Can HTC conquer the middle of the market with the Desire 816? This is an interesting smartphone with respectable specs and an attractive price tag, so where are the compromises?
A plastic body, mid-range processor and 720p display weigh up against dual speakers and a decent 13MP main camera backed up by a 5MP selfie special. All of this can be yours for around £300 (about $500, AU$550) off-contract.
There's no shortage of competition in this space from a mixture of mid-rangers and discounted flagships of yesteryear.
It will have to tempt prospective buyers away from similarly priced phones like the Nexus 5, the Moto X and the OnePlus One.
Not everyone is willing to blow hundreds on a cutting edge masterpiece of design like the HTC One M8, so there's definitely a market for a smartphone like the Desire 816.
HTC figures that demand starts in Asia, where the 816 was released in March and extends to Europe, where it's rolling out now. There's no word on whether it will land further afield just yet.
The first thing that strikes you about the HTC Desire 816 is its size. This is a big phone. Flagship screens are growing bigger generally and putting into doubt the idea that anything between 5 and 7 inches is a phablet.
This has a 5.5-inch screen in a big plastic slab of a body. It makes the Sony Xperia Z2 look small.
Shooting for the middle of the market means corners have to be cut somewhere. You won't find the high-end design of the One M8 here, although the Desire 816 does sport the same rounded corner profile and front-facing Boomsound speakers. Instead of grills there are larger machined holes to mark the speakers, which look quite good.
The bezels round the screen are fairly large. The small HTC logo at the bottom and the front-facing camera at the top left are the only other details.
Things are similarly sparse on the back, with a camera lens and flash at the top left corner and the lowercase HTC logo again, this time larger, in the middle of the non-removable back plate.
You have to reach up to the top of the left spine to find the power button and that ensures that one-handed operation is beyond you, unless you're a basketball player. The volume rocker sits below the power button and it's split into two large buttons which feel a little loose.
Up top you'll find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack. At the bottom there's the microUSB port.
On the right side there's a plastic flap that you can open with your fingernail to reveal various ports. There's one for your nanoSIM, a microSD card slot, and a mystery port in the middle that leads to another dimension (it's actually for a second SIM card for markets getting the dual SIM version, but it's blocked up on my review unit).
Sadly the flap doesn't mean that the HTC Desire 816 is waterproof, but you won't change your SIM or microSD card often, so it's a nice way to tuck them out of sight.
My review handset was white, which did a pretty good job of hiding the fingerprints and smudges that will no doubt find plaguing the colour versions.
It's a comfortable phone to hold, but it's definitely on the big side and will be unwieldy for some. It's pretty slim at 8mm, but it is 156.6mm tall and 78.7mm across. It's also pretty heavy at 165g.
Glossy plastic doesn't get much classier than this, but it's still glossy plastic. The materials, build quality, and colours remind me of Nokia's Lumia line-up.
The HTC Desire 816 is clearly no flagship design, but to be fair it doesn't carry a flagship price tag either.
I'm not saying it's a monster, but the HTC Desire 816 does remind me of Frankenstein's monster for some reason. Maybe it's the lumbering, giant, rectangular profile.
Almost everyone I encountered when using the Desire 816 remarked on how big it is. One of the key selling points for this phone is its size. The big display is a boon in the mid-market as smartphone displays are still trending upward.
While the screen is a proud 5.5 inches, the resolution is just 1280 x 720 pixels, which works out to a pixel density of 267ppi.
It's a Super LCD2 panel and it actually looks pretty good. But if you stick it next to a 1080p display you'll notice the difference. If you're coming from an older phone though this is going to look sharp and expansive.
I did feel that the automatic brightness consistently set itself a bit low, which gave the display a washed out look. Ramping it up to full made a big difference, but it will inevitably impact on battery life.
It's nice having a big screen, but even as a fairly tall guy with big hands, this phone is on the edge of comfortable for me.
The HTC Sense 6 UI is one of the heavier Android overlays you'll find. HTC has gone for a pretty distinctive look and modified the menus, notifications, and the app drawer.
Sadly there's no support for the tap to wake or the volume rocker camera shortcut that is available on the HTC One M8. The only special gesture supported seems to be the three-finger swipe up for quickly sharing content. To be honest there isn't much going on here that really adds value over stock Android.
Swipe left to right on the home screen and you'll get Blinkfeed, your news and social media aggregator. It's just like Flipboard and every OEM seems to have felt the need to create its own version.
For me it's pretty hit and miss (mostly miss) but then I don't want my social media chatter mixed in with my news. If you want to spend the time setting it up with your interests and then tweaking it to remove the stuff that's bugging you, then you might get a decent experience out of it.
On the app front, by contrast, HTC's touch is mercifully sparse. There is no HTC app store, or HTC video service, or HTC music subscription service being pushed at you.
There's a useful Car app, which is like a simplified launcher that just brings up music, navigation, dialer, people, and settings, for when you're driving.
Otherwise it's Google services all the way, which makes you wonder why HTC didn't go the whole hog and just put Chrome in as the default browser, because that's one of the first things you'll want to do.
HTC's apps are all good, straight to the point, and clearly laid out, but they don't bring much to the party that Google hasn't covered.
There are some clever touches in the Gallery, Music, Phone, People, and Messaging apps, but nothing you haven't seen before.
The most pleasant lack of compromise on the HTC Desire 816 is the front-facing Boomsound speakers. Music is loud, watching movies feels like more of an experience, and dual speakers that face you just make sense.
They are the best idea HTC has had, so it's nice to see they made the cut. You aren't going to find any other mid-rangers with speakers like this.
Interface, battery life and the essentials
HTC's Sense 6 user interface sits on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. As I touched on in the last section, it doesn't really feel like Sense adds much.
The aesthetic HTC has chosen is clean and stark. It's very easy to get to grips with, but compare it with stock Android and it's difficult to point out the advantages.
The notifications shade is good, pull down with one finger and it just displays all your incoming messages and updates by default. Pull down with two fingers and you get taken into quick settings instead, if you can remember to do that, otherwise it's an extra tap to reach a tile based menu that looks an awful lot like stock Android.
With a 1.6 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, an Adreno 305 GPU, and 1.5GB of RAM it wasn't clear how snappy the HTC Desire 816 would be. As it turns out this is a speedy little number, which has no trouble navigating without lag.
When I ran a Geekbench test, the HTC Desire 816 scored 1463. For comparison the One M8 scored an impressive 2899, but a fairer comparison would be the Moto X, which scored 1281.
We know Google has been working on making Android smoother on lesser hardware and if the HTC Desire 816 is anything to go by then it looks like mission accomplished.
HTC has obviously also done some work on lightening the UI load because Sense 6 doesn't seem to have any negative impact either.
The HTC Desire 816 only has 8GB of storage, which isn't much, but let's not forget that it does have a microSD card slot which can boost that up to a maximum of 128GB. I was also pleasantly surprised to find around 7GB free out of the box.
The HTC Desire 816 is big, but the battery isn't. It's rated at 2600mAh and it can't be removed, so there's no option to carry a spare. If you're using it a lot then that big screen is going to suck down the juice pretty fast.
Playing Asphalt 8 for ten minutes with the volume and brightness cranked up ate 5% of the battery life and the phone got pretty hot.
Streaming HD video from the Play Movies & TV app I found that the battery had dropped another 5% in ten minutes.
In the looped 90 minute video battery test on full brightness the HTC Desire 816 dropped to 75%. That compares to 92% for the Nokia Lumia 1320 and 83% for the Moto X.
Where it is strong is the standby and basic functions. With light use this phone will easily last you 24 hours between charges, especially if you allow the power saving mode to kick in when the battery gets low.
Extreme power saving mode throttles just about everything when the battery hits a certain percentage, or you can opt for Power saver and dictate where you'd like to save power.
You are losing functionality and performance to save juice, but it's a handy option to have in a pinch.
The signal strength on the HTC Desire 816 is decent. On my old Galaxy S3 I struggled to get a signal in certain rooms in my house, but this phone was usually able to snag at least a couple of bars.
Comparing it side by side with the Sony Xperia Z2, however, the Desire 816 definitely trailed a little and couldn't match the strength of signal in the same location.
The sound quality is very good; callers were clear and loud and reported no problems hearing me.
The messaging app is solid with sensible predictive options to shortcut your typing. Feedback is good and it was generally accurate, even when I typed fast without paying a great deal of attention.
There is an option in the settings to turn on swiping, which they've called trace keyboard, but if you're into the one-handed wonders of swiping to text then you'll probably already have Swype or SwiftKey.
I don't like the web browser on the HTC Desire 816. I spent a while wondering why I didn't like it because it's relatively fast, it has tab support, it's easy to request the desktop view, and it works well.
Turns out it's because I'm used to using Chrome, which has the added advantage of already playing host to all my bookmarks and knowing my recent browser history, which is something I didn't realize I would miss until I did.
For the sake of consistency HTC should do what Sony has done and just put Chrome in as the default (it's already pre-installed in the Google apps folder on the home screen).
For a mid-range device the cameras on the HTC Desire 816 are positively tasty. There's a 13MP main shooter with an LED flash and a 5MP front-facing camera for video calls and high quality selfies. Both cameras are capable of capturing full HD 1080p video.
It's fairly quick to start up and you can go from a standing start to snapping a shot in three seconds. That sounds good, but consider that the lack of a hardware button shortcut means that you'll have to wake the phone and then tap to fire the camera app up, and that definitely diminishes your chances of catching those spontaneous moments.
On the plus side you can set the volume buttons to take shots or zoom in and out when you are within the camera app.
It's easy to use the camera and the automatic settings seem to get good results. If lighting conditions are ideal then you get good, detailed photos.
But if it is too dark noise is very quick to creep in; too bright and everything melts together. It also takes a lot longer than three seconds to decide where to focus and snap a shot when the light is limited.
If you want to dig around in the settings then you can select a suitable scene mode, tweak the ISO settings, apply filters, and there are a few other bits and pieces, including a handy self-timer.
The options on board here are scaled down compared to the flagship One M8. There's no Zoe camera, Dual capture, or Pan 360, however, there is a Zoe app in the app drawer which says 'Coming soon' and directs you to the Play Store.
An idea of when 'soon' is would be nice (HTC has said "summer"), but it's good to know that the option to capture these wee scenes, instead of taking a bucket load of photos, is on the way.
If you love selfies then HTC is the company for you. Switch to the front-facing camera, which HTC calls Selfie, and you can start a three second countdown to your perfect pout.
There are also a bunch of options to apply effects, frames, and filters to make you look beautiful.
The video app is straightforward to use and gets HD results as advertised. It also has a 60fps Fast HD and a Slow Motion option, which are fun to play with, but noticeably poorer quality.
The gallery app is nicely done. You can review your photos and videos in a timeline, in albums, or by location.
There's also a highlights section that automatically creates a kind of video reel of your photos and videos with camera pans and music. It's a bit gimmicky, but you might get a kick out of it.
The HTC Desire 816 is equipped to be a decent entertainer. The 5.5-inch display and Boomsound speakers combine well.
If you really want to load your music collection on here, then you'll need to take advantage of the microSD card slot, because 7GB fills up fast.
Luckily you can add a card up to 128GB in size, so even the most committed audiophile can carry their entire collection around with them and still have room for some movies.
The music app is solid. You can queue up music, create playlists, and sort by artist, album, or song. The standard stuff is all there.
When you play a track you'll also find the option to share it with nearby compatible devices, and you can flick over to the visualizer for a spot of graphical animation, which also includes the ability to load up lyrics karaoke-style.
Controls for your music sit in the notification shade, so you can get on with doing something else.
You'll also find them on the lock screen, and the same pause and skip track options are available whether you use the pre-installed music app or something else like Spotify.
As a mid-range phone the HTC Desire 816 ships without headphones, so you'll need to use your own or buy some separately.
The sound quality and volume you can get through the speakers is unmatched in this category.
It's a good phone for watching video on as well. Although the 720p resolution isn't cutting edge, movies and TV shows do look respectable on this phone, and they sound great.
HTC hasn't included a video app of its own; instead you'll find Play Movies & TV and YouTube. Any movies you load on yourself will appear in the Gallery app listed in the movies section and you can play them from there.
An awful lot of devices fall into the mid-range category if you just look at prices, but we're going to assume that a big screen is important to you, if you're looking at the Desire 816. Here are the big contenders that fall into the same weight class.
Nokia Lumia 1320
The price is right at around £300 and you can enjoy Nokia's good build quality and snappy performance, but there isn't too much more to recommend the Lumia 1320 over the Desire 816. It's another plastic slab smartphone in a variety of fun colours. It also has a 720p display, but it's a big bigger at 6 inches.
Things take a turn for the worse when we clock the dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM. There's also a 5MP main camera with just a VGA for selfies. Where are Nokia's famed camera credentials? Corners have been cut here.
You might like the idea of that extra half-inch of screen and we have to mention the stellar battery life. The Lumia 1320 will definitely outlast the Desire 816 in a long distance race, but there's one last factor that should decide it.
The final nail in the Lumia 1320's coffin is the Windows Phone platform. It doesn't come close to competing with Android in terms of apps, games, and features, and that makes the Lumia 1320 a very tough sell indeed.
Sony Xperia T2 Ultra
Sony's Xperia T2 Ultra is also crafted from glossy plastic, although there are some metallic highlights around the frame, including that signature power button. It has a 6-inch 720p display.
Moving inside we find a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 clocked at 1.4GHz and the same Adreno 305 GPU that you'll find in the Desire 816.
It also has 8GB of internal storage, but it's considerably more clogged with Sony apps and preloaded services than the Desire 816. This results in a lot less free space, although it too supports microSD card expansion, but only by up to 32GB.
It also has a dedicated camera button for the 13MP main shooter, but the front-facing camera is rated at 1.1MP. The T2 Ultra boasts a bigger battery at 3,000mAh. Price-wise it's about the same as the Desire 816 and it looks similar enough to give you a real quandary.
Here's a proper challenger for the Desire 816: a phone that really goes after the market for top smartphones at attractive prices.
The OnePlus One provides some of the same specs as the HTC Desire 816: a 5.5-inch screen, a 13-megapixel camera on the back and a 5-megapixel camera on the front. But that's where the similarities start to end.
Boasting specs that rival the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5 the OnePlus One costs less than the HTC Desire 816, but you get a 1080p Full HD screen, a 3100mAh battery (compared to the HTC Desire 816's 2,600mAh) and a phone that runs CyanogenMod, a tweaked version of Android that offers unparalleled customisation options.
The OnePlus One's 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor with 3GB of RAM means it runs swiftly and smoothly. This completely blows the HTC Desire 816's 1.6 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with 1.5GB of RAM out of the water.
But with cut prices comes comprises. The biggest compromise here is the 16GB of internal storage with no microSD card port. If you're an app buying fiend or a true audiophile you might prefer the HTC Desire 816's 8GB with the ability to upgrade to a maximum of 128GB using a MicroSD card.
Let's be honest here, the HTC Desire 816 is not primarily aimed at the UK market and it may never land stateside. That doesn't mean that it isn't a smartphone worth considering if you want a big screen and you don't have the budget or willingness to spend big on a flagship.
As a mid-ranger it is inevitably a creature of compromise with a range of highs and lows, but it looks good next to its closest competition in terms of size, specs, and price. If you've got £300 (around $500, AU$550) burning a hole in your pocket then you could do a lot worse than spend it on the HTC Desire 816.
The front-facing Boomsound speakers are a headline USP for HTC's flagship range, so it's great to see them in a mid-range release like this. If audio quality was top of your list then this is cheapest phone you'll find with good speakers in it.
As long as you ramp the brightness up, the display is great for watching video and it's comfortable to read on. The 720p resolution will be sharp enough for most people.
Low light performance aside, the 13MP main camera is a pleasant surprise in a phone in this category. The 5MP front-facing selfie camera is way beyond what you'll find in most other smartphones, even flagships.
To have almost 7GB free out of the box in an 8GB phone is impressive and testament to HTC's light touch with regard to apps. But it's reassuring to know that the HTC Desire 816 can handle microSD cards up to 128GB in size.
For such a big phone, the battery is relatively small. This should be a great entertainment device, but gaming and movies are going to kill the battery a little too quickly and it can't be replaced.
Why would you put the power button at the top of the left spine when every other manufacturer seems to have understood that the right spine is the best place for it? It also makes sense to move it lower down to enable one-handed operation, like Sony has done on the Xperia line.
Coming from a 1080p smartphone the display is going to disappoint, but the brightness is a greater concern. The automatic brightness was never high enough and tweaking it means eating the battery.
Low light camera performance is generally a tricky area, but it's seriously poor on the HTC Desire 816.
The HTC Desire 816 is definitely worth buying if you're dead set on a larger screen and you don't want to break the bank. The speakers are excellent, and in the right conditions, the camera is also a leader in this category.
Performance was surprisingly smooth and stutter-free. For the most part HTC has made compromises in all the right places to ensure that this is still a quality device. If you're willing to spend double the price tag then you'll certainly be able to get a much nicer phone, but it won't be twice as nice.