While there's lots of action in the high-rent district of phablet town, HTC is looking to sneak in and grab a slice of the mid-priced pie. But is a device that borrows the best from smartphone and tablet something that should be compromised on? Read on, as Gizmag reviews the HTC Desire 816.
In terms of appearance, the 4G LTE Desire 816 looks very similar to HTC's One (M8), though with the structural differences you might expect at a markedly lower price point. Its full-plastic casing won't provide the rock-solid feel of its aluminum-bodied stablemates, though it is relatively sturdy in hand. Like with the M8, HTC has opted for on-screen navigation keys in the Desire 816, allowing the 5.5-inch display to almost stretch the length of its 156.6 x 78.7 x 7.9 mm body. With 720p resolution (267 pixels per inch), the display isn't nearly as sharp as what you'd find on high-end phablets, but its resolution wasn't distractingly low.
The Desire 816 is far from the largest phablet around, with its screen coming in at 26 percent smaller than the monstrous Sony Xperia Z Ultra. If you're used to smaller phones, then wrapping your hand around the Desire will still take some getting used to, especially considering the placing of the lock button and volume rocker towards the top of its left side.
This makes one-handed operation difficult – but let's be honest, there aren't a whole lot of interactions that can be performed on a 5.5-inch device without bringing that second paw into the mix, regardless of button location. This fleeting awkwardness aside, the Desire 816 really is a pleasure to use.
Powered by a mid-ranged Snapdragon 400 processor and 1.5 GB of ram, I found performance to be more than adequate. Three weeks of internet browsing, Youtube watching and photo-snapping went off without a hitch. The phone runs on Android 4.4 KitKat with Sense 6, HTC's custom interface over the top. As is becoming commonplace through its range of handsets, HTC's BlinkFeed home screen widget bears the flag of the company's efforts in software innovation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with BlinkFeed. It is nicely presented and intuitive to use, aggregating news and social media content from your feeds of choice, but it does lean more toward a solution looking for a problem. If you're a smartphone user who is comfortable drawing this information from traditional sources, or partial to an app like Flipboard (which does much the same thing), then Blinkfeed can be always turned off through the settings.
The phone retains the front-facing BoomSound speakers from HTC's high-end models, which boast built-in amps and belt out some high-quality, bass heavy audio. These aside, the camera is clearly a standout feature of the Desire 816. Capable of snapping crisp shots and 1080p video, the 13-megapixel rear camera more than holds its own as a smartphone shooter. While this is a huge leap in pixel count from the 4-megapixel One, HTC has forgone the "UltraPixels" featured on the flagship model, and as a result, the Desire 816 doesn't lend itself as well to low-light photography.
The cheaper Desire 816 does miss out on a few neat camera functions featured on the One M8, such as panorama and the bokeh-making UFocus. But if you aren't looking to use your phone to create photographic masterpieces, and are mostly concerned with capturing clear and colorful snaps, the 816's rear shooter combined with the 5-megapixel selfie camera will comfortably get the job done.
As with the One M8, we found the 816's battery to stand up surprisingly well, despite conceding a little in size. In our standard test where HD video is streamed over Wi-Fi with 75 percent brightness, the Desire 816's 2,600 mAh battery lasted 7 hours and 41 minutes. Just to put things into perspective, the iPhone 5s ran for 6 hours and 15 minutes, while the Galaxy S5 lasted 9 hours and 27 minutes. HTC's mid-priced phablet may have some shortcomings, but its battery life sure ain't one of them.
On that note, the 8 GB storage falls short of what you can expect from most other mobile devices, and it won't leave much room to move once you've got apps onboard and photos and videos begin to build up. This can thankfully be extended through the Micro SD reader located alongside the nano-SIM slot, which takes cards up to 128 GB.
Another criticism would be a 3.5 mm audio port that is just slightly on the loose side when plugging in. It will still firmly secure the headphone jack, but doesn't "snap" it into place and saw my audio cut out while walking with the phone in-pocket on a number of occasions. It is also worth noting that some may take issue with the plastic casing, which is a step down from the unibody form found in HTC's more expensive handsets. While reasonably solid, there is an amount of flexibility to it and some parts may feel a little loose, though not beyond the point of only just being noticeable.
So is it worth it? Prices will vary between retailers, carriers and plans, though a HTC Desire 816 can be picked up off-contract for somewhere between US$330 and $400. This, at least in theory, pits the Desire 816 in direct competition with the OnePlus One – a superior phone in every respect. The OnePlus One betters the Desire 816 on screen resolution with a 1080p, 401 PPI display, doubles its storage at 16 GB and runs on a Snapdragon 801 quadcore processor clocked at 2.5 GHz. If you can get your hands on the OnePlus One (which is still tied to an annoying invite system), you're going to get a better phone, period.
With that said, the HTC Desire 816 offers some nice value for smartphone users who prefer screen real-estate at a low price rather than the well-oiled machinations of a top-end device. Whether foregoing the denser pixels, extra camera functionally, better storage and overall awesomeness of the One M8 is worth it ... well, thats something that will undoubtedly vary from user to user.
If what you are looking for in a phablet is a high-quality camera and a solid multimedia experience at a low price, then the Desire 816 is certainly an option worth considering. In the time I spent with the phone I reached for my tablet so infrequently that it hasn't been charged in three weeks. You can put this down to the phone's overall usability as a browsing and multimedia device, attributes that strengthen its claims as a replacement for smartphone and tablet. On that basis, the Desire 816 is a perfectly capable phablet at a very reasonable price.
You can read more about the phone at the product page below. And if you want to cast your phablet net wider, you can check out our latest Phablet Comparison Guide.