Monday 31 January 2011

HTC Desire HD - full review

It's only been two weeks, but my HTC Desire HD feels like an extra limb already and my prehistoric Nokia feels like a distant memory (it'll still be useful, though: I'll keep it by the door as something to hit burglars with).

Once you take a little while to appreciate its full functionality, it's a magnificent beast. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it does everything you would hope a phone to do; the sort of phone that you fantasised about five years ago and thought "one day, phones will be able to do all these things..."

I was astonished to discover that it really does work straight out of the box. The 130 page PDF manual looks daunting, but it's a remarkably intuitive phone - you don't need a PHD in geekology to make the thing work, and by spending a surprisingly painless period tweaking the settings, it turns into an object combining beauty, power and common sense.

The handset itself is beautiful. There is almost no wasted space; it's all taken up by the screen. Never having had an iPhone or similar, it seems to me like a "normal" size for a phone, but there have been "ooohs" and "aaahs" wondering what it is, and admiring its dimensions. The display has been criticised for not having the same brilliance as the Samsung Galaxy S; but the resolution, to my eye, is excellent, and is bright and colourful and looks amazing...although with a pretty major caveat, of which more later.

I've seen a review of the Desire HD which advised people to think of it less as a smartphone, and more of a PDA which can make phone calls. That pretty much sums it up, but its primary purpose, for most people, will still be to make calls and send texts. Speech quality is excellent - although I have severe problems with reception in my flat, which I've never had before. Calls have cut out on more than one occasion. Texts, meanwhile, are handled in a fairly simple manner.

Contact syncing is intelligent, simple and generally good. The phone will recognise when the same contact is listed in different places (email, phone contacts, Facebook, Twitter) and prompt the user to merge them. How this will work in practice when it comes to transferring the contacts onto another phone in two years' time I've no idea, but for now, it's a simple and "quietly brilliant" system, to use HTC's own strapline. Searching for contacts is slightly clunky, and phone numbers "borrowed" from Facebook accounts are in the wrong format to call directly. Another niggle is that it's not possible to "edit" a contact that doesn't have a phone number attached; which in turn means that you can't add a phone number manually. Instead, you need to create a new contact with the phone number and then merge with the other accounts, which slightly undoes some of the excellent work done by the phone already. There is also duplication of Facebook profiles within a contact page thanks to two different Facebook applications running simultaneously (Facebook for Android and Facebook for HTC Sense, and yes, you do need them both running really), but this isn't an inconvenience, it just makes contact pages look a little cluttered.

HTC are heavily tied in with Google; so much so that I have decided to migrate from Hotmail to Gmail. It is possible, in theory, to sync with Hotmail via Microsoft Exchange, but I couldn't get it to work properly. So I took the plunge and moved to Gmail (Hotmail now allows other accounts to pick up emails automatically, which Gmail does neatly; this was the straw that broke the camel's back). In truth I'm not a huge fan of the Gmail interface on a PC, but Gmail for Android is simple, elegant and intuitive. However, I'm not convinced that emails are being picked up in anything like real time; that's a combniation of Gmail not picking up Hotmails instantly (it usually checks every 20 minutes or so, but you have no control over this) and the Gmails not being sent to the phone in real time as they should. I'm still trying to diagnose which is the greater problem, but having emails arrive an hour after they were sent is really quite annoying when the whole point of having emails on a phone should be to have them in near-real time. You can open and view Word and Excel attachments; in theory you should be able to edit them, but good luck trying to manage a spreadsheet from a mobile.

The standard Facebook and Twitter Android apps are built in and are both excellent. I'm an on-off user of Tweetdeck on a PC, but in truth the branded apps work fine. Using HTC Sense, the networks are both integrated into other functionality, via HTC Peep (the built in Twitter app) and FriendStream. The latter is essentially an aggregate feed of Twitter and Facebook; convenient and that's about it - with limited functionality to comment/reply/like etc. Notifications duplicate themselves for Twitter, too - another tiny niggle. I'm rather tempted to try uninstalling the Twitter-and-Facebook-for-HTC-Sense functionality, but there may be other implications which I'm unaware of.

Internet browsing is, quite simply, brilliant. Pages load instantly via Wireless or 3G, the automatic resizing and realigning of text is superb, and there are no sites I've visited so far that have caused any problems whatsoever. As someone to whom internet browsing on-the-go is an entirely new experience, to my amateur eye the browsing experience is almost as good as on a PC. Zooming, scrolling, and navigating are a joy.

Typing on the touchscreen is...OK. It definitely helps to turn the phone to landscape, which makes the "keys" larger, but despite the screen's size, it's impossible to get close to even a fraction of PC typing speed. I had intended to use the phone to blog on-the-go, but that'll really be a chore. On that point, it's astonishing that Google haven't built a Blogger-for-Android app; that's a serious oversight and something they need to resolve quickly as there's a Wordpress app. I've tried using Bloggerdroid which is reasonable, although it doesn't seem possible to sync with the account, meaning that part-writing a piece on the go and finishing it at a machine (or vice versa) isn't possible as far as I know.

The camera is simple to use. I haven't given it a really proper test yet, but from a bit of casual use picture quality is up there with entry-level compacts, which is all you could ask for. Video quality is seriously good, as you'd expect from a machine with the "HD" moniker. Folder management is unconvincing, however; as it uploading to a PC.

The music player is moderate - does the job, but nothing as elegant to use as my iPod Nano (and, presumably, the iPhone). The headphones, in combination with Dolby Mobile, do provide excellent sound quality, however.

There is a baffling array of mapping software - with "Maps", "Navigation", "Places", "Latitude" and "Locations". It seems that the first two are essentially Google Maps, whilst the latter three are HTC's own branded mapping system. This is confusing, but I'll be taking the advice of another review and ignoring the HTC effort in favour of Google Maps. The Google Navigation is basically a Satnav; no, it's not a TomTom, but given that it's bundled for nothing, it works very well. As an aside, it's a shame that TFL haven't released an Android app combining JourneyPlanner and Travel Alerts functionality. Here's hoping.

As for other apps: "News" is simply Google Reader. I've had an account for some months but never really got into it; it feels artificial to sit down and read a set of blog posts like a newspaper, in a structured way. Instead, I tend to use Twitter to drive interesting blog matter to my consciousness. With a mobile, however, it's a different story: public transport is the perfect time to have 20 minutes to waste to catch up on some blogs and the best thing about HTC's effort is that it caches the data offline - meaning that you can read the posts on the tube. Thus my blog habits are on the increase!

That's basically it for built in applications, although the "behind-the-scenes" functionality is extensive: voice recognition, universal search, and the ability to use he phone as a wireless hotspot (in other words, to connect a laptop to the 3G), for example, are all intelligent and work well. I haven't really got any use of HTC Sense yet, although the ability to make the phone ring remotely at full volume (if you've mislaid it) and remotely lock it or delete data is clever and sensible. There is supposedly the ability to track the phone's location via GPS - in theory, a great idea if it's been stolen - but I've had direct experience of this having met someone who'd just had theirs snatched and it didn't seem to work.

In terms of Android Store apps, I've only installed a handful. Angry Birds really does live up to the hype; Google's Sky Map and Goggles are both ace. Stupidly, the Desire HD doesn't have any obvious simple way just to jot down a note (shopping list, for example); I installed InkPad, which does the job.

So where's the catch? The Desire HD has a reputation for having a poor battery life, but it's far, far worse than I expected. With the moderate use I give it, the phone really struggles to make it through a single day. There are several solutions.

The first is to stop using so many apps, turn off unnecessary syncing and generally tone down the multitasking. This I refuse to do. There's absolutely no point in having a machine with the processor power of the Desire HD if you don't push it. Besides, as I mentioned, I like to be able to have emails and tweets coming through in  real time as if they were texts.

Next, there's an app called JuiceDefender which is, quite simply, brilliant. It intelligently manages your wireless, 3G and GPS use so that they're turned off when not needed, but will still allow connections to be made every so often to check for emails and tweets, according to your syncing settings. This works like a dream, although sometimes I'm not automatically connected to my work's WiFi - a minor irritation. While it's all customisable (more so if you pay £3), there are default settings; I anticipate setting JuiceDefender to "Aggressive" or "Extreme" for a weekend away. It's a simple, unintrusive app, which HTC should take some inspiration from. An essential installation, and the premium version is worth the investment.

However, by far the biggest juice muncher is the screen itself. This is something that you simply have to compromise on. I have the screen set to switch off after 30 seconds inactivity (which is annoying) and the brightness turned right the way down to 15% - making visibility a problem outdoors. Even so, the screen routinely uses more than half of the battery. Sorry to sound like an old man, but there's absolutely no point in having a sumptuous, high definition, colour-rich, super-bright screen, if you have to have it turned down to near-dark just to get the machine through the day. HTC really need to think about battery life and/or battery management as a matter of urgency before their next model is released, because it's very nearly a dealbreaker.

As it is, though, the HTC Desire HD is a stupendous piece of kit. Within a fortnight, it has become an essential part of my life - no exaggeration. HTC really have put usability and simplicity at the top of their priorities - with devastating effect. Connectivity ain't ever been so good.

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