HTC is a company yet to take a backwards step. You can say what you like about specific releases, but each generation of HTC handsets has improved on the last with superior physical design and notable improvements in the software. The HTC Desire is this case in point; it features the most up-to-date Android software, the slickest iteration of HTC's Sense user interface and is one of the most attractive touchscreen handsets available today.
There's no denying the similarities between the Desire and the HTC-manufactured Google Nexus One, they look like identical twins who get different haircuts to assert their individuality. There are a few obvious differences in detail, but overall you have a very similar shaped and sized handset with a similar two-tone colour scheme and matching 3.7-inch AMOLED WVGA touchscreens. For our money, we like the Desire better, the optical trackpad works nicely, and we prefer the mechanical buttons below the screen over the touch-sensitive ones you find on Google's phone.
Once you fire up the Desire, the comparisons end and the Desire streaks ahead. HTC's Sense UI gives Android something you can't find on the competition's offerings: a mixture of usability and style that truly sets it apart. HTC Sense features seven customisable homescreens (as opposed to the standard five on Android 2.1), to which the user can apply a wide range of widgets and shortcuts. But as owners of the iPhone will attest, scrolling back and forth across seven different screens can be a laborious task, so HTC has implemented a new tweak to Sense called 'Leap': a pinching touchscreen gesture that displays all seven screens as thumbnails, allowing you to 'leap' from one screen to the next without scrolling across the screens between.
Sense doesn't totally overwhelm the homescreen functionality; in fact Live Wallpapers, one of our favourite features of the Nexus One (and of Android 2.1 in general), is still active. Live Wallpapers are animated homescreen backgrounds, and in some instances are touch-active too, which really helps to make your phone feels somewhat alive, if at the expense of your battery life.
If you've followed the progress of Android, and you've read our Nexus One review, then you're basically up to speed with the capabilities of the HTC Desire. It sports all the smartphone hardware you'd expect; it supports Telstra's 850MHz network plus standard 2100MHz HSPA data transfers; it has a GPS receiver, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, supported by the standard suite of Google apps; and it has an excellent Webkit browser. Out of the box you'll find a comprehensive mixture of apps and web shortcuts to play with, representing the three corporations behind this release: Google, HTC and Telstra (in Australia), but any service or tool not on the phone when you receive it is likely to be found on the Android Market to download.
HTC has made sure the Desire is as capable a business smartphone as it is a phone for fun, extending its usual support for Microsoft Exchange email to include the ability to search a corporate database for contacts, a feature rarely seen on even the most advanced smartphones. Quickoffice is also installed for viewing and editing Microsoft Office documents, and the pre-installed HTC calendar is a winner with its clean UI and the integration of the weather into calendar entries over the upcoming five days.
Staying in touch
All new smartphones now support a wide range of communication methods. From Facebook and Twitter, to old favourites like SMS and email, staying in touch with contacts and the wider web is one of the highest priorities to those of us searching for a new phone to buy. The Desire ticks all of these boxes, and does it in some really innovative ways. Previous HTC Androids, like the Hero and Tattoo, featured HTC Peep for Twitter and integrated Facebook with the phone's address book. The Desire maintains this functionality and adds to it with Friends Stream, a new homescreen widget that aggregates Facebook and Twitter updates into one place and gives you the ability to update either profile without launching an app or the browser.
On top of this, the Desire also sports HTC Footprints, a geotagging app that tags photos you take with a location it generates using your current location, and Google's Latitude widget, which lets you see where your friends are using Google Maps. Within the phone's address book you can view photos via a contacts Facebook or Flickr stream, and you can merge contacts from a variety of sources into a single address book listing.
Media and the web
In previous Android reviews, we've complained about the various media capabilities of earlier devices, but the Desire features a media player of a high enough quality to keep us quiet this time around. This is by no means a show-stopping piece of software, but it does the job of organising and playing media files, and it looks good doing it. Media file recognition is marginally better than previous HTC Androids, adding Windows Media video and audio files to the usual assortment of MP4 videos and MP3 and AAC music.
We mentioned it before but we'll say it again: this web browser is a winner. Pages load quickly and render correctly, scrolling over long pages is smooth and fluid, and the browser supports some Adobe Flash content too via its Flash Lite plugin. To be honest, we were never really too concerned about the iPhone not supporting Flash content, but now that we've watched videos in the browser, we never want to go back to Apple's restrictive web experience. Also to Apple's ire, the Desire features multitouch pinch-zooming in the browser, as well as in the photo gallery and apps like Google Maps.
The only let-down in the media experience is the content you create yourself, namely photos and videos shot with the Desire's 5-megapixel camera. On paper this camera passes muster with its decent image resolution, touchscreen auto-focus and bright LED flash, but the end results aren't nearly as exciting. Our photographs look colder than in real life, with a chilly blue hue produced by the flash, and the auto-focus really struggles, especially with subjects that are prone to moving. Of our thirty-plus test images, only a small selection of them were captured clearly.
Performance and battery
Not only is the Desire a sexy phone full of excellent features, it is also a veritable powerhouse, packing a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and a huge 576MB of RAM. The results speak for themselves, with consistently zippy performance in the complex menus and inside the various apps we installed. We should point out that we turned down the animations in the display settings from 'All animations' to 'Some animations' to iron out some subtle jaggedness in the homescreen animations, specifically some tiny pauses when scrolling in the 'All programs' shortcuts list.
Importantly, the Desire also makes the grade as a mobile phone. Our test calls sounded clear in a variety of situations, and messaging is a breeze with the great on-screen keyboard.
With the top-line hardware and the large touch display, it's not surprising that battery life maxes out at a single work day, though this can be as low as eight or 10 hours depending on how you use the phone. The good news is that HTC provides you with a variety of widgets to manage the battery consumption as much as is possible with a phone of this calibre. There's a standard power settings widget that switches the Wi-Fi and GPS on and off, as well as controlling the auto-sync schedule and screen brightness. There's also a mobile network widget that turns mobile data on and off, a great way to save battery and make sure you're not overspending on your monthly data allowance.
HTC is onto a real winner with the Desire, striking a perfect balance between design, features and performance. The screen is fantastic, the software is best-in-class and the performance throughout the phone is mostly flawless. There are a few shortcomings, the 5-megapixel camera needs work and the phone could do with the addition of some substantial internal storage, but these issues are easily forgotten while surfing the web or communicating with friends using a wide variety of different protocols or social networks. You will have to manage the battery to get the most out of it, but HTC makes this task simple with its custom-designed homescreen widgets. Best of all, the Desire is priced aggressively at AU$779 outright and unlocked, but don't forget you'll probably want to upgrade the included 2GB microSD card, so you'll need to budget that into the cost.