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The HTC Wildfire S was designed (or at least commercialized) with the moto of “Live it, Love it, Share it”, and HTC goes as far as calling it a “superphone that lets you share Everything”. On paper, it looks good: 5 Megapixel camera, social network connectivity, a huge library of apps… But on the inside, the HTC Wildfire S has a seemingly underpowered 600Mhz single-core processor with 512MB of RAM. Of course, raw power doesn’t automatically translate to great user experience, but it often contributes a lot to it. So, is the HTC Wildfire S a “superphone”? In this review, I’m going to show you the strengths and weaknesses of this smartphone. Ready?

Technical Highlights

3.2”, 320×480 Display
600Mhz processor, single core
3G HSDPA 7.2Mbps
Android 2.3.3
HTC Sense 2.1
DVD-res video capture
5MP Camera, 640×480 video recording (.3gp)
1230mAh battery
3.99 x 2.34 x 0.49 (101.3 x 59.4 x 12.4 mm), 3.70 oz (105 g)

Context

We all use our phones in a different ways, that’s why I find it more useful to tell you what I do with them, so that you can understand where I come from and why I like, or dislike, certain features and designs.

I check my email quite often (with Microsoft Exchange), and I reply only moderately because virtual keyboards are not as productive as physical ones. I browse the web shortly many times a day to check on news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I use a couple of social networks, but I rarely play games.

External Design

The HTC Wildfire S is a cutie, there’s no denying it. Each time I show this phone, I get a “wow, what is this cute cellphone” reaction from people around. And I agree, this smartphone is really nice, and in some ways it reminds me of the white MyTouch from T-Mobile, but it is better built, with better materials. The original MyTouch had a shiny plastic that made it look a bit cheap. The Wildfire S has mat finish and a painted aluminum finish on some parts which makes it look classier.

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From an ergonomic standpoint, I really like how accessible the Power and Volume buttons are easy to find and to click on. I always use the Power button dozens of times a day, so it’s a big deal to me.

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At 105g, the HTC Wildfire S is very light by smartphone standards, but that’s because it is very small. The size can be a quality for those who want something compact and discrete, but it also reduces virtual keyboard productivity significantly. It is also harder to integrate fast hardware in a phone that is so small.

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On the back, you will find a 5 Megapixel camera equipped with a single LED flashlight. Next to it, there is a speaker that can be used on speaker-phone mode, or to watch movies.

Display

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The HTC wildfire has a 320×480 low-resolution display. I haven’t used one of those for a while, but this is equal to the iPhone 3GS resolution, so I guess that a lot of people may be just fine with this.

The resolution itself isn’t bad at all when you are looking at the user interface, but text from emails and in web sites, is not as clear and sharp as they would be with a higher-resolution display. In case you’re unsure if this would work for you,  compare a recent 480×800 phone with an iPhone 3GS, or go check the Wildfire S in a store. The display is one of the most important aspects of a phone, so make sure that you are comfortable with it.

Basic Functions

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The moire (grid) effect in this photos isn't visible with the naked eye

Call Audio Quality (Good): The call audio quality is pretty decent. The sound is clear, but I’m only qualifying it as “good” (versus “very good”) because the sound isn’t very loud. That said, I think that most people will be pleased with the sound quality. Now, this may vary depending on network conditions, but the phone itself can’t do much about that.

Dialing / contacts (OK): Dialing a number is easy with the virtual dialpad, but don’t look for a Contacts app icon – you won’t find it. You have to access the contacts from the phone app. You can either scroll down the list, or use the virtual numeric pad to enter the first few letters of the contact name. It’s not bad, but I usually like a search box and a qwerty keyboard. That said, this was probably the best option for HTC given the small size of the phone.

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My advice: stick to mobile sites

Web Browsing (average): Web browsing on Mobile Sites works very well. The usual sites that I visit (Ubergizmo, CNN, Y! Finance…) displayed without any issues. However, because of the low-resolution of the display, full-size websites are simply not readable without zooming in.

Flash Support (too slow): indeed, there is Flash support, but the Flash performance is so low that I would not consider it to be useful. I can barely use the wechoosethemoon.org site, so you can forget about anything that’s more demanding like casual games. Low-definition videos may work decently, depending on the service and image quality level.

Critical Apps

Although QWERTY smartphones are on the decline, most killer-apps that many people use are based on text: email, SMS, Facebook, Chats… Let’s go over those must-have apps, and see how they perform on this phone.

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Virtual Keyboard: The HTC wildfire S comes with Swype, a virtual keyboard that is different from the stock Android keyboard. Visually, Swype is a little more visually noisy as each key shows the main character, and the alternate character that can be triggered if the key is pressed for one second or so. Secondly, Swype has a great alternative to tapping: you can literally “swipe” from one letter to the other to write words. This works great as it is more accurate than lifting your finger and tapping again. I’ve tried it on other smartphones as well, and the only difference on this the Wildfire S is that this smartphone is relatively slow.

“Slow” is bad for keyboard usage because the responsiveness is slower. This leads to possible frustration as the user can wait for the phone, especially if auto-completion is on, as it adds more processing. It can also lead to more typos, if you type a little faster than the keyboard can handle.

Finally, the size of the display also makes it a bit hard to type because the virtual keys are simply smaller.

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Email: Email is pretty decent as the Email app provided by HTC comes with a good interface, a clear (white) background that is readable outdoors and an email search that is surprisingly missing from a lot of Android devices currently in circulation. I like the fact that it is easy to perform multiple operations such as deleting emails or moving them to another folder, as smartphones are widely used for curation. The only downside of the email is related to the keyboard’s slow responsiveness. It’s fine when performing curation, but typing is better on a bigger  and faster phone.

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Facebook (OK): This phone is running the classic Facebook for Android app, so the experience is not fundamentally different from any other relatively modern Android handset out there. Facebook for Android is usually constrained by the network accesses, but once elements have been downloaded, the phone’s speed does matter to some extent and it could sure use faster performance.

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Maps: Google Maps remains the best mapping application out there, so in terms of functionality, this is really good. In the real world, the smaller screen makes it a little less nice to use when compared to larger phones. However, I think that people who use it only occasionally won’t mind (or care).

Skype (too slow): Skype is available on this phone, but unfortunately, video calls are not supported. However, audio calls are supported, whether it is from Skype to Skype, or Skype to phone via Skype Out. When I tested a call to phone over WiFi, the audio stream was coming in irregularly and it seemed as if this was too much for the phone to handle. I tried several numbers with the same results, and I don’t think that this is a networking issue as other devices worked just fine in the same conditions. Right now, I would not recommend the Wildfire S for Skype calls.

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You will need this utility

Task Killer (needed!): As an Android phone, this handset is capable of multi-tasking. It’s great, but I strongly recommend installing a “task-killer” application that will let you close apps that you don’t use. These days, it is usually not much of a problem, but on this phone, I *had to* use the Task Killer as having too many apps open made the Wildfire S come to a crawl.

Photo and Video Capture (basic+)

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The HTC Wildfire S has average photo capabilities, and I would probably not use its photos to print 6x4s unless they were shot on a very sunny day. However, HTC has done a good job at tweaking the camera app so that it delivers bright photos even in relatively dim lighting conditions. You will have to hold the phone very steady, but for the most part, it’s good enough to share photos on social networks.

IMAG0010

A Photo taken in good lighting conditions. The quality is average

The video capture is very much the same, except a bit worse. Again, it’s OK for sharing a standard definition video (640×480), but the HTC Wildfire S records only at 12FPS, which is well below the 30FPS that most smartphones record at these days. Make sure that you pan the camera very slowly. Also, forget about action shots.

Entertainment (very)

Gaming: it is clear that with performance well below the best Android smartphones, the HTC Wildfire S is not a gaming beast. You can forget about casual gaming with Flash games, however, casual Android games like puzzle games or anything that is not graphically demanding is still within reach. For example, Raging Thunder 2’s framerate was going up and down, but I would not consider it to be playable.

Angry Birds is playable, but barely. The game can freeze for a fraction of a second here and there, but I could still get some fun out of it. When that happens, try killing all the background apps with one of the “task killer” apps. It did help in my case.

Video Playback: I have been surprised that 3 out of 4 of the MP4 files that I normally use to review smartphones can’t be played on this phone. I’m not exactly sure if it is because of the bitrate, or the resolution/format itself, but only the movies coming from my PSP collection would play. In theory, the following formats are supported: .3gp, .3g2, .mp4, .wmv (Windows Media Video 9)

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The speaker is next to the camera module

Speaker Quality: the speaker is located in the back of the phone, which is a pretty common thing. The volume is not that loud, at least when compared to phones like the Photon 4G, Motorola Atrix, LG Optimus 2X or the iPhone 4. It’s probably OK in a quiet environment, but you can probably forget about it in a car (rear seat of course!), or a noisier environment where headphones would save the day then.

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Photo Gallery: The photo gallery is classic: you can get a thumbnails view, or a fullscreen view. However, on the first use, it will take a few seconds or more to build the thumbnails. I only had a dozen photos. In fullscreen mode, the scrolling is not very responsive to the finger, and when it responds, the scrolling speed is quite low. This reminds me of the first generation of Android phones…

System Performance

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This pretty much says it all

The HTC Wildfire S is not a high-performance smartphone, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time with the benchmarks. I have run a few numbers to give you an idea of how it performs relative to recent smartphones, but the bottom-line is that it won’t break any records – far from it.

The Linpack benchmark shows that the raw number-crunching capabilities is 8 times lower than the fastest HTC smartphone (the HTC Sensation) on the market.

NeoCore benchmark: despite running at a much lower resolution than high-powered Android smartphones, the HTC Wildfire gets the lowest score (41FPS) that we have seen to date.

Battery Life

The battery life can vary widely depending on your use. Because this is not a phone for power users, I will talk about it from a slightly different angle. power users tend to sync with a lot of data, often. Casual users may choose to check emails and social network notifications sparsely.

I have noticed that not having real-time email push does save a lot of battery. For instance, After stopping email sync and fully charging the Wildfire S on a Saturday at 2:47pm, the phone still had 36% of battery life on Monday morning at 10am. With email synchronization ON, the battery would most likely had been depleted in 36hrs or less.

As usual, I have run a number of tasks and look at the battery depletion.

  • Gaming for 30mn: 10% (Raging Thunder 2)
  • Browsing for 30mn: 81%
  • YouTube Movie for 30mn: 8%

The good news is that the relative power consumption is lower than most modern smartphones. The bad news is that the user experience was also lower. And it makes sense: the phone consume less power because it is equipped with a slower 600Mhz single-core processor. The battery gains are often “paid for” in user experience. Also keep in mind that for slightly demanding tasks like web browsing, a slower processor has to “work” longer, thus using maximum power consumption for a extended period of time, which is ultimately bad for the battery life.

Conclusion (for casual users)

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Cute: Most people would probably agree that the HTC Wildfire S is a cutie. It’s size and curvy design are eye-catching and it feels great in the hand or in the pocket. It does everything that HTC pitches: sharing photos and updates on social networks, mapping, web browsing… etc.

Slow, small screen: However, it doesn’t do it in a comfortable way. Things are slow and web browsing is a bit cramped inside the small screen. As you have seen in the performance section, the Wildfire S is definitely not a race horse and this affects the usability. I would never call it a “superphone” as HTC does.

For casual users: But, there is a market for this phone: I would recommend it only to casual users who are primarily attracted to the Wildfire S industrial design. Typically, they would just want to tap into what Android has to offer in terms of apps, browser compatibility and cloud data synchronization (contacts, email…), but who don’t need the edgy performance that bigger handsets do offer. When used in that context (if you remove the performance from the equation), the HTC Wildfire S is a neat-looking phone that turns heads.

I hope that this review has given you the information that you were looking for, but if there is an aspect that I have not covered, please post a comment, and I will try to address it while I still have the phone. Your feedback will help make future reviews better.

Links

You may be interested in smartphones alternatives like the HTC Sensation, which shares the same design philosophy but is faster and larger. The Motorola Photon 4G is also a powerful Android phone along with the Droid X2 and the Samsung Galaxy S2. Of course, the iPhone 4 or the iPhone 3GS would be Apple offerings that may catch your attention too. For more reviews, browse our review section.

Official HTC Wildfire S page on HTC.com.

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