HTC Desire 816 review: a good phone for a great price


WhistleOut
24 June 2014

The HTC Desire 816 (eight-sixteen) is a mid-ranged, big-screened phone with a lot to give. Not one to be left behind, HTC has entered the ‘affordable-yet-great’ fight currently being fuelled by the likes of Motorola and the Google Nexus line.

The good news is that the Desire 816 is a success. It’s fast, smooth and offers a great user experience. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but this is definitely a good, reasonably-priced offering from HTC.

Design

The 816 is uncharacteristically minimalist for HTC. It’s a fully-plastic phone with a glossy back and matte sides. Despite this it still manages to be fairly attractive thanks to its thin profile and big display.

Like the One (M8) it relies on virtual on-screen buttons and sports the BoomSound speakers above and below the screen. These don’t give you quite the same level of sound volume and quality as found in the more-expensive flagship, but they’re still well above and beyond the speakers found on other handsets.

We do have a teensy problem with the size. The Desite 816 feels like it’s just big enough to fall outside the range of purely comfortable and in to the realm of slightly-cumbersome. Let's not forget that 5.5 inches would have been called a phablet in the not-too-distant past and with good reason. Admittedly, there are quite a few buyers out there who love bigger screens and there aren’t too many other devices in this price-range that could compete with the 816 in terms of user experience, so perhaps it’s not a flaw but a strength.

Button placement is a clear-cut issue. The left-side volume rocker is tricky to operate one-handed and the lock button is even worse. How anyone not the size of Shaq is supposed to comfortably reach a left-hand lock button at the top of a device this big is a mystery.

User Experience

The Desire 816 runs HTC’s Sense 6 interface over Android 4.4.2 KitKat. It’s a reliably smooth experience thanks to the 1.6GHz quad-core CPU and 1.5GB of RAM. We’re also big fans of Sense 6. It’s an elegant UI with minimal clutter that ends up being as relaxing as it is intuitive.

Occasionally, the phone did lag a bit. This was more common when using 3rd party keyboard apps than anything else, but other services did also get the odd bit of delay.

There was an unfortunate tendency to lose connectivity when on a WiFi network. This happened only during the more-intense end of usage, like with HD video streaming or downloading large files. We couldn’t quite figure out the problem, but disabling and re-enabling WiFi in Quick Settings usually did the trick.

Battery life is about a day, but no longer. You’ll definitely be needing a power point by bed time. It got down to 10% or lower most days with medium-to-heavy use. We’ve come to expect a bit more from modern phones, especially when they’re this big, so this was a bit of a disappointment. It’s been a while since we’ve had to pay this much attention to the battery bar, but at least it lasted a full day.

Display

The 5.5 inch 720p display is surprisingly good. We expected the lower resolution to be more noticeable when stretched out across such a large area, but we were pleased to find we were wrong. It’s still not optimal, but for a mid-range device it’s more than adequate.

Resolution aside, it’s not the brightest panel. Even turned up to max it’s still difficult to see in direct sunlight. It’s not particularly vibrant when it comes to colors, either, nor does it have impressive contrast. None of these imperfections is far along enough to be any kind of issue, just don’t go expecting a top-tier quality display here. The Desire 816 is certainly still good when it comes to visuals, it’s just not great.

Camera

The 13MP camera is very impressive. It’s easily one of the best cameras we’ve used in this price bracket. Photos during the day come out very crisp and with minimal glare. The camera shutter speed is quite quick, as is the autofocus.

It’s not an Ultrapixel camera, so photos in low light do suffer a bit. Night time shots are very grainy, but no more so than we’ve come to expect from a smartphone.

The front-facing camera is a 5MP affair, just like the one on the One (M8). This is a great addition and should be popular with the young crowd. Selfies come out very clearly, but once again they lose a clarity once the sun goes down.

Verdict

The HTC Desire 816 is a fantastic device when compared to its price tag. It’s one of the best handsets we’ve used in the mid-range, although it does have some stiff competition.

The Nexus 5, although it’s about 6 months old now, is still a better option. It’s faster, smoother and cheaper. The Desire 816 probably has the better camera, but everything else about the Nexus 5 is superior. In our opinion the Nex5 even a more-usable size, but this is a subjective area that could end up being a major selling point for the Desire 816 and its big-screen fans.

There’s nothing out there right now that can put up much of a fight against the 816 in both cost and quality if you’re after a 5.5 inch phone. If you want a phablet-sized device but don’t want to pay top-dollar then the Desire 816 is absolutely worth considering.

We’d like to see more devices like this from HTC. Affordable and usable without any of the bells and whistles. Hopefully the Desire 816 will do well enough to encourage its maker to continue down the solid mid-range path. This is a phone that deserves to be bought, although as we’ve seen in the past that’s no guarantee of popularity.


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