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Review: HTC Desire 816

By Leigh D. Stark | 4:10 pm 13/06/2014

Big phones tend to come with the issue of needing to spend big money, but HTC’s latest entry seeks to prove that phablets don’t have to cost an arm or a leg.

Features

A new phone for a different market, the 816 sits in HTC’s “Desire” range, a once flagship brand that his been pushed to the side and now represents the mid-range and value end of the market.

For this Desire model, you’ll find some familiar specs from HTC’s Desire handsets, slightly upgraded for 2014, and with a reliance more on the newer smaller nanoSIM size we saw HTC jump to in the 2014 edition of the One (M8).

First is the screen, and for that HTC is relying on a 5.5 inch 720p touchscreen, showing 267 pixels per inch (ppi) with the soft buttons built into the screen thanks to HTC’s use of Android 4.4 “KitKat” which is also here. HTC’s BoomSound two front-facing speakers flank the screen at both the top and bottom.

Android will run on a quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor, clocked at 1.6GHz and running alongside the Adreno 305 graphics chip, working alongside 1.5GB RAM, 8GB storage, with room to move for the 8GB storage provided you throw more into the microSD slot.

Connections are all pretty standard for a mid-range phone, because while you won’t see 802.11ac, you will find WiFi across 802.11b/g/n, DLNA, GPS, 4G LTE, and Bluetooth 4.0 with Apt-X, as well as microUSB for charging and data transfer.

Cameras are also present, with HTC moving away from its UltraPixel technology in this device and sticking with a 13 megapixel rear camera with flash, while the front camera is set to 5 megapixels and has been rebadged as a “selfie” camera. Both cameras can also record video, with 1080p Full HD capable out of both.

Few buttons can be found on the device, with merely a power button and volume rocker on the left edge.

It’s the same situation with ports, as only a 3;.5mm headset jack sits up top and a microUSB port at the very bottom.

The battery on the HTC Desire 816 is rated at 2600mAh.

Performance

Tablet sized phones or “phablets” are known to be a little on the expensive side, as big screens, big batteries, and big speedy pieces of technology often go hand in hand, raising the price considerably.

But what if you could build a smartphone that was big enough, and relied on a decent but not uber high-end set of specs to make something suitable more for the people out there keen to spend less and still feel like they’re getting more?

If you did that, you’d have the HTC Desire 816, an attempt to provide a big screen — a big decent screen at that — to the mid-section of the market with a mid-section price.

That price is just a hair under $400, and for that, you’ll find a relatively up to date set of specs, including a quad-core processor, 4G, 13 megapixel camera, and more, sitting under a big 5.5 inch screen.

Looking at the Desire 816, it’s pretty clear what HTC was channeling when it designed and build this handset.

We’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but with a glossy plastic casing, top left rear camera placement, and buttons on the side, it’s easy to think that HTC was thinking about Apple’s iPhone 5C when it crafted this handset, as the two are very, very similar.

In fact, even if you remove the camera location, it’s really the glossy plastic that gives it away, as HTC has almost always taken a matte approach to its metals, so this is closer to that other other top tiered smartphone manufacturer than HTC normally reaches to.

That’s not to say it’s bad, though, as the plastic body feels strong with no creaks and exhibits a reasonable heft, though it is very slippery, so make sure to grip it accordingly.

Button placement is a little odd, with both sitting at the top of the left edge, making it harder to control with your thumb if you normally hold the handset with your left hand.

Hold it with your right and it doesn’t change dramatically, requiring a very top centric approach to keeping the power and volume buttons close by, and in turn making things a little difficult for a solid grip unless you have massive hands.

We can see why the power button isn’t up top anymore, truly we can, as the size makes this a little prohibiting, but the right side — where the buttons were on the 5.9 inch HTC One Max — seem like an easier place for most fingers to get at, so we’re a little curious as the decision for this one.

Switch the phone on and the 5.5 inch screen lights up, showing a relatively big LCD screen running a 1280×720 resolution.

While that might not be as lovely a screen as what you get on the flagship bodies, 720p still looks pretty schmick here, even though it’s only running 267 pixels per inch, 60 pixels from what Apple constitutes as Retina image quality.

That said, the screen on the Desire 816 has excellent viewing angles and great colour, with a level of brightness that will still make it semi-useful even when it’s a touch sunny outside.

Get to using the phone and for the most part, this is Android as it was when we saw the HTC One (M8). HTC’s interpretation of Android is still easy to work out, with several widgetised homescreens, a menu system with a couple of grid options, and HTC’s BlinkFeed which lets you view news sources and social feeds in a system reminiscent of Flipboard.

Colour coding is also here for the apps, dividing up what you do between productivity, entertainment, and so on, with a dock that’s also easy to be modified across both the homescreen and standby lock screen.

Performance is a mixed bag, though, with a synthetic benchmark that puts the Desire 816 in a similar category to one of HTC’s previous benchmarks, but a lack of memory helping it to have lacklustre feelings across the board.

For instance, a quick bench with Quadrant reveals a performance on par with last year’s HTC One, scoring 12001, close to HTC’s 2013 flagship which itself grabbed 12509. Even though the chips are similar between this and the One Mini, the Desire 816’s reliance on a quad-core chip compared to the dual-core of the Mini seems to be helping out a reasonable amount for the benchmark.

But the memory isn’t the same as it was in last year’s flagship One with half a gig less, making it a 1.5GB device compared to what Android prefers with the sweet spot of 2GB. That change in specs seems to show up in the performance, with some slow downs when you jump across apps, scroll up and down web pages, and generally use your phone.

Most people will probably be able to put up with these slowdowns, but anyone looking for a solid burst of speed won’t see it here. The Desire 816 works, but not as efficiently as you might expect.

It’s also missing Near-Field Communication, which is a curious omission given that it’s a pretty standard wireless technology now, while also supporting what appears to be an extra SIM card slot that has been blocked up.

You’ll find this blocked up section in between the microSD and nanoSIM slot, and behind a cover flap that is so very hard to remove, so make sure to keep those nails handy (fingernails, that is).

The camera isn’t amazing either, because even though the megapixel range on the back is better than you might get with the HTC One, the camera is slow to respond in software, adding a second or two more from when you hit the on-screen shutter button to take the photo.

Up close, the images lack clarity and appear soft, and you may even find the focus didn’t quite look as good in reality as it did on screen. We’re not quite sure what’s making this happen, but suspect the low speed the Desire 816’s camera offers — from when you press the shutter, wait, and then have the camera take the picture — isn’t helping. Not at all.

Possibly the one good thing to come out of this is the front-facing camera which provides a decent 5 megapixels of goodness, and HTC’s image editing to boot. That’s a decent front-facing camera, which should make anyone looking for a smartphone with decent selfie capability pleased.

Also on the positive side, you’ll find excellent 4G speeds and a decent battery helping the Desire 816 along.

For the former, we found speeds ranging between 40 and 80Mbps over 4G LTE, which makes it one fast little big phone, and suitable for watching movies on that big screen.

On the other side of the equation is how this phone deals with life, and when tested with making phone calls, messaging, sending and receiving emails, web surfing, listening to music, and playing the odd game, we found a day and a half of life was easily possible, reaching into that second day if you needed to.

HTC’s power saving modes are also here, helping to get every last inch of life out of the battery if needed, but you should be fine making it through a work day without needing to reach for the plug.

In fact, we suspect this is partly due to the screen not being above the high definition resolution, which no doubt helps the handset reserve its battery life a little better than if it ran at a higher resolution.

Conclusion

HTC’s attempt to make a budget phablet doesn’t quite nail it, with a device that doesn’t feel bad, but offers a performance that certainly doesn’t match what you might expect out of it.

At a little less than $400, the Desire 816 is a solid choice for anyone keen to have something big and not too expensive, especially with its day-strong battery and nice screen, but if you’re looking for something with more grunt, we’d either look elsewhere or drop down to a smaller size.

Price (RRP)

$398

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Big screen without a big price; Nice screen, even if it lacks a Full HD resolution; Excellent 4G speeds; Decent battery life;

Product Cons

Mediocre system performance has speed issues; Buttons are hard to reach for moist people, with controls at the top of the left edge; Screen won't switch on when swiped in similar ways at standby compared to the HTC One (M8); SIM card and microSD cover really, really hard to open; Performance can slow down from time to time; No NFC; Slow camera;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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