HTC Explorer £199.99
18th Jul 2012 | 16:58
Budget Android smartphone that looks good - apart from the touchscreen
Update: a year on from launch, the Explorer is still a very popular phone. We've re-reviewed the updated software with a comparison to today's hottest phones - can it still stack up?
Far from the grandest handset on the market, the hardwearing HTC Explorer is a strong performer on the entry-level smartphone scene, replacing the market-leading collection of multicore processors, minimalist form factors and high megapixel cameras with a first-time friendly interface, responsive touchscreen display and budget phone price tag.
Playing host to a less than iconic collection of specs and hardware features, the HTC Explorer instead boasts a combination of components that keep the mobile phone running to largely impressive speeds and with little fuss, all while retaining a wallet-friendly price point.
Lining up as a stubby pebble-shaped handset, the HTC Explorer's form factor is dominated by a 3.2-inch TFT capacitive touchscreen display that is responsive to the touch but lacks somewhat in image clarity, with the 480 x 320p, 180 pixels-per-inch screen sometimes providing highly grained content, with pictures and graphics lacking defined edges and pinpoint sharpness.
Building on this well-constructed, albeit far from inspiring base, the HTC Explorer features a life-proof rubberised rear that will help protect the handset from the inevitable knocks, drops, scrapes and scuffs that accompany a handset's lifecycle.
On top of these strong physical attributes, HTC's budget Explorer features a strong software combination with Google's Android 2.3 Gingerbread mobile operating system paired with version 3.5 of HTC's Sense UI for an overall user experience that proves simple, attractive, intuitive and enjoyable.
With a 600MHz Qualcomm Cortex A5 processor running the HTC Explorer's show alongside 512MB of RAM, the HTC smartphone is far from the fastest on the market, with the less than impressive 3.15 megapixel rear-mounted camera keeping the Android handset firmly within the budget smartphone sector.
Elsewhere, a meagre 90MB of internal storage sees the handset's microSD card storage expansion capabilities become a necessity.
Although down the lower end of the pricing spectrum, the HTC Explorer still plays host to the same collection of essential connectivity options as its top of the line HTC Sensation sibling, with 3G and Wi-Fi options partnering with Bluetooth capabilities to offer prospective users the full fleet of features.
Appealing to first time smartphone owners where it arguably counts most, the extremely reasonable HTC Explorer price sees you able to snap up the Android 2.3 device for under £100 on Pay As You Go in the UK or around $140 SIM-free in the US, or for free when splashing out as little as £10.50 (around $16) per month on a pay monthly contract in the UK that comes packed with a selection of texts, minutes and data options.
Despite landing considerably cheaper than a selection of its closest on-paper competitors, the HTC Explorer's screen, processor and RAM see the handset rivalling the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Ace and Samsung Galaxy Y, as well as RIM's entry-level BlackBerry Curve 9360.
Design and feel
With the entry-level smartphone market not always focusing heavily on impressive aesthetics and strong build quality, instead favouring cheap materials and simple construction, HTC's budget HTC Explorer goes somewhat against the grain with a largely sturdy construction pairing with a reasonably eye-catching design.
Lining up at a relatively chunky 12.9mm (0.51 inches) thick, the HTC Explorer is a phone that feels solid in the hand. Weighing in at a reasonable 108g (3.81oz), the Android smartphone is neither unnervingly light, like the high-end Samsung Galaxy S2 and a selection of its cheap, low grade plastic rivals, nor as heavy as an iPhone 4S, falling pleasantly in the middle with a reassuring heft to it.
With just three physical buttons to its name, the HTC Explorer's compact form factor is left largely untarnished, with the minimalist collection of hardened controls joined by a 3.5mm audio jack connector and a micro USB charging port on the otherwise smooth, round-edged finish.
Featuring a sleep/power button on the top of the handset, the HTC Explorer's upper right side plays host to the classic volume up and volume down controls. While the volume buttons fall within prime finger and thumb real-estate when holding the handset in a standard left or right handed manner, being built within the phone's rubberised rear panel ensures the controls are stiff enough not to make you worry about infuriating accidental presses.
Build quality far exceeds its budget price point, so the HTC Explorer is a handset that exceeds expectations on the design front, with the rubberised rear panel giving the device its own distinctive and unique look that offers a reassuring feel of added grip in the hand.
Adding a certain amount of style to the otherwise largely uninspiring rear, a brushed metal cut-out brings a bit of high-end appeal to the cut-price phone.
While the same wraparound rubberised back panel offers considerable amounts of reassurance against unavoidable knocks and scratches, in facing heavy drops the handset offers up little confidence, with the rear unit pulling apart from the device all too easily and likely to make a hasty exit when making contact with the floor.
In place of physical controls, the HTC Explorer features the Android essential collection of touch-sensitive controls with the trio of back, home and option buttons joined by an instant search option that offers quick access to Google and its world of possibilities.
Far from the clunky, sluggish user experience that plagues a number of budget, entry-level handsets, the HTC Explorer's combination of Google's Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system and HTC's much loved and industry acclaimed Sense 3.5 user interface help provide an easy to use experience for first time smartphone users.
Despite this friendliness to smartphone newcomers, the HTC Explorer's Android and Sense UI partnership sees a selection of high-end user features filtered down to the entry-level market with a number of lock screen customisation options enabling you to unlock your compact handset directly into dedicated features, including the likes of messaging and emails as well as calling and camera options.
This strong start to the HTC Explorer's user interface continues throughout the phone, with the handset playing host to a largely fluid and rapid experience. Although filled with strong aspects, the HTC Explorer's interface isn't without fault, featuring what quickly become tiresome periods of juddering and moments of lag and stalling.
Although flitting between the handset's seven available home screens is a fuss-free affair, scrolling through the centrally located applications menu provides a less fluid experience. There the otherwise smooth screen transitions become clunky, with an unwanted amount of juddering. Helping you avoid this less than impressive app selection option, a variety of home screen-based widgets offer instant access to a selection of details, with app icons also able to be stored upfront to bypass the multiple clicks and sluggish menu access.
Other areas in which the HTC Explorer is less than fluid include when the handset is rotated between portrait and landscape orientations. Far from the seamless transition found on the likes of the high-end Apple iPhone 4S, the HTC Explorer struggles with what is such a seemingly simple task, featuring a not inconsiderable pause before the device catches up with itself and transforms the on-screen content to meet your desired layout.
More than a simple stumbling block, the low grade nature of a selection of the HTC handset's hardware features means the HTC Explorer has been forced to do away with a selection of Sense features that are present on a number of the device's higher end siblings, such as the HTC Sensation.
One such example is the system's selection of live wallpapers. While not a performance-depleting omission, the reduced features list is an annoyance that is noticeable and that will maintain long into the handset's lifespan.
Despite this selection of niggling issues, the Android and Sense interface package ensures that the HTC Explorer comes out of things in a positive light. The system proves extremely intuitive and easy to pick up, with the display's multi-touch capabilities ensuring users can make use of the now standard and intuitive pinch to zoom features, among many others.
Contacts and calling
As with the large majority of Android-filled handsets, no matter which company's user interface they are overlaid with, the HTC Explorer's contacts storage system is a very simplistic affair with a well labelled, intuitively laid out entry form enabling you to input new contacts with zero fuss, faff or fiddliness.
As always, contacts are easily accessible via a dedicated app icon found in the handset's centralised app menu. Strangely, HTC has opted to label its contacts app 'People', a choice that while marginally confusing at first is quickly forgotten, with the rudimentary icon image of a contacts card helping out.
With a simple, and classic, alphabetical layout, the contacts aspect of the HTC Explorer is similar to a number of its similarly priced rivals, with the full collection of personal details just a simple click away. While social networking features aren't integrated directly into the handset's contacts service, instant messaging handles can be stored for improved methods of communication between friends, family and colleagues.
Helping further distinguish these set contact types, you can opt to group your acquaintances in a simplistic fashion, with the HTC Explorer's customised and individually named groups offering rapid access to select contacts at will - a feature that proves useful on occasion.
Despite the hearty number of new performance enhancing and user engaging features, such as an integrated camera and the wide selection of app-based games, where performance really counts for any smartphone is its ability to make and receive calls.
Now quite an antiquated means of communication, the calling features of the HTC Explorer do not fall beneath those of the handset's closest rivals, although this isn't to say they are the perfect combination of signal strength and in-call clarity.
As with many smartphones, calling is an area that appears to have been overlooked in terms of quality results, with calls often sounding slightly muffled with a distinct lack of defined clarity causing a certain level of annoyance.
Although we suffered no dropped calls during our time with the HTC Explorer, the service provided wasn't reassuring enough to put us at ease when using the handset, even in areas of strong signal.
What's more, with the standard dialling options lacking any additional bells and whistles, the handset's calling options are further diminished by answer and end call buttons that prove sluggish - an issue that although it didn't cause us to miss any calls proved an irritable flaw that continues to annoy and infuriate far beyond the first use.
Using Google's Android OS to good effect, the HTC Explorer features a strong selection of messaging options with the standard SMS, MMS and email features all proving simple to set up, use and attune to your desired wants and needs.
With the SMS/MMS functions lining up in a separate inbox to the email communications, you can flit at will between the standard text-based and advanced multimedia messaging options, with a simple click of the paperclip-adorned icon offering the option to attach images, video, audio files, contacts and even diary entrants and reminders.
With a similar ease of use found within the HTC Explorer's email application, mail clients are easy to set up, with a simple walkthrough guide helping you through the painless set of tasks required to get your messages swinging across to the portable device and displayed in the classic, and still most useful, chronological order.
No matter how simple the HTC Explorer's messaging abilities are to set up, however, any and all good points are soon forgotten when it's time to input a message and use the device's touchscreen QWERTY keyboard, an option that proves too cramped to use to any degree of comfort.
Hold the phone in the classic portrait stance and the compact keyboard is nearly impossible to use for anyone with even relatively slender fingers. With the full key selection cramped in to the 3.2-inch display, accidental presses and wrongfully struck keys are unavoidable, and the auto predictive options quickly become confused and far from the desired mark.
While tilting the HTC Explorer into a landscape orientation offers a slight respite from the fiddly keyboard, the best way to type out a full message with the least amount of hassle is by enabling the Trace input options. With you able to scan your fingers across the keyboard with more accuracy, the HTC equivalent of Samsung's much-loved Swype service is a hit that, once activated, will surely remain on for the remainder of the handset's days.
Saving a bit of time and a number of button presses, the HTC Explorer's messaging options have also been integrated into a home screen widget, enabling you to absorb incoming content without the need to delve within a dedicated software option.
Also lining up on the home screen and fulfilling the social requirements of the handset's likely younger audience, the HTC Explorer once again pairs Android innards with the Sense 3.5 UI to offer up high levels of social networking integration. You're able to send your social streams direct to a dedicated home page widget that enables quick access and replying through the likes of Facebook.
A varying selection of hits and misses, the HTC Explorer's web-based features and characteristics see a host of abilities that far exceed the handset's budget price tag and entry-level stature brought back to Earth by an equally numerous collection of infuriating options detract from the plus points and on occasion create an uninviting online environment.
With the standard combination of 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity options, the pair of online accessing choices offer a Jekyll and Hyde experience in terms of load times. The 3G connection on the HTC Explorer takes an age to load standard text pages, but content-rich web pages are handled with ease via Wi-Fi, loading in impressive times that are a match to a number of the device's more illustrious rivals.
Although the generic Android browser offers little in terms of unique features, or indeed even inspiring continued use, those not impressed by the barebones approach can opt to download a selection of optional browsers from the Google Play store, including the likes of Google's new Chrome for mobile offering.
While bookmarks are relatively easy to set and access, appearing at a tap of the touch-sensitive menu button as opposed to lining up next to the URL input bar, the handset's pitiful and cramped touchscreen QWERTY keyboard once again brings down the user experience by making input difficult - on this occasion causing URL input and search engine entrants to become troublesome and time consuming.
Having endured the time-consuming 3G load times and irksome input issues, when viewing web pages on the HTC Explorer's 3.2-inch 480 x 320p display, text appears with less than defined edges, showing the poor quality of the screen and creating an experience that is both unpleasant on the eyes and lacks longevity appeal.
Counteracting these depleted text issues, the HTC Explorer plays host to impressive text reflow capabilities, a feature that is usually reserved for higher end handsets. This helps minimise the graining of text-based content when zooming in to a page.
Add Adobe Flash compatibility to this and the HTC handset's browser redeems some of its lost lustre.
Little more than a check mark on the desirable specs sheet tick list designed to entice potential buyers, the HTC Explorer's camera comes with a distinct lack of performance-enhancing features, with no LED flash or autofocus and a meagre 3.15-megapixel sensor that fails to impress on any front.
A barebones snapper that doesn't even offer you the option of tapping areas of the screen to direct the camera's focus, the HTC Explorer's rear-mounted image capturer suffers from dire light management abilities. This turns days with less than blazing sunshine into shadowy nights that lack contrast or depth to the images.
Add to this heavily grained images due to the low quality sensor and even lower quality lens and you have a photographic ability that disappoints with each new shot and defies the statement that the best camera is the one you have with you.
With a noticeable lack of optional scene modes, available image manipulating variable settings do little to counteract the poor shots that plague the HTC Explorer's camera, with the picture capture options meekly extending no further that the chance to shoot with a greyscale, negative or sepia-tinted filter.
Although geo-tagging and face detection features are included, any potential saving grace is quickly pushed aside with the lack of autofocus and abysmal shutter speed joining forces to ensure that even in ideal light conditions snaps come out far from defined and with shallow edges. Even a slight wobble in the hand - something that is hard to avoid during the lengthy capture period - ruins the faint hope of an acceptable shot on the HTC Explorer.
Ensuring that pictures taken indoors are even worse than those in natural light, the handset's poor colour management and lack of integrated LED flash means shots in artificial lighting lack any appealing nature, with graining increasing and visual noise distortion further depleting the outcome.
Slow shutter speeds result in blurred images.
On rare occasions the HTC Explorer's camera can produce strong results.
In less than bright sunshine, the HTC Explorer produces excessively dark shots.
With a lack of autofocus, the HTC Explorer's camera produces less than sharp results.
Images can lack depth.
Losing the colour can help improve the camera's results.
Like the handset's stills camera, the HTC Explorer's video recording capabilities fall far short of the desired levels, with the 480p capture resolution again offering little in terms of encouragement for first time smartphone users. Once again this fails to promote continued use.
The lack of an integrated LED flash once again rules out the option of indoor shooting for anyone keen on even half decent results, while those attempting to capture video content in a bright, naturally lit outdoor environment will face a considerable amount of blurring and pixelating.
With the distinct lack of customisable settings coming across from the stills side of things, you are only able to add a selection of lifeless filters to video content, an inclusion that hardly enhances the handset's abilities.
Rounding off the collection of less than impressive features, the HTC Explorer's integrated microphone generates a considerable amount of static and background noise on self-shot video content.
Like the stills camera abilities, the HTC Explorer's video camera finds a little reprieve in its lens location. Residing in the upper centre section of the handset, the camera is unobtrusive and enables content to be comfortably captured in either portrait or landscape forms without the worry of stray fingers making unwanted appearances in the resulting content.
Hardly the most media-centric handset on the market, the HTC Explorer incorporates the standard Android music player and video playback options, yet in a bid to keep costs low, and as an indication of the handset's priorities, is one of the very few devices on the market today that doesn't come boxed with even a low grade pair of plastic in-ear headphones.
Ticking off the now essential and universally expected MP3 player capabilities, the standardised Android music player is located on the central app menu, with those keen to use the HTC Explorer for its musical charms also able to benefit from a dedicated home screen widget.
Offering more efficient access to tracks for quick audio playback at will, the music player widget is further enhanced by album art inclusions and a simple, easy to use touchscreen controls layout.
With the standard collection of MP3, WAV, MP4 and WMV file types supported, consumers looking to use the HTC Explorer for audio or video absorption will need to splash out on a large capacity microSD card, since the woeful 90MB of internal storage will hold virtually no content.
Although a dedicated video player is available and the HTC Explorer proves comfortable in the hand when holding it for media consumption, the handset's less than impressive TFT display means any video playback is viewed with a certain level of disinterest and a lack of vibrancy.
As standard on all Android-filled Google-based handsets, YouTube is integrated via a dedicated and pre-installed application to provide further video viewing options.
Failing to impress when used for either audio or video playback, the HTC Explorer's inbuilt speakers are lacking in depth, pumping out hugely tinny, almost robotic and synthesized tones that do away with any well rounded notes at the outer limits of the audio spectrum.
On a more sedate side of the handset's media abilities, and the time-consuming experience proving troublesome and tiresome. Editing options extend to cropping and rotating.
Battery life and connectivity
Leaving a lot to be imagined, the battery life of the HTC Explorer does not capitalise on the handset's relatively limited selection of juice-sapping features and hardware inclusions, instead keeping you on edge during a second day's use if you dare risk not charging the device through the night.
With a 1230mAH Li-Ion battery, the HTC Explorer's compact size means a more substantial life support system can't fit into the device. Although the HTC Explorer's battery surpasses the often problematic one day hump that sees many high-end handset users cursing their device's battery-sapping array of features, the touted 445 hour 3G standby time is highly ambitious, with the handset in reality running well below this projected high.
Left largely to its own devices, the HTC Explorer chews through its limited battery life at a rapid rate, running to half a full charge in less than two days on standby, a mark that then quickly shoots down once, having bridged the half charge market.
Not particularly speedy to recharge once connected to a mains outlet, the phone is troublesome even when left alone to charge, becoming rather hot while refuelling, almost to the point of being uncomfortable if held.
Able to connect to a PC via the micro USB connection port and the boxed USB cable, the HTC Explorer's connectivity options run the standard route of 3G and Wi-Fi being further enhanced by Bluetooth 3.0 and A-GPS availability.
With file transfers handled with ease thanks to a simple drag and drop system, the HTC Explorer bolsters its connectivity abilities with HTC's now standard portable Wi-Fi hotspot app enabling you to transform the handset's 3G signal into a local Wi-Fi service.
Maps and apps
As is standard Android fair, the HTC Explorer comes pre-installed with Google's market-leading Google Maps software, with simple navigation advice and an intuitive service that will help you locate yourself when stumbling through the streets lost.
Enabling the handset to live up to its "Explorer" branding, the handset will ensure you find your way in double quick time, locking on to GPS signals in impressive times and enabling you to benefit from the usual collection of features from public transport overlays to turn-by-turn navigation guidelines.
On the app front, the Android innards once again keep the HTC Explorer in good stead, with access to the Google Play Store meaning you have access to more than 600,000 Android applications, including a bevy of games, utilities and communication services.
With a sense of social networking supremacy, the HTC Explorer removes the need to download the dedicated Facebook and Twitter Android applications, with the pre-installed Friend Stream app enabling you to sync your personal social network feeds with the device for instant, well laid out and correlated access to the full spectrum of social streams in a single, easy to access and navigate location.
The handset's low grade 600MHz single core processor and 320 x 480p display mean playing some of the more comprehensive games from the Google Play store produce less than ideal results.
All apps added to the handset are handily stored in the centralised menu for ease of access that can be enhanced by moving shortcuts to the home screen.
Hands on gallery
A mixed bag of tricks, the HTC Explorer is as capable of seeming a great buy as it is of making you wish you had plumped for the next model up. Saved many times by its seamless Google OS innards, the HTC handset is little more than the standard Android smartphone fair, but in truth this is not always a bad thing.
A strong, sturdy construction acts as a solid base for this entry-level handset. The rubberised rear, although sure to split opinion, proves a wise move on HTC's part that not only offers reassurance in the hand and protection against knocks and bumps, but helps distinguish the phone from the raft of stoic smooth plastic-backed rivals.
Add to this an Android 2.3 and Sense 3.5 UI partnership that creates a hugely intuitive and pleasant to use interface and you have a winning combination that supplies everything a first time smartphone owner needs, and nothing more.
Far from the perfect all round package, the handset's 3.2-inch display leaves a lot to be desired, with the cramped confines further diminishing the digital keyboard that will quickly become any HTC Explorer user's ultimate bugbear, with accidental presses an unavoidable annoyance.
Add to this a camera that fails to impress on any front and does everything possible not to inspire continued use and you have an overall package that can be as infuriating as it is impressive, and which will continue to niggle away at your patience through continued use.
In true budget handset fashion, the compact HTC Explorer sees a selection of strong price-point pushing features depleted by an equally numerous selection of bugs and niggles that detract from the good points.
Appeasing the wallet at less than £100/$140 on a PAYG basis, there is only so much that can be forgiven with a low price, and the HTC Explorer repeatedly plays fast and loose with this boundary, only just managing to come out with an overall positive appeal.