Review: HTC Desire Eye for AT&T
HTC's selfie phone is an attractive, well-built Android handset that's easy to use. Thanks to the powerful 13-megapixel selfie cam, the Desire Eye is all about you. Here is Phone Scoop's full report.
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Is It Your Type?
The Desire Eye is for people who love themselves. HTC is marketing it as a Selfie Phone, or a device meant for self portraits. If you're the type of person who thinks "But first I need to take a selfie" before doing anything, the Eye can be a trustworthy accomplice. Even if you're not that person, the Desire Eye is a worthwhile alternative to many of today's handsets.
The Desire Eye may bear HTC's mid-range branding, but that doesn't make it a mid-range device. Instead, it falls somewhere between mid-range and high-end. It trades the One M8's metal exterior for more colorful polycarbonate shell, which helps give the Eye its own personality. Where the One looks ready for a night on the town, the Desire Eye looks ready for a road trip full of adventure.
I'm pretty sure HTC could make a great-looking phone out of wet spaghetti. It doesn't seem to matter what material the company uses; be it aluminum or polycarbonate, HTC knows how to make attractive handsets that feel great to use. The Desire Eye is available in two color combinations that do a lot to make it stand out (AT&T is only selling the white/orange one). Most versions have a colored accent running around the outer edge. Rather than paint the accent colors on, HTC actually bonded two different solid-color plastics together to create a seamless look that should hold up well over time.
The Desire Eye is a big phone. It's bigger than the One (M8), for example. I can't say it's threatening any of today's true phablets, but it's a sizable device that sometimes requires two hands to operate. As much as I like how the Eye looks, the design leaves it with a blocky footprint. At 8.5 mm front-to-back, it's not overly thick, but the Eye is that same thickness all the way out to the corners. In other words, it's a slab and it feels like a slab when in your pocket. You'll be able to stuff it in there, but it'll be obvious. I'm quite pleased with the materials and quality of the Eye's manufacture. The plastics are solid and strong, and all the seams are fitted together tightly.
It's called the Eye in part because of the high-quality user-facing camera. The camera module is enormous and pretty much stares you in the face every time you pick up the Eye. The two-tone LED flash and sensors are positioned next to the camera. The large lens more or less takes up all the space between the top of the display and the edge of the phone. If you've already scanned the Desire Eye's spec sheet, you know it includes HTC's BoomSound speakers. They're cleverly hidden in thin slits above and below the display glass. You can easily find these slits with your thumbnail, but it's not overly obvious when you slide the meat of your thumb across the gap. As is common to HTC devices, the 5.2-inch screen is swimming in more bezel than I care to see. I wish HTC could get around this particular design trait. There are no buttons on front, as the Desire Eye uses on-screen controls.
At first glance, you might think the left side of the phone holds two large buttons. These are actually trays holding and protecting the memory and SIM card slots. The trays take some work to retrieve because they're sealed against water ingress. The Desire Eye is waterproof. The good news is you can leave your SIM card ejector tool at home as the trays can only be retrieved with your thumb. The stereo headphone jack is on top and the microUSB port is on the bottom. Neither of these has a hatch, but they're still water-safe.
All of the other controls are placed on the right edge of the phone. The volume toggle is closest to the top. It's rather crummy. The profile is slim, and the travel and feedback are mushy. The screen lock button, positioned in the middle, has a great profile and much more satisfying travel and feedback. The Eye even has a dedicated camera button, located close to the bottom corner of the phone. It's a two-stage key and the stages are very subtle. It's often hard to feel the first stage at all. I also wish the button's profile were a bit better.
Like many of HTC's high-end phones, the Desire Eye does not have a removeable battery. The back is sealed up tight, so there's no swapping power cells. I think this is more than offset by the Eye's water resistance. It can sit in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes without worry. I held it under running water and dunked it in the sink and it's still working just fine. (Probably worth pointing out that HTC says not to actually use the phone when it is under water). This feature is really meant to help protect the phone against accidental soakings.
The hardware isn't perfect, but the Desire Eye offers a lot to like.
The Desire Eye includes a 5.2-inch screen with 1920 x 1080 pixels (full HD), which is a good size/resolution for this class of device. It's a solid LCD panel. Everything on the screen is sharp. The screen produces more than enough light for easy indoor and outdoor viewing. Colors are rich and accurate. Viewing angles are decent. I didn't see any color shift when the phone was tilted side-to-side, but brightness dropped significantly. It's not as good as some other full HD screens I've seen, but it should be good enough for most people.
The Desire Eye performed just as well on AT&T's network as most other AT&T phones I've tested lately. The phone remained connected to AT&T's LTE network 99% of the time I used it. It dropped down to HSPA only once - and that was in a known poor coverage spot. I was always able to connect calls, and the Eye didn't drop any during testing. I did miss one call that went straight to voicemail. LTE data speeds were quite good. I never had a problem surfing the web, using Twitter, or downloading/installing apps. In short, you shouldn't have any problems with the network performance of the Desire Eye.
As for the quality of phone calls, I was pleased and I think you will be, too. Voices sounded crisp and clean coming through the speaker, if perhaps a little thin. Earpiece volume is good, but could be a little bit better. I would recommend you keep it set all the way up most of the time. This way you'll be able to carry a conversation when in moderately noisy spaces. If you're at a nightclub or another eardrum-crushing locale, don't expect to hear anything from the Eye's speaker. The people I spoke to when testing the Desire Eye said I sounded very good. Despite the presence of stereo BoomSound speakers, the speakerphone fell far short of my expectations as far as volume goes. It produces enough sound for your home or quiet office, but toss kids and a blaring TV into the mix and you'll need to find a quieter space. Volume aside, the quality of calls coming from the speakerphone was fantastic. The BoomSound speakers will scare you to death if you set the ringtone volume all the way up. Incoming calls sound like a siren going off in your living room. The vibrate alert is excellent, too.
The Desire Eye packs a 2,400 mAh power cell and I found it adequate in supplying about a day's worth of power. During the week I tested the phone it managed to retain a charge between 8am and midnight most days, though it fell short a couple of times. Using the camera extensively takes a bit of a toll on the Eye's battery life, but otherwise it matches what most other handsets deliver.
HTC's Sense user interface includes several tools for managing the battery. There's a simple Power Saver mode that covers basics, such as turning off WiFi and Bluetooth, and dimming the screen, to help eke out a few more hours of uptime. Extreme Power Saver kicks in when the phone hits 5% battery life (or 10%, or 20%, if you wish). It turns off almost all services except for text messages, phone calls, and manual email refresh. It even goes so far as to simplify the user interface. HTC didn't say how much time Extreme Power Saver mode buys the Desire Eye.
Like the HTC One (M8 and E8) and the One Mini 2, the Desire Eye runs Android 4.4 KitKat with Sense 6 providing the user interface. The experience is pretty much carried over completely from HTC's other 2014 devices.
The lock screen is flexible. The phone supports several locking methods and offers customizable shortcuts to select apps. With a lock engaged, only the camera shortcut works, but you can choose to see notifications. You can also place a massive clock and weather widget on the lock screen if you want. HTC's gesture motions — which make the Desire Eye perform certain actions even when locked — are on board. For example, pick the phone up and tap on the screen twice to turn on the clock. Tap twice again to turn it off.I like the idea behind the gesture motions, but in reality I found they hardly ever worked correctly and I disabled this feature.
There are three home screens active when you first boot the Desire Eye, but one of them is BlinkFeed. You can add or subtract from the number of home screen panels and it's easy to set which panel appears when you press the Home button. There's a common dock at the bottom that holds four shortcuts. AT&T kept the home screens relatively free of junk.
Apps can be arranged in the app drawer alphabetically, in a customized order, or by most recently used. The tool bar at the top of the screen lets you search among your apps, as well as hide them, manage them, and change the density of the app grid. (The default is a four by five app grid, but you can switch it to three by four if you want.) Last, there's a link that will take you directly to the app section of the Google Play Store. You can't view the app menu as a list, but you can use folders and a hide/unhide tool to help manage clutter.
Using the settings menu is similar to that of other Android devices. All the wireless and network controls are bunched at the top, followed by the personalization tools, and hardware tools. HTC's personalization tools run the norm. For example, there are a handful of themes that change all the accent colors.
The notification tray works as expected, and you can open Android's Quick Settings panel quite easily.
The Desire Eye is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 with four cores at 2.3 GHz each, paired with 2GB of RAM. I thought the phone performed very well. It never felt bogged down or laggy, and it ran apps smoothly across the board.
BlinkFeed is a social news reader akin to Flipboard. You can select news sources and use it to aggregate feeds from your social networks. BlinkFeed has a powerful search tool, which you can use to instantly create a feed that pulls stories, images, and video from across the internet. What's cool is you can parse the initial results to pick and choose which sources to subscribe to, or simply subscribe to them all.
Calls and Contacts
The dialer appears first when you open the phone app. You can dial a number or use the search bar at the top to find a specific contact. There are five tabs within the app: call history, dial pad, favorites, contacts, and groups. The tabs can be edited if you wish.
The contact app sinks its hooks deep into your social networks, and lets you sort between your various contact sources (phone, SIM card, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) with a drop-down tab. It does a great job, for example, of porting over profile images. The full contact list has helpful shortcuts for making calls or sending texts, and individual contact cards offer a complete view of the person's data.
HTC's messaging app is set as the default for SMS/MMS. You can ditch the HTC app if you want and use Google's Hangouts instead. Hangouts combines SMS and instant messaging conversations together in one app, though it does so clumsily. Shockingly, there aren't any other messaging apps on board.
Google's Gmail and Email apps are both present, and, quixotically, AT&T put its own email app on the phone. The Gmail and Email apps are known entities at this point and both work well. You'll do well to download the latest version of Gmail, which uses Material Design and handles multiple email services at once. Neither Facebook nor Twitter is pre-installed, so you'll have to download them from the Play Store yourself.
The Desire Eye includes the basic Google Play apps, including Music, Movies & TV, Books, Newsstand, and Games. You can use the Play Store to purchase or rent content and then consume it in the corresponding app. Google has updated all these apps recently. Not only do they have new features, but they have refreshed designs as well.
HTC included its great MP3 app, which is your best bet for playing sideloaded music. The Desire Eye also has an FM radio so you can snag local broadcasts if that's how you roll (headphones required.)
AT&T stuffed the AT&T Mobile TV app on board, which you can use to stream video snippets across the network. This works best when LTE is available. The Eye also has Beats Music preinstalled. Both require monthly service fees.
Just for kicks, I tested the Desire Eye's BoomSound speakers side-by-side with the M8. The M8's sound better, but only by a little bit. The Eye's BoomSound speakers don't offer quite as much bass, but they are rather loud if you crank up the juice.
If you're looking to share content from the Desire Eye to other devices, you can use traditional DLNA or HTC's Media Share app. These both worked well. Many of Google's own apps support casting to its Chromecast TV dongle or Nexus Player. Casting is the easiest of these three to use, but you have to have one of Google's players to use it.
The Desire Eye's seminal feature(s) are the cameras. Both can capture 13-megapixel images. A long press of the camera button will launch the camera even when the phone is locked. You can pick which of the two cameras - front or back - the Eye opens first. All the better for you vain folk.
The camera's user interface is mostly carried over from the M8 and E8. Most of the screen is used as a viewfinder and controls are kept to a minimum. Along the edge of the viewfinder you'll see a thumbnail of your most recent shot, the shutter button, and a switcher tool that lets you jump between the basic shooting modes. On the left, you'll see a tool for adjusting the flash, as well as access to the full set of tools.
The shooting modes now include selfie, split capture, and photo booth, in addition to the existing standard and 360-degree panorama modes.
The Selfie mode includes HTC's "makeup" feature, which will give you a virtual facelift in real-time. You drag a little slider up and down to adjust the strength of the effect. It basically smooths out your skin a bit. Otherwise, Selfie mode includes all the camera's other features, including the flash.
Split Capture uses the front and rear cameras at the same time, so you can sort of add yourself to the action. It literally splits the viewfinder in half, with you on one side and your subject (oh, who are we kidding you are ALWAYS the subject!) on the other. Frankly, I like Samsung and Sony's version of this feature better. Samsung's lets you place yourself anywhere on the main image with all sorts of effects. HTC's Split Capture mode is a static split screen.
Then there's Photo Booth. Much like a real photo booth, this tool lets you take four quick shots that are then pieced together in a 2x2 grid or 1x4 strip. Once you start the capture, the Eye automatically counts down from three for each shot in quick succession and then puts them all together. (I can see the duckfaces now…) It's intuitive and works well.
The full set of tools for adjusting the camera is quite extensive. Press the three little dots in the corner of the viewfinder and a control strip pops out across the bottom. There are controls that let you adjust ISO, exposure, and white balance on the fly, as well as apply one of 19 different pre-set filters (normal, sepia, grayscale, warm, cool, etc.). The tools offer access to a handful of scenes, which include night, HDR, simple panorama, electronic image stabilization, full manual control, portrait, landscape, backlight, text capture, and macro. The scenes should be easier to reach, especially HDR, which is among the most useful of the tools. Users can also create and save their own presets as a separate “camera” in the mode selector.
The camera is lightning quick. It's easy enough that anyone can master the basics. At the same time, it offers a robust set of options for really flexing those creative muscles.
Wondering about Zoe? When HTC announced the Desire Eye in October, it also relaunched Zoe as a cross-platform social network. The new Zoe app combines the Zoe Highlight Video functionality with a social network much like Instagram or Vine. It can make videos as short as seven seconds (and up to 30 seconds) and combine one or more photos and/or videos. It includes a tool to find Facebook friends who are also using Zoe, and can post Zoes to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The app automatically mixes content into a creative video montage, with various options to customize music and timing. It's not just part of the Desire Eye; it's available to other Android phones (and soon, iPhones as well.)
The app is meant to use photos, video fragments, and audio snippets to tell a small story. To that end, it works. I find it much easier to use now that it has been pulled out of the main camera app, but it's also a rather lonely place unless you're lucky enough to have other friends who use it. Perhaps the best feature is that Zoes are now shareable with social networks that other people actually use.
I think both the front and back cameras take great shots. Focus was razor sharp, exposure spot on, and white balance generally accurate. It's truly enjoyable that you can snap excellent images without doing any work to tweak the settings. The dual-LED flash truly helps capture images in low light that would otherwise be impossible to get. The flash does go overboard sometimes, though.
I wouldn't rate the main camera higher than those of the iPhone 6 or LG G3, but it does out-class the Moto X (2nd Gen).
Bottom line: people who like to put themselves in every shot are really going to like what they see.
The Eye can capture 1080p HD video from both cameras, and the results are nearly always excellent. I was pleased with the clarity of video I shot, and can't offer any criticisms about exposure and white balance. Again, I thought the results were indiscernible between the front and rear cameras. I must say, it's nice to have consistently awesome results from the user-facing camera, as so often the user-facing camera offers sub-par quality at best. That's not the case here. HTC did a good job.
The Desire Eye uses HTC's gallery app. The app organizes photos by timeline (segregated by date), by album (grouped by event), or location (grouped by geo-tagged data). These three main albums are arranged in vertical columns and you swipe side-to-side to switch between them. I find it to be a useful way to interact with your photos.
As far as editing goes, the app offers: crop, rotate, add frames, flip, draw on, and straighten. It has an entire array of filters to help give your images that artistic touch. Sharing options for images run the norm. It's easy to push photos to your friends via email or social networks. Photos can also be moved, renamed, and otherwise managed.
Oy, there's a wee bit of bloatware. AT&T crammed 15 of its own apps on board, including useless gems such as AT&T Live and AT&T Ready2Go. In addition to the AT&T-branded junk, you'll find stuff like Famigo, KeyVPN, Lookout, Scribble, Softcard, Uber, and, yes, the Yellow Pages. You can't delete a lot of these, but you can at least hide them.
The Eye's Bluetooth radio gave me no trouble. I was able to pair it with my PC as well as Bluetooth headsets and speakers. As far as calls go, quality through my headset was excellent. I was pleased with volume and clarity. The Desire Eye supports the aptX Bluetooth profile, which offers the highest-possible-quality stereo music playback. I paired it with my favorite Bluetooth speaker and was happy to blast some great-sounding tunes.
The Desire Eye comes with both the generic old Android browser and Chrome. Both do a fine job of rendering web sites, though Chrome offers a few more personalization and sync tools. I was pleased with browsing speeds on AT&T's LTE network and didn't run into any trouble.
Like all devices running HTC Sense, the Desire Eye has a useful clock tool. As longas you are holding the phone, double-tap the screen to turn on the display, which shows the lock screen and clock. You can set the clock to just show the time, or to also include weather. As is often the case, the lock screen clock uses white, digital numbers and cannot be customized.
The Desire Eye has Google Maps for planning and routing directions. Google Maps performed really well on the Desire Eye, thanks in part to its speedy processor. The Desire Eye was able to pinpoint me consistently within several seconds no matter where I was or what sort of signal strength was available. Google Maps remains the premiere free mobile mapping software available, and it can help you find walking, biking, driving, and public transit routes between points, as well as street-level views of where you're going.
AT&T added its own Navigator app as an alternate to Google Maps. AT&T Navigator works well, but carries a small monthly fee.
HTC clearly had a strong vision for the Desire Eye, and I think it succeeded in accomplishing what it set out to do. The Desire Eye is a unique entry in today's smartphone market that puts the user front and center (or wherever they want to be in the picture.)
The Desire Eye doesn't qualify as a premium device, but the hardware is still quite good. It has a distinct look that sets it apart from many of the me-too slabs on store shelves. The screen is very good, the network performance is outstanding, calls sound good, and the battery does a decent job, too. Some may take issue with the sealed battery, but I think the water resistance more than makes up for it.
HTC's Sense user interface has been around since the early part of the year. It's looking a bit long in the tooth, especially now that Android 5.0 Lollipop has been released. (HTC hasn't specified when the Desire Eye will be updated to Lollipop.) That said, Sense is still as functional as ever, and it offers users myriad options for making the device their own.
The new selfie camera tools are fun, but could go further in my opinion. However, the resulting images are what matter most, and in this case they are quite good. HTC's 13-megapixel sensor does a great job and should make lots of people happy.
Would I recommend the HTC Desire Eye? Well, if you are your own favorite photographic subject, there's no better choice. The user-facing camera is the best I've seen and that's the whole point of the Eye. Even if you're not the most important person in your world, the Desire Eye is a powerful and fun handset.
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