Do you take selfies? Your answer doesn't matter because almost all smartphone manufacturers think you do. That's why iPhones now feature front-facing burst modes and some Lumias are designed with selfies in mind. Today, HTC is joining the parade with the new Desire Eye. The main attraction? A giant 13 megapixel front-facing camera right where your ear normally goes.
Coming exclusively to AT&T (for now), the Eye actually has two 13 megapixel shooters, one on each side of the device. It comes with a giant new software update for HTC's Sense user interface that adds camera conveniences like voice capture, improved video conferencing and (of course) new selfie modes.
But the Eye should also be capable for more than snapping photos. It may also serve as a lower-cost alternative to HTC's flagship One M8 smartphone. Much like the M8, the Eye carries a quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, front-facing BoomSound speakers, 2GB of RAM, microSD expansion, and a 1080p screen. But its differences could make the Eye appealing to a different class of smartphone user. For one, the phone is plastic, an odd choice for a company known for its metallurgic tendencies but which could contribute to a lower cost. It's also waterproof down to one meter.
HTC claims that even plastic can be beautiful, and for the most part, they're right about the Eye. The phone seems adventurous, even sporty, thanks to a bold colorful rim that complements both the white and blue versions of the device. It's not just cheaply trying to replicate premium like the Galaxy S5's unforgivable faux-chrome trim.
And it's that adventurous person, frequently with one finger on a shutter button, who could find a lot to love about this phone. Based on my brief time with the device, the Eye seems to improve on HTC's camera experience in almost every way. To start with, the phone has a physical camera key located along the the right edge that makes photo-taking on a 5.2-inch device not a complete pain in the ass. And of course, the waterproofing means you can take photos in places you wouldn't dream of holding out a heavy, metallic HTC One M8.
But it's quirkiest hardware feature is the two 13 megapixel lenses, each with its own flash. Differing only in focal length, the wide-angle lenses capture lots of detail and better image quality compared to the M8 by a noticeable margin. Color reproduction skewed a little pinkish compared to HTC's flagship, but the end results were overall much better. The two cameras do face a few issues in low light, but the included flash on the front and back helps illuminate everything. However, in all those dark and dingy recesses where we might take photos, the flash will momentarily blind you when taking selfies. Imagine snapping a flash-enabled picture only a foot-and-a-half away from your face. It's a retina-burning experience.
HTC One M8
The Eye also premieres HTC's "Eye Experience," a new collection of imaging software that attempts to improve the company's lackluster camera app. I say "attempts" because these new additions come with some impressive successes and dismal failures. HTC's new video conferencing software tracks faces within frames and also lets you split your Skype calls into a Brady Bunch-esque grid with up to four people and allows you to display your screen via Screen Share. I wasn't able to significantly test HTC's quality claims due to WiFi handicaps but the idea holds promise. The update also gives HTC cams voice capture with certain commands like "say cheese" and "smile." The voice capture works well enough but doesn't circumvent the inevitable moment of you yelling at your smartphone like an idiot. The feature is even less useful on the Eye itself because of the physical capture key, but with most of HTC's devices lacking such a hardware convenience, voice capture could be a godsend.
However, most of the additional camera modes within the update flirt between unnecessary and unwanted. Split Capture creates diptychs by stitching together two images each from the front and back cameras. You can choose to do this in sync or not, but the results are relatively "meh" even for the phone built to take advantage of the option. Great for fun little moments with friends I guess, but it's ultimately an alternative "selfie" that the world doesn't need. Then Live Makeup provides skin smoothing in real-time so you can take not-so-accurate photos for even greater online dating deception.
Me trying to look cool while taking a Split Capture selfie and failing completely.
From there, the stumbles become more egregious. Crop-Me-In clips you out of a selfie and places you in the photo taken by your front camera. This seems more like a "forever alone" feature than anything actually useful, and Face Fusion horrifically does what it suggests by combining two faces into one. If you want to see what your future offspring might look like, I suppose.
These new modes will eventually roll out to many different HTC devices with unlocked HTC One M8 devices getting first dibs then moving through carrier-contracted devices like the One M7, M8, Mini, Mini 2, Max, and Desire 816 and 820.
Apple and Nokia have great solutions for smartphone photographers, but Android lacks a real champion. (So far, the Galaxy S5 is the closest we've come.) First impressions suggest that the Desire Eye isn't quite the device to shoulder that huge responsibility. But it does fuse together a competent lens, HTC design (albeit plastic), and responsive performance that distances itself enough from the M8 to appeal to a different mobile customer altogether. With a price possibly hovering around $450 off contract (AT&T's price is TBD), maybe you'll see fit to take one on your selfie adventures.