HTC Desire 530 Review: More Drip Than Splash

"Your phone looks filthy," my wife said when she caught a glimpse of the HTC Desire 530 I had just pulled out of my pocket. It is safe to say that probably is not the reaction HTC is hoping for with its $179 unlocked Android phone, whose major calling card is the dotted design splashed across its back.

But HTC's budget phone offers more than just a pretty (or not, as I would argue) face. It packs some pretty good cameras on both its front and back and offers more than enough battery life to satisfy most users. Unfortunately, a feeble processor and subpar display are the Desire 530's undoing, as it's unable to match similarly priced phones.

A drip of a design

HTC says the Desire 530 features a micro splash finish, with little multicolored dots splattering the back in a random pattern so that no model has the exact same look. I'll concede that the dots look fairly striking in photos of the Blue Lagoon model of the phone. But my review unit was white, and the tiny orange-and-gray dots struck me as more Pig-Pen than Pollock, like I had left my Desire 530 too close to a dinner plate while I slurped gravy.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideAt least the Desire 530 is noticeably light, weighing in at just 4.9 ounces. Several times while testing the phone I absentmindedly stuck it in the same pocket where I kept my iPhone SE, and I barely noticed the extra phone, even though the Desire is a full inch taller than Apple's compact iPhone.

If you think plastic cases give phones a cheap overall feel, you won't care for the Desire 530's polycarbonate shell. Personally, I didn't mind it and thought the slightly rounded edge made the phone easy for me to grip. HTC also made the power button a different color from the volume rocker, which is jarring to the eye, but at least means you don't inadvertently press the wrong button, as I'm prone to do when they're on the same side of the phone.

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Squinting at the screen

The Desire 530 has a 5-inch display that's so glossy I could often see my reflection in it. That's fine if I want to use the phone to check my hair, but not so good when I can see my face superimposed over The Usual Suspects streaming on Netflix. The Desire 530 also struggles in sunlight. On a July day with scattered clouds, I had to strain to make out the on-screen controls, even after fumbling my way into Settings and cranking up the display to maximum brightness.

That's because the 1280 x 720 display on the HTC Desire isn't very bright — just 285 nits when we measured it with a light meter. That's well behind the average smartphone's reading of 441 nits, and a trio of well-regarded budget phones — the Moto G4, the Alcatel Onetouch Go Play and ZTE's Zmax 2 — all outshone the comparably priced Desire.

The Desire 530 handles colors a little better. Fenster's red shirt popped while I watched The Usual Suspects, and Wonder Woman's magic lasso flashed brightly across the scene when I watched a trailer for that upcoming movie via YouTube. The Desire reproduces 106 percent of the sRGB color gamut, behind the category average of 132.6 percent, but in line with the Moto G4 (110 percent) and the Go Play (103 percent).

HTC's phone struggles with color accuracy, though. While its Delta-E rating of 3.5 is better than the average smartphone's 4.36 score, both the G4 (2.33) and the Go Play (0.71) are more accurate. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)

Keep your headphones handy

The Desire 530 features HTC's Boomsound technology, which boosts your phone's volume with no distortion. And it works as advertised, as Guns 'N Roses' cover of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" sounded rich and full, even when I had the volume set at only halfway.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideBut Boomsound only works with headphones. If you rely on the Desire 530's lone front speaker, the audio experience deteriorates quickly. That same Guns 'N Roses song sounded echoey out of the phone's speaker, and it only managed to fill the room with sound when I dialed up the volume to its maximum setting. Whenever characters in The Usual Suspects dropped their voice, I could barely hear what they were saying, even though the HTC Desire was right next to me.

Odds are you're going to use headphones most of the time when you listen to music or watch movies on your phone, but with the Desire 530, headphones are a necessity.

Good cameras, front and back

If you're looking for a budget shooter, the Desire 530 might fit the bill. The 8-megapixel rating on its rear camera won't impress you — not in a world where the Moto G4 offers a 13-MP shooter — but the images it produces will.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsI took a photo of the skull tiki torches that double as beanpoles in our garden — if you've got a better way to scare off squirrels, I'd love to hear it — and each individual skull stands out in the photo. The Desire 530's camera even captured distinct shades of green on a grainy fence and a nearby fig tree.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsTomatoes growing nearby also looked sharp, as the camera picked up the different colors of the ripening fruit. The Desire 530 did have a hard time with shadows, though, as the sun-drenched background looks very washed out.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsMy daughter's red hair and blue dress look sharp in this photo, and her skin looks smooth — sometimes, lower-resolution cameras can make skin look a little splotchy in my experience. As with the tomato photo, the camera struggled with sun and shadow, as you can see in the top right corner.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsBut the Desire 530's rear camera has it limits, running into problems when there's low light or motion in your shot. I took a photo of an oncoming Muni train, and everything's a blur — even the ads fixed onto the wall.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsA photo of some baseball memorabilia in my poorly lit office looked as dotted as the back of the Desire 530. Activating the flash allowed for more details to show up, but it remains a very unfocused shot.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsFor that reason, I'd stick with the Moto G4 or even the more expensive G4 Plus if I wanted a good camera phone that didn't break the bank. Those shooters have their own issues with low light, but they produce consistently better shots than what I got with the Desire 530, even though I was pleased by how HTC's phone handled color.

Credit: Philip MichaelsCredit: Philip MichaelsThings are better up front where there's a 5-MP camera to handle your self-portrait needs. My skin looks as good as possible on a man who's spent four decades ignoring basic skin care procedures, and my green shirt looks distinct from the grass in Golden Gate Park. You can even make out wisps of clouds rolling past Sutro Tower. Another selfie shot in low light wasn't as crisp, but I didn't see the blotchiness that can sometimes occur when there's not enough natural light around.

Like the rear camera, the one up front on the Desire 530 struggles if there's an unexpected movement, but you try getting a 5-year-old to sit still.

HTC supports voice commands for capturing photos and videos as well as a smile-detection feature that automatically clicks the shutter when your subject flashes her pearly whites. These features seem to only work with the rear camera, though, and not the front one, where it seems like they'd come in handy.

Underpowered performer

As mentioned, the Desire 530 is a pretty lightweight phone; it's an even lighter weight when it comes to performance. The Snapdragon 210 processor lacks any oomph and the paltry 1.5GB of RAM don't make their presence felt. There's a noticeable lag between when you tap an app's icon and when it launches. The camera app takes 4 seconds to launch, so forget about capturing those spur-of-the-moment images; they could be long gone by the time the Desire 530's camera is fired up and ready to go.

That lackluster performance was mirrored by our test results. The Desire scored a meager 1,008 on the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance. Forget that the tally is a third of the average smartphone's score of 3,133; we make certain allowances for budget phones, even if the Moto G4's score was around that average. The Desire 530 was dusted by both the Go Play (1,440) and the Zmax 2 (1,321), which, while both good budget offerings, aren't anybody's idea of a powerhouse.

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When it comes to graphics, the Desire 530 can handle a side-scrolling game like Jetpack Joyride, but a graphically intense shooter like Modern Combat 5 brought the phone to its knees. When I tried playing that game on the Desire 530, the picture would slow to a series of still images while I absorbed enemy fire like a shooting gallery target. Indeed, the Desire 530's 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited score of 4,116 once again trailed the Go Play (4,381) and Zmax 2 (4,639), while the Moto G4 (9,617) lapped the field.

A surprisingly solid battery

I wouldn't have expected a 2,200 mAh battery to outperform other phones, but the Desire 530 surprises here. In our battery test, which features continuous web surfing over T-Mobile's LTE network with the display set to 150 nits of brightness, the Desire 530 lasted 9 hours, 4 minutes. That's nearly as good as the times the Moto G4 (9:16) and Zmax 2 (9:25) turned in on our tests. The Desire 530 outlasted the Go Play by 13 minutes and stayed powered nearly a half hour longer than the average smartphone.

The Desire 530 holds up in real-world use, too. Before one testing session, HTC's phone was fully charged. After 3 hours of nearly continuous poking and prodding, the battery dropped to 73 percent. For all the complaints I have about the Desire 530, battery life isn't one of them.

Some sweet software touches

HTC sells the Desire 530 unlocked, though you can also buy the phone through T-Mobile. We tested the T-Mobile version of HTC's phone, and it came with six different apps preloaded by the Uncarrier. I spotted some HTC apps on there as well, so you're going to get a modest amount of unwanted software no matter what version of the phone you buy.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideOtherwise, this phone runs on a fairly recognizable version of Android Marshmallow with an HTC Sense skin. You can customize your wallpaper and take advantage of HTC Sense Home to access your frequently used apps at work and home, while a three-finger swipe lets you stream from the Desire 530 to speakers or a set-top box.

I was less impressed with HTC BlinkFeed, which delivers a Flipboard-like feed of news and social updates to your home screen; it seemed that BlinkFeed's news was a day or so behind the real world, but perhaps that improves with greater use.

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Bottom line

HTC's Desire 530 is not without its charms, even beyond the phone's low price tag. Both cameras deliver better photos than you might think, you get a full day's worth of power, and the Boomsound feature delivers pretty good sound through headphones.

The problem is, other budget phones offer much more, whether it's a beefier processor from the Moto G4, greater durability from Alcatel's Go Play or more value from the identically priced Zmax 2. Some will look at the Desire 530's price tag and see a decent value for a good-enough smartphone. Me, I just see spots.

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