HTC Desire 816 review

Hands down the best phablet under $400

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HTC Desire 816
  • HTC Desire 816
  • HTC Desire 816
  • HTC Desire 816
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5


  • Fantastic audio
  • Well designed
  • Large screen


  • Not the best camera

Bottom Line

Plenty of things should turn us off the Desire 816: it’s made from plastic; the big screen has a low resolution; the camera is ordinary. But these seemingly mediocre parts add up to deliver an experience that is complete. The Desire 816 has character, and it’s the kind of character multimedia enthusiasts won’t want to do without.

Would you buy this?

The Desire 816 is HTC’s attempt to make a smartphone for people who love music and movies. Multimedia has necessitated the need for a large screen, wicked speakers and a high resolution camera, and all of it is on offer for less that $400.

Simple lines and subtle curves

For a brute, the Desire 816 sure looks good. Clean lines, soft curves and healthy symmetry somehow makes you forget this is a big smartphone. Sony’s Xperia T2 Ultra and Nokia’s Lumia 1320 haven’t mastered this trick because they feel huge. In their defence, they do have a half-inch on the Desire’s screen.

The HTC delivers an experience far greater than the sum of its modest parts

The HTC’s 5.5in screen accounts for most of the Desire 816’s face. It is black, uninterrupted and, when inactive, calming. Flanking its sides are speakers marked only by eight grille perforations.

Soft curving corners and edges help hide the size of the ‘phablet’ when it sits in the hand. The sides are a thin 8mm, while the smartphone stands 16cm tall. The plastic body bodes well on the scales with the 816 weighing 165g — that’s 5 grams more than the aluminum clad One (M8).

The Desire 816 is a plastic phablet that shouldn’t look as good as it does. We appreciate the work that must’ve gone into making the Desire 816 look so simple and effortless. HTC’s great achievement is that the phablet delivers an experience far greater than the sum of its modest parts.

Mobile entertainment

Not everyone is ready for a big screen smartphone, even though time has proven the trend is growing in popularity. People who are passionate about photos, music and videos will see the value in the Desire 816.

To get flagship sound for this kind of buck is a coup indeed

The 720x1280 resolution might be stretched thin over the 5.5in screen, but the resulting 267 pixels-per-inch is dense enough to deliver a solid viewing experience. We spent a lot of time watching videos — both movies and YouTube videos — on the Desire 816, and we found the large screen was great in both colour and clarity.

Too few phablets worry about the quality of sound, and this is where HTC owns the game. Audio produced is in a league of HTC’s own. The phablet has “BoomSound” speakers, and in non-marketing tongue that translates to two speakers hooked to their own amplifiers shooting forward-facing audio.

The Desire 816 is the only phablet to deliver clear movie dialogue without necessitating we strain our hearing, and it’s reassuring to know it’ll do so without having the volume at max. Only the HTC One (M8) matches its audio prowess, and to get flagship sound for this kind of buck is a coup indeed.

5 MP selfies, 13MP rear camera

Real multimedia smartphones should be agents of content creation. The Desire 816 weighs in with a 13 megapixel rear camera and a 5 megapixel front camera, both of which will record videos in Full HD resolution.

Photos snapped with the 13 megapixel camera are telling of its budget price. Any scenario that involves shadows will fluster the camera. The rear camera tries to compensate by exaggerating either brightness or contrast to levels that flush out detail. Landscape photos suffer most in spite of having an HDR mode.

Taken with the Desire 816
Taken with the Desire 816
Taken with the Desire 816
Taken with the Desire 816
Taken with the Desire 816
Taken with the Desire 816

The front facing camera benefits from its high resolution. Photos are still characterised by image noise and some feathering is present, but it will bode well with people fond of the ‘selfie’.

Taken with the Desire 816's front camera
Taken with the Desire 816's front camera

Recording videos with the rear camera is underwhelming. The camera is slow to autofocus and panning is often met with jarred frames. These shortcomings are more prominent when recording at night, along with an increase in image noise.

Overall we prefered the Desire 816’s cameras to that of Sony’s Xperia T2 Ultra and Nokia’s Lumia 1320. Both of its cameras have a high resolution and although it’s not ideal for every situation, it outperforms its rivals more often than not.

Android KitKat, Fast speeds

HTC’s Sense 6 user interface has been overlaid on Android 4.4 KitKat. Even the premium HTC’s of yesteryear would be bogged down by the company’s customisations, but the revised version runs silky smooth.

Tweaks include HTC’s graphical user interface, its news aggregator BlinkFeed and pledged support for its Zoe imaging software. Missing is HTC’s Sense TV software, which means the Desire 816 does not have an electronic program guide or the ability to be used as a remote control for a home entertainment system.

Handling the Android smartphone is (relatively) modest hardware. The Desire 816 uses a Snapdragon 400 chipset with a 1.6GHz quad-core CPU and a 4G modem. There’s 1.5GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage and support for microSD memory cards up to 128GB. Rounding off connectivity is Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS and single-band Wi-Fi 802.11n.

Even the weakest parts of the Desire bode well

Built into the smartphone is a non-replaceable 2600 milliamp-hour battery. Compared to high-end phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One (M8), the battery in the Desire 816 doesn’t sound phablet-big, but between its low resolution screen and its less demanding hardware, the battery goes a long way.

During our testing, which involved watching movies at max brightness; playing music over Bluetooth; heavy web browsing and social networking; making phone calls and texting; and taking photos, we averaged a day-and-a-half before needing a charge.

Final thoughts

I can picture HTC executives planning the Desire 816. I imagine they all had a clear understanding of what a multimedia smartphone should do and subsequently what parts should be a point of focus for the Desire.

Stereo speakers and the large screen are so ingrained in the smartphone’s DNA that they have inspired its design. And yet the Desire doesn’t feel like an assault on your hand; it is a large-screen smartphone and not a small-screen tablet.

Even the weakest parts of the Desire bode well. The 1.5GB of RAM — arguably the weakest part of the smartphone’s hardware — is capable enough to maintain a responsive smartphone experience.

The icing on the proverbial cake is the price. Currently Optus is selling the Desire 816 outright for $399 and that makes it the best value-for-money phablet on the market.

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Read more on these topics: M8, Desire, htc, 4.4, Android, One, KitKat, 816, Sense
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