The Desire 601 is another attempt by HTC to distill the key selling points of the flagship One into a lower-cost device, sitting below the One Mini in the phone maker’s portfolio. When I reviewed the One Mini, I did not feel that I could recommend it due to its relatively high price and the compromises that HTC had made, particularly on the specification sheet that led to a compromised user experience. The Desire 601 costs less than the One Mini and packs a few hardware features that its more expensive sibling does not have. Is this mid-range number worthy of consideration?
Hardware and Design
The biggest success of the Desire 601’s industrial design is arguably the way it feels in the hand. It sports a matte plastic back panel with a soft finish that provides an adequate amount of grip while feeling very much like a premium device. This back panel encases the entire device including its sides, giving the Desire 601 the illusion of a unibody construction much like Nokia’s Lumia 520, 620, 625 and 820 while facilitating access to its user-replaceable 2100mAh battery, spring-loaded microSIM card slot and microSD card slot. The sides are aggressively rounded with nary a sharp edge, making it very comfortable to hold, more so than the One Mini.
I would describe the Desire 601’s design as being extremely understated; it hardly stands out in a sea of touchscreen slabs and it certainly won’t attract attention like a bright red Lumia. I particularly like how every design element on my black Desire 601 is colour-coordinated; everything from the metallic front speaker inserts, power and volume buttons, the camera lens surround and even the HTC logo on the rear is black. The capacitive buttons on the front for Back and Home are evenly lit in white; as usual for a 2013 HTC smartphone, you double-tap the Home button in order to pull up the app switcher, swipe up from the Home button to get to Google Now and hold the Home button to access the Options menu on legacy apps. I’m sure you can understand why I’d rather have software buttons.
The physical sleep/wake and volume buttons on the sides of the Desire 601 are made of glossy plastic, but are easy to press and offer great feedback. HTC’s BoomSound speakers flank the 4.5-inch display; they certainly sound louder and richer than most smartphone speakers and are more than adequate for listening to podcasts and playing music in the background.
I have mixed feelings about the 4.5-inch qHD LCD display on the Desire 601. qHD (540×960) is not such a common display resolution these days, and I really wish HTC had opted to build a 720p display in this device. It is my opinion that at the end of 2013, every mid-range smartphone should have a 720p display at least; the Desire 601 is by no means a bargain-basement device. At the same time, my eyes adjusted to the lower pixel density after a couple of days such that the graininess no longer bothered me. However, I did notice the display being slightly washed out even though viewing angles remain satisfactory.
Performance and Battery Life
A dual-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 CPU beats inside the Desire 601, and this is paired with 1GB of RAM just like on the One Mini. Compared to the One Mini, it only has 4GB of user-accessible internal storage but this can be supplanted with a microSD card. Even so, microSD storage can only be used for media files and camera captures – if you intend to install loads of apps and games on the Desire 601, the relatively limited amount of internal storage is something you should take note of.
In terms of speed and fluidity, the Desire 601 puts out acceptable performance most of the time. Exceptions include browsing the web with Chrome for Android, which is a slow and stuttery experience (I recommend Firefox as a faster and smoother web browser for lower-end devices) and playing resource-intensive games. App switching isn’t quite instantaneous (there is always a slight delay between switching to an app via the multitasking grid and the app actually becoming usable) and the homescreen refreshes constantly when you switch back to it from within an app (as on the One Mini) but the Desire 601 is usable when it comes to accomplishing everyday tasks. It won’t blow you away with speed, but you won’t be tearing your hair out either. It does feel more responsive than the One Mini, and I would attribute this to the Desire 601’s lower display resolution.
Battery life on the Desire 601 is par for the course for a mid-range phone. With light usage with a screen on time of roughly 1-2 hours, the user-replaceable 2100mAh cell lasted for 11-14 hours. Heavier usage obviously drains the battery quicker, especially when LTE is enabled. The Desire 601 does have a slightly higher-capacity battery than the One Mini’s 1800mAh unit, but if you’re expecting this phone to last all day with moderate use, I foresee the Desire 601 running out of juice by late afternoon in that scenario.
Imaging and Media
The 5-megapixel autofocus camera on the Desire 601 appears to have decent credentials on paper, with a 28mm wide-angle lens, a 1/4″ BSI sensor with a 1.4-nanometre pixel size and HTC’s ImageChip technology. The Desire 601’s camera performs well as long as there is enough light, but dynamic range is lacking and images generally lack detail because of the aggressive noise-reduction algorithms applied. With that said, the images still look appealing in terms of sharpness and colour reproduction, which means that the photos you’ll capture with the Desire 601 are probably good enough for online sharing. Macro performance also exceeded my expectations.
HTC’s camera app on the Desire 601 remains largely unchanged from the One and is very much a known quantity now. It is notable that the Zoe camera suite has been brought over in its entirety from the One to the Desire 601, making for a more interesting imaging experience on this device compared to its rivals. It features everything you’d expect from a modern Android camera app, including continuous burst capture with Best Shot, HDR photo and video capture, sweep panorama, slow motion video, 60fps video capture, face detection and a range of filters.
The Gallery automatically organizes your captured photos into Events based on location and date/time tags, integrates with services like Facebook, Picasa, Flickr and Dropbox and features a rich set of image editing functions. The Zoe features allow you to save the exact frame you want to share out of a Zoe, generate a sequence shot, fix smiles in group photos, remove unwanted objects, smoothen skin, fix lighting, adjust face contours, enhance eyes and more.
Having had several opportunities to spend time with HTC’s camera app and imaging features over the past year, I feel that a further simplification of the user interface is needed for the average user to really understand what they can do. The Options menu in the camera app is particularly convoluted, and it is still difficult to explain the difference between Zoe captures, Zoe editing features and Video Highlights and how to get to those features. Capturing Zoes is still a relatively battery-intensive activity, but you have to switch on the Zoe mode in order to take advantage of most of the Desire 601’s unique imaging features.
Unlike other HTC devices, the Desire 601 does not feature Beats Audio at all, nor any kind of software equalizer. The built-in music player remains top-notch with a clean and attractive user interface, a lyrics visualizer and artist image display. Listening to podcasts is particularly enjoyable.
Software and Services
The Desire 601 runs Android 4.2.2 out of the box with Sense 5 onboard. Sense 5 remains clean, modern and enjoyable to use with flat and minimalist gradients, elegant iconography and typography used throughout the user interface, although the adoption of newer Android UI standards such as the card-style lists and left-hand pull-out menu mean that HTC’s custom apps can feel a little dated and inconsistent next to third-party Android applications. I’m still holding out hope for an actual slimming down of Sense next year, because Sense 5 just seems a little too resource-intensive for mid-range smartphones with 1GB of RAM.
Otherwise, Sense 5 on the Desire 601 provides exactly the same experience as you’ll find on the One Mini. BlinkFeed is the default homescreen out of the box and aggregates the news and social feeds of your choosing. The app switcher only contains 9 apps arranged in a non-scrolling grid. The People app integrates with Facebook and Twitter, augmenting your contacts with social data and profile photos. There is little to see here that hasn’t already been described in CJ’s HTC One review, which you can check out here.
When all is said and done, what the HTC Desire 601 really offers is a decent set of specifications for a mid-range price point. While it is an entirely reasonable smartphone, I would not consider it particularly remarkable at this point in time. Although I would still consider it a solid performer, it is difficult to see myself recommending the Desire 601 over a Sony Xperia SP or a Nexus 4. When the Moto G hits store shelves, it will likely offer a better display at a lower price. If you are considering picking up a Desire 601, you should hold off your purchase for a couple of months. Unfortunately, the Desire 601 lacks a real selling point that would convince phone buyers to spring for it over any other option in the crowded mid-range smartphone segment.