Video: HTC Incredible S In-depth Review

The Incredible S is mature. It’s an 18-year single malt scotch or a fine French Bordeaux. It’s what all Android devices should be by now: stable, quick, and robust. It is the culmination of years of HTC research and design, and compromises between size, specs and price. And for the most part it is successful.

Launched in February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona alongside a the mid-range Desire S and entry-level Wildfire S, at first glance the Incredible S didn’t have the same market impact as the wave of dual-core phones launched at CES in January. But what it lacks in sheer hardware specs it makes up for in what I like to call The Whole Package. HTC pairs their exquisite hardware with a highly modified attractive Android overlay called Sense. To see Android running on the Incredible S is to do away with its bland legacy.

It does, however, favour a resemblance to its predecessor, the Verizon-only HTC Incredible. Much was said, both pro- and con- about its industrial, asymmetrical battery cover, and the Incredible S shares this remarkable pedigree. This time, however, it serves a purpose: sharing the same over-sized 8MP camera sensor as the Desire HD, HTC wanted to prevent it from being scratched, and does so by extending the entire battery cover to the same straight length. The phone rests flat and the camera glass is protected.

The rest speaks for itself: a 1Ghz Qualcomm 8255 Snapdragon processor, 768MB RAM, 1.1GB internal storage, 4” 480×800 pixel SLCD display, 8MP back camera with dual LED flash, 1.3MP front camera, 1450mAh battery, WiFi/GPS/Bluetooth, all running smoothly on Android 2.2 Froyo with Sense UI. It’s certainly an evolutionary product, resembling in many ways the Desire HD and myTouch 4G internally, but with a few notable improvements.

Same Old Phone?
The Incredible S makes sense in the way that some albums have hit singles that strike you immediately, while other songs are slow burners that take multiple listens to sink in, eventually emerging as classic. The Incredible S is such a song.

The unique additions to the phone, namely the 1.3MP front-facing camera, and the orientation-aware capacitive touch buttons are appreciated but largely don’t affect the day-to-day use of the device. The buttons on the Incredible S are simply tiny extensions of the LCD display and project one of two “buttons” depending on orientation. Though the effect is pleasing, they are sensitive to viewing angles and seem dim unless you’re looking straight on.

The 1.3MP front-facing camera is theoretically more useful, but in reality, will mostly be used to take grainy photos of you and your friends. Until Skype supports mobile video calls between Android, iOS and the computer video calling will likely remain a novelty in spite of current offerings from Fring and Tango. Android badly needs its own FaceTime-like implementation, but due to its hardware and software fragmentation it’s unlikely to see such an app behave consistently over the entire ecosystem.

The 4” Super LCD display is extremely bright, saturated and sharp, with excellent colour tonality and an accurate palette. It’s maximum brightness and black levels were noticeably improved over the TFT LCD display of the Desire HD, which itself is no slouch in either department. Despite the fewer overall pixels, I found text easier and more comfortable to read on the Incredible S than on the Atrix, possibly because it is brighter and tonally warmer.

Pretty Incredible Performance:
It is clear that HTC has optimized the Sense experience to the point where complex tasks effortlessly fly through the UI. Though only equipped with a single-core processor, the experience feels far more fluid than on the Atrix, surpassing it in both ease of use and enjoyment.

Benchmarks can only take you so far. Though the Incredible S achieves a mediocre 1485 on the Quadrant Benchmark suite and an excellent 40MFLOPS in the Linpack test, most users’ main priority is lag-free, stable and enjoyable operation throughout the platform. Yes, the Atrix with its dual-core Tegra 2 SoC will likely garner higher frames-per-second in that 3D racing game, with slightly faster loading times, but UI performance is inconsistent. The Atrix comes across like a hulk, achieving results with brute force, while the Incredible S feel lithe and nimble. HTC seems to be the only Android manufacturer who has figured out how to do this, and it comes from years of deliberate, incremental upgrades and UI changes.

Since Sense UI was launched atop Android with the HTC Hero back in 2009, it hasn’t changed much in appearance. The slow creep of new features and significant increases in speed have dramatically improved the experience, and Sense 2.1 seems to be created for this Snapdragon processor. They have spent enough time with the Android source code to marry it perfectly with their hardware, and this is about as close to Apple as you’re going to get while maintaining the widget-friendly spaciousness of Android.

I noticed no slowdown during regular operation, and never once, even during 3D games like Tank Hero did I feel like the phone was overly taxed. Browsing was wonderfully fast; desktop versions of websites such as NYTimes.com rendered almost instantly over Bell’s network, and playing Flash content was (and will likely continue to be in the future) the only thing that significantly hampered the phone’s performance. Flash-heavy pages or high-definition video streaming in the browser was too much for the phone to handle, though with hardware acceleration the device renders high-definition content easily in media apps such as VPlayer and Google’s own YouTube portal.

Lights, Camera Action:
I fully support HTC’s move to a standard 8MP sensor across their Android line. Generally outdoor pictures are noise-free and extremely sharp, with accurate colours and excellent detail. Indoor photos, especially those taken with the flash, are tinged pink, and I noticed this right away when comparing the same picture taken with the Desire HD. Since it is likely the same sensor and lens, the problem lies in software (note that I am running a custom Gingerbread ROM on the Desire HD, which could have fixed the issue). The dual-LED flash is bright without overexposing the shot and the lens focuses quickly, even on macro targets.

Included in the camera app are several pre-set colour effects, much like you’ll find in apps like PicPlz and Instagram. Photos can be shared to multiple services when reviewing a photo, or separately in the HTC’s customized Gallery application.

HD video quality is largely excellent and thankfully supports touch-to-focus during recording, a feature missing from the Atrix and Galaxy S series. The resulting footage was fantastic and is a welcome competitor to the iPhone 4’s highly-touted video output.

Switching to the front camera, you will notice right away the improvement over the myriad VGA sensors slapped into devices such as the Atrix and iPhone 4. While still overly noisy, the sensor picks up far more detail, and the image is crisp and, in the right light, entirely suitable for sharing. The camera UI makes it easy to switch between camera and camcorder, but to switch between the rear and front cameras is a two-step process that is entirely too cumbersome. I would have preferred it to be accessible from the context menu.

Speed and Sound Quality:

Much was said about the Atrix’s lack of HSUPA (upload speeds up to 5.76Mbps) functionality when it was released last month. Though only a software limitation (it will likely be enabled in a future update) I can safely say the Incredible S has no such impediment. Speedtest.net showed a healthy 2-4 Mbit/s download and 1-3Mbit/s upload, depending on the signal strength and server.

Along with Bell/Virgin’s excellent data speeds, voice calls on the Incredible were warm, loud and crisp. What more could you want? How about the ability to automatically turn the phone to speaker mode when flipped over? Along with a “pocket mode” that increases ringer volume when the proximity sensor detects nearby fabric, the sound will automatically decrease when the device is picked up or moved.

This feature is, in my opinion, the “meeting saviour” mode, and goes to show how much effort HTC is making, along with its robust Exchange support, to make Android more enterprise-friendly.

This One’s a Keeper:
Battery life on the Incredible is far better than any recently-released premium HTC device, but its brethren are not setting the bar very high. The Desire HD runs out of juice in less than 8 hours, while the Thunderbolt and Evo 4G, due to their power-hungry 4G chips, bottom out in half that time.

Thanks to the smaller screen, power-saving features of Sense and the comparatively efficient 3G chip, the Incredible S lasted me nearly 40 hours with moderate usage before I hit red and had to recharge. This was with regular Internet, RSS, email and music use, and even at the lowest brightness setting I found the device entirely usable, though only when indoors.

HTC has done an excellent job optimizing the relatively power-efficient Snapdragon chip for use with Froyo, but obviously be careful of any apps you load from the Marketplace that create pervasive background services. One of Android’s simultaneous strengths and weaknesses is its ability to let apps have their way with your phone’s memory and CPU cycles behind the scenes. One can always check in the Settings/Applications/Running Services menu what is currently using RAM, and in the Settings/About/Battery menu what has been using the battery.

Sense, so much Sense:
HTC’s replacement apps for Email, SMS and Internet are welcome and improve on Google’s offerings immensely. Included widgets are usable and attractive, and the default fonts are easy to read.

The keyboard is superior even to the new one included in stock Gingerbread, and HTC’s email app offers excellent Exchange support. The Peep social networking app and included Twitter and Facebook support is still more robust than what is offered with other manufacturer skins, but it will be worth your while to set it aside and download the excellent first-party apps created by their respective companies.

Their custom music, video, camera and calendar apps are extremely usable and it even comes with a flashlight app and access to FM radio.

Since you still have access to the Marketplace, and can download alternatives to all the included HTC offerings (and I do recommend looking into browser, SMS and calendar alternatives) you have plenty of experimentation options.

Bell Bloat:
Bell includes the Kobo eReader app, demos of Gameloft’s Asphalt 5 , Let’s Golf! And Uno, GPS Navigator powered by TeleNav (yes, there are 3 GPS apps pre-loaded onto the device), Mobile TV & Radio, Self-Serve and a Remote PVR app, and Zoompass for mobile-to-mobile money transfers. Quick office viewer is included for document viewing, though it does not support editing.

Quibbles and Quirks:
Not all is rosy in the land of Incredible (S). The front of the device leaves a lot of wasted above the screen; I would have liked to see the height shortened by a couple of millimetres. The battery cover will not be for everyone, either, though it in no way encumbers the hand when holding the phone.

The pink hue when taking pictures with the flash is a nasty issue that needs to be resolved, and it’s a shame HTC didn’t have their Gingerbread ROM ready by the time the phone shipped.

HTC also takes liberties with its included apps: Car Mode launches whenever you charge the phone and must be disabled manually in the settings. The includes mapping app, Locations, pre-loads over 4GB of map data on the SD card, and while it makes sense not to force customers to download it separately, there is no easy way to remove it. It is tucked into the /sdcard/.data/Locations folder and a file manager is needed to delete it. Considering Google’s own Navigation app is free and works perfectly well, Locations is a curious and selfish addition.

The Future is Now:
The dual-core era is beginning. In fact, it began around the same time the Incredible S was announced. Should that matter to you? Sure, there are already faster phones out there, but other manufacturers make them. This is an important distinction. HTC is not just another me-too Android manufacturer. They take care to create smartphones for which the hardware complements the software, and the Incredible S feels like it is the culmination of years of experience.

HTC has already announced the Evo 3D, their first dual-core phone running Qualcomm’s next-gen Snapdragon MSM8660 SoC. But unless you are intent on maxing out the graphics potential of the Android platform, I don’t advise you to wait. The Incredible S has been one of the most enjoyable phone experiences I’ve had; it improves in many ways on its predecessor, and is one of the best Android experiences available in Canada.

The Incredible S is available from Bell ranging from $99.95 on a 3-year to $499.95 no contract. In addition, Virgin also has the Incredible S available for $99.99 on a 3-year term/SuperTab or $499.99 without a contract.

– Gorgeous display with sharp text and excellent colour saturation
– Good compromise between size and function; easy to hold in one hand
– Excellent build quality
– Camera takes good outdoor pictures and flash is effective indoors
– 720p video is sharp and jitter-free
– Sense UI and Android 2.2 provides stable, lag-free Android experience
– Adequate battery life

– Wasted space above the screen
– Some photos have a pink tinge to them
– Mediocre Flash performance in browser
– May not be enough of an upgrade over previous-generation HTC devices
– Some HTC-included apps are useless and take up excess space on included microSD card
– No dedicated camera button

Rating: 9.5/10

Follow me on Twitter @journeydan

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