Hands On With The HTC Wildfire: Poor Man's Desire

Can you have an Android smartphone without the smartphone price tag? HTC is taking a stab at it with its latest creation, the Wildfire, which you can have for about half the price of a typical smartphone. So what does the Wildfire give you - and what doesn't it give you - for less than $500?

The Wildfire is a budget smartphone that justifies its modest specs with a modest price tag. Telstra, who is the exclusive carrier until November 15, says the Wildfire is "tailored especially for what our younger customers want", which is a nice way of saying they've skimped on features to give cash-strapped Gen Ys addicted to social networking an entry-level smartphone.

Hardware

The Wildfire has the same minimalist design, rounded corners, circular optical trackpad and four-button navigation familiar to Legend and Desire users. It's encased in the same rubberised plastic that the Desire has. Brushed aluminium trimmings add some character and weight - at 118g it's heavier than it looks, and it feels like a more expensive phone. But the touch-sensitive navigation buttons could really use some backlighting; it takes a lot more effort than it should to find the right button in the dark.

The Wildfire has a 528MHz Qualcomm processor, HSDPA 7.2Mbps and the usual Wi-Fi, GPS, A-GPS, microSD storage up to 32GB and Bluetooth. The power/standby button and 3.5mm audio jack is at the top, while the volume button and microUSB port is down the left side.

Photo on left taken by HTC Desire, photo on right taken by HTC Wildfire, both on automatic settings

The 5MP camera with autofocus and LED flash is no camera substitute, but it's one of the better cameras I've used on a phone, and it's the same one on the Desire and Legend. It does, however, take a couple of seconds to start recording videos, which means you often miss whatever it was that made you turn on the camera in the first place.

Opening apps and flicking through the seven home screens is super snappy. Battery life is excellent; I made it through a full day of moderate-heavy usage, and it comfortably lasted a weekend of light usage. My only performance-related complaint is the slight lag between menu actions; it's easy to mistake the lag as a tap that wasn't registered, and I sometimes found myself one step too far from where I wanted to be.

Screen

If there's any reason not to get the Wildfire, this would be it. Its 3.2-inch LCD display has a distracting 240x320 resolution that reminds me of a cheap flip phone I carried around in high school. Fortunately, it ditches the Tattoo's resistive screen for a capacitive one that supports multitouch and gestures. I also found that it displays colours more naturally when compared with the Desire, which tends to oversaturate reds and yellows.

The low-resolution screen short-changes the Wildfire's capacity to create and consume content. You really need to zoom in before body text in the browser becomes legible, and the camera takes better photos and videos than the screen will have you believe. Watching YouTube videos is equally uninspiring. But I did prefer the Wildfire's audio quality over the Desire's, which was comparatively thin and tinny.

The screen also manages to become a hardware limitation, because some Android apps have minimum resolution requirements. QuickMark, Retro Camera, FxCamera, Wheres My Droid and the newly released Angry Birds beta for Android are just the ones that I found to be not available on the Wildfire for one reason or another.

Software

The Wildfire runs on Android 2.1 and HTC's social networking-oriented Sense UI, which includes the awesome Leap View. But don't hold your breath for Android 2.2 - HTC says the Wildfire's hardware is unlikely to support Froyo. This isn't uncommon to hear on lower-end models, which are more susceptible to Android fragmentation.

The Wildfire comes preloaded with popular keyboard-replacement software Swype (read Nick's review here) and a Flash-friendly WebKit browser, but again, the experience is stunted by the low-res screen, especially on websites not optimised for mobile devices.

There are two new features unique to the Wildfire. The first is Next-Generation Caller ID: When the phone rings, you'll be able to see the caller's name, their photo, their Facebook status and if their birthday is coming up. This is genius, because it makes you look like a better friend than you really are.

The second unique feature is App Share. If you want to recommend an app to someone, App Share lets you send a message with a link to the app you're recommending, via your social networks, email, SMS or apps like Evernote. It's a great way to find gems amongst the rubbish that litters the Android Market, but it only works if the person you're sharing the app with is also on Android.

There are lots of ways to stalk people keep up to date with your social networks, including HTC Peep for Twitter, the FriendStream widget, and, of course, the Android Market. Your phonebook has all the social options Sense prides itself on, including one-tap actions, communication history and integration with Facebook, Flickr and Twitter.

Availability

Despite a couple of niggling imperfections, there's no denying that the Wildfire is all smartphone. You'd be hard-pressed to find something better for less than $500.

It comes in black or white and is exclusive to Telstra until November 15. The $349 price tag only applies to Telstra pre-paid customers, otherwise the outright price is $469. The white version is exclusive to Fone Zone - but only on post-paid plans - until September 28, while the black version is available starting today from Telstra stores and partners.

It's also available for $0 on Telstra's $49 Cap Plan over 24 months.

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