It's not just the major carriers who are getting the latest and greatest Android smart phones. U.S. Cellular, the sixth largest carrier in the country behind the big four and MetroPCS (another regional carrier), has landed the HTC Desire, which sports Android 2.1 and the popular HTC Sense overlay. At the increasingly standard smart phone price of $199 with a contract and rebate, it's here to play with the big boys. Thanks to its Nexus One design origins, 3.7-inch Super LCD screen, and screaming 1-GHz Snapdragon processor, the Desire is a strong device--when you can get a good signal.
The Desire looks like the offspring of a Nexus One and a HTC Droid Eris. Like the Nexus One, it has a 3.7-inch screen, rounded edges, and a bronze tint. It's even the same size, at 4.7 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches. The Desire weighs fractions of an ounce more, tipping the scale at 4.8 ounces compared to the Nexus One's 4.6-ounce weight. The phone is covered in a soft-touch black rubberized plastic, which made it very comfortable to hold.
Above the display, the Desire's speaker is made of two silver-edged ovals instead of the Nexus One's single speaker piece. Below, the physical buttons are brushed silver; you'll find an optical trackpad in between the Home and Menu buttons to the left and one oval button on the right, which gently rocks between the Back and Search buttons. We can't quite figure out why HTC designed two separate buttons on the left but used a single button on the right side. We would've preferred two rocker buttons as a way for the Desire to differentiate itself from other Android phones.
Turning the Desire over reveals the 5-megapixel camera at the top surrounded by a silver oval edged in red, much like the HTC Evo 4G. Unlike the Droid Incredible and Evo 4G, both of which have multiple red accents, the red edging on the Desire feels out of place, as that's the only red to be found on the phone. The flash and speaker sit to its right.
The HTC logo appears in silver under the camera lens, with the U.S. Cellular logo near the bottom. Beneath that logo are the words "with Google" and "with HTC Sense" on the next line below.
Up top, there's a bronze-tinted power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack. A long bronze-tinted volume rocker resides on the left side and a microUSB port protrudes ever so slightly from the bottom. The included 8GB microSD card sits next to the battery, but unfortunately, you have to remove the battery to pop the card out.
Although some odd design choices give the impression that the Desire is made up of leftover parts from other HTC phones, it never felt cheap in our hands.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Desire features the HTC Sense keyboard, which is easy to type on and provides just enough haptic feedback without being jarring. Typing in portrait mode is a little cramped, especially compared to a more spacious screen like that on the Evo 4G. Typing in landscape mode was much better. An auto-correct dictionary appears while you're typing, and while this is usually helpful, it was occasionally overzealous. For example, it took several tries to convince the Desire that my name should be spelled "Meghan" instead of "Megan."
Where the Nexus One had a roller ball, the Desire uses an optical touchpad. We were able to swipe through the Desire's screens and menus more efficiently with the optical touchpad than with the roller ball. The touchpad also came in handy for taking pictures and starting video recordings.
The Desire features an 800 x 480-pixel Super LCD screen that's sharp and bright. Outside on a sunny day, the display is a little more difficult to see, but pumping up the brightness helped. Regardless, the capacitive touchscreen was responsive.
The HTC Desire features the Android 2.1 operating system with the stylish HTC Sense overlay. Like other Android phones with HTC Sense, the Desire has seven home screen panels that may be customized with widgets and apps. Pinching the screen or pressing the Home button twice shows all of the screens at once, much like Exposé on Mac.
In addition to the stock Android widgets for mail, calendar, and Facebook, Sense jazzes things up with widgets for news, stocks, bookmarks, Friend Stream--which gathers info from Facebook and Twitter--a calculator, and weather. We really like the easy on-off switches for Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and Airplane mode that reside on the seventh panel.
Much like the Nexus One, the Desire packs a 1-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chip under the hood, 512MB of RAM, and 512 of ROM. In everyday use it was definitely snappy--sometimes almost too snappy; photos went by so quickly as we scrolled through them that it was hard to tap on the one we wanted to view. On a benchmark test called Linpack for Android, which measures a system's floating point computing power, the Desire scored slightly lower than the Samsung Galaxy S phones but higher than its HTC contemporaries, the Incredible and the Aria. It matched the score of the Evo 4G running Android 2.1. In our other benchmark tests it averaged squarely in the middle of other Android 2.1 phones.
We fired up Classic Tetris, multiple browser windows, checked our e-mail, and watched a YouTube video without a hitch. Undoubtedly, the Desire is a strong performer.
Web, E-Mail and Messaging
The Desire rarely showed full signal strength despite our using it at numerous locations in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, all of which were within U.S. Cellular's 3G coverage, according to the company's maps. Completely loading the full web pages of CNN.com, NYTimes.com, ESPN.com, and Laptopmag.com took 37, 33, 22, and 36 seconds, respectively. On average, the Evo 4G took 20 to 30 seconds less per page on Sprint's 3G network. As expected, loading the same four sites over Wi-Fi took considerably less time. The Desire loaded both CNN.com and NYTimes.com in 14 seconds, ESPN.com in 10, and Laptopmag.com in 12.
Like other Android devices, Gmail is king when it comes to e-mail. In fact, you need a Gmail account just to set up the phone. However, you can also add AOL, Comcast, Exchange ActiveSync, or other POP3/IMAP accounts to the Desire. Setting up both our Gmail and Comcast accounts took less than a minute each, and in no time our e-mail was loading on the device.
Text messages appeared in conversation threads, which made them easy to follow.
U.S. Cellular added a few apps to the Desire: My Contacts Backup (online contact storage), City ID (displays the city and state of incoming calls), Tone Room Deluxe (a ringtone store), and Your Navigator Deluxe (navigator powered by TeleNav). While City ID is neat, we expect most smart phones to do this automatically.
Of course, there's always the 80,000-strong Android App Marketplace for downloading popular apps such as Pandora and ShopSavvy. U.S. Cellular currently offers a $20 Android Marketplace credit with the purchase of a new Android phone. We downloaded the free augmented-reality app Layar, which shows distances to nearby businesses, and it worked on the Desire without any hiccups.
Using Your Navigator Deluxe powered by TeleNav, we were routed from Oak Park, Illinois, to a house on the northwest side of Chicago in about 19 seconds and provided accurate spoken turn-by-turn directions. U.S. Cellular's Your Navigator Deluxe is included with the required $30 monthly Android data plan, which is a nice bonus. It includes the ability to search near your current location for useful shops/sundries such as food, ATMs, gas stations by price, parking lots, hotels, and other businesses. It also includes maps and traffic updates.
Google Maps is also available on the Desire and includes turn-by-turn navigation, too. It prescribed a more direct route to the same address as Your Navigator Deluxe and in a much faster seven seconds. However, it said the approximate travel time would be 27 minutes instead of Your Navigator Deluxe's 15 minutes. In our experience, the typical travel time of this route is about 20 minutes. Notably, Google Maps includes layers for not only traffic but also many of the same services as Your Navigator Deluxe. The difference is that Google Maps searches along your whole route instead of just what's nearby. In addition to Google perks such as Latitude and Labs, Google Maps also gives you public transit and walking directions as well.
Camera and Camcorder
A 5-MP camera is de rigueur these days, and the Desire ups the ante with a flash and touch focusing. But while the camera took pictures quickly, the results generally looked over-saturated. In an image of green grass and red geraniums, the grass looked overly green. An image taken at a Chicago Cubs night game with the spot-focus centered on the batter resulted in overexposure of the home plate. Likewise, a tan-and-white cat emerging from bushes taken on a partly cloudy day resulted in an overexposed, slightly glowing feline.
The Desire records in 720p but defaults to good old fashioned VGA (640 x 480 pixels). For can't-miss moments, VGA is probably a better bet. In the latter mode the Desire started recording about two seconds faster than in 720p mode; simply pressing the optical trackpad starts and stops recordings. In both resolutions the video was similarly oversaturated as in photographs and had a slightly wavy quality to it.
Music and Video
The speaker on the Desire was loud and distortion-free as we streamed "White Crosses" by Against Me! However, it's still a cell phone speaker and retains the tinny quality common to most of these devices. The YouTube video "The Double Rainbow Song" was clear and played smoothly. Turning the volume up all the way resulted in some distortion, but it was still plenty loud at 75 percent. If you're looking for premium content, you'll have to use third-party apps.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Calls made from the Desire sounded crisp. Our caller could hear us, and we could clearly hear them. A call to a landline voicemail made outside on a windy day sounded clear, and no wind noise was detected in the background.
In our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over 3G), the Desire's battery lasted an average of 5 hours and 4 minutes, which is just slightly below average for Android phones. Still, the Motorola Droid 2, which also has a 3.7-inch screen, lasted 2 hours longer on a charge, clocking in at just over 7 hours. Even the 4.3-inch screen Evo 4G lasted 23 minutes longer than the Desire. Anecdotally, we were able to use the Desire periodically during the day, search for a restaurant and navigate to it, and use it later in the evening to check Facebook and Twitter, and we still had just under half of the battery left.
Pricing and Value
If you decide to pick up the HTC Desire and are interested in a National plan (with no roaming charges), we would recommend the National 1,000 promotion package for $49.99. This includes 1,000 minutes of talk time, unlimited nights and weekends, and unlimited mobile to mobile.
For the Wide Area plan, which covers large parts of the Midwest as well as some coastal locales, we recommend the Wide Area All You Can Call with Unlimited Text and Pix for $69, as this plan includes unlimited nights, weekends, and mobile-to-mobile minutes. However, when traveling outside the coverage area, you will be subject to $0.69 per minute roaming charge. U.S. Cellular's roaming network is Verizon Wireless.
U.S. Cellular also offers a unique service called Battery Swap. If your phone's battery is dying and you're far from an outlet, you can stop by any U.S. Cellular store and swap out your dead battery for a fully charged one. This free service is limited to four swaps per month. The company also offers Overage Protection service, which will send you a text message if your voice minutes or text messages are nearing their monthly limits.
For Midwesterners who don't travel much and are looking for something smaller than the Droid X or the Evo 4G, the $199 HTC Desire is a solid choice. It's easily the best smart phone offered by U.S. Cellular, and it's speedy to boot. However, the network's coverage left a little something to be--ahem--desired. Nevertheless, if you want the size, form factor, and power of the Nexus One but in CDMA clothing, the Desire is the Droid for you.