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HTC Desire 816 review: Classic HTC style with plenty of power

Don't let the plastic skin put you off. The HTC Desire 816 is well built, with just enough features to make it a great deal.

Aloysius Low Senior Editor
Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.
Aloysius Low
6 min read

Meant to be a best-in-class midrange phone, HTC's Desire 816 lacks the fancy aluminum body of its more expensive sibling, the One M8 . But this plastic-clad beauty keeps most of the style and a good share of the features too. Like the One Mini , it only cuts the right corners, ditching a few fancy extras that add to a smartphone's price, while keeping the essentials that make a mobile reliable, attractive, and useful.


HTC Desire 816

The Good

The HTC Desire 816's plastic body is well built. The brilliant 5.5-inch HD display has excellent viewing angles, and the quad-core processor runs smoothly, with hardly any lag.

The Bad

The glossy plastic rear is a fingerprint magnet, which is especially noticeable on the darker models. The lack of a removable battery is disappointing, given its relatively small capacity.

The Bottom Line

The HTC Desire 816's combination of solid design and quality performance strikes all the right chords to make it a compelling phone for its price.

Announced earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, HTC's Desire 816 was a real surprise. In fact, HTC itself seemed somewhat caught off guard -- the Desire 816 phones on display at the company's booth in Barcelona were non-functional prototypes. But now, almost three months later, the Desire 816 is ready for prime time.

The Desire 816 delivers a lot for a reasonable price -- around $400, £300 or AU$400 without a contract, and $299 in the US with prepaid carrier Virgin Mobile . For now, HTC is only releasing the Desire 816 in Europe and Asia, but you may be able to buy it in other regions online. It's expected to go on sale over the next month, with UK retailers listing early June as the expected date.

HTC Desire 816 impresses with design and price (pictures)

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HTC is unifying its range with a standard look, with the Desire 816 a prime example. The rounded edges do a good job of mimicking the One M8, despite being made of plastic.

Like the One M8, the 816 has front-facing BoomSound speakers, but instead of the fine laser-drilled grilles of its fancier sibling, the Desire 816 has several larger holes, which are really distinctive. The front-facing speakers make watching videos on the phone a much better experience, as you don't need to cup the speakers with your hand to redirect the sound to your ears.

The front-facing speakers look less distinguished than those on the One M8. Aloysius Low/CNET

The 5.5-inch HD screen is brilliant, with great viewing angles. While it's not a Full HD display, the 1,280x720-pixel resolution is more than sharp enough.

The 816 may not have the premium feel of the One M8, but its plastic chassis has its own charms, without the cheaper feel of some Samsung products. Just be aware that the back cover attracts fingerprints much too easily.

Instead, HTC seems to have taken inspiration from Apple's iPhone 5C , and the 816 sports a familiar shiny and glossy plastic rear. To make sure the phone doesn't slip from your hands, HTC has made the edges of the phone matte. Honestly, with the fingerprint issues, the Desire 816 would have been better served if the entire phone was covered in a similar finish.

Located on the left side is a flap that hides the microSD and nano-SIM card slots. There also appears to be another SIM card slot, but that's blocked up. HTC said that instead of creating a different model for the dual-SIM version of this phone, the company uses a unified design that can be tweaked for different features as needed, hence the unusable blocked slot.

While there are two nano-SIM card slots, one is blocked. Aloysius Low/CNET

Overall, the phone feels well-constructed and solid. It's slightly heavier than the One M8 at 5.8 ounces (165g) but the weight is properly balanced and quite comfortable to hold with one hand.

The Desire 816 is powered by a 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, has 8GB of onboard storage and 1.5GB of RAM. If 8GB doesn't sound like much space, fret not, as the phone has a microSD card slot. Connectivity wise, it comes with 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but there's no NFC.

Software and interface

Like the One M8, the Desire 816 runs the new Sense 6 UI on top of Android KitKat (4.4.2), and it has all the goodies found on the flagship phone. You get BlinkFeed, the color-coded features and pretty new font. It also comes with 50GB of Google Drive storage free.

What's missing, however, are the gesture controls found on the One M8. You can't tap the display to wake up the handset. Nor can you turn the phone sideways and hold on to the volume rocker to turn on the camera. HTC feels it has to draw the line somewhere to separate its premium and midrange products, though it wouldn't surprise me if someone figures out how to port these features over (since they appear to be software-controlled) in a custom ROM.


Instead of the Ultrapixel camera found on the One M8, HTC chose to use a more conventional 13-megapixel shooter instead. Now, some of you may be thinking that this is an upgrade -- after all, one of the biggest complaints about the Ultrapixel camera is the lowly 4-megapixel resolution, so you'll get more details with 13 megapixels, right?

While you do get more detail, the images taken with the Desire 816 can be quite noisy. This is quite noticeable at 100 percent crop. That said, if you're always taking pictures with good lighting, you'll definitely appreciate having more detail in your images.

Do note that the fancy picture effects found on the One M8, such as UFocus, aren't available on the 816, though you do get some image filters. The "Zoe" feature is also missing, so you won't be able to take quick video clips for sharing. The camera is quick to take a picture, but there's a delay in shot-on-shot times.

Indoor natural light (click to enlarge). Aloysius Low/CNET

HDR test shot (click to enlarge). Aloysius Low/CNET

Indoor lighting (click to enlarge). Aloysius Low/CNET


The Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 isn't the most powerful processor available, but that's the compromise you have to accept for the cheaper price tag. On the Quadrant benchmark, the Desire 816 did quite well, scoring 12,708 to easily surpass the two-year-old HTC One X . On the Linpack multi-thread test, the Desire 816 managed 288.813 MFLOPs.

I watched YouTube videos, surfed the Web and switched between apps with nary a pause. The only issue I encountered was the slightly slow camera shutter, as mentioned above.

Call quality

The call quality of the phone showed no issues at all, though the audio volume did seem a tad too loud. I found myself adjusting the volume down often.

Battery life

Equipped with a 2,600mAh battery (the same as the One M8), the phone certainly doesn't match up to slightly bigger phablets such as the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 and 5.9-inch G Pro 2 with their 3,200mAh batteries. And although this isn't the first HTC device to have a non-removable battery, I'd much prefer a removable battery.

That said, the Desire 816 lasted a day of moderate use -- that's with two email accounts, Facebook and Twitter on push. If you're a heavy user, you may want to carry a charger with you. Do note that there's the option to turn on an "Extreme Power Saving" mode that should hopefully help it last long enough to get you to a charging point.

The Desire 816 has an embedded 2,600mAh battery. Aloysius Low/CNET


Packed with just enough features and power, the HTC Desire 816 is a great deal. Yes, its skin is plastic, but like Apple's much more expensive iPhone 5C, it's a well-made phone that will impress you with its build quality. And while it's no One M8, the Desire 816 comes with the slick Sense 6 UI and a 13-megapixel camera for those who prefer a higher-resolution image. Sure, you miss out on a few of the M8's goodies, but you get everything that really matters.

The Desire 816 feels like the right phone to spearhead HTC's effort to win more customers who can't afford its steely flagship. But as this part of the market gets more crowded with decent efforts from Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE, it has its work cut out for it. The company has a great approach to making phones, and it will be a shame if this new Desire stumbles at the starting blocks.


HTC Desire 816

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7