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HTC Desire S review: HTC Desire S

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Design

It's no secret that the original HTC Desire was one of our favourite phones in 2010; despite many other models launching last year, it remained a solid option for any smartphone buyer, seeing off a raft of competition. The updated version, the Desire S, has seen its most significant change in the design arena, grabbing the unibody design style that HTC first used in the Legend last year, and applying it to the Desire idea. The result is mixed. We like the style of the unibody Desire S for the most part, and the fact that it's thinner and smaller (59.8x11.63x115mm to the original Desire's 60x11.9x119mm) makes it easier to hold in the hand than the original did, although that'll vary depending on your hand size. If you found the Desire HD to be too much physical phone to handle, the Desire S may suit your needs well. Then again, the Incredible S' back-bump heavy design felt even better to our hands, so it's well worth giving it a grip road test before buying, in any case.

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8.8

HTC Desire S

The Good

Gingerbread OS. Solid unibody construction. Faster download capability. Camera significantly improved from the original Desire.

The Bad

Evolutionary, not revolutionary. Somebody stole the physical buttons.

The Bottom Line

HTC's Desire S isn't the king of the hill in the way that the original Desire was. As an evolution of the Desire concept, it's still a very nice phone, but it's not a world beater.

Something old, something new: the Desire and the Desire S.
(Credit: CBSi)

The Desire S' 3.7-inch SLCD 400x800 display screen looks fair, but having dug out our test Desire, the difference in quality between AMOLED and LCD screens quickly becomes apparent. It's not the kind of difference you'll spot unless you do stick them side by side, but the LCD screen is slightly more washed out.

Again, tastes may vary, but we do miss the inclusion of actual physical buttons that the Desire had but the Desire S lacks. We can't say the same for the lack of optical trackball; while it seemed like a neat idea at the time, a year down the track we can't say we ever used it for much.

The rear of the Desire S houses a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash set off slightly from the central position that the camera had on the original model, next to the speaker grille. As with the Legend, the bottom of the back houses the battery and SIM compartment slot. The unibody design of the Desire S means that it's got two distinct plastic bumps on the back, compared to the smooth back of the original. The upside of this particular design decision is that it's an easier phone to hold.

User experience

There's a simple rule for HTC phones; if you buy one, you're going to get HTC Sense, no matter what the underlying operating system actually is. The Desire S doesn't buck this trend, offering up HTC Sense 2.1, identical to the recently reviewed HTC Incredible S. At this stage, Sense feels rather like a set of comfortable old slippers, even though HTC insists that there's more than two hundred changes between the Sense you get on the Desire S and the Sense you got on the original Desire. It's worthwhile noting that when we quizzed HTC on these exact changes, things got rather evasive as to specific detail. Still, Sense is a key differentiator for HTC's phones, and the ability to personalise your phone, quickly skip through application types and access recently used applications is a plus in the increasingly crowded Android market, where there are still a lot of phones that offer little in the way of applications beyond those that Google offers anyway.

Speaking of applications, as a Telstra exclusive, there's also a range of Telstra applications covering services such as Foxtel and WhereIs. As you might predict, they're forcibly installed and can't be removed without rooting the device.

Camera

We loved the original Desire to bits ... except for the camera, which was a notable weak point. HTC's cameras have never been a really strong focus for the manufacturer, but the Desire S carries the recent trend of offering up decent, but not great, camera options. Putting the Desire S through its paces against the original Desire is a little unfair, but we did it anyway. Undeniably, if you were stepping up from the Desire you'd notice the camera difference straight away with greatly improved colour and shadow depth in most shots. Put it up against a more capable smartphone shooter, however, and the Desire S' shortcomings become slightly more apparent.

(Credit: Alex Kidman/CBS Interactive)

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(Credit: Alex Kidman/CBS Interactive)

Performance

The Desire S is HSDPA-capable, offering download speeds of up to 14.4Mbps depending on network conditions. Our experiences with Telstra's network suggest that you're more likely to hit higher speeds than on some other networks, but that's still a highly variable matter; in our ad hoc testing with the Speedtest.net Android App we hit averages in the 3Mbps-6Mbps range, testing in the Sydney area.

The underlying guts of the Desire S are identical to the Desire HD, and indeed the Incredible S; you get the same Scorpion Snapdragon 1GHz processor, 1.1GB of internal storage and 768MB of RAM. As such, its core benchmark scores in Smartbench 2011 and BrowserMark follow those phones pretty closely indeed, although its BrowserMark score was a little lower than we'd like.

BrowserMark benchmark results

  • HTC Desire S
  • Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc
  • HTC Incredible S
  • Samsung Nexus S
  • Longer bars equal better performance 30323 37971 36946 36458

What this comes down to in real-world usage is that the Desire S is a moderately snappy performer for most smartphone tasks. In our testing, we rarely hit application lag, and we found that the phone responded well to our commands. Again, though, we did miss those physical buttons, finding the touchscreen buttons less friendly; your preferences may vary.

In terms of battery life, the Desire S' 1450mAh battery doesn't buck the trend of smartphones to last around a day and not much more. We found that (not shockingly) if we used the hotspot feature to feed data to other devices extensively we could rather quickly exhaust the battery and warm our pockets quickly at the same time, but otherwise, sensible, normal usage should see you through the day without too many problems.

Overall

When we first set eyes on the Desire S, we were concerned that it might play something of a second fiddle to other HTC phones such as the Incredible S, and that's an impression that's stuck with us for the most part. The Desire S is an evolution of the Desire concept, but against phones such as the Incredible S, it struggles somewhat to stand out. Where last year the Desire was the leader of the pack for a surprisingly long time, this year the Desire S sits more in the middle ground, especially against the new wave of dual-core Android phones that are just starting to hit the market. The pricing of the phone, both in contract and outright purchase, reflects this reasonably enough; it's not priced like an absolute top-end smartphone, so expecting one would be unwise.