21st May 2010 | 09:00
The HTC Smart certainly looks the business, but is that beauty only skin deep?
HTC Smart: Overview
"Quietly Brilliant" – that's HTC's latest marketing slogan. And although we're not generally won over by such rhetoric, in this particular case, it rings pretty true.
While Apple has been busy trying to convince the world that the launch of the iPad is akin to the second coming of Christ, HTC has spent its time in a less ostentatious manner, launching some of the best mobile phones we've ever seen.
The new HTC Smart has a lot to live up to when you consider the company's recent track record. In the past few months we've seen the beautifully crafted HTC Legend, which was quickly followed up with the HTC Desire – arguably the best mobile phone money can buy right now.
Even a Windows Phone operating system couldn't stop the HTC HD Mini from being a great handset for anyone who's resistant to buy into Google's Android platform.
But the Smart is a very different proposition to those feature-packed handsets. Although it clearly falls into the smartphone category, it's not aimed at the kind of power user who would want an HTC Desire or Apple iPhone.
The Smart is aimed clearly at the average consumer who would like a few smartphone features, but doesn't care about lightning fast processors or app stores. Oh, and they want it to be affordable too, even without a contract.
You can usually spot a budget phone at 20 paces, but that's simply not the case with the HTC Smart. Put simply, it looks and feels every bit as good as the Desire, which is pretty impressive for a brand new handset that can be had for free on a £15 per month contract, or £100 on prepay.
With dimensions of 104 x 55 x 12.8mm the Smart is very comfortable to hold, while at 108g, it won't weigh you down either. That makes it roughly the same size and weight as the HTC HD Mini, which is no bad thing.
O2 offers the Smart in either black or white, but HTC sent us a pink version. Even in pink this is a good-looking phone, with the chrome accents around the edges breaking things up a little.
The front of the Smart is dominated by the 2.8-inch screen, which is surprisingly bright and vibrant for a budget phone.
The 320 x 240 QVGA resolution gives the game away slightly, but it doesn't spoil the party for the most part. The one area where the resolution really is a limitation is when you're using the web browser, but more about that later.
Below the screen are four buttons, the largest being (by some margin) the Back button. This is something of multi-function button, though, since it doubles as the phone's Home button, too.
Pressing the Back button once will generally take you to the previous page/menu, while pressing and holding it will take you to the main Home screen. Pressing the Back button while on the main Home screen will then open up the Programs menu.
Either side of the Back button are Call and Hang-up buttons, while the final front fascia control is a Menu button located just below the screen.
Along the bottom you'll find an older style mini-USB port, rather than the newer micro USB connector. The only other connector is a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is always good to see on any phone, especially a budget model.
The Smart sports 256MB ROM and 256MB RAM, but there's a microSD card slot for increasing storage space up to a maximum of 32GB. A nice touch is that the card slot is accessible without having to remove the battery.
There's a relatively modest 300MHz Qualcomm CPU beating at the heart of the Smart, although there didn't seem to be any issues when it came to general speed of operation.
HSDPA speeds are limited to 3.6mbps, rather than the 7.2mbps theoretical maximum seen on higher end phones. Obviously real world data speeds are limited by your network, but in use the Smart did feel a little sluggish in the data department.
That slightly disappointing cellular data performance is compounded by the fact that the Smart doesn't have Wi-Fi, so even when you're at home or in the office, you can't make use of a fast connection.
You do get Bluetooth with A2DP though, so the Smart will happily work with a hands-free kit, while also pumping music to your car stereo.
Another major departure from the recent trend of HTC phones is the use of Qualcomm's Brew mobile platform. In a world stuffed full of cutting edge mobile platforms like Android, WebOS and iPhone OS, can Brew offer enough to make even a budget handset attractive? That's the question we're about to answer.
HTC Smart: Interface
Using the Smart as a yardstick, it's hard to say just how good or bad Qualcomm's Brew platform is, because HTC has skinned the OS with its excellent Sense user interface. As such, the Smart will look and feel very familiar to anyone who's used another HTC device.
However, great as HTC Sense is, it can only do so much, and when using the Smart, its budget origins become all too clear.
To be fair, most of the issues with the user interface come as a result of the screen. Unfortunately, the 2.8-inch screen employs resistive, rather than capacitive, touch technology.
This means that it's simply not as finger-friendly as, say, the HTC Legend, Apple iPhone or the similarly-sized HTC HD Mini. Swiping feels a bit sticky, which is mainly down to the plastic screen and is pretty common with resistive technology.
Likewise, tapping isn't as responsive as we would have liked, but then compromises had to be made somewhere.
Screen technology aside, the Smart is pretty intuitive thanks, for the most part, to HTC Sense. The central Home screen looks like most HTC Sense enabled phones, with a large digital clock at the top, and your local weather integrated.
Below this you'll find three slots for shortcuts, and as with the HTC HD Mini, you can swipe the screen upwards to reveal a further six shortcut boxes.
You can also swipe left and right to reveal three Home screens on either side of the central one. As with all HTC Sense empowered phones, you can customise all the Home screens, but the Smart takes this approach a step further with the use of Scenes.
Swipe down from the top of any Home screen and you'll be presented with a selection of Scenes to choose from.
The concept behind Scenes is that they allow you to quickly change the layout of the phone in one fell swoop.
So, during work hours, you can highlight your emails, text messages and calendar, but at the weekend, you might want quick access to your Facebook and Twitter contacts, and have a shortcut to the camera handy.
When you first switch on the Smart, there are four Scenes to choose from – O2 (it's an O2 handset), Work, Lifestyle and Clean Slate.
Strangely, the O2 Scene is identical to the Lifestyle scene, which is something of a waste. If none of the preset scenes grabs you, you can create your own personalised scene using the Clean Slate option, then save it as a custom Scene.
On the whole the Scene functionality is a good addition for anyone who wishes they had different applications to hand at different times, or different days. That said, anyone who really needs to have a smartphone configured for work, would probably find the Smart a bit under-powered and under-featured.
HTC Smart: Calls, contacts and messaging
As already mentioned, the HTC Smart can't sync your contacts over the air, which is a real shame. Having to manually synchronise your phone using your computer is so two years ago.
Joking aside, this could be a deal breaker for many potential buyers, especially those who use Google for their mail, contacts and calendar.
The contact list has all the usual fields, including the ability to attach photos to each entry, just in case you forget what your friends and colleagues look like. Your nine most called/emailed/texted contacts can be placed on your Favourites Home screen, along with their corresponding photos.
You can also group your contacts, thus separating work colleagues, friends and family. When you select the People app, you can then choose to look at All Contacts, Favourites or Groups.
Entering contacts manually on the phone is as laborious as ever, so your best bet is to download the HTC Sync software and synchronise with your established contacts list via your computer.
In theory, you should be able to import contacts from a microSD card, but we couldn't get the phone to recognise exported lists in either CSV or vCard formats.
Call quality is generally excellent, with no hint of echo or feedback during conversations. The Smart also seemed to have no problem maintaining a strong signal no matter where we used it.
Pressing the Call button brings up the keypad for dialling – from here pressing the Menu button offers useful shortcuts like People, Favourites and a user configurable Speed Dial list.
Although the HTC Smart supports email, that support isn't as advanced as many other smartphones. Basically you can get your mail sent to your phone via POP or IMAP, but there's no Exchange support on the menu. This means that although you can get your email sent to your Smart, you can't sync your calendar and contacts over the air.
The HTC Sense Email client will show you your latest unread message if you have it set up on one of your Home screens. Tapping the email client will open up a traditional list view for your inbox, from where you can choose to read, compose, reply, and so on.
Setting up your email account is pretty simple if you use either Google Mail or AOL, since there are shortcuts for those providers. If you use a different email provider it's a little more complicated, but as long as you know the required details it doesn't take long.
As with the Sense email client, the SMS app also shows you the last received message when you swipe to it. Tapping the message will then show you the complete message thread between you and that particular contact.
Annoyingly, the Home screen client will only show you the last received message, and not the last sent one – so, if you've replied to the message on display, you need to tap it and look at the message thread to see what you said.
Once again the small, resistive screen hampers proceedings. Simple acts like scrolling through a list of emails or SMS conversations is often harder than it should be. It's all too easy to select something, when all you wanted to do was scroll.
Surprisingly, the keyboard is actually quite good. You can choose to use either a virtual keypad in portrait mode, or a full QWERT keyboard in landscape. The Smart has no accelerometer, so you have to manually press a button to switch between portrait and landscape, but once you do, the full keyboard makes text entry easy.
Despite the keys appearing impossibly small, once we got used to the size, we found that we could type pretty accurately on the Smart, thus making it a pleasingly compact messaging phone.
HTC Smart: Internet
The HTC Smart has a fair bit counting against it when it comes to internet performance. The most obvious shortcoming is the lack of Wi-Fi support, which is a something of a crime these days.
Regardless of how fast mobile broadband is getting, or how much data you have thrown into your contract, when you're at home, or at work, you really want your phone to automatically switch to your Wi-Fi network.
A lack of Wi-Fi also causes problems if you ever travel outside of the UK.
As anyone with a smartphone will tell you, the first thing you do before you get on a plane is make sure that data roaming is switched off, thus saving you a scary bill when you get home. However, as long as you have Wi-Fi, you can still connect with your phone whenever you come across a Wi-Fi hotspot, which is pretty often.
Unfortunately, the Smart doesn't give you this option, so you can forget about checking email or browsing on your phone while you're abroad.
Another stumbling block when it comes to Internet usage is the speed of the Smart's data connection. With pretty much every phone in recent memory supporting 7.2mbps HSDPA, it comes as something of a surprise that the Smart tops out at the older 3.6mbps standard.
But the biggest problem with internet usage on the Smart is that screen again. The low resolution really makes its presence felt, as you find yourself having to constantly move around a web page in order to read it.
Obviously there's no multi-touch, so you need to use a slider to zoom in and out, but to say that controlling the zoom level is inaccurate is something of an understatement. You can double tap to zoom in and out at set levels, but even doing this can produce seemingly random results.
Considering that many consumers want to switch to a smartphone in order to browse the web on the move, the Smart doesn't really offer an experience that justifies the purchase.
HTC Smart: Camera
The camera is a 3-megapixel affair, which seems low by today's standards. That said, cameras in phones have fallen foul of the numbers game, and it's worth remembering that more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean better photos, especially when the sensor is so small. So, in theory, the camera in the Smart could be a hidden gem – but unfortunately, it's not.
The camera is disappointing on a number of levels, but none more apparent than the dreadful shutter lag. Put simply, unless you're shooting something that's completely stationary, you may as well not bother.
You're looking at a lag of approximately two seconds from the moment you press the button, to the moment when the virtual shutter is released. The usual result is that the picture you spent time framing turns out to be a blurry mess.
MISSED HIM:The appalling shutter lag and slow lens make it nigh on impossible to shoot anything that can move
If you like to take pictures of pets or children with your mobile phone, the Smart is not for you. Even the terrible shutter lag could be lived with if the lens was fast enough to allow a correspondingly fast shutter speed, but it's not. And to be honest, that's not a surprise considering the budget nature of the phone.
NOT MOVING:Even if you can convince your cat to sit still, you're still likely to get blur in anything other than bright light. Flash coverage is so uneven that it's not worth using
Assuming you can find a subject that will stay still long enough for you to photograph it, the camera will still struggle to resolve detail in high intensity areas of a scene. In fact bright areas of a scene tend to be completely blown out, with little or no detail on offer.
Colours also lack vibrancy, and are often completely misrepresented – dark blues look black, while the maroon Ferrari F430 below was actually a deep metallic red.
BACK IN BLACK:The Porsche 968 in the foreground is actually blue and not black as it appears in this photo
RUBY RED FERRARI:This car sat in the pits all day and didn't even see the track! But the point is that it's not dark maroon, it's actually a deep metallic red
OPPOSITES ATTRACT:The highlights on the white car are completely blown out, losing all detail in those areas
Video recording is arguably worse, mainly because the resolution is limited to 320 x 240. It's clearly no coincidence that video is shot in the same resolution as the screen, thus allowing 1:1 pixel mapping when playing back on the phone, but if you want to take the video off the phone and watch it on a larger screen, you'll be very disappointed.
Sound quality when shooting video is poor too. And if you're shooting outdoors, you'll soon realise that even a slight breeze is more than the built-in microphone can handle. In the video above you'll notice that you can barely hear the car engine over the wind noise – until it heads off down the pit lane.
HTC Smart: Media
Media functionality on the Smart is something of a mixed bag. Considering the compromises that have been made elsewhere, the music player is actually very good.
Okay, so you can't swipe through tracks in a pseudo-Cover Flow manner, like you can on other HTC handsets, but you still get a good-looking app, with cover art and clear, simple controls.
There's no option to add cover art to your library through the phone, so you need to make sure you do that manually before copying your music over.
The inclusion of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack means that you can use a decent set of earphones, rather than the bundled HTC headset. Sound quality isn't bad with good earphones – we hooked up a pair of Shure SE530s, and the Smart acquitted itself well in the audio department.
As always, to get the best sound quality you need good source material as well as good earphones, so make sure that your music files are encoded at a high enough bitrate in the first place.
Video isn't quite so impressive though, with the Smart unable to play video files encoded in a higher resolution than the native screen res.
We guess that real-time scaling might be pushing the limits of the processor, but it does mean that unless you encode all your video to the right resolution yourself, you'll have a tough time finding anything that will play. That said, the small, low resolution screen doesn't really lend itself to watching video anyway.
Codec support is nothing special, with AAC, MP3, WMA and WAV being the highlights for audio, although it's worth remembering that DRM encoded files won't play. For video MP4 and 3GP are the most useful supported codecs, but as already mentioned, you'll struggle to find files that will play on the Smart without encoding them yourself.
The Photos app is something of a strange beast. When you swipe across to it you're greeted with what looks like a pile of photos, with the top picture viewable.
However, when you try to swipe up or down to reveal the next picture, you realise that it's not possible – basically all you can see is that top photo and if you want to see any more, you have to drop into a traditional list of albums.
Finally, there's the built-in FM tuner, and as usual, how useful this is will depend on how good the reception is in your area. We found that we were lucky if we could pickup one or two stations, but that's not limited to the Smart – we've yet to see any other handset do better in this area.
HTC Smart: Battery life and applications
One advantage that the Smart does have over its more fully-featured siblings is battery life. Whereas as super-smartphones like the HTC Desire struggle to last a day and a half on a full charge, the Smart was still alive and kicking after three days without charging.
For anyone who likes to travel light when they go away for the weekend, not needing to carry a phone charger will be a major bonus. Of course having no Wi-Fi, and no calendar, contact and email data being pushed to the Smart no doubt helps the battery life cause.
There's not too much to talk about when it comes to apps and programs, and there's no way to add to what is included either.
The most important bundled app for the social media junkie will be HTC's Friend Stream, which collates your Facebook and Twitter contacts in one place, making it easier to keep track of what your 'friends' are up to.
Other than that, there's an alarm clock, which is handy, but the absence of both stopwatch and timer functionality is a big disappointment. There's a Flashlight app that switches on the LED camera flash to illuminate your situation – this is a good use of the rear mounted LED because it's pretty useless as a camera flash!
There's no map app, which again is a shame. Okay, so there's no GPS receiver inside the Smart, but then the first generation iPhone didn't have GPS either and Google Maps was one of the most useful apps on it.
Hopefully Qualcomm will implement mapping software into Brew sometime soon, because once you're used to having interactive maps in your pocket all the time, you really don't want to be without them.
HTC Smart: Hands-on gallery
HTC Smart: Official gallery
HTC Smart: Verdict
The HTC Smart may not be as feature packed or as exciting as the Desire, Legend, or even the HD Mini, but then it was never meant to be. This is a phone that's supposed to appeal to the average consumer who hasn't jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet, and on many levels it fulfils that brief.
The Brew platform isn't as fluid, slick or usable as Android, but HTC Sense makes the user interface pretty tolerable. The strong battery life will also endear the Smart to many, especially considering that high-end smartphones struggle in this department.
The HTC Smart is a lovely size, much like the HD Mini before it. Not only is it small and light enough to sit in your pocket unnoticed, but it also fits in the hand far more comfortably than larger smartphones.
Being free on even the cheapest contracts makes the Smart very attractive for anyone looking to dip their toe in the smartphone waters. It's even affordable as a prepay handset.
Battery life is excellent, and you'll be able to leave your charger in the office without fear of running out of juice over the weekend.
It's always good to see the memory card slot accessible without having to remove the battery – if only HTC had adopted a similar design on the Desire!
The low resolution, resistive screen is the biggest indicator of the Smart's budget roots. If you really want to know what's so great about capacitive, multi-touch screens, try using the Smart, then use the Desire or Legend, or the iPhone.
Not being able to sync your contacts and calendar over the air is a major minus point for the Smart.
The lack of Wi-Fi is also a big disappointment, and means that you need to rely on network data coverage for everything.
That reliance on network data coverage isn't helped by the fact that the Smart only supports HSDPA up to speeds of 3.6mbps.
The 3MP camera suffers from appalling shutter lag and has a habit of blowing out the highlights on any shots that you do manage to get. Video recording is limited to 320 x 240 resolution, so is only really good for watching on the device itself.
We can see why HTC has decided to bring the Smart to market, but in its quest to keep costs down, the company has simply made too many compromises.
There's no denying that the Smart looks good, but underneath that compact and attractive case, there simply isn't enough substance. HTC Sense does its best to paper over the limitations of the hardware, but it only goes so far.
The screen is probably the biggest disappointment, but not in the way it looks so much as the way it works. The plastic, resistive touchscreen feels dated, clumsy and generally unresponsive.
HTC should be applauded for making the QWERTY keyboard so usable, despite the screen, but that's not enough to make a great user experience.
The lack of Wi-Fi, inability to sync data over the air and the generally awful web browsing experience all add up to a smartphone that's lacking in many key areas.
Even if you're more concerned with media than data, the camera struggles to take a decent picture and video playback is mediocre at best, assuming you encode a file in the right resolution in the first place. Music playback is good, but no better than most other phones these days.
Yes, the Smart is cheap for a brand new smartphone, but considering you can pickup an HTC Hero for free on entry level contracts too, it's hard to recommend the Smart. Although the Legend and the Desire clearly live up to that slogan, the Smart just isn't quietly brilliant.
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