1 week with the HTC Butterfly: HTC Really Deserves Better
The HTC Butterfly is, to a certain extent, a product in a difficult position. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an excellent smartphone and I’ve had a very enjoyable experience with it. However, it stands in the shadow of HTC’s newest flagship smartphone that will hit store shelves in the next few weeks with a new version of Sense, a full aluminum unibody, an even faster processor and a display that packs a 1920×1080 matrix into a 4.7-inch diagonal. I contend that the Butterfly is still an extremely compelling choice on its own merit, and I really don’t think that one necessarily needs to have the latest and greatest hardware specifications, even in the Android space, to have a top-notch user experience. After all, Android hardware progresses at such a fast pace that it is almost impossible to keep up with the ever-increasing processor speeds and the ever-improving graphics components – every single Android flagship on the market, including the HTC Butterfly, provides excellent overall performance and that is what really matters.
As I mentioned in my first impressions, the HTC Butterfly is simply exquisite from a hardware standpoint. I think the best aspect of the Butterfly’s physical design is how compact it feels in the hand despite having a relatively large display diagonal; I’d attribute this to the tapered back and the minimal bezel on the left and right of the display. Speaking of the display, I can say with confidence that this is the best display I’ve ever seen on a smartphone by a fair margin. Not only is it just about impossible to spot any individual pixels on the Butterfly, the display is also usable in direct sunlight and has absolutely amazing viewing angles. The sheet of glass covering the display is also curved ever so slightly at the edges, and on-screen content seems to float on the surface of the glass itself. The 5-inch, 1080p display on the HTC Butterfly is spectacular, and I cannot emphasize that enough.
There are, however, a few tiny flaws. Setting the Butterfly down on any hard surface significantly muffles the otherwise loud and clear single rear-facing speaker. The front-facing notification LED is too small and sunken in the earpiece to be noticeable at an angle (so you won’t see the LED blink if you’re typing on your laptop with the phone sitting beside it on your desk). The flaps for the microUSB port and the combined SIM card/microSD card slot are fiddly and difficult to detach, and it’s hard to see their utility when the device itself is not actually waterproof. I also wish the top-mounted sleep/wake button provided a little more feedback, because it feels relatively flimsy compared to the volume rocker. I would rate these faults as minor because they really do not detract from the appeal of this device, but it’s a pity that the Butterfly comes so close to perfection but misses the mark by that little bit. Omitting LTE and NFC from the specification sheet is a bit of a head-scratcher too.
Given how controversial HTC’s Sense UI can be, CJ describes it in an extremely diplomatic fashion. I will say that on balance, it is a tolerable user interface. I think the HTC Butterfly would benefit greatly from an infusion of Sense 5, but Sense 4+ is what we’ve got here for a few more months. It certainly is distinctive in terms of its visual style, and you get the sense (pardon the pun) that HTC has tried to establish Sense as a platform on its own, with its Android underpinnings ideally being as invisible as possible. Some have accused Sense 5 of breaking Android conventions in a major way, but I’d argue that is already evident in Sense 4+: everything from the colourful 3D icons to the liberal use of gradients to the addition of text labels below buttons to the large tabs to the text-only toolbars in some apps jettisons the very design standards that Google has been trying to establish on Android since the launch of Android 4.0. The Butterfly runs Android 4.1 under the hood but save for Google’s own apps you’d be hard-pressed to find an ounce of Holo on this device out of the box.
That makes for some jarring visual shifts when switching in and out of apps. The Gmail app looks completely different to the Calendar and Phone apps in terms of layout, iconography and general aesthetics. Ditto for the Music and Gallery apps when put beside one of Google’s apps like YouTube. While Google has adopted a very monochromatic and minimalist design language that is evident in vanilla Android 4.2 which I’ve been enjoying on my Galaxy Nexus, HTC prides itself on over-the-top use of colour, textures, 3D effects and (that dreaded word) skeuomorphic design.
This is none too evident in the design of HTC’s custom widgets, which unfortunately tend to occupy a lot of space unnecessarily. They have a very bulky look and I cannot help but feel that this is an area of Sense 4+ that dates right back to the days of Sense UI on Android 2.1 where a polished user interface meant having the most detailed clock widget ever. When people talk about how much they wish for a toning-down of Sense, I believe this is what they are referring to. In my opinion, a well-designed user interface doesn’t need loads of gloss and complexity, and the design of Sense 4+ reflects an old trend towards digital elements emulating physical surfaces and objects that almost everybody in the mobile industry has moved away from.
In spite of all this, Sense still holds advantages that might appeal to people less acquainted or concerned with how Android should be. There has always been a fair bit of potential for customization in Sense, all organized under a convenient Personalize menu; when accompanied with the sheer number of widgets and settings, there’s a lot to play with and explore. HTC has also done a good job integrating popular online services and social networks in Sense, and ensuring that every customized app that they have included is high-quality. The stock Music app, for example, supports gapless playback, which I am very pleased about. There has clearly been an effort invested in how Sense should look and work.
With all the horsepower that the Butterfly packs under the hood, Sense does not create any perceptible lag or slowdowns. In daily use, the Butterfly manages to deliver buttery smooth performance and there is no reason to be displeased in this regard. In terms of graphics performance, the Butterfly managed to render Real Racing 3 (which absolutely deserves to be slammed) beautifully. I really don’t think the Butterfly and similar devices are at all compromised in terms of hardware specifications even if they pack Snapdragon S4 Pro chips instead of the Snapdragon 600. If you’re considering picking up a Butterfly, it’ll be a perfectly capable smartphone for at least a couple of years and perhaps beyond.
In conclusion, the HTC Butterfly convinces me, more than ever, that HTC deserves to succeed in the mobile industry so much more than Samsung does based on the strength of their products. Everyone clamoring for Nokia to build an Android smartphone fails to see that HTC is, at this point in time, building products that are on par with, if not better than Nokia hardware in terms of industrial design, materials used, build quality, component choice and internal specifications. HTC deserves so much better than how the company has been performing in the financial markets; if you can afford it, the Butterfly is a beautiful, solid, likable and very recommendable high-end smartphone.