HTC Explorer in the Wild
HTC Explorer is the latest entry variant that’s making all the non-Android users to upgrade of their first Android phone. Dig in and read what all the hoopla is about.
It is a big Android farm and we are seeing new droids coming out of nowhere every day. There are lots of them and they come in different sizes too. And HTC Explorer is the new player in the field. Though the little soldier of Android troops, it's not the one to underestimate. After all it is the HTC device we have got. So will it live up to the heavy weight tag it carries?
Before we move ahead have a look at its spec-sheet to have a better idea of what to expect.
* 600MHz ARMv7 Processor, Adreno 200 GPU
* 512 MB RAM, 90 MB (only) user memory
* 3.2" HVGA Display, 3 MP Camera
* Android 2.3.5, HTC Sense UI 3.5
* Wi-Fi (b/g/n), Bluetooth 3.0, GPRS,EDGE,3G(HSDPA)
* 1230 mAh battery
A look at HTC Explorer and we know it is not some cheap droid from some unknown maker. We know HTCs have been producing some classy devices and Explorer isnot an exception. The all black body with a golden colored strip on back is sure to make many heads turn.
Now let us do some formality here. The front of Explorer is taken by 3.2" display. When one first hears 3.2" display, "only 3.2?" is the inevitable reaction since 3.5" has become a norm and maximum could be anything. But on Explorer you'll understand the meaning of 'screen estate' in 'just 3.2'. Unlike some devices which offer similar 3.2" but narrow screen, Explorer has wider screen area. The phone is curvy from every angle. It's 'all curve' design reminded of 7 Mozart which had similar design but was a lot thinner than this one. And another difference is that both of them run on different OSs. Above the display you'll find the earpiece under slightly curved grill. And between display and the earpiece there are ambient light and proximity sensors. Below the display there is usual set of Android buttons but on Explorer those are capacitive which is usual for HTC phones. We must tell you, the display of the Explorer is extremely dark rather black when not turned on and it mixes almost 99% with black front of the phone which makes it looker and one may even miss the display.
Turning directly to back (well we have not forgotten to mention sides but those will come later), it is another 'usual' thing on HTC phones. The whole black back, with sort of rubber coating and a golden colored strip with HTC engraved on it. There is a 3-megapixel shooter sitting on that golden colored strip. Exactly outside the strip there is loudspeaker grill.
Now we move to its curves we mean sides. On top edge there's 3.5mm jack and power switch which is also used to lock/unlock this droid. On left side there is microUSB port which also doubles up as charging port but it is too near the bottom. On bottom edge there is microphone and on left-bottom corner there is lanyard socket. The volume rocker keys are situated on right edge of the phone.
Now we take a look inside this phone and we find 'microSD' slot under the cover, on right edge. Yes memory card is hot-swappable but you'll need to open the cover every time you want to remove the card. But we guess to maintain the looks it was necessary. Fortunately the back cover of the Explorer is harder, tougher and less flexible contrary to what we had on EVO 3D. And it is also easy to remove though not extremely easy but it is unlike EVO 3D where you had to be extra careful while opening the cover because it was too flexible and very tough to remove quickly.
The battery of the Explorer is rated at 1230 mAh to give you approx. 7.5 hrs of talk time. And finally there's SIM card slot under the battery.
The design of Explorer is very royal, class as we mentioned before. It's all HTC characteristics and we have seen this from the times of Windows Mobiles. Besides the dimensions of Explorer are pocket-able and it also fits in hands perfectly.
What is ticking inside the Explorer is the 600 MHz ARMv7 processor along with Adreno 200 graphics.Quad band GSM and Tri band 3G. There is no front camera on this phone so video calling won't be much fun. The phone offers very low internal storage, just 90 MB to be precise. And it does not take much time to fill it up completely. So don't be surprised to see 'memory low' error very often. The display is LCD unit with 320x480 resolution which is not high but on 3.2" display it is perfect and gives crisp image quality. And yeah this time HTC decided to go with standard microUSB connector instead of MHL connector. That is it about hardware.
Android and HTC Sense, stripped a little
HTC Explorer runs on latest Android 2.3.5 and the latest HTC Sense UI 3.5 which gives overhaul to stock Android UI. The Sense UI itself has been changed from its predecessor, than what we had on EVO 3D. It is now more simple yet attractive. Beginning from the homescreen, the launcher buttons are changed. Earlier we had half circled, dial like bar on the bottom which consisted of app launcher, dialer and 'personalize' buttons. It has been now replaced with two simple transparent 'app launcher' and 'phone' button. Above those buttons a slider is present which changes the moves forth and back as you change homescreens. But you cannot use it to change homescreens. As usual there are seven homescreens available. You edit all of them but delete none. You can view all of them using 'Leap View'.HTC has also added new 'Shortcuts and Clock' widget. As its name suggest it shows app shortcuts and clock along with weather information on the homescreen. You can set maximum 5 apps on the shortcut bar. You can also set 'Live Wallpaper' if you like.
When we reviewed EVO 3D the concept of 'Scenes' seemed very powerful. You could set various scenes according to your requirements but with Sense 3.5 we couldn't understand the whole idea of the 'Scenes'. There was just one scene installed by default but you can get more from HTC repository. We tried various scenes but nothing actually changed. Then there isn't 'Skins' available which would change color palettes in earlier version of the HTC Sense.In earlier version of Sense UI there were various options to customize the lock screen extensively and now there's just one. Earlier you could set lock screen to show updates from your social networks but now all it shows is the big clock and four shortcuts. Thankfully you can choose which apps should be displayed on the lock screen. It is helpful especially when you'd want to launch camera very quickly. There are various sound sets are also available but the default HTC sound set dates back to 2010. So overall the customization in the Explorer has been stripped but it shouldn't affect masses.
The pull down notification bar has also undergone the little surgery. Earlier you could quickly turn on or off the Wi-Fi from the 'Quick Settings' area of it but now you've to take two more steps to change the Wi-Fi status. Although it takes you to the complete and advanced settings page for Wi-Fi we don't think many users will really appreciate this because if anyone needs to access major settings then they will simply open the settings which are also quickly accessible from the homescreen. Rest of the things same. HTC has added their own version of Task Manager to handle apps. Sadly it's not very convenient like rest of the Sense UI elements. Generally Task Manager would help you to switch between apps and end them as well. Here in case of EVO 3D, to switch between apps you need to hold press and hold the 'Home' key which brings up list of recently used 8 apps. Now if you want to kill any of them, you will have to go to menu and open the full-fledged task manager app from there. Alternatively pull the notification bar, go to quick settings and click on memory icon which will also open the task manger. From here you can kill apps one by one at all at once.
The main menu is vertically scrollable pages of the apps. Each page shows 16 apps at a time.Alternatively apps can be shown in list mode too. You can't create folders or have different groups to organize your apps. So as your app farm increases you'll have difficulty in finding your desired app. The apps can be sorted by name or the date they were installed on. You can also search for the app if you remember its name by tapping on 'Search' key while in the menu. The launcher can also sort apps by 'Favorites' or 'Downloaded'.
The Image Gallery on Explorer is also customized to give it cool looks. All your videos and images from all over the phone are located and displayed here. It uses album hierarchy to display them. You can view all your photos altogether or in different albums. Inside albums it uses normal thumbnail-grid view. You can also play image slideshow. Gallery can also show Facebook photo albums of yours and those of your friends. It shows full list of your friends and you just need to need to select a friend and their all albums show up quickly. You can share your photos with your friends through variety of options. Though Facebook is there, we missed Twitter a lot.
Messaging on Android has always been a great experience. You get threaded view for all your messages. It doesn't list your messages as SMS or MMS. You add media to your existing text message and it becomes MMS. Starting a new conversation is just as easy as anything. Just tap compose, feed in the recipients number and you are good to go. The messaging also comes with feature which is similar to speed dial. In the 'To' field start hitting keys and relevant contacts will appear quickly so you don't have to take long route of going to contacts, searching and adding them. To send message to multiple contacts you just need to separate them with comma (,). You can also send messages to groups defined by you.
In both portrait and landscape mode you'll have QWERTY keyboard at your service and even on the small 3.2" screen on-screen keys were thumb able enough. We didn't encounter many miss hits. There is word prediction and spelling correction available too which would be very helpful. You can also add words to its dictionary if it's not available already. In Android 2.3 you have very simple way of selecting and zooming the text. Actually it takes a clue from the same system in iOS. You get two markers to select words and once you select word(s) you get options to cut or copy it. To move the position of the cursor simply tap on place where you think it should go. Still if you're finding it inaccurate just tap and hold on the screen you'll get the 'zoomed' view and you can move the cursor easily with your thumb.
Performance: The little droid packs a punch
When we first heard the specs of the HTC Explorer we were doubtful of its real life performance. We even thought that it'll fail our benchmarking tests. But this little fella surprised us and beat some big daddies in benchmarks. In Quadrant test it surpassed the Galaxy S and came very close to Droid X.
Different benchmarking tools have different methods to test the hardware so you will see it beating big players sometimes and sometimes even lagging behind the age old droids. So we decided to add few lines of subjective benchmark. The device is real smooth. Unless someone tells you that it has 600 MHz processor you won't come to know the fact. Yes, it's that smooth. No sluggishness anywhere. Play games, listen to music, and browse the internet all with same speed. The HTC Explorer also comes with performance scaling feature. This is what you'd usually see on laptops. If you put your laptop in high-performance mode then it consumes more power but gives optimal performance. But if you put it in low consumption mode then you get battery life but you have to compromise on performance. It's the same technique working in the Explorer. There are three levels, High Performance, Normal and Economy. We benchmarked the handset in all three different conditions but it didn't show much difference. Even while using it for regular operations like using apps, internet we didn't notice any change. But yes battery life saw the improvement in normal and economy mode. By default it is put in the 'High Performance' mode but we'd advice readers to switch it to 'Normal' mode since it improves the battery life.
The battery life of the HTC Explorer isn't upto the mark. Even though it has slower processor compared to competition and 1230 mAh battery which is good for it, it struggled to live for 18hrs if not 24 hrs. We first tested it with default mode i.e. High Performance mode so yes it gave poor battery performance. But then we tried Normal mode which hardly managed to add 2 hours and only economy mode gives somewhat extended performance. We should mention here that we used it as our main phone for calls, Wi-Fi usage, checking mails and browsing internet and some music. The battery life isn't very great and surely not in the favor of the Explorer. Here the EVO 3D again comes to our minds. In spite of high end specifications like dual core processor and just 1730 mAh battery and as our main phone it pulled for more than one day without any hassle. We think it's the software rather than battery itself which is responsible for such a poor performance.
Camera: The average snapper
The HTC Explorer comes with 3 megapixel camera on the back without any labeling. There's no flash so night time photography is out of scenario. The 3MP camera on Explorer is average snapper. Camera again shows generic flaws in HTCcamera phones. Due to aggressive noise reduction technique images look sharp but they lack details. The other factors like color saturation and contrast were good enough. There's no macro mode as well but camera still managed to capture some not too close-up photos. Surprisingly it can also capture images in widescreen format.Camera UI is straight forward and there are plenty of settings available like white balance, exposure, saturation etc. Additionally HTC has provided some effects to add fun to your images. It can also record GPS information in photographs if it's enabled. Since there isn't front camera available to take self-portraits but HTC has provided the little remedy to this in camera software. You can capture self-portraits using it but the accuracy is 50-50.
Here are a few sample shots from the phone's rear camera.
HTC Explorer can record videos in VGA resolution and in Widescreen resolution as well. This widescreen recording feature is nowhere to be found in this segment. Video quality is good enough but don't expect your videos to pack lots of details. Overall the camera on Explorer is good for usual photography.
The Explorer comes with Sense-d version of Music Player. It locates music from everywhere. The cool looks will not go unnoticed. It sorts music by albums, artists, genres and even composers. It also offers a cover-flow UI to quickly flip through your albums. Now that we have come across this section we must tell you, the Explorer NEEDS a memory card for all multimedia functions, be it playing music, taking snaps or even downloading apps from the Android Market. The internal memory is so low that you will need memory card anyways. As we mentioned earlier you can't customize the lock screen on the Explorer like the one on EVO 3D but you can still control the music player directly from there. The basic player controls like play/pause, forward and rewind are shown on the lock screen along with the album art and the song name.
The Video Player has also been skinned by HTC to give it cool looks. It allows watching videos in both portrait and landscape orientations.
Both the video player and music player support equalizerpresets
The Explorer also has a FM Radio so you can always tune into local radio stations and listen to chat shows. You can also download apps from the Android Market like Last.FM which will let you tune into online radio stations. Since we didn't receive any headset with it we can't really tell you how they sound but music reproduction on our own headset was great and the loudspeaker is loud enough too.
Connectivity and Internet
HTC hasn't spared anything in the connectivity department. The Explorer comes with a tri-band GSM, GPRS/EDGE and quad-band 3G with HSPA speeds, Wi-Fi (b/g/n) goes without mentioning, so you shouldn't feel disconnected from the rest of the world. The calling on the Explorer was a good experience. GSM signal strength wasn't any issue. We also never faced call drops or connection errors and there wasn't any death grip issue with any of the radios. What we missed on the HTC Explorer is the ability to turn it into Wi-Fi hotspot. While even vanilla flavor Android comes with this ability by default we couldn't find it in Explorer nor was there any app to add this. Few users have reported that Wi-Fi Hotspot is available on their phones even on Indian variants so we guess it was our unit which didn't come with it. But HTC Explorer still supports USB tethering and can also use internet connection of your PC. The HTC Explorer also lacks DLNA ability but it won't be deal breaker for most of the users.
As usual the stock browser takes a minimalistic approach, with only the address bar being visible which disappears when the page loads completely.
Usually the phones in this segment don't feature Flash Player in browser because of processor compatibility but on Explorer it seems that HTC has used their own, tweaked version of the Flash Player along with ARMv7 processor which is Flash compatible. It was capable of displaying ads on webpages. Though it supports Flash Player it couldn't play inline videos on Facebook or YouTube. So situation here isn't very exciting. But you can still play YouTube videos thanks to dedicated YouTube app. The browser can handle only 4 windows (tabs) at a time.
Most of the options can be accessed quickly with just a tap on the options key. Accessing major settings will need just one more tap, showcasing the simplicity of the Android browser.
The Android browser is made to give you a desktop level browsing experience, so it has a tendency to consume large amounts of data. So if in case you don't have unlimited data plans, you better turn off images or switch to mobile view. Another option would be everyone's all-time favorite Opera Mini/Mobile but you'll miss things like Flash player. There's a mini-map of pages available too to help you quickly navigate long pages. It also offers various levels of font sizes and text encoding. The windows and bookmarks are displayed as thumbnails of the webpages while history is shown as just plain daywise list of visited webpages. The 3.2" display with 320x480 resolution crisp clear view and 512MB RAM ensures smooth handling of even heavy webpages.
Maps and Navigation
The HTC Explorer relies solely on Google Maps and Google Navigation for directions. The latest form of Google Maps offers indoor maps too but it's not available in all countries and all places. Google Maps is good at finding directions. It uses A-GPS to determine location on the map. The only drawback with Google Maps is that it needs active internet connection to download new maps. Google Maps offers directions for various modes of transport including walking directions. It can also give information about public transport like bus roots, bus numbers etc. Google Maps doesn't offer voice guided maps so you'll have to keep checking the screen for next direction. The Navigation app which is better than Maps isn't available in India yet.
There isn't HTC's own Locations app available on Explorer which would have been great alternative to Google Maps since it can store offline maps.
The GPS receiver in Explorer was quite powerful. It could get GPS within 2 minutes and was accurate too.
Personal Information Management: Excluding the office tools
Starting from Phonebook it's been replaced with HTC's own 'People' application, which offers unlimited storage for your contacts. It can also integrate your contacts from your Gmail accounts and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. You can also link your existing contacts to those in email accounts and there's an option to block particular callers too. You view all your call logs here too though a separate 'Call History' app is available for the same purpose. The dialer is also integrated with the 'People' app and it offers smart dialing as well. Whenever dialing a number it offers the international code addition to the number. Same goes for saving the numbers of received calls. But it works only if you're in 'Roaming' or outside of home network.
HTC has replaced the default Calendar app too and it's only for good. The attractive feature of this enhanced Calendar app is that it shows the weather information for your current location for current and coming days. So you can decide whether to schedule a task for a particular day or not. It can show multiple calendars and show and sync calendars from supported accounts, to be specific, from Gmail account. It offers day, week and month views. You can also view all your tasks from a single point. It also shows meeting invitations you may have received from others.
You can sync the local calendar with that on your PC, on Gmail account or even Facebook account. The benefit of this is that you can see all your FB friends' birthdays on your Explorer.
The Clock app has also got a little of the Sense treatment. It shows current time with alarms on main screen. The main screen of the app also shows weather information. It also offers world clock, multiple alarms, stopwatch and timer, the complete package.
HTC has also replaced the default Calculator app with their Sense-d Calculator app. The functionality of the app remains the same and it changes only look wise. In portrait mode it works as standard calculator but rotating the phone to landscape mode will also change the app to advanced mode.
The Explorer has two mail clients to handle your mails. The default is Gmail client which handle only Gmail accounts. The other is Mail app from HTC which can connect to multiple accounts. It offers a common inbox for all your email accounts. The conversation or threaded view is also available. You can mark your emails as favorites to quickly find them later. It sorts mails by conversations, favorites, unread mails and also filters emails with attachments.
It offers full HTML view for emails. Composing new email is just a tap away; sadly it couldn't retrieve contacts from our Hotmail account. This feature is only available to Gmail account. You can add new email account straight from the app.
Unfortunately there's no proper file manager available on the Explorer like other droids. Even HTC hasn't added one from their side. You'll have to hit the Android Market to get one.
In case you've changed from your current phone to the Explorer and want your essential data to appear on it, there's a nice little app by HTC called Transfer. It transfers data from your old phone to Explorer via Bluetooth. The supported data elements differ from phone to phone. In our case it could transfer only contacts from our Nokia 701.
The HTC Explorer also lacks any office productivity app. It doesn't even feature simple MS Office document viewer or Adobe reader so you'll have to get one from Android Market. A quick info there, a free and full version of 'Polaris Office' is available in HTC Hub.
Social Networking: Cut down too much
In case of HTC Explorer you get very limited Social Networking. Everyone knows SNS capabilities play a vital role in sales of any phone. And mind you but Sense UI was the most intuitive on this front. But it seems that HTC has decided to go against its own rule. There are no SNS apps like Facebook or Twitter are installed on this device. All you get is the little Facebook integration in Sense UI. There isn't even HTC's own Peep, twitter client available to use Twitter. So obviously to quench your needs you'll have to hit Android market. But official Facebook and Twitter clients get installed on already low phone memory and continue eating it.
HTC Hub, HTC Likes and HTC Sense web-services
HTC Hub is the place to access various HTC resources from one place. You can download apps, widgets, scenes, skins and whatnot from one common location. It works as a marketplace for downloading HTC Sense elements. HTC Likes shows the recommended apps by HTC from various categories. To install apps it launches the Android market.
Now the big thing in latest HTC Sense UI is the integration of the phone with Sense web-interface. Have you seen the facility to associate your Windows Phone with your Windows Live or Hotmail account? HTC Sense now works the same way. You need to create a HTC Sense account and sign-in to it from your device and you're ready to go. It'll also sync your contacts from the phonebook to the web-interface. Using Sense web-interface you can locate your device. You can make it ring at loudest if you've kept it at some unknown location in your home and if in case you lose your device you can remotely lock it or wipe off all data on it, which is pretty useful. You can also set call and message forwarding.
Little about pre-loaded Apps
HTC Explorer comes pre-loaded with various apps, eight apps to be precise. Out of them three are games, namely Pro Cricket, Asphalt 6 and UNO. Other apps include, Best Deals app, Bollywood Hungamato keep you informed with latest of Bollywood, NDTV news and NDTV Cricket app. Out of all apps we liked eBuddy XMS and Saavn apps. You must have heard about WhatsApp by now and eBuddy XMS works on the same principle. Means its uses your Internet connection for unlimited messaging with your contacts anywhere in the world and contrary to WhatsApp it's completely free. The Saavn app is especially for music lovers. It's lets you play full songs without downloading them that is it uses internet connection. In simple words it streams music to your device. It can also act as internet radio.
To sum it up, HTC Explorer is better phone than most others in its category. We're impressed with the performance it has offer even on such a low end hardware. Even the design of the phone is feels royal. But it's plagued by very silly things like just 90 MB of internal memory, poor battery life. The battery issue can be resolved to some extent with software but there's no remedy to low memory errors which makes using phone a tough job. There're few alternatives availableto this droid.
First off, it's HTC's own Wildfire S with almost same specs but with better camera than Explorer but you'll be missing on latest Sense UI Explorer has to offer but it's still worth the 13K price tag. Another phone, Samsung Galaxy Ace is better than Explorer in every area. Faster processor, better 5MP camera and bigger screen are all what you get with it and it also comes cheap at 13K. Then there's Galaxy Y too with faster processor but comes with even smaller screen. But it'll cost you approx. 8K only. If you're willing to look outside Android camp then Nokia C6-01 would be your best bet.
While Explorer isn't an exciting stuff it's not a big disappointment. It could be your perfect guide many times. We hope HTC will come back with something which will make us raise the eyebrows.