Although not cycling specific, the mobile phone is the one item we probably all carry with us, whether for taking that cafe stop selfie with mates, recording our ride, or to phone home when disaster strikes. Here Josh takes a look at the HTC Desire Eye to see if it can cope with a cyclist’s demands.
In the past, I’ve talked about a lot of different products that interact with a smart phone during a ride. What I haven’t done is talk much about the actual phone. Personally, although I do use, and love, Apple computer hardware, I’ve always prefered Android phones. It’s not a religious war, but I like using Google services, and I find that Android phones have typically done a better job of integrating those services.
For the last four years or so, I’ve had Google Nexus phones purchased directly from Google. In the past, they have been less expensive upfront, they aren’t filled with carrier junk apps or hardware company overlays, and they get updated quickly. The Nexus 5 I have, and the Nexus 4 I had before that, are great phones that I highly recommend. This review isn’t about the latest Nexus phone, though. This is about a phone that may be the perfect phone for cycling.
When I initially wrote this article, it was about the Xperia Z3v. I had connected with the Sony people and gotten my hands on it only to be totally blown away that nearly a year after the initial release of Android Lollipop, the Z3v still didn’t have an update or have a date for one coming. Despite having previously said that there was an update coming, Sony had failed to deliver that update. Then, before we got the review of the Z3v in front of you, the phone was discontinued, and it definitely looked like there would never be an update.
At this point, I do see some references to a leaked 5.0.2 update being out there, so I suppose it’s not impossible that it will come eventually. It’s a discontinued phone, though. And my Nexus 5 has already moved on past Lollipop. The bottom line for me was that despite the Sony being a brilliant piece of hardware, the software was a mess, and I wouldn’t trust Sony to deliver updates on this device or any future models that might come out.
Of course, some of this falls to Verizon, but I’m not particularly interested in parsing out who’s fault it is. The Sony Android overlays weren’t a benefit, and the fact that it was still running an outdated operating system meant I rated it a pass. The phone being discontinued shortly after I wrote that was just a nice confirmation. For those of you in other parts of the world, Sony phones might be worth looking at just because there won’t be Verizon to deal with. Tread carefully, though. It’s good hardware, but look to see what the updates have been like on past Sony phones.
After I looked at the Sony phone, I went looking for other options in terms of the perfect phone for cycling. But what would that be? What would that look like? If I were to imagine the perfect phone for cycling it would have a screen that was big and bright but not tablet size. It’s got to fit in your jersey pocket and shouldn’t need its own trailer to bring along. It would also be waterproof. Sure, you can buy a waterproof case or seal it into a ziplock bag, but wouldn’t it be great if the hardware itself was just waterproof?
And I would want ANT radio. You can use bluetooth sensors. I have in the past, and they are becoming more and more mainstream, but having both bluetooth and ANT available would be even better. Even if you aren’t using something that runs through the phone, like the Wahoo RFLKT, you’d always have a backup computer in case whatever you are using had an issue.
Finally, the perfect cycling phone needs a long battery life. I reviewed waterproof USB battery packs that can be brought along to extend the life of your phone while on a ride, but if the phone just had a long battery life built-in, that would be a big feature.
The Sony Xperia Z3 is waterproof, has a battery that is claimed to last for two days, has a built-in ANT radio, and it’s got a big screen but is still small enough to handle with one hand and fit into a jersey pocket without trouble. That’s why I looked at it, but it turns out the Sony isn’t alone. There are actually a few options, though many of them are not the kind of phone most people would be excited to own. I wanted a current phone that looked and acted like other phones on the market.
The Samsung S5 had previously been a good option, but the S6 lost its waterproofness. The only S6 variant that’s waterproof is the S6 active which is only sold in the US, only sold through AT&T, and has hardware buttons vs the typical Android softkeys. If it happens to work for you, it’s likely not a bad phone, but I think a much better option is the HTC Desire Eye. The Desire Eye handles like a regular smart phone, but it’s got a waterproof rating of IPX7, plus an ANT radio built-in, and you can find it outside of the US.
So, what’s it like to use? The Desire Eye isn’t going to compete with the top-tier of this year’s smartphones in terms of raw power. It more closely matches last year’s best devices, but I think that’s fine. It’s got all the power I’ve ever needed. I’m also not particularly interested in super high-resolution cameras, like the Sony has, but equal opportunity given to the front camera is actually nice feature for cyclists.
If you’ve ever done the seemingly ubiquitous selfie shot of you and your riding partners while riding, you’ll appreciate the extra quality in that front camera. I’m not prone to taking lots of selfies generally, but I have been known to take a selfie, or two, at the top of a particularly epic climb when I’m riding alone.
The screen is nice, without being too large, and although I found the power/volume buttons in a slightly odd place, I know I’d get used to it with some time. I didn’t do any kind of even remotely scientific battery test, but I found it to be quite good. It’s not claimed to last more than a day, but it certainly does better than my Nexus 5, and I found it worked well for my ride times.
Hardware aside, I found the software to be pleasant as well. The HTC overlays aren’t bad, and if you choose to banish them, just install the Google Now launcher and the Google keyboard from the Play store. You’ll still have some traces of HTC Android in the settings, but it’s not something I would worry much about.
The camera app is an HTC app as well, but I found it to be a non issue. It has an emphasis on that front camera but isn’t any better or worse really than the Google camera app that I find to work well enough. The hardware shutter button is another nice detail in terms of camera use. Although, at least running the google now launcher, it required a long press to start the camera app vs just being able to press it and quickly get to the camera. This would not be ideal in some cases, but at least it’s there.
You do need to download the apps to get the ANT radio working. They aren’t just built-in, but they work. And it’s probably a good thing it works that way, since it gives more choice going forward. I think Google should just build in native ANT hardware support, but as long as they haven’t done that, then downloading the apps isn’t a big deal.
In terms of the Android version, HTC has said that they will be updating the Desire Eye to Marshmallow, but they don’t currently have a date. That is the same thing Sony did, and they didn’t follow through, but I can’t really comment as to what the future will hold. I can tell you that the difference between Android Kitkat and Android Lollipop is huge while the difference between Lollipop and Marshmallow is not. If they do fail to update it, you’d be stuck, but it will be less of a loss than the Sony users have to deal with.
The bottom line for me is that this is a good phone for cycling and in general. It has cases available for it, an oddity of the z3v is that there were very few options in the case department, it’s got ANT, and it’s waterproof. The battery isn’t the longest out there, but it’s good enough to be workable, and the software doesn’t get in the way. The selfie camera might not be the first thing you’d consider as a must have feature, but it turns out you might actually appreciate it. If you want the absolute cutting edge phone, this isn’t it, but if you need a good phone with features you might really use, then I’d say this is it.
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