HTC Desire Eye Hands-on Preview: A Not-So-Midrange Selfie Phone

by Reads (802)

Whether they’re partying at bar, dancing at a concert, or just staring at their reflection in a nearby lake, people of the 21st century can’t stop taking pictures of themselves. This is despite the fact that smartphones, the primary tool of the self-capturer, have never been good at taking such photos in the first place.

HTC Desire Eye frontYes, the front-facing cameras on most modern phones are grainy abominations, with low megapixel counts and even lower attention to detail. They’re usually suitable for video chat, but considering that photo sharing apps like Snapchat and Instagram are growing by the day, the time seems right for some phone maker to give the solipsistic among us a better class of selfie taker.

That’s where the Desire Eye comes in. With upgraded camera software and big-lensed 13-megapixel cameras on both its front and back, HTC’s latest wants to simultaneously rectify the missteps of Ultrapixels past and stop treating front cameras like second-class citizens. Beyond that, the Desire Eye’s got enough horsepower and build quality to go beyond what its midrange name would suggest. We were able to get our hands on the phone, which is coming exclusively to AT&T later this year, at HTC’s New York launch event this week.

The Desire Eye is big. Its 5.2-inch 1080p display doesn’t put it into the “phablet” category on its own, but the whole thing is noticeably thick (8.5mm) to accommodate both meaty cameras. The front of those two shooters feels like it’s staring into your soul, as expected, and, combined with its accompanying dual-LED flash, it undoubtedly makes the phone’s top bezel larger than average.

It also prevents the familiar BoomSound speaker grilles from appearing as they normally do, instead turning them into thin slits above and below the display. HTC is still using the BoomSound branding for them, but we’ll have to wait until we test the device in a non-crowded demo area before judging whether they live up to the name.

Those issues aside, the Desire Eye looks and feels much nicer than what you might expect from an all-plastic phablet. The side bezels are admirably thin, and all the polycarbonate keeps the phone from being particularly heavy (it’s 154 g, officially). The screen is essentially a slightly bigger One (M8) panel, meaning it’s plenty sharp, bright, and colorful. There’s a dedicated camera button. The thick two-tone plastic is super smooth to the touch, not greasy or slimy in the slightest, and it’s all put together in a gap-less frame that feels sturdy and carefully crafted. It’s all water-resistant too.

HTC Desire EyePlus it’s just fun — the white/orange (or dark blue/light blue) color scheme gives off a lighthearted and friendly feel that’s aesthetically appropriate for a phone designed to take selfies. We have other preliminary complaints — HTC’s capacitive keys still take up too make display real estate; the physical keys are solid but feel a bit too sunken in; the selfie cam may make holding the phone to your face awkward — but for now, the Desire Eye feels like a cross between the warmness of an iPhone 5c or Nokia Lumia phone and the usual elegance of a top-tier HTC device.

We weren’t able to properly test the phone’s performance during our limited demo time, but on paper the Desire Eye’s specs further suggest that this is a step above the average midrange handset. Powering the show is a 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 SoC and 2 GB of RAM, which should provide plenty of power. Quickly scrolling through HTC’s Sense skin and firing up a number of apps yielded no issues of note, though again, that’s just casual use.

Less certain is how the Desire Eye’s 2400 mAh battery will fare — it’s a smidge smaller than that of the One (M8), whose longevity was fine, but this bigger screen may suck up juice a little bit faster. The battery’s also non-removable, which is understandable with this design but still less than ideal. Finally, the phone comes with a weak 16 GB of onboard storage, which is puzzling considering that it’s made to take big HD photos. It does support microSD cards up to 128 GB, thankfully, but HTC probably could’ve been more generous in this regard.

HTC Desire Eye press shotWe’re largely looking at the same old same old when it comes to the Desire Eye’s software. This is the same Sense 6 UI that’s been on every other HTC phone since the One (M8), Blinkfeed and all. It still can’t touch stock Android or the light spin Motorola puts on it, but of the heavier skins, it’s among the most straightforward to use.

What’s different here is the number of tweaks HTC has tossed into its stock camera app, creating what the company now calls the “HTC Eye Experience.” The changes are nowhere near as dramatic as that name would suggest, though — the overall look and feel of the UI is the same, it just has a few more options that have been on other apps for years.

Things like issuing voice commands to take a picture, using a “skin smoother” in real time, or capturing shots with the front and back cameras simultaneously are welcome and appreciated, but nothing too special. With the exception of a few delays in the app’s “auto-selfie” mode, in which the front camera is supposed to automatically snap a photo of you once it recognizes your face, all of it worked as advertised in our demo. This is mostly HTC playing catch up, and that’s fine.

As for the quality of the shooters themselves, well, we’re going to have to hold judgment for now. A darkened demo hall isn’t an ideal place to gauge picture quality, and there’s a good chance things will be tweaked between now and launch. We’ll give these cameras, and the Desire Eye as a whole, a proper evaluation in the coming weeks. HTC hasn’t given an exact price for the device just yet, but expect it to cost somewhere between the One (M8) and the Desire 820 when AT&T releases it by the end of the year.

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