HTC have had a rough couple of years and their trials have been well documented. Traditionally a high-end phone maker of note, they have also offered a lot of worthy options in the mid-range market over the years, often going up against the landfill Samsung, LG and other mid-range devices that have limited appeal. In that world, HTC phones should do well as even these lower cost options have always been nicely designed and built. But we no longer live in that world now that Nokia have a couple of stellar options in this market and that is before we mention the current torch bearer for cheaper phones, the Motorola Moto G. So does the Desire 500 stand up to scrutiny? Lets start with a run down of the specs:
- Dimensions: 131.8 x 66.9 x 9.9 mm
- Weight: 123 grams
- 4.3" TFT, 480x800 display
- 1800 mAh battery
- 8 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash
- 1.6 megapixel front facing camera
- 1.2GHz Qualcomm MSM8225Q quad-core Cortex A5 SoC with Adreno 203 GPU
- 1Gb RAM
- 4Gb storage with MicroSD card expansion
- 2G GSM: 850/900/1800/1900MHz
- 3G HSDPA: 900/2100MHz
- Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
- GPS receiver with A-GPS
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- microUSB port
- Bluetooth v4 with A2DP
This seems like a reasonable set of specs, and it is pleasing to find an 8 megapixel camera on a device in this category, but there are some fairly large disadvantages here including the rather slow Snapdragon 200 Cortex-A5 based chipset and a paltry 4Gb of storage which is frankly unacceptably small these days.
The Desire 500 is unmistakably an HTC device and that is a fairly large compliment. It has an attractive overall design and is made out of decent quality materials. There is no detectable creaking in the case and the whole phone has a solid yet lightweight feel to it. It is a lovely size that sits very comfortably in the hand and so has a more premium feel than its price would suggest. There are no soft touch matt plastics here, it is all glossy and hard but HTC have done their usual trick of getting the best out of their material compromises.
The front of the device is obviously dominated by the screen but there is also a sizeable earpiece above it. Sadly, there is no Boomsound here. Beneath the screen is the now familiar two button layout HTC have been using on most of their phones this year with a back button on the left and home on the right. You can customise how the home button is used so it can double as a menu button, which is good.
The bottom of the device houses the microUSB port whilst the top has the power button and the headphone jack.
On the right side of the device are the volume buttons which are neatly integrated into the design while the left side is devoid of any controls.
The back is pleasant to look at and not too cluttered with the camera positioned centrally towards the top, its flash just below and the speaker grille at the bottom. The Beats Audio branding appears on the Desire 500 and is colour coded with the edges of the phone, as is the HTC branding.
The back forms a shell around the main workings of the device which can be popped out to give you access to the SIM slot, MicroSD card and battery.
Despite being an excellently proportioned phone, there are a number of problems with the ergonomics of the Desire 500 which are entirely to do with the physical button layout. HTC persist with the power button on the top of their phones and in this instance it is to the left side of the top. This makes it hard to reach when holding the phone in your right hand. Additionally, it is almost flush with the casing which looks nice but makes it even harder to use. The volume buttons are in a decent location on the handset but are also flush and almost impossible to find without looking for them. I understand the aesthetic appeal of designing the phone this way, but it is just not as comfortable to use as well defined buttons ideally all located on the sides.
This one is bound to be a bit contentious as we are dealing with only a 4.3" WVGA (800x480) unit here, but HTC have a reputation for producing high quality displays and they have repeated that trick here again. It is not the sharpest screen in the world obviously, but it is still a fantastically bright and well balanced display that is a pleasure to use. The relative lack of sharpness seems to have little impact on the overall experience. It helps that this is a very responsive unit too, well done HTC.
The Desire 500 runs Android 4.1.2 which is now 3 full versions behind the curve. Whether this is an HTC decision or the chipset doesn't support anything newer is not something I can comment on, but it is disappointing. However, HTC have endowed the device with Sense 5 and that means the software experience is very similar to the likes of the flagship HTC One.
When you first get the phone set up, you are presented with blinkfeed which is HTC's news aggregation home screen widget. Just like on other Sense based devices, this can be customised with many different news sources including your own Facebook feed and Flickr and LinkedIn. Blinkfeed cannot be disabled but like me, you can re-arrange your home screens so that it sits out of the way.
Talking of customising your home screens, Sense has a lovely interface for doing so and on the Desire 500 you can have 4 home screens in addition to Blinkfeed. These can be populated with the usual array of shortcuts and widgets with HTC providing some lovely widgets as usual. Long time HTC fans will be pleased to know that old flip clock is still there. Unfortunately, managing your home screens is one area where the weak chipset really makes a difference and it is a slow and clunky experience.
The app drawer is organised in a 3 x 4 grid by default but can be changed to 4 x 4. The apps listed here can be displayed in a custom layout including inside folders which is neat.
The standout features of Sense are the camera app and the gallery, more on these later, but all the other usual Sense enhancements are there with customised and skinned settings menus alongside replacement apps for the dialer, contacts, calendar etc. We have seen all this before on other HTC devices.
There is very little that is remarkable here, but Sense remains one of the best OEM skins being both fairly lightweight and adding a few features that make it worth having. It has a generally slick look and feel. On a device as low end as the Desire 500 though, every little bit of processing power needs to be saved and so I do wonder if HTC might have made a better device without Sense. Even more importantly, will we ever see an Android 4.4 KitKat update? With that version of the operating system meant to be optimised for lower powered devices, it is something to bear in mind.
In a nutshell, there are no issues here. There is also no LTE available as you would expect at this price point but otherwise, it holds a good strong signal easily and switches between network modes very quickly. Speeds were exactly what you would expect for an HSDPA device.
Call quality is acceptable without being exceptional, but the speaker is very loud which helps. The Desire 500 works well as a phone.
WiFi works well, but there seems to be no 5Ghz 802.11n available which impacts performance considerably in my home and office. But again, no major issues here.
The 8 megapixel camera on the Desire 500 is certainly packing more pixels than you might expect for a device at this price, but is that enough? For starters, it is helped along by the rather excellent HTC camera software which debuted on the flagship One and is carried over largely unchanged here. The main difference is that the moving pictures created by Zoes are not available here.
Taking pictures or recording video is fast and simple and achieved all from the one interface. Video resolution tops out at 720p though. Various different shooting modes are available including night, HDR and panoramas. You can manually adjust the ISO, white balance etc. It is a good camera UI especially for people who don't care about all these settings and just want to take nice pictures.
The gallery is one of the nicest parts of Sense and the Desire 500 delivers here as well. Your pictures and videos are automatically organised into events with each event being a day in time. There is also a more standard gallery view available should you want that. The first item shown in an event is an auto-generated highlights video of all the images you captured on that day. It is a really fun way to be reminded of what happened on that day and each highlights video is accompanied by one of a number of preset pieces of music and some visual effects. The videos are customisable and you can choose which music is used, but not your own music, and which images are part of the highlights video. This is one of the best features of all HTC devices over the the last year and it's great to see it appear on the Desire 500 too.
So how about the quality? Well, it is a little disappointing overall, but in some conditions is actually rather excellent. In decent light, if you can hold the phone steady, it is easy to believe that this is an 8 megapixel camera from HTC who are renowned for decent cameras. Otherwise, shots are detailed enough but with plenty of noise. Colour reproduction is good. Indoors, the camera is very slow to shoot and it produces very grainy and poor images. In reality, this is a very average camera solution and HTC might have been better off sticking with a decent 5 megapixel unit and getting the processing and remainder of the optics right. You can see a few sample shots below, click on them for the full size un-edited view. Videos suffer with a similarly grainy output but shake is well contained. Overall, this is a decent enough camera for sharing some pictures to your favourite social network, but nothing more.
The Desire 500 offers up a mixed bag here. It contains a relatively small screen at a relatively low resolution with a fairly power efficient chipset which generally leads to decent battery performance. The problem comes when using the phone to its fullest that the chipset has to be driven hard to offer up passable performance. If you don't drive this device hard, the battery life is good, easily lasting a day, with very limited idle power drain. But start using it to play games or even just browse the web and the battery takes a real beating. On one occasion I drained the battery entirely in under 3 hours of using the phone for browsing the web, answering emails and Google Hangouts.
It is quite simple really. HTC still make lovely hardware and excellent software. But in the low-end and mid-range they cannot bring it together into a desirable package. HTC have priced the Desire 500 too high. It is spoilt by only having 4Gb of built-in storage and a lowly Snapdragon 200 processor while the screen resolution is now rather old hat. I couldn't fit all my apps on this phone without manually moving some to the microSD card and I have less than 50 apps and only 2 games installed. This may have been a reasonable compromise to force on users a few years ago, but it is not OK today.
The obvious choice at this price range is the Motorola Moto G which significantly undercuts the £220 price point that the Desire 500 is being pitched at even in its 16Gb variant. The Moto G also has a better screen, much better performance, a longer lasting battery and plenty of space for apps. Yes, there is no expandable storage on the Moto G which could be an issue for you, but if not, then it is a far superior choice.
Even if the Moto G didn't exist, the Desire 500 would be hard to recommend as some of the previous generations high-end devices are falling within range, at least off-contract. The Samsung Galaxy S3, the Nexus 4 and the Motorola RAZR HD are all available for under £250 if you shop around. If you are platform agnostic, then Nokia can offer a range of phones at this price point with the Lumia 820 or Lumia 625 being decent options.
Despite all this, I like the Desire 500. It has an awful lot of charm and is very modern looking and feeling. But it asks for one compromise too many.