HTC Desire 816 Review: A Mid Ranged Device Never Looked So Good

OVERVIEW

The HTC Desire 816 is HTC’s second phablet offering to date. After competing in the high-end sphere with the One Max, HTC decided to enter the mid range phablet market with the 816. It faces stiff competition from the likes of Sony and Samsung, but the Desire has a trick up its sleeve by offering many features one would normally associate with high-end smartphones. Is the Desire 816 the phablet to get? Our Editor-in-Chief Nicholas finds out.

PROS:

  • Snapdragon 400 processor clocked significantly higher compared to competition
  • 1.5 GB RAM gives it a fluid multitasking experience
  • Extremely loud and clear front-facing BoomSound speakers
  • 720p IPS LCD screen gives a surprisingly sharp viewing experience

CONS:

  • Glossy plastic back is prone to smudges
  • Power/lock key and volume rocker inconveniently placed on the top-left
  • The plastic exterior may appear cheap to some
  • Rather large form factor for a 5.5 inch display

INTRODUCTION

desire feat

Samsung may have pioneered the phablet with the original Galaxy Note, but since then a whole bunch of phablets have taken over the flagship scene: devices such as the LG G Pro 2, Lumia 1520 and the Xperia Z Ultra. It was Samsung and Nokia who first sought to bring large-screened behemoths to the mid range market, with the introduction of the Lumia 1320 6-incher and the Galaxy Mega series, though they have been notorious for having significantly poorer builds and low pixel counts.

And now HTC enters the market too, with the Desire 816, which HTC touts as being a “high mid range device”. But does the 816 fulfill its promise of bringing a premium phablet experience at an affordable price? That will be answered in time. First, let’s take a look at the specs.

HTC Desire 816
Display 5.5”, 720p Super LCD2 display (267ppi)
Camera 13.0 MP, f/2.2, 5.0MP front facing
Video Recording 1080p/Full HD
Processor 1.6 GHz Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400
GPU Adreno 305
RAM 1.5 GB
Storage 8 GB, micro-SD expandable
Battery 2600 mAh, Extreme Power Saving mode
Other Front-facing BoomSound speakers

A quick glimpse at the spec sheet and you’ll know that the Desire 816 has a lot more to offer than normal mid-range phablet offerings. But do specs tell the whole story? Hardly, which is precisely why reviews exist.

DESIGN, HANDLING AND BUILD QUALITY

816 t2
The Sony Xperia T2 Ultra (left) and the Desire 816 (right)

At first glance, the HTC Desire 816 exhibits a close resemblance to its cousin the One (M8) flagship, and an even closer one to the plastic One (E8) copy of the M8. Yup, you read that right. There’s no metal here folks; the chassis of the 816 is 100% plastic. If that alone hasn’t put you off yet then maybe this will: while the front of the device is matte plastic, which is pretty nice, the back is gloss, and is nothing short of a fingerprint magnet.

It's ridiculous how glossy it is
It’s ridiculous how glossy it is

I was rather disturbed by this initially, but grew used to the fingerprint smudges on the back. In fact, if you’re able to look past this flaw, the back of the device actually feels good. It offers plenty of grip, which is crucial for handling such a huge device single handedly without accidentally dropping it. Handling is good and the one handed operation is fine, though the button placements are a problem.

IMG_0343

Forgetting the fact that this device is made of rather cheap (or at least, cheap-feeling) plastic, the design is actually gorgeous. It’s got the looks of a flagship, unlike it’s smaller relative, the Desire 610 (which just looks terrible in my opinion). The bezels could’ve been thinner to help with the size of the phone, but it’s still pretty acceptable, and is what you’d expect from a phablet.

Did we say fingerprint magnet?
Did we say fingerprint magnet?

Speaking of the size, the Desire 816 has pretty much the same dimensions as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, though it’s slightly taller due to the BoomSound speakers that flank the top and bottom of the Desire’s screen. This is rather unfortunate as the Note 3 certainly feels more compact and actually offers more screen real estate: 5.7 inches compared to the 5.5 inches on the Desire.

Build quality of the Desire is pretty decent, despite being made of plastic. You do get an occasional creak and squeak every once in a while, but other than that the quality and build is rather commendable. Do remember that this is meant to be a mid range device. HTC had to cut costs somewhere, and personally, better the build of the phone than the electrical components.

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Touring the device, on the front you have the 720p 5.5″ IPS LCD display, with a 5 MP “selfie unit” (quite impressive based on megapixel count for a front-facing camera) at the top and BoomSound speakers above and below the display. There are no hardware or capacitive buttons on the Desire; these have been replaced by on-screen keys, which HTC has embraced in its latest lineup of devices (and thank God for that).

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The right side of the 816 is bare other than the slot for the micro SD card and SIM card. On the top you have a standard headphone jack, and on the bottom you’ve got your micro USB port for charging and file transfer. The fingerprint-attracting back prominently displays HTC’s logo, and houses a tiny-looking 13 MP camera and flash at the top left, instead of smack in the centre, which means that your hand might accidentally block out the lens when taking a shot, although of course there are phones which function well as cameras with the camera being at the top left of the back of the phone, the most notable of which is the iPhone.

This really flies in the face of all button conventions today, and not for the better
This really flies in the face of all button conventions today, and not for the better

Now on to perhaps the most nagging flaw on the Desire 816: the buttons. Somehow HTC simply refuses to place their buttons on the right of the device. On the One M7 the button was on the top left, which really annoyed plenty of people. But now the buttons are placed on the left side, just barely a centimeter below the top. It’s insanely hard to reach for right and left handers alike. Come on HTC, you’ve had far too many complaints about the power button and yet you’re ignoring them all. Even Samsung tried to do something about its notorious plastic backing with S5.

The positioning of the buttons is not the only thing that’s wrong with them though. They’re pretty wobbly and don’t offer a lot of feedback. On the up side, they do look good though. HTC did manage to create the illusion of metal for the buttons, though they, like everything else on this phone, is made of plastic.

Pretty much all of the flaws on the Desire 816 come from its design and build. So if none of these have turned you away yet, I urge you to read on, because things get a lot better from here.

PERFORMANCE

HTC has opted for a Snapdragon 400 processor, the standard chipset for mid-range devices these days. We’ve seen it in action on the Moto G and Redmi 1S (which will be available in Singapore this month), and it has proven to work pretty well for day to day usage, and even some resource heavy tasks.

Graphics performance is powered by an Adreno 305 GPU. It provides a decent gaming experience for most of the games I threw at it, though more graphics intensive games such as Asphalt 8 do suffer from occasional lag and slower frame rates. Overall, I found the gaming experience rather satisfactory, especially considering that this is a mid-range device, not a high end one.

In terms of synthetic benchmarks, the Desire 816 had a good showing.

Antutu

 

In AnTuTu, the most comprehensive test involving the CPU, graphics, RAM etc, the device did pretty decently, outscoring the T2 Ultra by a small margin.

BrowserMark2

The story repeated in BrowserMark 2, a test for the web browser where we test the Google Chrome performance on each device.

Vellamo

The Desire 816 had a really good showing in Vellamo, outscoring even the flagship One (M8) in the HTML5 web test.

The Snapdragon 400 unit in the Desire 816 is clocked at a higher speed compared to the rest of the competition. At 1.6 GHz, the processor gives you more than what you’d expect from a mid range device, and it’s also the same clock speed as some variants of the S600. In fact, I hardly see any difference between the Desire 816 and the miles more powerful S800 powered Xperia Z1 Compact in real world usage.

That’s a really good thing because it really adds to the premium experience. Throughout my time with the device, I was hard-pressed to find a modicum of evidence based on the device’s performance, to prove that the device was in fact a mid-range one, and not a flagship; it was just that fast.

DISPLAY

IMG_0350

At 5.5 inches, the 720p display doesn’t sound very impressive on paper, translating to around 267 pixels per inch. In reality though, we were pleasantly surprised by the display. Text and images appear sharp despite its lack of “retina” grade pixel density (327ppi), and color reproduction of its Super LCD2 panel is accurate, unlike that of AMOLED screens, which tend to appear oversaturated.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Sony Xperia Z Ultra 0.47 467 1001
HTC Desire 816 0.15 164 1087 0.46 478 1032
Sony Xperia T2 Ultra 0.49 634 1287
Oppo Find 7a 0.33 280 842 0.68 580 852
Huawei Ascend Mate 0.23 222 982 0.67 711 1053
Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 0.12 160 1364 0.32 440 1379
Samsung Galaxy S5 0 274 0 529
HTC One (M8) 0.20 245 1219 0.46 577 1256
HTC Butterfly S 0.15 165 1117 0.43 451 1044
Apple iPhone 5 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320


Sunlight

Sunlight readability is also rather good. The auto brightness works well to quickly adjust to different lighting conditions, and the screen is bright enough to be read even in direct sunlight.

Overall, despite not having one of the sharpest displays in the market, the HTC Desire 816’s screen doesn’t disappoint. It’s sharp, bright, with great viewing angles and good colour reproduction. The low pixel count may put some people off, especially considering that Retina-level pixel densities are considered the bare-minimum nowadays, and 1080p being an industry standard that we are already starting to move away from.

Devices such as the LG G3 and the Oppo Find 7 have 2K resolution (1440p) displays, and about twice the pixel density than the 816. But for those of you who aren’t chasing the latest and greatest, the Desire 816 provides a generally decent viewing experience.

BOOMSOUND AND AUDIO QUALITY

IMG_0351

The inclusion of the trademark Boomsound speakers on their mid range devices was a smart move by HTC, giving their phones an edge over the competition.

Audio from the front facing speakers is extremely, extremely loud. Just how loud is it? Let’s just say with the Desire 816’s speakers you don’t need to carry around portable Bluetooth speakers anymore for most occasions. Audio quality is good too. You’d expect something blasting this loud to have a great deal of distortion in audio playback, but this was hardly the case with the Desire. Like someone recently said, “Sound blasting directly at your face is the only way to go”. HTC’s Boomsound speakers deliver.

However, the same cannot be said when listening to the device through headphones. More often than not, in its attempt to create more impactful basses, Boomsound heavily distorts the music being played, making tracks sound extremely unnatural. Linkin Park’s “Lost In The Echo” just came out all wrong, and sounded nothing like what it was supposed to sound like, with Boomsound spazzing on when the heavy guitars are playing and off when they’re not. Let’s just say that when listening to the device via earphones, I kept Boomsound off all the time.

BATTERY LIFE

Batt

A 2600mAh battery is rather small for a phablet, and one wouldn’t expect it to last long. In day-to-day usage, we found the Desire 816 to perform rather well, with the battery lasting my typical day, which consists of plenty of web browsing and frequent WhatsApping. By the end of the day I would typically get around 30% of battery left. It’s nothing exceptional but it should be fine for the average user – provided you don’t game.

Battery

We ran our daily usage test on the Desire 816, and it did much better than we were expecting – though screen-on time took a hit. We used the device in the following situations, but it ran out of juice 30 mins into the movie:

  • 1 hour LTE web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi YouTube video streaming (720p)
  • 2 hour 720p movie
  • 30 minutes light gaming (Angry Birds Rio)
  • Standby idling under STAMINA mode

Furthermore, if you want to get some extra juice out of the phablet, HTC has provided Power Saving and Extreme Power Saving modes, the latter being able to reduce the home screen into a simple layout with 5 pre-selected apps. Functionality is severely limited in this mode, but it’ll give you what you need to squeeze that extra bit of juice out of battery.

CAMERA AND VIDEO QUALITY

IMG_0352

Surprisingly, HTC abandoned its 4MP UltraPixel camera for a 13 MP unit. Ironically, most people would prefer this camera to the one on the flagship One (M8), as it has triple the resolution, and boy has it paid off – the Desire 816 camera produces surprisingly good photos. In fact, they are unlike anything we’ve seen from an HTC phone. It’s a clear departure from the image processing of old.

HTC has finally nailed it. The photos produced by this 13MP camera may not be the sharpest or the noiseless ones we’ve seen, but they exhibit extremely well-tuned rendering. The image processing is so mature that it’s like HTC has brought somebody from the iPhone’s team to work on the software side of things.

The only complaint that I have about the image quality is that shots taken in direct light leads to the auto white balance being wildly out of whack. It’s obvious that there’s still some room for improvement in HTC’s post image editing software, as you can see here.

Being a Sony and Nokia user, I’m used to a physical shutter key on my phones. Unfortunately the Desire 816 lacks such a button, which makes taking photos all the more difficult on a handset of this size. The good news is that the volume rocker can be configured to act as a shutter key, if you wish. This, however, is a problem in itself as right handers would normally hold the phone horizontally in a way such that the bottom of the phone rests on their right hand.

However, as the volume rocker is on the left side of the device, it’s now located on the bottom when the phone is held in landscape mode, and you’ll end up having to use your left thumb to activate it, which is rather awkward. Still, you can always change your habits and rotate it the other way.

The fact that the camera module is on the top left might also be a problem for some. I for one had to make a conscious effort not to block the camera lens with my index finger when taking shot, although previous iPhone users will not have a problem. It really depends on what phone you came from.

Check out the following sample images.

Panorama:

Panorama on the 816
Panorama on the 816

Panorama on the 816 is an easy task, and the resulting pictures have an acceptable resolution and a really good level of detail. Colours sometimes do end up looking slightly dull, though.

Day Samples:

Night Samples:

We are more than pleased with the way the camera picks exposure and colors, even in mixed light. Digital noise is visible but it’s not that obvious as it takes the form of only luminance noise. There are no color blotches.

There’s equal sharpness edge to edge and there are no noticeable lens issues. The white balance is sometimes a bit too warm but some people like it that way. This is what the One (M8) should have had, because compared to the UltraPixel, this is brilliant, and thankfully the One (E8) has the same camera unit.

The Desire 816 is capable of taking 1080p video at 30 FPS. Video quality is decent and is what you’d expect from a typical smartphone camera, though the lack of OIS means that those of you who have shaky hands might end up with jerky videos.

Day Sample:

Night Sample:

The 1080p footage quality is markedly better than anything HTC had so far in the Desire lineup. We can probably say it’s on par with what the HTC One mini produces, but the level of resolved details falls short of reaching the original HTC One or the One (M8). Another thing to note is that the colors seems a bit oversaturated.

The selfie unit is a 5 MP camera capable of the same 1080p video recording. HTC was rather proud of their inclusion of a 5MP front camera when they announced the Desire back in MWC in February, and rightly so – their selfies are of a far more respectable quality than most other smartphones on the market.

Overall, the camera of the Desire 816 is absolutely brilliant. While it’s not going to dethrone other brands’ flagships in terms of image and video quality, it has the best camera package of any HTC device available now (except the E8) and easily beats other mid-range phablets.

PRICING AND CONCLUSION

desire feat

The Desire 816 delivers on what it promises: A mid range device with great performance and a stellar pair of cameras.

If you’re not bothered by the fact that the 5.5″ screen could’ve come in a smaller form factor, or the fact that the phone is unapologetically plastic (and of course the fact that the buttons are almost unreachable), then this is a great all-round phone. You even get a faster processor, sharper screen, and BoomSound speakers that the competition (Sony’s Xperia T2 Ultra) doesn’t have.

So it all boils down to the price. The Desire 816 is technically a mid-range device, so it probably shouldn’t burn a hole in your wallet. On SingTel’s $39/mth plan, it’ll set you back by $248. On Starhub’s similar plan it costs $159 . M1’s charging $248 as well.

Judging by the current price of the phone, it may be a pretty good deal if you’re on Starhub, but SingTel is pretty much notorious for over charging for their phones, and the 816 is definitely overpriced.

The Sony Xperia T2 Ultra
The Sony Xperia T2 Ultra

If you’re looking at the Desire 816, then you might also be considering the T2 Ultra, though that comes with a larger 6″ screen. The review of the T2 Ultra should be out shortly and we will be doing a proper comparison article soon, but for now all we can say is that it’s simply a matter of price. One thing that you should note is that the Desire 816 does have an edge over the T2 Ultra in terms of RAM and clock speed.

Selling for S$498 off contract, the Desire 816 is not a very cheap device, especially considering you can get the Galaxy Note 3 for just $100 more. Those of you who find the 816 too pricey might want to wait for the Redmi Note, which will definitely be retailing at a much lower price when it launches here.

But all in all, it’s a great mid-ranged phone that surpassed my expectations, and it’s certainly a phablet that’s easy to recommend.

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