Taking pictures of your own gurning face and plastering it over the Internet is unquestionably the best thing you can do with a device that has the entire wealth of human knowledge only a tap away. The front-facing cameras that enable such a noble pursuit on most phones, however, tend to be low-resolution and lack the flash you find on the back.
Not so with the HTC Desire Eye.
This 5.2-inch Android phone separates itself from the rest of the Android world by virtue of its 13-megapixel front-facing camera, which also has a dual LED flash to illuminate your dazzling smile in even the darkest of places. It’s the first phone to have such a potent front camera. It is, in fact, the same camera that you’ll find on the back of the phone as well.
Other features include a colourful, waterproof body, a full-HD display and the latest version of Android KitKat .
It’s due to go on sale in the US later this month, although specific times, or indeed prices, are yet to be announced. The Eye will be available in Australia for AU$799 exclusively through retailer JB Hi-Fi.
The Eye will be on sale in the UK on 7 November, exclusively on network Three, on a range of price plans. The cheapest is £29 per month, with a £29 upfront charge for the handset, which will net you 1GB of data and 600 minutes. That’s marginally cheaper than the One M8 , which is £28 per month with a £49 upfront charge on the same plan.
As part of HTC’s more affordable Desire range, the Eye eschews the all-metal design of the flagship One M8. The body is made from a single piece of plastic that’s been given a two-tone design, which I think looks great — it’s much more fun to look at than plain grey and black slabs.
It’s a big phone, due to cramming in that 5.2-inch display, but it’s slim and easy to fit into a pocket. You’ll certainly need two hands to type on it properly though, unless you have thumbs as long as pool cues.
It feels sturdy to hold and I’m sure it can take a few knocks and bumps without showing up too much damage. There’s no question, however, that it feels like a much less luxurious device than the all-metal One M8. If you want a phone that feels so good to hold you’ll happily just sit and stroke it, the M8 is the phone for you.
The Eye, however, is the first waterproof HTC phone — something the M8 cannot claim. It can survive in up to 1 metre of water for up to 30 minutes. That means it’s safe when you accidentally spill a glass of wine over it or drop it in the bath.
You can also take photos underwater, thanks to the physical camera shutter button on the side (the touchscreen won’t work when wet).
It doesn’t have the huge speaker grilles at the top and bottom of the face of the phone like the One M8, but it does still carry the “BoomSound” brand. The speakers are there, but they’re only tiny slits between the screen’s glass and white surround. I’m not convinced by this — it’s such a slight gap that it looks like a manufacturing fault up close, almost as though the screen simply hasn’t been made big enough to fit in the chassis.
The speakers themselves are reasonably good though. They don’t have the same volume as the M8’s speakers — which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given they’re much smaller — but their forward-facing position means the sound is directed towards you, so you can hear the audio more clearly. I was able to cook in my kitchen and comfortably hear a podcast over the sound of my shopping.
Around the sides you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB charging port — both of which have been made waterproof so don’t require rubber flaps covering them — and the SIM and microSD card slots are tucked in little pull-out trays. I recommend getting a microSD card too, as the 16GB of built-in storage will fill up pretty quickly if you’re really into your games or keep loads of music stored locally.
The display has a full-HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) resolution, which is the highest we’ve so far seen on the mid-range Desire series. It’s the same resolution as the flagship One M8, in fact. The M8’s display is 5, rather than 5.2 inches though, so it has a marginally higher pixel density. Side-by-side however, it’s difficult to tell any difference.
The Eye’s display is very bright and it has good colours — I found that glossy Netflix shows like “Breaking Bad” looked great.
Viewing angles are excellent too, although I did find the screen to be quite reflective, which sometimes caused me to stare back at my own reflection (the horror!), even when set to maximum brightness. I’ve seen worse, sure, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you plan on spending most of your time with the phone under the midday sun.
On the back of the phone is a 13-megapixel camera with a dual LED flash, but it’s the front-facing camera on the Eye that’s most exciting. It too is a 13-megapixel affair, which is the highest resolution front-facing camera we’ve so far seen on a phone. It has a dual LED flash which, again, we haven’t seen before on a front camera.
Typically, most phones use a much lower quality camera on the front than the back, but with a near-identical camera unit on both sides, you can take selfies with the front camera with the same quality as you can with the back. I say “near-identical” as the front camera has an f/2.2 aperture and 22mm focal length, a wider angle than the f/2.0 28mm on the rear, allowing it to capture more of a scene at once.
On my first selfie shot, there’s loads of detail from the 13-megapixel sensor, although it’s done a poor job of balancing the light and dark areas, resulting in the sky being seriously blown out.
You can use the HDR mode with the front-facing camera, which has gone some way to rescuing the scene in the shot above.
The front camera struggles much more in low-light situations. At full screen, its overall lack of definition is clear, as is a huge amount of image noise in the background.
With the flash enabled, I’m much better lit, but again, the picture is far from perfect. It hasn’t achieved a sharp focus on my face and there’s still too much image noise in the background.
Similarly in this shot above, the focus is poor. It’s evidently using a slow shutter, which has resulted in a very blurry image.
Again, even with the flash switched on, the camera has done a poor job of focusing, making this unusable. If this happened to be the one selfie I took with a passing celebrity, I’d be extremely unhappy. Not that I’m into that kind of thing.
Okay, that is more than enough of my face. Let’s look at the front camera. It’s certainly able to capture some good shots — and at a higher quality than you’d get from most front cameras — but it seriously struggles in low light. Shots on the top of a sun-drenched mountain will no doubt look great, but in bars, clubs and at gigs, it won’t cope as well.
The rear camera gave similar results outdoors in the shop above. There’s plenty of detail in the scene, but the bright sky has been blown out.
The HDR mode has done a good job at rescuing the scene in the shot above though, darkening the clouds and bringing out more detail in the trees on the right.
This canal scene similarly benefits from the HDR mode.
This was taken in regular automatic mode — it’s got a great even exposure and there’s plenty of detail to allow for cropping in, if you want to.
The rear camera did a fair job in this low-light scene. There are crisp lines around the writing on the bottle, although at full screen, it’s possible to notice image artefacts.
HTC has added some new camera features too, to help get more from the front camera. Most interesting among which is the mode that lets you take pictures of your face and a friend’s, letting you merge the two together to see what your lovechild would look like. It sounds bizarre — and it really is — but it’s a lot of fun. It was an instant hit in the office as I merged various people’s faces together to create some pretty disturbing pictures.
There’s a split-screen mode too that takes pictures with both sides and shows them side by side, a beautification mode that digitally smoothes your skin (as with other phones that have this feature, if you overuse it, you just look bizarre), and a feature that cuts you out from your scene on the front camera and pastes you onto the image from the rear — letting you put yourself in a picture with friends.
HTC also has software to help video calling. Its software sits over the top of video-calling apps — meaning it will work with Google Hangouts and Skype and you don’t need to install anything extra. The software applies digital image stabilisation, lets you use the front-facing flash to illuminate your face in the dark and also let you share your phone’s screen with your calling companion.
The quality isn’t brilliant (particularly over Skype) so don’t ask your companion to read pages of shared text, but it’s handy for an overview — perhaps to run through a slideshow with a colleague one more time before presenting it to your boss.
Android software and processor performance
The phone comes with the latest Android 4.4.4 KitKat software, over which HTC has slapped its Sense 6 interface. If you’ve ever used Sense on the One M8, or even the older One then there’ll be no surprises as the software is basically identical. It uses the same structure as regular Android — multiple homescreens, an app tray and so on — but it’s a neat interface with simply arranged app icons and an easy to navigate settings menu.
HTC’s Blinkfeed sits off to the left of the homescreens, which pulls together news feeds from a variety of sources as well as all your social networks, giving you all updates in one place. You can get rid of it if you’re not keen though. Sense is easy to use, even for Android beginners, and is probably my favourite of the Android skins — I certainly find it easier to navigate than Samsung’s rather bloated TouchWiz interface on the Galaxy S5 .
The phone runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, backed up by 2GB of RAM, which is a decent engine and in fact is the same heart found in the M8. I found it extremely capable. Navigating around the Sense interface was smooth and swift, apps opened with little delay and 3D games like Asphalt 8 played well.
It’s got more than enough power for all of your everyday social networking, emailing and Instagramming and won’t shy away from more demanding tasks either.
The battery is a 2,410mAh affair, which is a fair sized cell, although with a huge, bright screen to power, it has its work cut out. After almost 2 hours of video streaming, the battery had dropped from full to 69 percent remaining, which is about average. That might seem like a big drop, but it’s a demanding test that involves keeping the screen brightness on max.
If you want to squeeze every last drop of power from the battery, make sure you keep the screen brightness down (that’s always the biggest drain), avoid gaming or video streaming and turn off Wi-Fi and GPS when they aren’t needed. If you use it reasonably carefully throughout the day, you should be able to get a whole day of use from it. As with all smartphones, you’ll want to give it a full charge every night.
The battery isn’t removable so if you want to carry a backup, you’ll need to get an external battery pack like the Mophie JuicePack.
With a whopping 13-megapixel camera and dual LED flash stuck to its face, the Desire Eye is unquestionably aimed at those of you who take your selfies extremely seriously. It’s annoying, then, that the front-facing camera struggles so much to take shots in low light. Still, the flash does at least make you visible in dark bars, where other phones wouldn’t be able to shoot at all.
If capturing your face for Instagram in even the gloomiest of nightspots is your chief concern for a phone, the Eye is certainly worth checking out. Even those with just a passing interest in narcissistic photography still have plenty to keep them happy however, with the good quality full HD display, the colourful, waterproof design and the powerful processor.