As Nokia's Stephen Elop will tearfully tell you, the Android assault is occurring on all fronts. At the top end of the market we've got dual-core monsters such as the LG Optimus 2X and the Motorola Atrix, while at the humbler end of the spectrum there's the Orange San Francisco and LG Optimus One.
Google's domination of smart phones is gathering speed, and long-time accomplice HTC has now beefed up its mid-range with the Gratia -- a repackaged European version of its US-based Aria, which launched in June last year.
The HTC Gratia can be purchased outright for around £300. At the time of writing, details of contract prices weren't available, but we'd guess the phone will be in the £20-25 per month bracket.
The Gratia may not occupy the same lofty perch as its stable mate the Desire HD, but you wouldn't know that from the build quality of the device. In typical HTC fashion, the Gratia feels solid and robust, and despite its tiny dimensions possesses a reasonable heft, tipping the scales at 115g. That's nothing compared to big-screen behemoths like the Samsung Omnia 7, but when compared to similar-sized handsets it's pretty weighty.
The plastic battery cover engulfs the phone, covering its sides, top and bottom. This design can make accessing the battery, microSD card slot and SIM card slot somewhat awkward -- a considerable amount of pressure has to be applied to one corner of the phone to get the cover to pop off -- but it successfully avoids the unwelcome prospect of creakiness when gripping the device tightly. Compared to the fussy and ill-considered compartments on the Desire HD, the Gratia is more intelligently designed.
The Gratia also has a touch-sensitive track pad, which allows you to scroll between home screens and accurately select portions of text when composing an email or text message.
Turn of the screw
The only element of the Gratia's appearance that doesn't sit well with us is the strange screws which appear on the back of the device. At first it seems they're holding the battery cover in situ, but with the back off, it's clear they form part of the phone's internal shell. Although we dare say some will find them appealing, in the same way that the bolts on the Motorola Defy turned (admittedly dorky) heads, they're certainly an acquired taste.
Elsewhere, the Gratia's 3.2-inch capacitive display seems weedy when placed alongside the vast screens of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc or Motorola Milestone 2, and is more in line with past Android classics such as the HTC Hero. The small display has allowed HTC to make this phone truly pocket-sized, however, and as a result it fits snugly in the palm of your hand too.
A whole lot of Sense
Laid over the core Android operating system is HTC's beloved Sense user interface. It's unquestionably one of the better manufacturer 'skins' available right now, and although the version loaded on to the Gratia is missing some key elements -- such as integration with HTC's cloud-based Sense.com service -- it retains the vital bits of functionality and the famously polished design.
Sense's custom widgets are useful in ways HTC's competitors have been desperately trying to emulate for months. The friend stream (which collates all of your social networking updates in one scrollable widget) and combined email inbox allow you to access information without having to open applications or even flick away from your home screen.
There are seven home screens to play with, and you can streamline their functionality by adopting the preset 'Scenes' option, where different home screens are configured for specific activities (work, social, travel and so on).
HTC prides itself on smart design and other elements of the Gratia's OS back this up. Turning over your phone when it starts to ring silences it, for example. Another plus point is the ease with which it's possible to link your contacts with their social network profiles -- something that has been attempted by rival interfaces such as Motorola's Motoblur, but with much less success.
Won't budge on the budget
The fact that the Gratia manages to carry across so much of the core capabilities of its higher-powered and more expensive siblings -- such as the HTC Desire Z and Desire HD -- is commendable, but inevitably, some corners have had to be cut in order to get this device down to a mid-range price.
Although the Sense UI does a commendable job of keeping things smooth and silky, the Gratia's 600MHz processor struggles when you have multiple applications running. The 384MB of RAM may eclipse the paltry 256MB that was once standard-issue on Android phones, but the increased demands of Android 2.2 arguably require something more substantial.
Graphically complex games also have a tendency to stutter slightly on the Gratia, which is hardly surprising when you consider many developers are insisting that a 1GHz CPU is the base requirement for fluid performance these days.
As an entertainment device, the Gratia is similarly humble. The 5-megapixel camera may be on equal terms with the shooter seen on the Nexus S when it comes to basic numbers, but the lack of a flash is disappointing and the poor quality of the video recording is a real let-down.
The music player is equally uninspiring, but this isn't too much of an issue because the Android Market is packed with excellent stand-alone media apps, such as WinAmp, PlayerPro and PowerAmp. A 3.5mm jack ensures compatibility with your favourite pair of headphones, too.
With Wi-Fi and 3G included as standard, getting connected with the Gratia is relatively straightforward -- although we did notice that when compared to the Nexus S and Nexus One, the phone struggled to capture a solid 3G signal at times.
The pre-installed Web browser can display Flash, but that creaky old 600MHz processor isn't up to the task of rendering it terribly well. Aside from that, hitting the net with the Gratia is a mostly pleasurable experience. Pinch-to-zoom is included, and the refreshingly minimalist interface means the majority of the phone's 3.2-inch screen is devoted to displaying the page -- just as it should be. Text is reformatted intelligently, making it easy to catch up on the latest news when you're on the move.
Because of the Gratia's diminutive dimensions, HTC has chosen to power the phone with a 1,200mAh battery -- only slightly less powerful than the beating heart of the mighty Desire HD. While that pairing was particularly ill-suited given the hungry nature of the hardware, in this case the matching makes sense. You'll still need to charge the Gratia at least once a day if you're a heavy user, but you won't find the well dry after just a few hours, as was the case with the Desire HD.
You could think of the HTC Gratia as a replacement for the ageing HTC Legend or the mid-range Wildfire, but it's already half a year old and some would argue that devices such as the Motorola Defy provide more power for the same amount of cash.
What the Defy lacks is the brilliant Sense UI, which enriches the user experience considerably. If you're in the market for a truly pocket-sized Android handset running 2.2 -- and you're not overly concerned with having luxury features such as 720p HD video recording or a meaty processor -- then the Gratia is definitely a front-running contender for your money.
Edited by Nick Hide