HTC Explorer – is it performance on a budget?

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HTC’s cheapest smartphone yet has the same Android 2.3 and HTC Sense software as the manufacturer’s flagship models, so if you want Android and HTC at a rock-bottom price, this could be the handset for you

HTC, like Samsung, has made a name for itself by producing high-tech Android phones with big screens and high-end specs, yet both companies have dabbled in entry-level smartphones for years. 2012 is where the battle really kicks off.

HTC’s affordable Android heritage can be traced back to the 2009 Tattoo, which featured a tiny 2.8-inch resistive touchscreen but still had enough power to run all of Google’s core services.

Over the years, HTC has followed up with the tiny Wildfire and Wildfire S models, but they have become increasingly more powerful and expensive. The Wildfire S uses the same slick unibody aluminium design as HTC’s top-end phones, for example.

With a 3.2-inch, 320×480 touchscreen and plastic shell, the Explorer is HTC’s cheapest smartphone yet, but can it take on new rivals and offer the ultimate Android bargain?

Wildfire S ‘tough’
We were a bit surprised by the HTC Explorer when it was announced late last year.

HTC had seemed happy to leave the cut-throat world of cheap smartphones and small margins, but suddenly it wanted back in with what is essentially a low-spec Wildfire S.

The 512MB of memory and the middling 600MHz processor and screen are lifted straight out of the company’s cheapest model from May 2011 and slapped in a plastic shell.

This move isn’t without its merits: the textured plastic back case is much sturdier and scratch-resistant than aluminium, and all the ports are present with a 3.5mm audio jack on top and a Micro USB port and volume rocker on the left- and right-hand sides.

Sadly, though, its girth (a chunky 12.9mm) seems a little excessive when compared to the thin and attractive Huawei Blaze (11.2mm, with tapered edges that seem thinner). The Blaze can be found for about half the price on prepay now, with almost identical specs, including a camera of the same quality as the poor 3.15-megapixel sensor on the Explorer.

The handset also can’t hope to compete with the quality of the screens offered on ZTE’s prepay Android smartphones through Orange either. Its 3.2-inch, 320×480 capacitive touchscreen is responsive to prods, but it is noticeably grainy and a little too small to type on at speed.

By contrast, for less than £100, the Orange San Francisco II delivers a 3.5-inch, 800×480 screen to be proud of, while for just £120, the Orange Monte Carlo serves up a huge 4.3-inch display that’s easy to type on and view videos with. Where HTC can hope to beat its rivals, however, is with software.

Sense slimmed down
Android 2.3 Gingerbread on board means most apps – and many games – will run on the HTC Explorer, even if they don’t load at speed.

Android is free for manufacturers to tinker with and HTC has arguably done the best job of anyone, carefully integrating your Facebook and Twitter contacts into your phone’s address book and showing status updates when you call someone.

Huawei, it should be noted, doesn’t do a bad job of the same thing on its recent Blaze handset.

You also get a Facebook Chat app pre-installed, though why HTC persists with this isn’t clear, as Chat is built into the Android Facebook app.

New to this version of HTC Sense is a superb, friendly default home-screen widget with a clock and trays for your most used apps, plus notification alerts.

We’ve said before that it’s a clean UI choice that we’d like to see available on more HTC phones. For now, it’s only available on the Explorer and the HTC Rhyme, which is a shame.

While the browser loads at speed, and all of Google’s killer services, such as Maps and Gmail, work well, there are some core HTC services missing, just as they were on the Wildfire S.

HTC’s data-free GPS app, Locations, is gone, as is its movie download service, Watch, which is a handy and well-planned equivalent to Apple’s iTunes service.

HTC needs to keep some of its content for its flagship phones of course, but when the Explorer has a lower spec than new rivals, those pieces of the puzzle are sorely missed.

Without them, the HTC Explorer is an average budget Android that fails to offer the impressive value that rivals offer in a bid to win you over for today, in the hope that you’ll stick with them in the years to come.

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