You might say that most smartphones are mullets when it comes to their cameras. They're restrained and conservative with the front-facing unit (the One M8 has a 5MP camera on the front, for example) and then go wild and crazy with the rear-facing sensor (see: the One M8's dual-sensor depth-of-field-enhancing UltraPixel camera). Business in the front, party in the back.
Most smartphones are mullets when it comes to their cameras — business in the front, party in the back. Not the Desire Eye.
Not so with the Desire Eye — it's a full-time all-around camera party monster. Turn the camera around and you'll find what are at first glance practically identical shooters on the front and back, seated in wide black circles in the phone's white plastic expanses. They even have the same dual-LED flash units. Yes, there's a dual-LED flash on the front of the Desire Eye. Not only will your selfies be bigger than ever before, they'll be better illuminated too.
There are some slight difference between the cameras worth noting, however. While they both have 13MP sensors, the rear camera has a larger ƒ/2.0 aperture versus the ƒ/2.2 on the front (meaning the front lets in about 3/4 as much light). The front camera also has an 88-degree wide-angle lens on it, making it so you can either hold your arm closer to take that selfie, or push your arm out a bit to fit in more of the scenery and/or your posse.
The proof is, as they say, in the pixels. Or is it the pudding? Regardless, the Desire Eye captures large images from the front and the rear. Unlike with the frustrating 16:9 rear-facing sensor in the One M7 and M8, HTC's opted for a more-traditional 4:3 set-up (though the settings still default to 16:9). Photos taken with the full sensor register at 4208x3120 pixels, while the cropped default 16:9 measures 2368 pixels across the shorter dimension.
A new thing on the desire Eye is the addition of a dedicated physical camera button, located at the bottom right corner of the device (or the top right corner when you turn it to landscape). This isn't the first HTC smartphone with a camera button (hello, Evo 4G, Windows Phone-powered HTC 8X, 8XT, and a few others), but it is the first in a few years to sport that particular button. Sadly, it's a disappointing button (and how strange it is to be disappointed by a button).
When it comes to camera buttons, there's only one acceptable type, and that's the two-stage button. With a two-stage button there are two levels to which you can push, with the first locking focus and exposure, and then the second actually taking the photo, with both levels having a well-defined tactile feedback as you push through. With these buttons you can give it a half press to the first level to get your lighting balanced and focus sharp, and then move the camera so that the photo's framed how you want (perhaps the subject you want properly exposed and in-focus, but not in the center of the frame) and then press the rest of the way to capture. You can also in a snap just push down all the way to quickly snap a photo or even use that button to wake the phone straight into the camera app.
Normally I'd dedicate only a line or two of a phone review to a camera button, but in the case of the Desire Eye I've had to state how it should work to set the stage for how it actually works. It's not good.
The camera button on the Desire Eye in fact is a two-stage affair, with the expected behavior of a half press locking focus and exposure, and then a full press capturing the photo. The problem comes from there being precisely zero tactile feedback. As you travel to the halfway point the screen will alert you that AF has locked, and once you reach the bottom it starts snapping rapid-fire photos until you release. But getting to the point of actually firing off photos takes pressure — I felt like I was squeezing the phone, and with no "clicky" feedback as the button depresses, you don't really know what's happening until the screen starts to react.
It didn't have to be this way. The power button and both ends of the volume rocker are clicky, even barely audibly so. Previous HTC phones had nice tactile feedback in their two-stage camera buttons — I picked up an old HTC 8X I had around just to refresh my memory and it responded just as I would have hoped. But taking photos using the camera button on the Desire Eye was a labor.
After fighting with how much pressure it took just to activate the camera, I eventually gave up trying to use the camera button and just used the onscreen controls. Including the camera app as one of the default icons in the launcher's dock meant that I was always a swipe and a tap (swipe to unlock, tap to open camera) or a double tap and a swipe (wake the phone, swipe up the camera app from the lock screen to launch straight into the camera) away from being in the camera app thanks to Motion Launch. And I knew that if I pressed the shutter button on the screen, regardless of if I lightly tapped it or hammered at it, it would take a photo. It was a pain to use the button for selfie photos as well, requiring a less stable grip in order to apply enough pressure, which invariably meant vibrating the phone (thankfully the default settings included a 2-second delay for front-facing photos).
This might be how future generations look at photography, with physical camera buttons being anachronous to physical keyboards on smartphones. Some people set in their ways might want them and swear by them, and many old timers will look back on them with fond memories, but still embrace the ease of just tapping a screen. Or maybe we'll just get future smartphones with proper two-stage camera buttons.
But what about the actual photos?
They're okay, but at least consistently so. The quality over quantity equation is a hard one to balance out. Having more pixels does result in larger images, yes, which can help to disguise some of the noise that's inherent in smartphone cameras with microscopic sensor pixels. So while we might complain about the meager 4 megapixels that you'd find in the One M8's camera, we find ourselves on the opposite end of the camera spectrum still mildly disgruntled with the results.
Where the M8 was supposed to give us photos that were amazing in low light with great depth of field and mostly delivered (although low-light was never as spectacular as we would have hoped), the Desire Eye should be delivering detailed photos in spades. The problem is that when you zoom in on that detail, you wind up with a noise-induced disappointment. Unrelated to the pixel count, the photos tend to either be bright to the point of nearly being blown out or dim and muted, with very little in between. HTC's editing software is nice, but the adjustments focus almost solely on faces, and if there are none to be seen in the scene, there's no magic allowed to be wrought.
Like I said, it's hard to balance. And we have to wonder why exactly we need 13 megapixels on the front camera. The vast overwhelming majority of the time (we'll go out on a limb and say 99.9 percent of the time), that camera is going to be no more than three feet from its subject. You know, arm's length. And that's really stretching (literally). Maybe you'll get a selfie stick and go a bit further out. Regardless, 99.9 percent of the time you're going to be viewing that photo through a social network, be it Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. You're not going to see it at full resolution and you're not going to have to zoom in and crop to just your face because your face is going to be filling the frame to start.
Aside from the sheet size of the image, we're not sure what benefit is actually offered here. Even the 5MP front shooter in the One M8 can shoot 1080p video, and the Desire Eye's 13MP cameras don't shoot 4K video. For a camera that's aimed at taking selfie photos, the Desire Eye really takes just very large just-okay selfies.
And that front-facing flash? You'll never want to use it. At 2-3 feet away it's blindingly bright for night time photos and will completely wash out and flatten the faces you're wanting to capture. I had hopes it might help a bit as a fill light for evening shots, but there's a very narrow range of ambient illumination where it's actually useful. Like all cameras with built-in flashes, be it a smartphone or a full-size DSLR, it suffers from the same problem — the flash is too close to the lens to be good for anything other than providing illumination for utility photography.