HTC Desire 816

HTC fields a 'mid-range flagship' that proves plastic and premium aren't mutually exclusive

If there was one product launch that was drowned out in the noise of Mobile World Congress, it was the HTC Desire 816. Announced just a couple of hours before the whirlwind Galaxy S5 event, HTC's new mid-range strategy wasn't the top story for MWC, or even the day of Feb. 24, 2014. But as HTC looks to China and the mid-range for future growth, the Desire line in general, and the 816 in particular, are of huge importance to the Taiwanese manufacturer.

The Desire 816 is HTC's "mid-range flagship," the company tells us — the leading device in the Desire line, a range which fielded solid, though perhaps under-appreciated handsets in 2013. And there's more than a little HTC One DNA in this handset, with its front-facing speakers, pleasing curves and surprisingly full-featured Sense software experience. Join us after the break for our first look at the European 816, the second phone to ship with HTC Sense 6.

Let's make this clear right away — the HTC Desire 816 is a big phone. At 5.5 inches, it's large enough to be comfortably called a "phablet," for those inclined to call things "phablets." With its rounded, rectangular design, it reminds us a little of the ill-fated HTC First. The front and sides are matte plastic, while the back panel is a glossy (and yes, more fingerprint-prone) texture. The materials aren't as ridiculously high-end as the HTC One M8, but regardless, the 816 is a classy-looking phone — angular, yet with soft curves. And plastic, but not nasty plastic.

HTC's trademark stereo front-facing speakers sit either side of the gigantic display, which at a mere 720p isn't going to turn any heads with its pixel density. But what it lacks in pixels it makes up for with solid viewing angles, good daylight visibility and fantastic clarity. You can see pixels if you look close enough — but you do need to be looking in closer than the normal in-hand viewing distance.

HTC Desire 816

It's no M8, but the Desire 816 is a classy looking phone.

The phone's metal power and volume keys add a touch of class, with painted tops and chamfered edges, but it's hard to understand the logic behind their placement. Both are high up on the left side of this very tall phone, and they're awkward to hit if you're right-handed. (Lefties have it a little easier, as it's less tricky to press the power key with your thumb when left-handing the phone.)

Then again, this is a big phone, and one perhaps better suited to two-handed use. Ironically, though, the Desire 816 feels more secure in the hand than the slippery metal of the M8, a much smaller handset.

Around the back is the Desire 816's 13-megapixel BSI camera, backed up by a single LED flash. Look for an extensive camera rundown in our full review, but our first impressions are that it's a solid mid-level smartphone camera. In fact, its sheer megapixel advantage over the HTC One means it captures more detail than the M8 in daylight shots. You'll get better low-light performance from HTC's Ultrapixel sensor, naturally.

HTC Desire 816

The use of a more traditional smartphone camera means you lose out on a few of HTC's fancier camera modes, including Zoe shot mode (the Zoe cloud placeholder app is present, for what it's worth), dual shot and panorama 360.

When it comes to touch response, the 816 is as quick as some high-end Android devices.

Similarly, the version of HTC Sense 6 loaded onto the Desire 816 is missing some of the more hardware-dependent features from the M8, such as Motion Launch and Sense TV. The core experience is present and correct however, including the new, smarter BlinkFeed, which brings news, social and app updates to a vertical stream on your home screen, and the Sense gallery app, complete with automatic video highlight clips.

HTC Desire 816

The most surprising part of the overall user experience was how much of the HTC One M8's legendary responsiveness carries over to the Desire 816's relatively humble hardware. It's powered by a Snapdragon 400 quad-core CPU, consisting of four Cortex A7 cores at 1.6GHz and an Adreno 305 GPU, backed up by 1.5GB of RAM. Yet touch response, that most crucial conveyor of smartphone speed, is as quick as some high-end Android phones. Similarly, the 816 seems free from jerky scrolling or any other holdovers from Android's lag-ridden past.

The device's Achilles heel, hardware wise, is its internal storage. With just 8GB provided, you'll reach the halfway point just updating the preloaded apps from Google Play. And while it's true you can store music, photos and even some apps on an SD card, we can't help thinking a roomier 16GB option would've been more forward-thinking. At least HTC's storage manager has a "make more space" feature which helps clear out unwanted clutter.

We'll have more on the HTC Desire 816 in a full review coming up soon, but we can say we've enjoyed using the phone more than we expected — perhaps because it's a solid mid-level handset, just one that happens to possess an enormous display. It doesn't have the drop-dead impact of the M8, but it's an example of the right way to make a plastic smartphone. And it proves plastic and premium aren't mutually exclusive, even in a mid-tier phone.

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