HTC revamps its iconic Android phone for the world. (April 17th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: HTC
Price: $50 (3 yrs, Bell), $200 (2 yrs, Verizon)
- Great, distinctive body.
- Excellent display.
- Good camera for stills.
- Fast 3G.
- HTC Sense a bonus for fans of custom UIs.
- Low price on the right carriers.
- On Bell, saddled with unwanted apps.
- Performance may be an issue in the long term.
- Average video and call quality.
- Battery life could be better.
Design and the four-inch display
The first Incredible broke with the pack by refusing to go with a perfectly symmetric, smooth shape and even clever touches like its red innards. Not surprisingly, the Incredible S and Droid Incredible 2 bring that back, and it gives the phone that slight extra character that most lack. It feels good in the hand as well. You don't get the bright red on the inside of the Incredible S, but you do get a smooth, tidy design that shows the attention to detail and makes swapping the battery, the microSDHC card, or the SIM a relative pleasure.
Unlike the Desire HD (and Inspire 4G, and Thunderbolt), Desire S, or some of HTC's other phones, though, the back battery cover is all plastic, not the aluminum and other metal that gives the others a slightly higher quality feel. It's some of the best-feeling plastic you'll experience with a reassuring matte, slightly rubberized texture, but there were occasional clues it wouldn't be as rock solid. We're not worried, just slightly disappointed.
Thankfully, the hardware controls are well-done. Both the sleep/wake and volume rocker buttons are deliberately oversized but designed in a near-flush way that prevents accidental presses. It's easy to reach for them at any time but rare that it will be anything but a deliberate press.
As with most Android phones, four buttons sit at the bottom, and here are in a fairly logical home, menu, back, and search order. HTC has devised a clever trick here, however: the buttons are not only touch-sensitive but rotate for most apps depending on whether the phone is being held in portrait or landscape. It won't actually change having to briefly re-adapt to the button re-ordering -- a reason why Apple only has a single home button -- but it it does both look "right" and speed up the process just that little bit more.
The buttons do show an odd lapse in build quality, though. Light under the buttons isn't even and, both on our test unit and others we've heard of, brightest around one key but dimmer at the others. Your only way to see perfect lighting is to tilt the phone at a slight angle off-center. Again, it's nothing that would break the experience of the Incredible S, but we'd hope for better.
All is forgiven when you look at the display. HTC did give in slightly to upsizing the display, but the four-inch Super LCD is easily a stand-out. It's bright, it's color-rich, and its viewing angles are superb. Like most displays, taking it out in bright sunlight will make it harder to see, but our photos didn't entirely do it justice; it's still fairly readable, and its situation improves quickly. And even though the 480x800 resolution isn't "pixel-free" like the ultra-sharp iPhone 4 screen, we still found it crisp and pleasing to the eye. It's certainly better than the original Incredible's AMOLED, which was hard to see outside and suffered from the fuzzy look of the PenTile pixel layout Samsung's AMOLEDs were using until 2011. We're starting to see four inches as an ideal size, since it comes across as large but still manageable in most people's hands.
Android 2.2 and HTC Sense 2.1
It's been awhile since we've had an opportunity to review an HTC phone with Sense, and a significant amount has changed in between. Many of the customizations, such as the tweaked e-mail app, the native Peep client for Twitter, and the custom widgets for the clock, weather, and the Friend Stream are uncannily familiar. That's not a bad thing as HTC has increasingly shown a knack for customizations that, if not perfect, are at least straightforward and easy to use. We'd still add that some of the apps and widgets focus on prettiness over raw functionality; the Friend Stream widget doesn't show enough for a serious Twitter or Facebook user, and the weather widget's animations, even as they don't interrupt the OS, are sometimes over the top.
What we've seen is largely similar to what's been on HTC phones from 2010, and it's slightly disappointing that some updates teased at Mobile World Congress in February didn't make it to the initial shipping version of HTC's new phones. Even so, what's on show is a largely helpful slew of interface elements that are increasingly integrated into the OS, not just skins and widgets. Many will know the pinch to get an Apple Expose-style look at all the home screens, but there's also some genuinely helpful elements elsewhere. We most liked having a list of recently used apps in the notification bar and the ability to sort apps alphabetically or by the date, but even HTC's own copy-and-paste text is a small improvement over the pre-Android 2.3 environment.
There are a few built-in apps that can also be more useful than some of what Google does. Locations, for example, is a very quick way to find everything of interest in a given category, like restaurants or shopping, without having to sift through the map in Google Maps or even a more dedicated app like Yelp. It's possible to stream music from the media player to other devices on the local network through UPnP, although we didn't have an easy time getting it to actually play. We're not so sure about others such as HTC Likes, which curates HTC phone users' favorite apps, but it doesn't detract from a good overall experience. Special praise has to be given out to HTC's custom keyboard; combined with the reasonably large screen size, it's one of the few touchscreen keyboards outside of the iPhone's that lets you type extremely quickly, albeit with an occasionally overwhelming suggestion list.
What's disappointing is simply that it's using Android 2.2 underneath. While that puts it in the majority of active Android devices and certainly lets it enjoy almost every app in Android Market, that gives it an OS that's almost a year old and half a year past Android 2.3's arrival on Google's official Nexus S phone. HTC is expected to follow up with 2.3 by the end of the spring and has typically been speedy with updates. Still, it's something to be aware of, and the truth is that phones with stock Android will almost always get the newest features faster than any customized version.
As it stands, the version we tested was, without Android 2.3, missing the official multi-touch keyboard, official front camera support, built-in VoIP calling, and intelligent app management. None of these will be deeply missed given HTC's work but would have been welcome. HTC has also warned that not all Sense 3.0 features will make it in subsequent updates, so don't count on getting app launching from the lock screen or other perks on HTC's summer 2011 phones.
Performance: the CPU and 3G speeds
The speed of the phone runs both hot and cold. Moving to the second-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon processor has given the phone an overall fluid feel when you're using typical Android apps. We've long since passed the point where a mid-range or better Android phone can run smoothly. The processor's half-year age does rear its ugly head when you push the phone to its limit, however. Trying to run more than one intensive app at a time will usually bog down one or both. Qualcomm's Adreno 205 graphics are also unchanged from last year, so performance for 3D games won't compare as well to an iPhone 4 or a Samsung Galaxy S-based phone.
If you're concerned about raw performance on Android, we'd recommend holding off for either the dual-core HTC Sensation or the Samsung Galaxy S II, either of which are just a few months away at most. Both use newer graphics and should handle new tricks like 1080p video recording in the bargain. It's nonetheless nice to get the performance of last fall's Desire HD in a smaller and cheaper design.
Also, don't get too eager to cheer on the presence of Adobe Flash. Even after updating to 10.2, it's fairly clear it's not ready for prime time. It works well enough on dedicated (but non-HD) video pages, but it still bogs down tremendously when dealing with banner ads and other parts of day-to-day web browsing. We suspect the Sensation and other dual-core phones won't have as much of a problem, but it speaks to Adobe's at times over-insistent belief that Adobe is ready that HTC decided to included Flash even when it doesn't run that well.
That performance thankfully includes the 3G, at least if you're using the stock Incredible S. At 14.4Mbps downstream, the fast HSPA (not technically HSPA+) pulls down some websites and downloads more akin to what you'd expect from Wi-Fi. Our checks on Speedtest.net's app bore that out: using the 3G alone managed 5,033Kbps (about 5Mbps) for downloads and 761Kbps for uploads, where using a 10Mbps cable Internet connection over Wi-Fi yielded about 6,690Kbps down and 1,048Kbps up. The only hit was to lag, since the 63ms gap on Wi-Fi was less than half the 140ms we saw going purely on 3G. It's enough for video chat and live streams, but it won't compete with full 21Mbps HSPA+ 3G or LTE-based 4G.
Verizon users buying the Droid Incredible 2, though, won't even get that much. The phone is stuck on EVDO Revision A-based 3G, and the speeds will be noticeably slower. It's not uncommon even on a good signal to have under 2Mbps downstream and just a few hundred kilobits up. We wouldn't want to force LTE on the phone given how battery-hungry and expensive it is in 2011. Just remember that Wi-Fi will be much more important on the US carrier's network than it is elsewhere in the world.
A note on Bell's preloaded apps and Droid Incredible 2 features
Your exact experience with the phone will vary sharply depending on which carrier you're using. The Bell version we tried was in many ways close to the international version and had handy features like a direct 3G hotspot app.
Unfortunately, Bell's preloaded app layout is in many ways a demonstration of what's wrong with Android. Our version was absolutely rife with apps and widgets for Bell services, like its Remote PVR app or a widget for its app and music portals. We also saw a slew of third-party apps from companies that were clearly partners, such as Kobo's e-reading app, Zoompass mobile payments, and Gameloft demos such as Asphalt 5 and Let's Golf.
Apart from cluttering up the home screen with shortcuts to apps you'll rarely if ever use, the worst is that virtually none of them can be uninstalled. You can purge shortcuts and widgets, but even the Gameloft demos (which are freely available on Android Market) are forced to stay, cutting into the 8GB of storage and overall screen space in your app drawer. Say what you will about Apple's tight controls over the iPhone or the plainness of Google's Nexus S, but at least both of those give you genuine control over what shows on your own phone.
The situation won't be quite as onerous for the Droid Incredible 2, but we should add that it will have one nice feature that won't be on any other version: wireless charging. Although it hadn't been fully detailed as of this writing, we're expecting it to have an optional (or even bundled) inductive charging back that will let you revive the phone just by setting it on a special contact plate. We're not fans of wireless charging when it requires a case, but if it's something that can be built into the battery door and doesn't hinder access to components, it can be a tremendous convenience for those tired of plugging in a USB cable.
Camera apps and image quality
HTC as it likes to do has customized the camera apps, though largely for the better. If you like, you can go beyond just ISO sensitivity and white balance to fine-tune the contrast, exposure, sharpness, and saturation -- even in video -- which could lead to surprisingly professional shots if you're aware of what you're doing. Both too have the option of live image effects such as distortion in photos or polarized colors in videos. Tap-to-focus is thankfully present and goes a long way towards not just sharp-looking images but deliberate effects. You can use it to meter colors and even induce a mild bokeh (shallow depth of field) effect, although the lens here wasn't intended for it.
Image output isn't spectacular but can be comfortably be described as good. From the eight-megapixel back camera here's slight evidence of the classic phone camera's soft output. Most photos come out sharp and with a surprisingly good level of dynamic range. We did notice a tendency to overexpose by default, though sometimes a tap on an object to re-meter the color, or the exposure adjustment, could fix the issue. Flash is fairly bright, although as with any point-and-shoot level of flash, tends to wash out whatever's in the center of the shot and doesn't have a huge range.
Image quality from the front camera is surprisingly usable. In good lighting, its 1.3-megapixel sensor can produce sharp and fairly clean photos. Artistic shots are off-limits, but the camera will do the trick for live streaming or a Picplz vanity shot. It's a definite step up from the VGA (0.3-megapixel) camera on most Android phones and the iPhone 4.
Video quality isn't as spectacular. The output is relatively sharp at 720p and doesn't suffer from glaring compression artifacts. Output isn't as crisp even at the same pixel density, though, and we noticed that video didn't handle transitions in light levels very gracefully, with some noticeable jumps as it caught up to a brighter or darker scene. The front camera is once again more for live streams and for utility than any lasting work. In either case, the audio quality is fairly good for a built-in microphone and picks up on subtler details in the scene.
On the GSM version of the Incredible S, call quality is just average. It's loud, but it comes across as slightly muffled for both ends, at least when using Bell's 3G. It's entirely possible that the switch to CDMA on Verizon will help with call quality, though we couldn't verify that when this article was posted. The speakerphone isn't very powerful and is best for hands-free calls in the car or for a quiet room.
HTC isn't known for strong battery life on its Android flagships, especially not its super-sized phones, but it's acceptable on the Incredible S. We had enough to get through an average workday of moderate use, but not much more than that. You'll definitely want to plug in at mid-day if you know you have a long evening ahead or you know you'll work your phone hard with Internet radio or games. The battery life isn't as good as some iPhone 4 users get; HTC does win if you stack it up against some Galaxy S phones or its own 4.3-inch phones like the Desire HD and Thunderbolt, so it may be worth the lack of 4G or a giant display.
The Incredible S, more than anything, serves as a testament for how HTC has come and how far it's pushing technology. When it first came on the scene, the company was often tasked with making low-end smartphones or basic feature phones that were almost immediately rebranded by carriers pretending that they'd designed the phones themselves. Providers didn't even want to acknowledge HTC existed. Today, the Incredible S wears the HTC badge conspicuously and exudes a sense of quality that wouldn't have been conceivable for most manufacturers even two years ago.
There are undoubted limits, most of which center on the software. Plastic back aside, the new Incredible largely defines everything good and bad with Google's self-proclaimed openness. You get a beautifully done Sense interface and performance that's mostly pleasing, but Google's refusal to set guidelines for carriers ultimately leads to a phone that's (somewhat) weight down by unwanted apps. We'd add that long-term support past the promised Android 2.3 upgrade is an unknown, too. HTC in its brief history with Android has only rarely upgraded a phone past its first anniversary; you may have to ask yourself whether you're willing to run 2.3 and a limited slice of HTC Sense 3.0 for the rest of the life of the phone.
We have a concern, too, that the Incredible S might be overshadowed fairly quickly, if not already. Beyond the Sensation, its Evo 3D equivalent, competing phones like the Motorola Atrix or T-Mobile G2X from LG, and even the expected iPhone 5, single-core phones may become the minority quite quickly. A two- or three-year contract is a long time to be locked into a phone that won't be cutting edge for very long.
Thankfully, the pricing we've seen so far reflects that -- and in a sense is the real coup. It might require a lengthy contract to get there, but the Incredible S costs as little as $50 on Bell and is often free with a reasonably-priced plan in Europe. To think that you can get a well-built smartphone with a reasonably fast processor, a four-inch screen, and a good eight-megapixel camera for such a low price is almost mind-boggling given that you'd still have had to turn to entry-level smartphones for that several months ago.
Verizon's pricing was still an unknown and could cloud the situation; if it's $200 on contract, it'll be harder to pick up next to some of the phones on the shelf.
We'd say it's not for everyone. But if you can find it at a good price, on contract or not, you'll be getting an exceptional value. The Incredible S defines what a good mid-range phone should be for the rest of the year, and it's definitely the go-to choice if you like Android and want to strike a balance between raw speed and price. It might not topple the iPhone or carry the same fond memories Verizon customers had from buying the first Incredible in April 2010, but you'll be happy you bought one.