It's all too easy to fixate on the latest, shiniest smart phones packing hugely powerful processors and massive screens. But if you're not much of a phone user and just need something simple to handle the essentials, the world of the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S2 can be a frighteningly expensive place.
The HTC Explorer provides a simple interface and cuts back on screen quality and processor speed in order to come up with a much more affordable price tag.
Should I buy the HTC Explorer?
Rather than offer a massive screen packed into an even more massive body, the HTC Explorer comes in a much more bite-sized form. It's so slight you'll barely notice it shoved into your jeans.
A compact body means a small screen though, so the Explorer only has room for a 3.2-inch display. With a lower resolution than similarly-priced models, it's not going to make life easy for those of you who want to do a lot of web browsing. To its credit, it's fairly bright and handles colours adequately so it will be fine for Twittering or a spot of Angry Birds.
Inside the Explorer is a 600MHz processor, which isn't very powerful considering the oncoming wave of mighty quad-core phones. However, it's an acceptable effort given the low price tag. It won't handle demanding photo and video editing tasks, but it will cope with your messaging and social networking needs and even the odd game.
It's running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which has been given a lot of tweaks by HTC to make it easy to understand and simple to operate. Big, easily-pokable buttons dominate the central home screen, allowing for quick access to the essential tasks.
If you're looking for a top-of-the-range smart phone to load up with the latest apps, this handset won't be for you. However, if you're after a blower that provides a simple interface and enough power to chew through the essential tasks, the HTC Explorer is a good choice.
Design and build quality
At a time when many phones come packing huge 4.7-inch screens that barely fit in your hand, the HTC Explorer offers a much more pocket-friendly experience. At a mere 103mm long and 57mm wide, it's considerably smaller than the smart phone goliaths such as HTC's Sensation XL or the whopping Samsung Galaxy Note.
On the one hand, that means that it will slide into your pocket without putting up a fight and will let you hold it up to text without having to wear a supportive wrist brace. On the other hand, a smaller body means a smaller screen, so it won't be the phone for you if you want to watch a lot of video or play graphically intense games.
With a weight of only 108g, it's almost light enough to be blown away in a mild breeze. You might want to anchor it down with some lead, or with a heavier phone like the 137g iPhone 4S. Although it's light, it manages to avoid feeling cheap and nasty. It was satisfyingly resistant to pokes and squeezes in our hands and didn't show any signs of distress when we chucked it about. (Although if anyone asks, we took only the best of care of it, okay?)
The rear of the phone has been given a rubber casing with a strip of metal down the middle. We like the look -- it gives it a more premium edge than other budget phones like the Orange San Francisco 2. Although the rubber isn't designed to make the phone more shock absorbent, it definitely feels like it can take a few knocks and won't shatter like the brittle cases found on many handsets.
The rubber also helps to add extra grip, which will be very welcome to those of you with massive hands who find it difficult to keep hold of tiny phones. If you're desperately trying to call home while power-walking to the bus stop, you need not fear dropping it too much. Unless, that is, the reason you're late is a few too many drinks at the pub, in which case no amount of rubber casing will help you.
Around the edge you'll find a power button and a volume rocker. These buttons are rubber too and are part of the casing. This has the effect of making them slightly awkward to press -- especially in a hurry -- but does at least mean that they won't get clogged up with dust, dirt and other pocket detritus. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port for charging or for connecting the phone to a computer.
The phone comes with a rather measly 512MB of internal storage and only 116MB of that is usable. You'll therefore need to take immediate advantage of the microSD card slot if you want to take photos or download apps.
Annoyingly, to view the gallery requires you to have an SD card installed, even though photos have been saved to the phone's memory and can be viewed via the camera app. It's an irritating quirk and one that is likely to baffle new mobile users who don't wish to shell out on an SD card to go with their new blower.
On the face of the Explorer you'll find a 3.2-inch screen. Three inches clearly pales into insignificance next to the vast displays on offer on many smart phones, but if you prefer pocketability above wide swathes of glass, the Explorer will go down a treat.
It's packing a 320x480-pixel resolution, which is pretty poor. The Orange San Francisco 2 offers 480x800 pixels and costs around £20 less so it's disappointing to see such a low spec on the Explorer's display.
Although resolution isn't everything, it does mean that certain tasks will be more awkward. For example, less of a web page will be displayed on the screen at once, which results in you having to do a lot more swiping. If you want to kick back with a long article then you'd better have your scrolling finger sufficiently warmed up.
On the plus side, it's fairly bright and handles colours adequately so if you do decide to fire up YouTube clips, the Explorer will handle them well enough for you to get a few laughs at Maru. We just wouldn't recommend watching entire films on it.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread
The Explorer comes with the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system. This is not the most recent version of Android -- that honour goes to 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which promises a unified experience across mobile phones and tablets. Gingerbread still dominates the mobile market though so there's no reason you should feel short-changed with it on a budget handset.
Although Gingerbread is running on many devices, you don't get the same experience across the board. That's because most companies make their own tweaks to the software and HTC is no exception. HTC calls its fiddled-with interface 'Sense'. On the Explorer, it's intended to make the phone easier to use for the less-technologically minded or recent smart phone converts.
That's not to say it'll be an alien environment to Android aficionados. The usual multiple home screens are here, just begging for you to fill them up with all kinds of apps and widgets. HTC has made the messaging, music, camera, browser and Android Market buttons bigger and more prominent on the centre home screen for quick access to these more commonly-used applications.
Any apps you don't want cluttering up your home screens are stored in a long grid. There's a separate tab for frequent apps though, which makes finding your most often-used tasks a simple process. Also helpful is that the phone, mail, messaging and camera functions can be accessed from the lock screen. You don't need to waste time navigating to the various functions when you're in a hurry.
As an Android device, you have full access to the hundreds of thousands of apps on Android Market. There's all kinds of gems in there for business use, games, social networking or photography and it's easy to set up an account with your existing Gmail address.
If social networking is on your mind then you'll be pleased to know that Facebook functionality has been woven into the core software. You can sign in to your account, which will automatically pull all your friends' details into your phone's contact book, as well as updating your calendar with upcoming events and birthdays. There's no excuse for missing your partner's special day.
If you use your Android account with your primary email address then the Gmail email app will be automatically set for use. If not, then setting up the mail app with a different account is a straightforward process that comes with simple instructions. We were able to sync with Hotmail extremely quickly, although corporate email accounts with awkward security settings are more difficult to configure.
Less easy to work out, however, was how on Earth we transferred our files to a PC. When we first connected it up to check out the photos we'd taken with the camera, we were instructed to install HTC Sync. Being forced to use proprietary software is a huge bugbear of ours as it's so much simpler to just drag and drop.
Once we had installed this software though, our problems weren't over as it didn't detect any of our files. It turns out that this software -- like the built-in photo gallery -- relies on microSD cards. Once we popped a card in, all of our files showed up, even though they were stored on the phone, not the card. It's a seriously annoying method and one that confused our giant tech brains, so we don't imagine it will sit well with those not accustomed to mobile foibles.
Under the hood of the Explorer you'll find a 600MHz processor, backed up by 512MB of RAM. That really isn't a strong line-up of numbers -- even the budget San Francisco 2 is packing an 800MHz chip. However, you're hardly likely to notice a 200MHz difference either way and these numbers don't necessarily indicate good performance.
To see where this little chap sits in the power rankings, we booted up the Quadrant benchmark test and were given a score of 917. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S2 got around 3,200 on the same test but the Explorer did manage to beat the older Galaxy S, although not by much.
A similar performance was seen on the Geekbench test, where the Explorer achieved a score of 335, which is miles off the powerful Motorola Razr, but is a fine score for such a low-price phone.
Benchmarking numbers aside, we found that general use was mostly nippy. Swiping between home screens and loading apps was largely lag-free and we only noticed a slowdown when the phone was performing various background tasks at the same time. One slight annoyance did crop up when swiping through menus though. The phone would sometimes register our gesture as a press, rather than a swipe, causing an app to load, rather than moving through a menu.
It doesn't have the raw power for some tasks though. If you want to use a lot of photo or video editing tools, the Explorer won't be for you -- it's best to leave tasks like that to the more burly dual-core smart phones.
It'll have a decent stab at games like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, which should provide at least a few hours of entertainment, but it won't handle the graphically intense 3D games.
The Explorer has enough power to handle most day-to-day tasks. If you want a load of intense media features then go and check out the Galaxy S2. But if your main phone needs are calls, texts, social networking, email and the odd game to pass the time while your mates show up, then the Explorer will do fine.
On the back of the Explorer you'll find a 3-megapixel camera. It's really not a phone you'd buy on the back of its photography prowess so we didn't get our hopes up too much for the quality of this snapper.
We found results to be hit and miss. With some photos, the camera was able to expose well for the scene, resulting in bold colours. At other times, colour and brightness exposure was a little off, resulting in a photo that seemed washed out and bland.
In both instances, the images lacked the sharpness we'd like to have seen. It didn't fare well in darker conditions -- there's no flash to help it out. It's not terrible and will do fine for capturing a quick snap of your mate balancing a plate on his face, but don't expect the sort of colour and clarity you'll get with phones like the iPhone 4S.
The HTC Explorer doesn't offer the stunning screen, good camera and powerful processor of high-end smart phones. But it does serve up a tasty slice of Android Gingerbread with enough tweaks to make it ideal for a smart phone beginner.
If you're after an easy-to-use blower and don't fancy selling your children to get one, the HTC Explorer is worth a look.