The HTC Explorer is a dinky little thing. Pebble-shaped and mainly covered in hard-wearing rubber with a metallic embossed panel on the battery cover, it's amusing to see HTC equate 'first smart phone' with 'as potentially unbreakable as possible'.
That said, we've been known to drop some pretty nice kit in our time, so maybe it wasn't the worst idea in the world to cushion the HTC Explorer somewhat.
Still, it's small - with a 3.2-inch screen - it's chunky - at 12.9mm thick - and it has a nice weight behind it that suggests a solid build...108g of weight, to be exact. With its curved back and rounded edges, the HTC Explorer sits very nicely in little hands, but larger paws might find it a bit too small.
Looks-wise it won't win any awards, but it feels durable, which we can imagine might be good for someone more used to looking after, say, a Nokia 5140.
Looking at the capacitive touchscreen, we have the standard HTC touch keys – the home, menu, return and search – plus two soft keys (volume rocker, lock/power key) and a micro USB port.
Running on Android Gingerbread, the HTC looks and behaves much like any other phone with HTC Sense does. For a start, there are seven home screens, all customisable with widgets and shortcuts. Contacts have deep social networking integration, with the standard HTC layout. There are lock screen shortcuts too - in other words, bread and butter HTC Sense stuff.
If this was a truly budget smartphone coming in at the lower end of the price scale, that would be pretty impressive...not so much if it ends up sitting in the middle of the price ranges, costing around £200 on Pay As You Go.
The 3.2-inch screen is bright, with decent visibility in sunlight, and at 320 x 480 pixels (180ppi), it matches its mid-range sibling the HTC Wildfire S pixel for pixel.
That said, text often seems a little fuzzy around the edges and graphics a little pixelated, such as when the unlocking the lock screen. It's a shame, because it makes what starts out as budget feel a little cheap.
Additional specs also show where the production money has been saved: a 3.15MP camera with no flash, 90MB of internal storage (but microSD storage up to 32GB) and a tiny 600MHz processor. At an average of £18-£20 on contract, will the HTC Explorer really be worth it?
Running on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the HTC Explorer is quite quick for such a small processor, but let down by the occasional judder. The interface will be familiar for any HTC user, but given the simple, pared-down tech for the target market of first-time smartphone users, it's unlikely anyone will pick up the HTC Explorer having already had, say, the Wildfire or Desire.
Lucky then, that HTC Sense is one of the most intuitive overlays for Android, an easy-to-pick up system that can be fairly well customised, and that the HTC Explorer benefits from the 3.5 upgrade.
There are some small options missing, such as the full range of HTC Live wallpapers, but there are still little HTC Sense treats such as the drop-down notifications menu and lock screen shortcuts that enable you to straight away open one of four different apps or features.
There are the usual seven home screens, all of which can be customised with widgets, shortcuts or folders. The full app menu is reached via the capacitive menu button, displaying alphabetised apps either in a grid form or list.
It looks and feels much like any other HTC handset, but with the small screen and occasionally pixelated graphics, and the pared-down offerings in some of the HTC features, it feels as budget as it is. Still, everything you might need is there – messages, networking apps, internet, camera and so on.
Contacts and calling
The fab thing about the HTC Explorer is that, even on a budget, you still get deep social networking integration in the contacts list. It's the HTC special feature that makes other handsets look worse in comparison if they don't offer a similar function, and luckily the HTC Explorer is well equipped.
However, with the HTC Explorer not coming pre-loaded with Facebook and Twitter apps, it takes a little fiddling, downloading and logging in before you can sync your SIM contacts to your social networks.
But once it's done, the HTC Explorer will automatically populate your phonebook with images and – if synced – the latest network update.
Then, when you tap into a contact, their details card includes not only their phone number and email address but their Facebook and Twitter updates too.
Scroll along the tabs to find your message and calling history thread, their updates and image gallery. This sort of integration in the contacts is fantastic, marred only by the occasional blurriness of images.
Adding a contact is simple - either add one straight from the unknown number or go to your People app and click the '+' sign in the top right corner to be brought to the screen to input contact details.
As for calling, while the speaker volume is quite loud, there's no noise reduction, so any background noise will be transmitted to your ears in a loud series of hisses and bangs. The connection was strong in urban areas, though, with neither side of our test calls experiencing drop.
There's also the usual smart dialling included - start to tap in a name or number, and the applicable contacts will appear in a list.
Even with its simple and uncluttered ethos and coming with few apps pre-loaded, the HTC Explorer still has several messaging systems available to you as a user.
SMS/MMS is easy to get to from the home page shortcut and has a sleek inbox with messages viewed in a chronological thread.
When composing a message, converting SMS to MMS is dead simple - simply tap into the paperclip icon to be shown the menu of attachment options, including the option to attach a picture, video clip, audio file, contact card or calendar entry.
In a separate inbox is email, with the app prompting you to attach up to five different email account types when you set it up. Enter your log-in details and you're away - it's almost too easy.
Once you're in, your inbox is the default folder, but it's quick to reach any others via the Folder icon, sitting next to the Compose button. Switching between multiple accounts is quick too.
For social networkers, Facebook Chat is available on the HTC Explorer within the Facebook for Android app, which can be downloaded from the Android Marketplace.
The one bugbear with all of these apps, smooth-running as they are, is the tiny QWERTY keyboard in portrait and landscape orientation on the 3.2-inch touchscreen, making long bouts of messaging and chatting out of the question, unless you have child-like hands.
Even then, you're likely to be a little inaccurate with your typing. Yes, the HTC auto-correct is pretty good, and definitely a lifesaver when you're quickly mashing out texts one-handed while you walk, but it doesn't make up for the hand cramp you get, curling your fingers and thumbs around the tiny phone.
The HTC Explorer's pre-loaded HTML browser is slow to load image-heavy sites, despite the 3G (HSDPA 14.4Mbps) capability. Loading the TechRadar site, for example, took over a minute to load fully. Good news, though, there's wireless capability (802.11 b/g/n) and a Wi-Fi hotspot app included on the smartphone.
Navigating the web browser is intuitive, and there's pinch to zoom and double-tap to enable text reflow. Pages don't look too bad zoomed out or in, but be warned you will get pixelated images if you zoom in too far, which is a shame because the display on the HTC Explorer is nice and bright, and decently visible in direct sunlight.
Also, a clever trick on the HTC Explorer is that if you pinch to zoom rapidly from the outside corners of the screen to the centre, you'll automatically be brought to the windows page, where you can zip between open windows or add a new one to the mix.
A nice addition to the usual QWERTY keyboard when browsing the web is an extra .com button, which is really helpful when you're tapping out a URL.
The Bookmarks page is made up of attractive thumbnails of your favourite sites, and is easily accessed via the capacitive menu key.
Of course, if you're not a fan of the HTC in-built browsers, then there's always the option of downloading Opera, Dolphin or Firefox from the Android Market. But with such a functional browser and low CPU, it's probably not worth it unless you're particularly attached to those options.
For a starter smartphone, the HTC Explorer offers a 3.15MP camera with no flash, which isn't amazing, but for its purpose of snapping quick pictures to upload to networking sites, it serves nicely.
The phone's camera is simple, straightforward and low on functionality, so there are no editing options to choose from besides adding a filter to your images.
Plus, if you haven't got a microSD card, you're looking at being able to fit a meagre five or six images into the tiny internal memory.
There's no tapping to zoom either, although you can manually toggle the zoom on the touchscreen or with the volume rocker.
For some reason, sharing images with your networks isn't as simple on the HTC Explorer as it is on many HTC handsets. Normally you can simply dip into the gallery and tap Share in the photo menu, but not this time. On the HTC Explorer you have to go into the network app itself and then upload your images. It's not the end of the world, but it is a bit irritating that that functionality isn't included.
SEPIA:This image was taken with one of the filters, giving it a nice sepia look. There's a bit of depth-of-field blur, which is nice, but viewing the image on the full screen, even a screen this small, shows horrible pixelation in the blurry areas of the image.
NIGHT: Without a flash, night time images are difficult to pick up. There's a lot of noise in this image, but it is just about possible to pick out the shape of the buildings, thanks to the lights in the windows. It's not a horrible photo, but it is one that would have been massively improved with a flash.
The HTC Explorer's 480p video camera works fine in daylight, for what it is, but there's the expected blur and pixelation. Like with the stills camera, there are no settings to tweak in filming mode, save for being able to add a filter to the movie.
With playback, there's an unattractive hiss from the microphone and no video light, so shooting in the dark is pretty much ruled out.
In the well-lit tube station clip, the colours are somewhat true to life, without over-compensation from the phone for the fluorescent lighting. The camera seems to have a hard time focusing even when held still, resulting in a juddery picture
Despite the room being silent when the indoor video was taken, there's a bad hissing in the background from the microphone. The image is quite sharp when the camera is still, but any sort of movement at all creates blur and intense pixelation. The colours are well-rendered, though, and true to life.
At night on a well-lit road, the vast majority of the final film clip is in shadow, and the other side of the street is in practical darkness, thanks to a lack of a camera light or flash. Movement is easily picked out thanks to the headlights of cars, but there is little else to focus on.
The HTC Explorer comes with a basic media kit suiting its basic smartphone status, but that's OK: it works well, and that's all you really need. Plus, with up to 32GB of storage space with a microSD card - to top up the supplied 512MB of internal memory, of which 90MB is available - you're laughing.
It supports all the usual codec suspects for music, including the MP3, eAAC+, WAV, WMA file formats. There are no headphones supplied, though, so you'll have to add those yourself. But there is a 3.5mm jack, so you're good to go. And let's face it, who actually likes using the headphones that come with a handset anyway?
The music player has an iFlow-esque interface; sweep the album art to the side and you'll skip to the next song. Interestingly, you can only use this function in portrait mode, and it's the same when skipping through albums.
Tap into the menu when listening to a song to add it to a playlist, set it as a ringtone, dip into the sound enhancer (which mainly serves to make the sound tinnier if you decide to move the option from SRS enhancement to Equalizer) and - this is the cool one – 'find YouTube Videos' of the song you're listening to.
Of course, when you're listening to the music player and flipping through other apps at the same time, it's easy to access the player options by pulling on the drop-down notifications menu.
One other thing is that there's a bit of a nasty hiss in between each song that we could have done without.
As for the Video player, the quality of playback is quite low, not to mention the issue of having a small screen, but it gets the job one. Again, we could have done without the background hiss over the quieter movie scenes, but at least the colours are nicely rendered, bright and well saturated.
The handset rubberised back and light weight means it's comfortable to hold, though, so even watching a whole film is comfortable. The HTC Explorer also plays the majority of movie file formats, namely XviD, MP4, H.264, H.263 and WMV.
In terms of reaching both the video and music players, there's a nice home screen Music widget, but you'll have to dip into the app menu to reach the video player.
Other media supplied includes an FM radio, which automatically scans for stations when opened, but asks you to input the radio station names yourself.
Battery life and connectivity
The simplicity of the HTC Explorer is to thank for the good battery life you can eke out of it if you're not hammering the Wi-Fi every day. It's supplied with a Li-Ion 1230mAh battery, and even with a quoted talk time of around seven hours, we found it actually fared better than that with heavy usage.
Having used maps, a good dose of 3G internet and intermittent film watching with texts and a couple of calls thrown in for good measure, we could leave it until the morning to top up on battery power.
Sure, if you're going to be using the Wi-Fi every day it'll need at least one charge per day, but most new smartphone users will probably be able to get a couple of days out of a full charge.
On offer for HTC Explorer connectivity we have A-GPS support, HSDPA (900/2100) Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n), micro USB and Bluetooth 3.0 support. Connecting to a computer to drag and drop files is best left to the USB cable, since we couldn't get it to wirelessly pair with our machine.
As with most HTC handsets, there's the super easy to use Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot app - just open it and follow the instructions to hitch up your laptop to your mobile phone's internet connection. That said, as a mid-range 'first smartphone', we'd be surprised if there was a contract out there that supplied enough data to make it worthwhile using the hotspot app on the HTC Explorer.
Maps and apps
Coming fully-loaded with Google Maps, your exploration skills don't have to be too spiffy to use the HTC Explorer, despite what its name might suggest. You're not going to get lost with it, that's for sure. The GPS locks on within seconds, and there are most of the usual perks of Google Maps to take advantage of, including transit line overlays, directions and navigation. But there's no in-map entertainment apps for finding cool stuff to do in the area.
In the apps arena, the HTC Explorer fares well, with access to the Android Market. There are very few apps pre-loaded onto the handset itself, and perhaps new smartphone users won't be into downloading that many. But there's the ubiquitous Angry Birds, Facebook and Twitter apps to be downloaded to join the YouTube and Google apps that are on there already.
While some apps that you can download have widgets to be used on the home screen, even if they don't have that functionality you can always add a shortcut, so you'll be able to reach your favourite apps in a simple swipe.
We also quite like the plain, alphabetical nature of the HTC app menus: there's no scrabbling around trying to navigate sub-menus when all you want to use is the calculator or clock.
The calendar also auto-syncs to your Facebook and Gmail calendars, with reminders given automatically 10 minutes beforehand, so you'll never forget a birthday again.
Hands on gallery
With some networks offering the HTC Explorer on tariffs at the lower end of the spectrum for light users (it's currently available for as low as £10 per month), the HTC Sense 3.5 overlay and the functionality of the phone make this a brilliant budget choice for first time smartphone owners who don't need unlimited texts and the like.
For more intensive users who do want more minutes, texts and data included in their monthly contracts, it's sandwiched in the mid-range pricing of the current HTCs, so there it may suffer the same fate of the Wildfire S and be just a little bit too expensive to make it worth opting for such specs.
We like that the HTC Explorer includes most of the intuitive HTC Sense features that we admire so much in higher-specced HTC phones, such as the deep social networking integration and fully customisable home screens.
We also like that it has Wi-Fi capabilities, that the capacitive touchscreen isn't over-sensitive and that the display is bright. We also like that, while none of the specs are high-end, everything does its job well. There's no 'wow', but it does work, and that's important.
However, the hint of cheap that hangs around certain bits of the phone – the rubberised casing, the pixelation of fast moving graphics such as the lock screen ring pull and the occasional lag in the system - let it down.
With its mid-range pricing, the specs are too low to pull first-time smartphone users to this particular HTC handset as opposed to bigger-screened HTC Desire S.
With its intuitive operating system skin, the HTC Explorer would make an excellent first smartphone. But it may not be as much of a treasure as first thought as it's not quite hitting the budget heights we thought it would - it needs to drop a fwe pounds per month to be a truly cheap-cheap handset.