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The Guru

Review: HTC Desire S (O2)

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The Guru

Product: HTC Desire S

Supplier: O2

One of the most popular Android smartphones of the last year was the HTC Desire, which maintained the number one spot in a fair number of tech-web site ranking systems. HTC have now built on that success by bringing to the market an updated replacement machine - the Desire S. The 'S' model maintains the sleek svelte 'medium' form factor but brings new capabilities and technology to the machine which brings it fully up to date.

At first glance the Desire S looks little different compared to the original Desire apart from a new housing, that is it has the same style of body and the same resolution screen, but that is a very deceptive first thought! If one takes the time to compare the specifications side by side a lot of new features can be found:


The body has been re-engineered completely and redesigned along similar lines to the HTC Legend in that it is now composed of a single machined aluminium body housing - the uni-body - which gives a great deal of strength to the machine. It should be plenty rugged enough to withstand wear and tear and also the occasional slip from the hand.

Internally it has been upgraded from Android 2.1 to the latest version available 2.3 (Gingerbread) and on top of that HTC have further enhanced their 'Sense' interface bringing additional finger friendly widgets and customisation into play. As well as the software the hardware has been upgraded with storage memory being taken up to a massive 1.1Gb, and RAM being increased accordingly to allow the HTC customisations plenty of room to breathe. Battery life has been improved with the slightly larger capacity battery operating in conjunction with the more optimised OS kernel.

The back face camera has been uplifted to give HD (720p) recording capability and a front camera has been added to support video calling (see gotcha later). To complement the video recording capability playback has also been enhanced to support AVI and .XVID formats.

Of course you may want to share those videos on YouTube so the 3G connection speed has been uplifted to 14.4Mbps / 5.76Mbps to give the best speed performance on a 3G connection. You may also wish to share those videos (or photos) with the family and if your TV supports the DLNA protocol then you can wirelessly stream the content straight to the TV!

Other communication enhancements include the ability for the 'S' to act as a WiFi hot spot whereby you can share your 3G connection wirelessly with other devices, and in a fully configurable and secure manner. Users who are constantly on the go may well benefit from the benefit of being able to run multiple Exchange mail accounts so that you are always in touch with the office or personal mail server. POP and IMAP accounts as well as G-Mail are of course supported.

Travellers may be slightly disappointed that the popular 'Footprints' geo-location widget has been removed, but this has been replaced with the more powerful 'Locations' system which works in conjunction with maps stored on SD card (TomTom maps data) which has been enhanced to include basic navigation (via Route 66 mapping). This can be further improved by purchasing the 'premium navigation' system.

Of course everyone needs a little downtime and the 'S' provides that via offering flawless video playback and you can stop and read for a while with the eBook reading application. Any books stored in ePub format are added to your book shelf (My Shelf widget) or accessed via the eBook 'Reader' application. This is a god-send for folks like me who are addicted to eBook reading!

As well as the 'My Shelf' widget HTC have added a large number of other new widgets:

  • Calculator
  • FM Radio
  • HTC Likes
  • Locations
  • My Shelf
  • Navigate
  • Trends

with others being available to download directly from HTC within the 'add widget' application.

On the original desire you could design your own styles and save them, but I found that functionality was little used. With the addition of the new widgets you can use the system to get the best out of the styles and construct ones which really echo both your current mood and purpose.

As well as offering styles Sense has been enriched to allow you to have alternate themes whereby the entire sense interface changes both with respect to design and colour - this in conjunction with the style system does truly allow you to make the Desire S your own.


In the hand the Desire S feels incredibly tiny and svelte, aided both by the O2 black matte colouration, along with the smooth slick lines. The original Desire felt easy in the hand but the 'S' takes that one step further. The dimensional changes along with the uni-body design makes the machine feel significantly smaller when held.


Minimalist is the styling concept that applies to the 'S', the uni-body construction serves to give good protection to the internals but also aesthetically enhances the design as it also removes join lines usually found separating the two halves of the device. This along with the matte coating on the aluminium gives the impression of smoothness, with the only caveat being that one can almost feel the 'S' aching to slip out of the hand. It's not a problem I've yet encountered but one does tend to make sure the device is held tightly when initially using it.

The uni-body is completely plain on the right hand side of the body and on the base of the machine with the left hand side holding the volume rocker control keys as well as the micro-USB port. The only exception is the 'pin prick' hole in the bottom of the device which serves to give sound entry into the microphone. The top again is of a clean design with the housing blooming outwards slightly to incorporate the 3.5mm jack plug for the headset, while further towards the right hand side is the power button. This is nicely placed so that it can be activated by the index finger (when held in the left hand). It is raised slightly from the body and does require a decent amount of pressure to activate the control, however it may have been better if it was recessed to prevent accidental operation while in the pocket on gadget bag. However that is not an issue I've encountered so HTC may have the balance about right.


One the back of the 'S' the uni-body is pierced in two places, at the upper end of the device there is a plastic insert which carries the HD video capable camera, the loudspeaker and the LED flash. This also has two very small holes (almost pin pricks) beneath the flash, and to the right of the speaker, I believe that these are noise cancellation sensors used to reduce background audio noise during a phone call.

The lower end of the Desire 'S' contains the battery cover which can be slid downwards away from the housing (moderate pressure being applied), after this is removed the locking strip can be gently prised upwards which allows the battery to be slid out of its silo. Once the battery is removed the SIM card and micro-SD card can be inserted. The battery can then be replaced and the locking strip pushed back into position - as this is of somewhat flimsy construction some care is needed here. However when in position it locks into place with a positive manner and appears strong enough for the intended purpose. The battery cover can then be slip into place where a frictive lock holds it firmly in position.

Within the battery cover there are two copper contacts which mate with matching contacts just below the locking bar in the housing, these are actually part of the antenna system and if the battery cover is left removed you'll not get any signal.


As has already been intimated the Desire S is smooth and sleek, this is carried over design wise onto the front of the machine where HTCs designers have striven and succeeded to carry on the minimalist look. The upper part of the device sports the speaker used for telephone calls with the front facing VGA camera located to the right hand side of the speaker.

The mainstay of the front face is of course the 3.7" 480 x 800 WGA screen which is flush mounted to eliminate any bezel around the screen, this gives a smooth surface to operate and interact with - just what is needed for a touch orientated device. The screen itself is bright and lively with no banding visible at all, readability in sunlight is good despite this being a regular TFT screen and not AMOLED.

It should be noted that the front lower portion of the Desire S lips up slightly which serves to make it more comfortable when positioned to make a phone call, also serving to bring the microphone closer to the mouth. The contouring of the curve is more genteel than that of the older Desire and is much less obvious when the machine is resting on the desk as the contouring around the lower face helps to blend the lines of the lip into the body.

The lip also acts a holder for the four touch operated activation buttons, which are back lit with bright white LEDs (when needed), and as standard on Google Android phones the usual functions are present; Home, Menu, Back and Search.

When the Desire S is turned on for the first time the initial 'taste' of HTC's Sense interface is given as the standard Android Gingerbread lock screen has been replaced with HTC's elegantly curved unlock gadget which shows the carrier, time and date within the lock band. The band is of course tapped and held then drawn downwards to unlock the phone and display the initial page of the HTC Sense launcher.


The Sense Launcher consists of seven launch screens with the central screen considered to be the home screen, the others screens are pre-loaded with HTC widgets. These are:

  • HTC Weather
  • HTC Text Messages
  • Friend Stream (Twitter and Facebook interaction)
  • News (Google Mail RSS stream syndication package)
  • People (Quick dial / contact)

These widgets are virtually identical to those seen on the original Desire although most have been subtly redesigned to make then look a little neater and smoother.


One enhancement that has been made is to the Sense program launcher, this is now activated by tapping the left hand bottom screen button on the main screen. Once in the launcher you have the primary screen itself which can be vertically swiped through. Each swipe moves a single screen of icons, instead of the continuous movement seen on the older Sense incarnations. At the bottom of the launcher are three mode indicators; the left showing you all icons, the centre star shaped icon takes you to a subset list of those icons you most commonly use, and the third icon serves to show you the applications that you have downloaded.

Needless to say the star icon becomes a great time saver as it allows you to locate those favourite or commonly used icons without scrolling through what can be a large number of screens - useful as your use of the S continues.


The right hand bottom button on the main screen now takes you into one of the newly enhanced functions of Sense, and this facility allows you to really customise the look and feel of the machine, the same functionality can also be accessed by tapping and holding on a spare location on screen. The personalise system allows you to change the screen with respect to the scene in use, the wallpaper displayed and the skin applied to the interface. It also allows you to add widgets, application icons, shortcuts and folders.

There are a goodly number of Scenes and Skins already pre-loaded along with the most popular HTC Widgets, however more of each type are made available by HTC and these can be downloaded via the HTC Hub application.

Each skin and scene on offer can be scrolled through using the preview system which gives you a wonderfully clear idea of what the screen will look like when the previewed setting is applied. Once you have decided on your choice the entire Sense system in effect reloads with the new configuration in place, this takes around 3-4 seconds.


HTC Sense has also been used to replace the standard Android notification system and HTC have cunningly split the notification system into two parts; notifications present on by the left hand portion of the screen and a right hand section which contains commonly used quick settings such as toggling on and off regularly used functions like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS etc.

As the 'S' starts to be used the upper portion of the notification system also shows the recent applications used in icon form which adds an additional way of quickly launching your often used applications.

One notification you may notice on the machine (if you have eBooks in ePub formats on your SD card) is on stating that an import of books has been completed, this is shown as the Desire S includes a pretty functional eBook reader!


The Book Reader can be accessed handily by adding the 'My Shelf' widget to a free home screen page, whereby you will be presented with a list of imported eBooks. Once a book has been accessed and reading commencing that book will rise to the top of the list.

It should be noted that the widget appears to have a limit of around 20 eBooks if any more than that are found they are not shown within the widget. The good news is that if the Reader is loaded via the application icon then all books that are present on the SD card are shown within the library list.

The Reader itself works very well in that sideways finger glides allow swift navigation backwards and forwards between pages, and as expected the search key allows one to locate text within the book. The font size can be varied to suit the reader and if required bookmarks can be set. Needless to say the last read position is remembered when an eBook is re-entered.

The program also supports the purchase of eBooks via Kobo and Adobe, systems alas that I don't use and have no experience of.

The only real critique of the application is that one cannot vary the margin sizes, the current margins set are acceptable but in an ideal world I'd be looking to reduce them to give more room to the main text of the book.


General Use:

The Desire S has been my main phone and therefore in constant use for over 2 weeks and has acted as my all-purpose device performing all manner of tasks from a morning alarm clock, to a social networking tool, e-mail response device, eBook reader, star gazer, etc. So far it has performed perfectly with only a few niggles which I'm hoping HTC will take care of in the next update.

Battery life has been outstanding. On the Desire by the end of the working day I'd usually have around 42% of battery remaining, on the Desire S that figure is closer to 65% charge left. This is taking into account my usage patterns; 1-2 phone calls a day, at least an hours eBook reading, Tweetdeck bringing in Twitter and Facebook updates every 15 minutes, and with five (I kid you not) Exchange accounts running on a push basis. That is pretty outstanding!

The bonus of being in complete contact with the multiple Exchange facility is absolutely wonderful, it means I'm always in contact with the people / systems that I need to respond to, both within my home life and work.

The implementation of Gingerbread as the OS underlying HTCs Sense skin works well indeed and the Desire S is positively nippy compared to the older Desire and the difference in speed is estimated at least 25-30% faster. Sense itself is somewhat smoother in operation and has a lot of extra bits and pieces in there which all make it a very smooth device to use and interact with.

The other big bonus is the included memory. On the original Desire I had to root the device and change around the memory configuration to have enough room for the applications that I personally need. With the Desire S 1.1Gb of storage I now have all my apps loaded internally and still have 873Mb of space free!

The one change I don't particularly like on the 'S' is the removal of the 'Footprints' system and the addition of the 'Locations' widget / system. This aims to be a poor-man's navigation system, powered by Route 66 software which overlays TomTom map data. This in theory negates the need to download mapping data (a la Google Navigation) and therefore saves you online charges but it seems that the system just offers basic turn by turn navigation with no automatic movement through the navigation direction screens and no voice guidance. There is a premium version of the software available for a fee, but I was not impressed enough with the system to pay the money and give it a try!

The flip side to this is that GPS seek time and sensitivity has been greatly improved - times to get first fix test out at around 32 seconds or so (longer if indoors) and secondary later fixes usually vary between 5-10 seconds. Great for navigation (CoPilot Live) and for use in Foursquare for checking into your current location. The system is much quicker with respect to getting a GPS lock compared to the Desire and the updated electronics ensure that the orientation is right as well! So far it gets the best of GPS award from me compared to all other phones I've used, and it has only been beaten by dedicated GPS devices.

The Sense enhancements are everywhere within the ROM on the 'S' and as with the prior Desire even extend to the connection dialog screen presented when the 'S' is connected to the PC. You are offered the choices of:

  • Charge Only - Charge the phone over USB
  • HTC Sync - Sync contacts and Calendar
  • Disk Drive - Mount as a Disk Drive
  • USB Tethering - Share phones mobile network with PC
  • Internet Pass through - Connect to the Internet via PC

As well as these connectivity options that are USB based the 'S' offers other more unusual facilities within. These are connectivity to DLNA devices whereby media can be streamed to compatible systems such as TVs, and turning the 'S' into a Wi-Fi hot spot where it's 3G connection can be accessed via Wi-Fi to allow other devices to use it as a link to the Internet via their Wi-Fi connection. Unfortunately I've no DLNA compatible devices or a strong enough 3G connection to test out these fascinating functions.

The lack of 3G connectivity is no fault of the Desire 'S' construction at all, but a failing of where I live and work where 3G is non-existent at home and recently more than spotty at work. If the signal is compared to that of the original Desire it is very much on par with it - if not usually one 'bar' better. It also seems to recover from a lost signal with greater speed than most phones I've used.

It should be noted that even in areas where the signal strength is minimal (one bar) the voice call quality is still good and the noise cancellation system built into the phone works well. During phone conversations there has been no loss of quality and no drop outs in audio at all.

A couple of last points that do enhance the 'S' experience are partly HTC created and part Android OS. The first if the inclusion of the HTC Hub application. When this is first entered you are offered the option of linking this into HTC 'Sense' Servers which give you the benefit of saving your settings online as well as opting into their locational system so that you can track or locate your phone remotely - useful if you have to rebuild your phone or locate it if stolen! As well as this the Hub acts as a gateway into the HTC world of added features. You can download additional applications and plugins like the DLNA media presentation link, a LinkedIn module for Sense, or a plugin for Picasa web albums. Other HTC widgets like 'Today in History' or 'Word of the Day' can be downloaded (full list on request), and you can add additional Sound Sets, Scenes, Skins, Wallpapers (many visually stunning), Ringtones, Alarm Sounds and Notification Sounds! This is a superb way of easily customising or enhancing the Desire S and I hope that HTC continue to build on the collection available!

As with all devices there are of course some gotchas and issues and alas the Desire S is not immune from these, but I'm glad to say I've only encountered a few issues and none of these are major.

The main issue that does tend to annoy is that of putting the 'S' into flight mode. This was anticipated to be easily done by using the new Quick Settings control in the notification bar and then toggling the 'Mobile Network' setting to 'off', but no that setting seems purely to act as an indicator as no matter what one does the setting refuses to toggle in either direction. To change flight mode one has to go through the somewhat more cumbersome route of 'Settings / Wireless and Networks / hit the toggle'. I'm expecting that HTC will fix this glitch in later ROM updates but for the moment it does seem somewhat annoying.

The other gotcha a more of an oddity. The Desire S has a front facing camera, but so for the only application I've found that uses it is the an application supplied with the 'S' called 'Mirror' which shows you a rather scary video stream of yourself. There appears not to be any way of switching a regular phone call into a video call, there is no video call button that I can see within the dialler!

And the last gotcha has to be the camera, alas HTC still seem to produce hardware with poor camera hardware within. The camera is adequate but still suffers from the common HTC failings of over contrasting colours and false colour presentation - all depending on ambient lighting conditions. Shots taken out of doors or under good indoor artificial lighting can turn out well, but in poor indoor light situations or in dim light the colour balance goes way out of kilter (see example shots later). The camera focus does seem to be continuous in nature so that if one moves the viewfinder to look at a close up object after looking at something some distance away then the focus does automatically change.

As a camera is incidental for my general use this is not a great bug bear and can be offset by some of the cool features built into the Desire S. for me at least it's not a deal breaker, but one day I would love HTC to address the camera issues in their phones! The camera interface itself has been enhanced and made very finger friendly so at least HTC are making software improvements!


The Desire S continues to build HTCs reputation for producing well designed and constructed smartphones, not only is it a positive pleasure to use but its small precisely constructed body houses a smooth system which should meet the needs of most users, from e-mail handling, connectivity through to media, social network sharing as well as less hectic activities such as relaxing and taking time out to read a book or watch a movie. The 'S' is a worthy successor to the original Desire and again sets the benchmark for the mid-range form factor Smartphone. If you are a fan of the original Desire you'll love the Desire S.

Pros & Cons:

:tu: Good battery life

:tu: Massive amount of internal storage

:tu: Latest incarnation of the Android OS

:tu: Fast and smooth in operation

:tu: HTC Sense enhanced

:tu: Sense expandable with online facilities and additions

:tu: eBook reader included

:tu: Numerous HTC widgets included

:tu: Fast locking and reactive GPS system

:tu: Good voice clarity

:tu: Enhanced USB functions

:tu: Enhanced connectivity via DLNA and 3G / Wi-Fi hotspot

:tu: Custom skinning system (scenes and skins)

:tu: Handles multiple Exchange accounts

:tu: Strong uni-body construction

:tu: 720P video playback

:tu: High speed Internet connectivity

:tu: Stylish modern design

:tu: viable noise cancellation system during phone calls

:td: Lack lustre 'Locations' navigation

:td: Poor camera quality

:td: Glitchy 'Flight Mode' setting

Note: Each of the below is a large thumbnail which may be clicked on to load an original non-reduced size image.




And if you wanted to see an example video from the phone:

And a 720p recording too!

[All images in this review have been processed by Snagit by Techsmith]

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The Guru

Of course our greatest thanks are extended to O2 for their kind assistance in supplying the review machine.

Sent from my HTC Desire S using Tapatalk

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Good review. looking at this as my next phone. Couple of questions: did you notice any wi-fi loss in signal when placing the phone down, say on your lap? i read on another review that this was happening. Also wireless N? thanks :)

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i think they'll sell a ton of these on the back of the success of the original desire.

if i was due an upgrade though think i'd be hanging on for the 12th when the new batch should be announced and then see where in the pecking order it sits.

will it be staying as your main device now the review is complete or will you be going back to something else?

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htc sensation, is it, with the bigger screen is tempting dependant on when/if o2 get it

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The Guru

No problems with the Wi-Fi in any position or location. At home I usually turn off the phone part of the device and use Wi-Fi exclusively and I've not seen any issues with it at all - it's been rock solid in all situation and positions.

Wireless-N does not seem to be supported, at least it's not picking it up from my router (which does support it).

And to answer a question posed elsewhere it is significantly faster than the original Desire even if it has been rooted and running a pure Gingerbread build :)

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The Guru

Oh and it's definitely my main machine, using it for everything apart from Navigation! Email, eBook reading, calendar, Twitter, movie watching, wake up alarm, phone, RSS reader, et al.

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Sounds like it ticks all lots of hideaway couple of mates are due upgrades from their desires and this should fit nicely then

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The Guru

Not a problem? Any more questions guys?

I'm hoping to get out at the weekend and take a few video captures as examples - no chance so far to get to grips with it!

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The Guru

And if you wanted to see an example video from the phone:

And a 720p recording too!

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Guest cyclist

Does the Desire S not offer flight mode on a long press of the power key, like the Desire does? Instant access to flight mode is an absolute must for me - not so important for other people I know, but it is a pretty basic function. I'm surprised if HTC got that wrong.

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