HTC Desire Eye review – much more than just a ‘selfie phone’
With a front-facing camera as high-quality as its 13 megapixel main snapper, the HTC Desire Eye inevitably hit headlines in the tech world as ‘HTC’s selfie phone’. But as we go hands-on with the mid-range Android smartphone in our HTC Desire Eye review, we find it has a lot more to offer than just a pretty pair of eyes…
The design of the Desire Eye is quite clearly aimed at younger consumers. It’s a bright, cheerful two-tone phone in a choice of red or blue (blue being exclusive to Carphone Warehouse in the UK). The body is made from polycarbonate, otherwise known as that soft-touch plastic that doesn’t feel cheap – it kind of reminds me of Fimo modelling clay. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S5, though, there’s no texturing on the polycarbonate, making this quite a slippery handset to hold.
There’s also not much curve on the back of the phone, so it doesn’t sit nearly as nicely in the hand as its HTC stablemates, the One M8 and One Mini 2. Combined with the smooth back panel, this makes for a very droppable phone, but it’s tough enough to have survived every slip so far without so much as a scratch. I’d definitely get a case if I were buying this as my main handset: the official HTC stand case is a bit naff (it covers the nicer parts of the handset, marks easily, and doesn’t actually stand up particularly well) but the Dot View case is excellent. See our video review of it on the HTC One M8 to find out why we think it’s a must-have.
If you run your finger down the front of the HTC Desire Eye, you’ll notice two channels above and below the screen. That’s where HTC has hidden its front-facing BoomSound speakers, behind recessed grilles. They’re not as powerful as the ones on the One M8, but still put out well-rounded, strong sound that isn’t dampened by putting the phone down. Why so many manufacturers still insist on rear-racing speakers is beyond me – this is one of the things HTC always gets right.
Another thing they’ve knocked out of the park is the water resistance on this phone. For a mid-range, it’s great to see, and probably another way they’re thinking of younger customers. While the Desire Eye is not as waterproof as the flagship Sony Xperia phones, it does have the benefit of not covering the charging port with a fiddly flap. The flaps were one of my least favourite features of the Xperia Z2 and Z3 Compact, so it’s great to see a water-resistant phone you can just plug in. I’m being careful to say water-resistant rather than waterproof, because technically it’s only able to withstand water up to a metre deep for up to 30 minutes (the Xperia phones are 1.5m for 30 minutes) and you definitely can’t spray jets of fast-moving water at it and expect it to survive. You also can’t use the phone underwater, unlike the Xperias, which can take photos while swimming. Despite all the caveats, though, it’s great to know you can drop this phone in the sink or spill your drink on it without worrying.
Possibly because of the water-resistance, the buttons on this phone are very low-profile, which can make them tricky to locate by touch alone. The volume rocker is on the top right, with the power button below it, and a dedicated shutter button almost at the bottom of the right-hand side so you can use it like a camera. Shutter buttons are always useful to have, but again I’d have appreciated one that’s a little more raised.
On the left are the nano-SIM and microSD slots, which need to be prised out with a fingernail (or a SIM-poking tool if you’ve got no fingernails, like me). The microSD slot is a very welcome inclusion, given that the phone only comes with 16GB of storage: this allows you to increase it by up to 128GB.
Overall, the HTC Desire Eye is a slim, light handset at 154g and 8.5mm thick, with a design that’ll keep younger consumers and colour fans happy. A refreshing change from black, white and silver.
I was a little bit disappointed to see that at the time of writing, the HTC Desire Eye hasn’t yet received an upgrade to Android Lollipop, and is therefore still running on KitKat. The HTC One M8 has already received its update, and while this is a cheaper phone, it’s also more recent. Get on it, HTC!
As with most HTC phones, the Desire Eye has HTC Sense running over the top of Android. Sense 6 is, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable manufacturer overlays: its clean design and well thought-out additions make for an unhindered Android experience while still giving a distinctively branded look. It vexes me slightly that the apps in the app drawer scroll vertically rather than horizontally for no reason at all, but that’s minor.
Before we get to performance, I should mention that this is my second HTC Desire Eye. The first one unfortunately had to be sent back after it developed some quite special faults: first, the screen went crazy, registering touches that weren’t there. This led it to autonomously send several nonsense tweets built out of my SwiftKey database (much scarier than just a string of letters), and then to actually try to sign up for a new Twitter account. I think it had become sentient.
I installed a touchscreen checking app and sure enough, ghost touches all over the place. Several reboots later, nothing had changed, but a second fault appeared: it now thought it was on charge when there was nothing plugged in. The charging light came on, the animation played, but the battery capacity continued to drop since it wasn’t actually charging. The reverse was also true: plugging it into the mains didn’t charge it, so I had to do a quick factory reset before I ran out of battery entirely.
Desire Eye number two, however, has been faultless. Specs-wise, it’s a One M8 in different packaging: 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB storage expandable by up to 128GB via microSD. That makes it pretty good value considering it’s about £100 less than the One M8, especially with the cameras (though the One M8’s main camera is excellent, in spite of its famously low megapixel count).
Performance, then, is unsurprisingly excellent. No freezing, stuttering, lagging, or any other problems that I’ve encountered. The phone gets warm if you use it intensively (watching a film, for instance), but runs hardcore games with ease and switches between apps like butter.
The HTC Desire Eye does have a couple of quirks, though: often it’ll pop up whatever you were last doing when you switch the screen back on (remember how you were checking your bank balance two hours ago? BOOM! Here it is again!), if you use a third-party keyboard the keyboard selection icon will never leave your taskbar no matter what you do (also an issue with the One M8), and it’s overly demanding about WiFi networks that require sign-in. If you use the WiFi on the London Underground, for instance, you’ll know that ‘sign in’ actually means ‘look at the same ad over and over again’, and most phones will let you clear the notification and keep using the WiFi. The Desire Eye will interrupt whatever you’re doing to force you to look at the ad. This happens multiple times on every journey to work, and it’s quite tiresome.
Minor quibbles, though.
The screen on the Desire Eye is all the evidence you need that resolution alone won’t tell you how good a display is going to be. We’ve seen countless Full HD screens, and yet this one somehow manages to be brighter, crisper and more lovely than almost all of them.
At 1080 x 1920, it’s got the same resolution as the One M8’s screen, but spread across a 5.2 inch display rather than the M8’s flat 5 inches. That means a slightly lower pixels-per-inch count: 424 as opposed to the M8’s 469. Not a big difference, and it’s not noticeable. This is a bright, beautiful screen with wide viewing angles and an impressive top brightness level. Colours barely change as you move the screen around, but it’s worth noting that it’s pretty shiny, so not ideal for use in strong light.
The bezels around the screen are medium-sized, which is in keeping with a mid-range phone. They’re not noticeable or intrusive, though. HTC has done an excellent job of finding a screen that best shows off the Desire Eye’s big selling point: the cameras.
Considering the cameras are the big sell on this phone, they’re not as good as I was expecting. That’s not to say they’re bad at all – just that I thought they’d be show-stopping and they were more… show-pausing.
Both cameras offer 13MP resolution with wide-angle lenses and dual-toned flashes. Honestly, it feels a tiny bit wasteful to repeat the hardware on each side of the phone: Oppo’s N3 twisting camera seems a more elegant solution. The cameras aren’t identical, but close enough that you don’t really need two of them.
Nonetheless, both cameras are very quick to snap photos and take sharp, colourful (often too colourful!) pictures that you’ll be very happy to share. Colours are frequently oversaturated, and you’ll need to retake a photo a few times to get the best combination of light and focus, but there’s no denying the resulting snaps look good. Just not great.
HTC Desire Eye camera examples:
The simple camera software is enjoyable to use, but hides some of the best features in unnecessarily complicated ways. I had to consult the help files (!) to find out how to activate HDR (tap ‘Auto’ to access an unexpected menu of camera modes), and the same goes for panorama mode and slow-mo video. Not sure I’d ever have found those without assistance. HDR is also quite buggy – here’s how it handled St. Paul’s on a stormy day:
(Yes, I was standing perfectly still. I took this shot three times and it came out the same way every time).
Auto mode took this shot, by comparison:
Neither of which properly captured the contrast between the bright building and eerily-lit clouds behind it. It was a beautiful sight to see with your eyes, but not with your Eye.
The front-facing camera, on the other hand, is too good. For a selfie phone, this takes pictures that are detailed to a truly depressing degree, which makes you not want to share them. No one needs to see every wrinkle and blotch in HD! Yes, there’s ‘Live Makeup’ mode to turn you into a living doll, but I honestly think a 20MP main camera and 5MP selfie cam would have been a better use of hardware here.
Compare the full resolution selfie (first) to Live Makeup at half strength (second), to full-on Live Makeup (third). The middle photo is probably the best middle ground between accurate and dishonest, but I can’t help thinking it’s daft to include a great camera and then hobble it.
The Desire Eye has HTC’s ‘Eye Experience’ features built in, which include some quite fun modes. You can say “cheese” or just smile to snap a photo, and say “action” or “rolling” to start shooting video. In practice, this doesn’t work very well. I took several accidental photos and videos as I talked to someone while we were getting ready for a photo, and sometimes the selfie cam thought I’d smiled when I hadn’t (or didn’t catch it when I did, unless I grinned like a loon). Many, many terrible photos were taken that I won’t be sharing with anyone!
The photo booth mode is terrific, though: it takes four photos in quick succession (you get two seconds to pose) and stitches them together like an old-school photo booth print. This is social media gold, and something I think younger users would have a field day with. Here’s me and Josef from Machinarium:
You can also take ‘split capture’ photos to show your reaction to something – here’s me after Madonna’s fall at the Brits:
And there’s a fairly pointless beta mode called ‘Crop me in’ that adds a badly cut-out image of your head to whatever you’re pointing the main camera at. I used it to very convincingly insert myself into the Oscars selfie:
Oh, me and my showbiz pals!
Unfortunately for the Desire Eye, HTC have also retroactively added all these features to the One M8, which again erodes the Desire Eye’s raison d’etre. At this point, it’s just a One M8 in kitscher packaging with arguably better camera hardware (though the M8 takes excellent photos too, despite its infamously low megapixel count). I’m not sure the £100 saving is worth it.
When the HTC Desire Eye was first announced, I was excited – until they got to the battery bit. 2400 mAh? What? That’s pitiful.
Yes, it’s a mid-range phone, but a high mid-range – and with hardware as good as the HTC One M8’s, it seems criminal to give it an undernourished power pack to play with. The One M8 has 2600 mAh, by the way, and even that seems a little low in these times of 3000+ batteries.
So does that tiny power pack magically manage to punch above its weight? In short, no. Using this as my main phone, I haven’t had a single day where I haven’t had to give it a boost either by sticking it on the mains or topping it up from my portable charger. That’s not good enough at this price point.
Running our usual test of streaming a 2-hour fullscreen movie over WiFi with brightness set to max and GPS on, we had 60% left from a full charge at the end of the film. That’s about what I expected, given that the One M8 had 66% left in the same test, but it’s still disappointing.
Taken in isolation, the HTC Desire Eye is an excellent and very likeable phone. Its hardware is great, the design is distinctive, and the screen is a beauty. But I don’t think I could buy this phone, knowing that the One M8 (which we gave 43/50) is just £100 more. Essentially, the Desire Eye needed to be cheaper to justify its existence, or have more unique features.
HTC are selling this phone on the strength of its cameras, but they’re not as outstanding as you’d expect, and without that, it’s a One M8 with a worse battery and a plastic back. I still think younger consumers will find a lot of value in its cheerful colours and fun camera modes, but adding the Eye Experience to the One M8 just means this phone loses another feather in its cap.
That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed using the phone. It gives near-flawless performance, takes unquestionably good photos and everything looks good on that sunshine-bright screen. But it’s overshadowed by its flagship sibling – HTC just did too good a job on the One M8. And with the M9 about to level up HTC’s game again, I wouldn’t have my eye on an Eye.
Distinctive, likeable handset design
Depressingly accurate selfie cam
Samsung Galaxy Grand Prime
Sony Xperia C3