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HTC Desire Eye Review: A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

The HTC Desire Eye has been on the Mobile Tech Talk review bench for a couple of weeks now. There are things we like, and things we dislike, as with every device. In a saturated market full of similarly priced and feature packed devices, why should you care about the Desire Eye? As evidenced by their recent ‘RE’ camera launch, HTC are seemingly not prepared to acquiesce simply to maintain the status quo. Let’s take a look at what they’ve delivered this time in the full HTC Desire Eye review.

Key Features: Front and Rear 13-megapixel cameras - Dual two-tone LED flashes - Snapdragon 801 2.3GHz processor - 2GB RAM - 5.2-inch IPS 1080p display - Boomsound front firing stereo speakers - 4G/LTE - nonremovable 2400 mAh battery - 16GB internal memory - microSD up to 128GB - IPX7 certified (dust proof/water-resistant to 1m for 30 minutes) - Sense 6 atop Android 4.4.2 Kit-Kat (OTA to 4.4.4). Manufacturer: HTC

Overview

It’s fair to say that HTC haven’t had the easiest of journeys in the last couple of years. Their emergence once more as a major player in the Smartphone market, with the release of their One M7 device back in 2013 couldn’t prevent HTC reporting a loss for the first time in a decade. Fortunately for them, the release of the One M8, and Desire line of devices helped them swing this to a slim profit in the final quarter of 2014. With their manufacture of the Google NExus 9 tablet, and their forthcoming One M9 device, we expect to see them continue this trend.

So where does the Desire Eye fit in? Well, that’s interesting in and of itself really. The Desire Eye epitomises everything that HTC has had to become in order to once more have a seat at the top table and act as a mainstream player in the mobile industry. The emphasis on mass-market appeal is evidenced by this phone’s key feature and its informal moniker of the “selfie phone”. It remains to be seen whether or not this device gets the sort of recognition from the consumer that HTC would like. It does, nevertheless, indicate where HTC see their product pipeline heading in the next few years. Perhaps a flagship launch in Q2 with further, specific and market sector focused devices flanking it throughout the year.

For now, the Desire Eye is their ‘focus’ product, and its got its sights firmly set on one of the biggest trends emerging from the burgeoning mobile market; Selfies.

Hardware & Design

We’ve seen devices like this before from HTC. The Desire 816, and the E8 both turned their back on the aluminium based uni-body design and opted for a sleek plastic feel instead. The Desire Eye follows this design language quite closely.

816_EYE_E8
The Desire Eye, flanked by the Desire 816 (left) and the HTC E8 (right) – similar design language.

On the front of the 5.97″ tall device, the 13 megapixel “selfie” camera sits proudly at the top of the device, flanked by a dual tone LED flash, notification and ambient light sensors and pinhole mic. Slightly above and below the 5.2″ 1080p display are the front facing Boomsound speakers, with a HTC logo at the base of the screen. The rear has an offset 13 megapixel camera with the same dual tone LED flash, and another pinhole mic. The left and right sides see nano-SIM and microSD card slots, as well as volume rocker, power button and a dedicated camera button respectively. On the top of the device is a 3.5mm headphone jack, slightly offset, whilst on the bottom, another pinhole mic and the micro USB slot can be found.

The plastic texture on the front surrounding the selfie camera and the chin of the device is highly glossed, which is in stark contrast to the matte finish on the rear of the device. The rear of the device, whilst textured, isn’t quite what we’d like to see and can become greasy after just light use, leading to accidental slips becoming a little too frequent. It certainly does feel nice in the hand however with the slightly curved edges disappearing into the front and the back of the device making for a comfortable grip. Just make sure you grip a little tighter than usual, and be prepared to whip out the cleaning cloth.

The inclusion of the Boomsound speakers is a trend we’re happy HTC is continuing with. The implementation on the Desire Eye however isn’t the best. In order to minimise the bezels and to ensure that there is sufficient room for the enlarged optics of this device, the Boomsound speakers are nothing more than small slits at the top and bottom of the screen. They do however deliver more than enough punch for your media consumption needs. Not quite the crispness of HTC’s current flagship, but not far off. However given that the crevice is that small, the gaps are also prone to capturing just about every known dirt/dust particle in the known universe! Some compressed air gets the job done, but it’s another area of maintenance we’d prefer to have avoided.

The dimensions of the device, whilst large, still allow for semi-comfortable one-handed use due to the thin left/right hand bezels. The positioning of the power button on the side of the device, rather than on the top a-la One M8, is a welcome design change and helps one-handed use.

The buttons themselves however have no discernible difference in texture from the rest of the edge of the device, and coupled with their lack of height makes finding them with ease somewhat difficult. The buttons are quite mushy, and flimsy feeling also. This is one of the areas that distinguishes this device from the company’s flagship line.

Whilst I’m loathe to give credit for this particular design choice due to the fact the marketing for this phone almost dictates it, it’s very nice to see a dedicated camera button on the Eye. The button can be depressed, launching the camera application and can even be used to take selfie pictures also which is nice. The button certainly provides a small decrease in the amount of time it takes to launch the camera application versus an icon on the home screen, however due to the delay built-in to the camera button, it’s a smaller advantage than we’d like. Perhaps HTC are a victim of their own success in making Sense 6 fluid enough to complete tasks with sufficient speed, meaning the gap between the two methods is smaller than in recent years.

Of one area there can be no doubt. Whilst this isn’t considered a flagship product, the specifications are still relatively current on this device. A Snapdragon 801 chipset is still close to industry standard with the 805 and 810 only seen in the most recent flagships. 2GB RAM should be sufficient still for most tasks, especially now Sense 6 is a little lighter on resource. The screen, at 5.2″ is still more than large enough. Additionally many consumers may well welcome the 1080p resolution in order to eke out as many hours as possible from the only slightly underwhelming area of this device, the battery. At 2400 mAh on the face of it, it seems relatively sparse for the specifications. We found that we could easily get through around 36 hours with light use. However, playing video, or games on the device drained the battery hard. We found ourselves on heavier days getting to the end of the day running on fumes. Standby battery usage was brilliant on the Desire Eye with only minimal loss of battery during the night.

We were happy to see the device power up quickly thanks to the quick charge capabilities of the 801 SoC, and even when we were pushed for power, the Power Saving modes gave us an adequate extension of battery life allowing for Calls/Texts. One thing to note however is that in Power Saving modes, all other functionality is reduced meaning that your Desire Eye will function as a dumb-phone. If the battery life is that pushed, it’s a nice option to have.

Software & Performance 

HTC’s Sense Android skin has become mature enough that most uses can intuitively pick-up a current HTC device, and find the application or function they require. The Desire Eye with Sense 6 is no exception. Having been some time since we at Mobile Tech Talk have played with a Sense-enabled device, we were suddenly back in familiar territory. From the left swipe to access HTC’s Blinkfeed, to the customisation afforded the Quick Settings panel, we found everything just worked. A far cry from the early Touchflo3D days, Sense 6 is now an industry leading Android skin, and one that has become almost as recognisable as Samsung’s TouchWiz, albeit with less notoriety.

Blinkfeed, HTC’s stab at Google Now’esque functionality is one again available via a swipe to the leftmost screen. It’s sleek, and a nice window to your social world, but updating is hap hazard and we’d still rather use Google Now or Flipboard, the application that set the aggregation bar in terms of style, if pushed. Customising the home-screens, a maximum of 6, is as simple as pressing and holding on the screen, as with most Android handsets, and offers the usual array of options beneath. Themeing engines, widgets, application shortcuts, wallpapers; the list goes on. We don’t find ourselves fiddling with the nuance of an Android device much anymore, but if you’re the type of user who has to have everything setup just so, this device will give you hours of fun.

Every part of the Desire Eye software experience was easy and intuitive. Quick tiles, settings (of which there are many), camera use, web browsing, email, social links for Blinkfeed. It all seemed seamless. This is one aspect HTC has certainly improved upon in recent years. Sense quite rightly sits at the top table of Android-based skins.

Other aspects of the experience are unchanged from similar HTC devices. The stock keyboard is acceptable and is closer than ever to the stock Google keyboard, complete with trace input, haptic feedback and personal dictionary. We found the keys slightly narrow however, and this took some getting used to. Motion gestures is a growing area in smartphones, and the HTC Desire Eye has that covered also. Double tap to wake, Voice Dialing, and various swiping gestures all help to give this device a modern feel. We found we incurred many false gesture interactions with these settings on, however we do still believe the Double tap to wake is a feature all phones, given their increasing size, should deliver.

HTC has many little titbits stuffed into this device, and its doubtful you’d utilise them all. However, unlike Samsung devices, these can all be toggled and don’t seem to have an adverse effect on the device in terms of performance (on or off) which gives total control over your device.

Finally, voice calling. We found that this, testing on the Three UK network, was adequate. Call clarity was acceptable through earpiece our end, although some calling partners suggested that background noise did interfere sometimes with the call. Data speeds seemed on par with other devices on the same network, and overall reception was good. Somewhat par for the course.

Camera Optics

On to the key feature of this device; its dual 13 megapixel cameras and more importantly, it’s front facing selfie shooter. If you made it this far, this is what you’re interested in reading about. The selfie camera is the unique selling point of this phone and hopes that its brand awareness along with the lure of hardware specifically made for the latest in a never-ending sea of tween trends, sees it over the line and racks up the sales. So, do the cameras give this phone the edge over it’s similarly priced competition? The answer, for the most part, is no, no it doesn’t.

First, the good bits. Shutter speed is insanely fast. There is zero lag involved here and that’s good to see. The Camera software includes the usual array of features you’d expect, namely alteration of white balance, exposure, ISO settings, and resolution, as well as continuous shooting mode, timer mode and make up mode to remove blemishes. HTC also includes a number of filters for you to shoot with. Luckily these can be edited in after the fact also.

Now, for the actual camera results; this is something of a mixed bag.

The rear 13 megapixel camera managed to introduce noise into the most perfectly lit shots. Shots taken at the standard resolution, and viewed on a PC or the device itself appear fine. Cropping to 100% reveals grain, noise, and if you have multiple light sources, the possibility for really poor contrast. The pictures just aren’t sharp. For social media junkies, this should prove to be a problem as HTC has you covered with a bevy of filters as mentioned above. This helps to gloss over the cracks in the phone’s optics, but doesn’t quite succeed. In 2015, we, as consumers, expect better cameras, and HTC unfortunately seem to be earning themselves a reputation for poor optical performance.

The story continues with the selfie camera. Whilst the wide lens allows group shots if you’re that way inclined, it too suffers from a lack of clarity. However, the Desire Eye’s resolution choice is so far ahead of its competitors’ front facing deployments that it stands on its own in this regard. Yes, the grain/noise is still evident, but for quick snaps, we found ourselves being more forgiving of it, despite the same flaws.

HTC include a number of options for front facing photo aficionados also. Face-Fusion allows you to smoothly phase from one selfie portrait to another. Make sure the picture is of similar depth and size to ensure the best possible outcome however. As you can see, phasing from myself to Nicholas Fearn (@nicholasgfearn) gave a somewhat uneven output! You can check out what Nicholas thinks of the device over at The Next Web.

Photobooth uses a collage of four sequential photos to display a 2 x 2 photo. Split Capture utilises the front and rear cameras simultaneously, with varied success. Crop Me In is a feature that suggests a psuedo-photobomb approach, and once more gives mixed results. HTC has certainly backed it’s phone with software to attempt to capitalise on the unique aspect of the device.

 

On the Video front, HTC plumped for a 1080p maximum resolution for Video, and also made the unfathomable decision not to include OIS (optical image stablisation) presumably opting instead to keep its svelte lines. This dramatically reduces quality of moving video (as evidenced by the clips above) on both cameras. Static video is marginally better. Whilst this device might have appealed appeal to vloggers, OIS really is a big miss here! Getting a steady shot, despite the otherwise adequate quality of the output, is the biggest headache with this device. Even slow rotations caused substantial jitter.

Overall, if you’re looking at this device on the basis of its optics, and you’re hoping that this will provide quality shots, every time, look elsewhere. There are better camera options out there on other devices. However, if you’re into fun, quick photos and Instagram-esque filters, this might be for you.

Conclusion

With the Desire Eye, HTC is attempting to follow in the footsteps of other industry leaders in providing a device, with unique selling point, specifically tailored to one demographic. Microsoft attempted something similar with their ill-fated Kin One and Kin Two devices, aimed specifically at social media devotees. Thankfully, what we see here is less Kin, and more HTC First. Yes, they’ve done this sort of thing before. Back in 2013, HTC released a device specifically for use with a Facebook skin a-top Android, so they’re no strangers to the nuanced device game.

The HTC Desire Eye however is somewhat different. The device illustrates how a specific strategic deployment can be added in addition to industry standard functionality. Sense 6 runs a-top Android 4.4 Kit-KAt and provides a seamless platform from which the unique selling point, the selfie camera can be utilised. Okay, in this case we really don’t think that there is much to get excited about in terms of the camera they deployed but that’s by the by. HTC have crafted a device capable of being used by any user, irrespective of their requirement. This, for us, is where the power of the Desire Eye lies. They’ve simultaneously both failed to deliver, and succeeded in providing a compelling product.

Those consumers looking for the ultimate optical experience on an Android device will be disappointed by this device. Sure, selfies are clearer, wide-angled, and more fun on this device than many others, but the overall optical offering is beneath many of its peers. Conversely its hardware, almost flagship worthy that it is, belies its sleek plastic frame and cheap aesthetic, and instead flexes the kind of muscle its competitors must be fearful of, as a mid-range offering. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative to flagship devices, this might well be worth a look.

This device is best viewed, as many are, from a significant distance away from the marketing machine surrounding it. As a stand alone device, the HTC Desire Eye is still a very compelling proposition.

Finally, big shout out to Three UK for loaning us this device for review – you could do worse than to check them out if you were looking for a new carrier.

Links: HTC Desire Eye Sample VideoHTC Desire EyeHTC Desire Review by Nicholas Fearn

HTC Desire Eye

8.3

Hardware

8.5/10

Software

8.5/10

Camera

7.5/10

Performance

8.5/10

Value

8.5/10

Pros

  • Slim, sleek feel
  • Sense 6 featureset is mature
  • Performance is excellent
  • Full HD Selfie camera
  • Dedicated camera button

Cons

  • Optics aren't mind blowing
  • Battery life is sporadic
  • Plastic build is slippy

About Craig Bradshaw

Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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