Phone maker HTC was relatively unheard of at the beginning of 2010, especially outside of tech-savvy circles. This has changed dramatically after 2010 proved to be a year full of smartphone hits. HTC impressed us again and again with the Desire, Legend, Aria, Wildfireand Desire HD, and according to the company's own analysis its brand awareness grew exponentially across the globe. The Taiwanese company now finds itself in a familiar situation for tech brands: how do you follow up this meteoric success in a short space of time?
The best brands develop a design ID and stick with it. HTC's handsets since the Desire have all shared a common physical DNA; the way brothers and sisters can look the same while also looking uniquely individual at the same time. The Incredible S is strongly reminiscent of the Desire and the company's Windows Phone handsets, the Trophy and Mozart, yet there's something about its shape and feel that makes it one of a kind. Part of this is the curves on the phone's battery cover, described by HTC as looking as though you've taken the naked internal components and dipped them in paint, covering them by not entirely disguising what lies beneath.
The phone's 4-inch display is the best reason for naming this handset Incredible; its WVGA screen is sharp and gloriously bright. HTC uses a Super-LCD panel behind Gorilla Glass for this model, with capacitive touchscreen technology powering most of the phone's input. The results are first class, the screen is a pleasure to look at and extremely responsive to touch input. We still think the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc's Reality display has the edge, with better blacks and contrast, but this doesn't detract from the praise we feel HTC deserves in this department.
On the back of the Incredible S you'll find a large camera lens and dual-LED photo lights, plus an external speaker. The SIM card and microSD memory card slots are both beneath the phone's 1450mAh battery, with a 3.5mm headphone socket present on the top of the handset. The only button we've really missed is a dedicated camera button, though this is par for the course when it comes to HTC smartphones.
More than any other phone manufacturer in the world, HTC is renowned for its unique user experience — a software layer it calls HTC Sense. This experience was introduced on the company's old Windows Mobile 6 devices and has evolved through HTC's Android range to be what we see today on the Incredible S. This is Sense 2.1 and it has everything we saw on the Desire HD last year, plus a few new tricks up its sleeve. Now when a user accesses the phone's applications menu, for example, the list is paginated into separate vertical pages rather than one long, cumbersome list. You can also filter this view by the categories All, Frequent and Downloaded.
Another new element we love is the Quick Settings tab added to the notifications window. When you drag down the notifications "curtain" you see a scrollable list of recently accessed apps (like the multitasking window you get when you hold the Home key), plus a tab found on the bottom of the window to switch to a checklist of connectivity features. From here you can quickly switch Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off, turn off 3G data or hit a shortcut to access the full Settings menu for the phone.
Still central to the HTC Sense experience is the Personalisation menu that you can enter with a dedicated button to the right of the Phone button on the home screen. This menu gives users a huge array of options to customise their experience, including Skins and Themes, as well as Sound packs that change all phone alerts and ringtones to a uniformed audio theme. New users may find this level of customisation daunting at first, but those who preserve will find a core part of the HTC offering that differentiates it from what you'll find on Samsung, LG or Motorola Android phones.
HTC isn't a brand we typically associate with excellent camera models in its smartphones, but we have been pleasantly surprised by the photos taken by the Incredible S. No, this isn't necessarily a compact camera replacement, but it is a rare example of where the photos taken sometimes look better blown up to 100 per cent on a PC monitor than they do on the phone's display. Under optimal conditions, the Incredible S takes sharp photos with natural colour and good detail in the shadows. In lower light it struggles a bit, and the dual-LED flash isn't great as the image sensor tends to bleed colour when it sees things as too bright. We've seen better and we've seen worse from other handsets, but this is definitely a step forward for HTC.
The 8-megapixel camera excels in natural sunlight.
The camera is not so great in low light or at handling bright light sources.
Little has changed in the web browsing experience between the Desire HD and the Incredible S, with the newer model offering the same fast web access we found in the earlier model. The Incredible S supports HSDPA downloads of up to 14.4Mbps on the Optus 900MHz and 2100MHz 3G networks. Users can also use Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n when in range of a compatible network at home or at the office.
One key difference between the Incredible S and many of the top-tier smartphones of 2011 is its comparably lightweight media sharing options. More and more smartphones are becoming central pieces in our home entertainment systems, with wireless media streaming from our phones using DLNA or, more recently, Mini-HDMI-out ports built into handsets. The Incredible S has no DLNA and only HTC's difficult-to-use Connected Media streaming app is pre-installed — a piece of software we've only successfully used in conjunction with HTC's own Media Link accessory. DLNA should be the protocol that connects a range of devices, but in its current incarnation HTC's DLNA software struggles to speak with the majority of DLNA-capable devices.
When it does work, the Incredible S can stream, or locally playback, a wide range of media files including DivX, XviD and H.264 MP4 video files. To store these files HTC includes 1GB of internal memory and an 8GB microSD card in the box.
We know many HTC aficionados will be wondering if battery life has improved compared with recent releases. As an average of all our tests we'd say it has improved somewhat, though the improvements are minimal. Heavy users may still struggle to get through a full day, with several hours of consistent use. HTC has built a Power Saving mode into its system, allowing you to define a battery level for this mode to kick in and stipulate which performance areas will be affected, including screen brightness and animations.
The evolution from the HTC Desire to the Incredible S is small but assured. The Incredible S offers the same reliable performance we've seen in most HTC handsets in the last 18 months, but don't expect a speed bump. The design is sleek, the camera is good and, importantly, the screen is its standout feature. We would love to have seen HDMI connectivity and an improved media streaming solution, but we also acknowledge that these are features many users will overlook. It'd also be nice to see HTC include a large chunk of fast internal storage — a 32GB model with expandable memory would be lovely.