not. It is also impossible to do proper battery management.

Enter third party apps. There are a dozen of third party applications that do this for you. The one I've settled for right now is "Advanced Task Manager Free", which is free (oh really). This just means that there's an ad below it, which is okay for me for now. There are a couple of task managers, but beware that some don't show all the tasks for some reason (I mean, how hard is it really).

I've also read that the sandbox model of Android don't actually allow apps to completely terminate other apps. You can shut it down but it can be requested to be restarted again. Or something like that. Some apps can simply not be shut down.

There are basically two kinds of apps. Apps that run in the foreground. You use them and explicitly work with them. There are also services, like the ones checking your mail and twitter and what not. These apps can both be started explicitly by you, in several obvious ways, or "at boot". Note that it is impossible to remove an application from boot, without installing it completely. This is a real pain in the ass because I don't want to run most apps at boot. Yet I'd either have to uninstall them or manually kill them after boot. I find this and the missing (native) task manager a serious shortcoming of Android.

Anyways, Android 2.1 with Sense comes with seven home screens. I've been told Android usually only has five. To be honest, I'm only using three of them myself. The onboard twitter apps are okay, but not great. Too much space taken up by gfx I don't care about (three tweets on screen, really?). Haven't bothered to find a proper app though.

Then there's the GMail integration. I like this one. It allows me to install two different Gmail accounts without a problem. Okay, sure, when receiving mail in both, you only get sent to one inbox. Having read an email there automatically unflags new mail for the other as well (in the alert), but whatever. Reading mail on the phone also marks it as read on the web. Replying in depth is not very favorable. But at least I'm promptly notified of mail now. It proved that deleting mail was a little bit too easy. Uppon handing my phone to my girlfriend to let her read some email she accidentally pressed the delete button on screen and the email was deleted. Took me quite a bit of time to get it back (as the app does not allow you to access the trash, for some odd reason…). Had to go to the web, enable regular desktop mode and navigating to that email manually, before I could restore it. Whatever, just enable the delete warning from the settings and this should no longer be an issue :)

That leads to the typing. This takes some time to get used to. Like I said, the touch pad is not very accurate. You need full finger touches, nails or a pen don't trigger a touch. This makes it impossible to be accurate, which is a little annoying for the keyboard. But it compensates that for a dictionary like hinting system. You need to get used to that. After that it's okay, I suppose.

One flaw in the design of the phone and OS seems that back button. Every application I've seen so far has _no_ back button. You are required to use the hardware back button on the phone. While not strange, this is annoying because pressing the back button requires quite an amount of force relative to pressing the touch screen. So while you were easily navigating some site, pressing back requires you to get a strong grip on the phone to be able to properly press the back button.

The optical trackball seems useless to me. I mean, it works fine, but I never use it because it merely duplicates what the touch screen does. In fact, the only time you have to use it is when taking a picture, because it also acts as a button and you need to press it to take a picture... Other than that, it annoys me because it tends to interact randomly when hovering about doing stuff I don't want it to do. A bit annoying at times.

The menu button is for most applications the only way to access any configuration/help/whatever screen. Most apps don’t even contain buttons. I guess the screen estate is too valuable for that.

The Market, where you get custom apps, is another thing to cry about. Who the hell designed that? You can't filter or sort. There are a few arbitrary distinctions being made and that's it. What order is used? Popularity? Rating? Price? When opening the market you can choose between three sections; apps, games and downloads. Downloads is an overview of installed apps.

In Games or Apps there are a few choices between sections to be made. When you pick one of them you get to choose between top paid, top free or just in. I'm not sure what "top" means, perhaps most downloaded, but that would imply that the applications that were in are the automatically the most downloaded because you hardly see any other applications. This is a major fail in my opinion. Of course you can search for it, but then you'd have to know what you were looking for, the application would have to describe that in your own search terms and even then, there's still no guarantee that the app you're about to install is going to do what you want.

That leads me to my biggest objection in the whole system; Installing new apps. When installing an app you are warned about the capabilities these apps are going to be able to access. This one scares the heck out of you. Why would a process explorer require "full internet access"??? Why would a GPS app require access to my "Phone Calls"?? Seriously, why? Just to show a few ads? Wouldn't web access be enough for that? A GET restricted to some domain? And there are other, even more dangerous ones. You can't tell it to disable that access and see what happens. Just like you can't prevent the app from running on boot, you don't even know about this. You just don’t know what the hell some application you are about to install is actually going to do. And unlike apps in the iPhone store, Android apps are not reviewed. If spyware has a heaven, this could be it…

Alright, enough negativity. I know I've been mostly complaining here, but there's just a few things missing for my personal preference. All in all I really do like this phone. Whatever problems it has can be worked around. I also really like that it can just tether, no problems at all. Just install the sync software supplied on the SD and you're set. Tethering in the train can be a little flaky, but all in all I think that's not something to be complained about.

The camera is nice as well. The LED makes it possible to create proper pictures when there's less light. Which has been impossible with my previous two phones. The keylock is really intuitive, I like it. As well as the ease by which you unlock it. The top power button is easy to press (but not so that it will constantly be activated in your pocket) and the keylock is easily removed by a quick flick of the thumb. The keylock shows the current time, which is something I check rather often, so I like that as well.

I can't really say much about battery usage yet. I've not tweaked the phone to my liking yet and I'm still playing around with different apps. So I'm actually using the phone which is of course very bad for the battery. It seems that a display off, idle, immobile phone takes about 10% battery per 12 hours (checked it at night). When moving around, this should probably be a bit more as it's constantly looking for cell towers. When the screen is on, the battery is bleeding. When tethering, it bleeds even worse (perhaps even more so on a train). I've installed an app (free) to track this and am quite content with the way it represents this data. The name is JuicePlotter. It will plot the battery usage of your phone in a graph. It will colorize (and track) the temperature of your cpu, the battery state and whether your screen was on or off and at what intensity. The graph clearly shows a big drop when the screen is on and doing stuff. A warm battery is also reasons for battery drainage. The battery seems to recharge in like six hours. But that's likely to be different and dependent on a lot of circumstances (pc/laptop/wall socket, how empty was it, is it being used while charging, etc).

I suppose I should end this review right about now. Enough said. I really like the phone and am happy to have purchased it. There are some major design flaws though, in my humble opinion. Especially from a technical background, I want to be able to control what the hell is going on. And I can't. And that frustrates me a little because I know it should not be so hard to accomplish. But the phone is fast, reacts immediately (the snapdragon at work here) and I really enjoy that. There's hardly any lag in any app or whatever. Motion is smooth and everything responds quickly. The cpu can heat up a little, which is sometimes a little worrying, but so far no problems have come from that.

This was my one week review of the HTC Desire. Hope it helped you :)