The HTC Explorer is a very affordable touchscreen phone that does the basics well enough but with an added dash of the usual HTC style and flair.

There are a glut of inexpensive Android phones on the market now, many of which are going for slightly less than the HTC Explorer. But does the slight increase in expense go the extra mile? Should you fork out a bit more or consider a cheaper option?

At the time of writing the HTC Explorer is priced at £120-130 on pay-as-you-go with pay monthly contract details yet to be published.

We’ve spent some time with the HTC Explorer in an attempt to get to know it better and absorb the plentiful charms this fun-sized and nicely-priced phone has to offer.


HTC Explorer: Design and build

The HTC Explorer comes in a range of different jackets and colours; there’s the metallic jackets which come in navy blue and black colours and the ‘Active’ range, which feature a rubbery jacket which, while not totally ruggedised, provides a measure of grip. Our review model was a black one from the Active range, with this textured grippy coating.

Like HTC’s Sensation, Sensation XE and Titan smartphones, the back of the Explorer is one entire piece; to get at the SIM card and the battery, you literally have to peel the whole of the back off of the phone. There’s a catch at the base, so you can easily prise the phone open with a fingernail, and it snaps back in to place snugly.

The microSD card slot can also be found here and ready to play ball with up to 32GB-sized cards. Just as well - you only get 90MB of internal memory with the HTC Explorer, so a card purchase of some sort is essential. We didn’t get one with our review model, but mircoSD cards are a dime a dozen these days, at least compared to what they cost a couple of years ago.

Measuring 102.8mm x 57.2mm x 12.9mm and coming with a 3.2-inch screen, there’s no getting away from the fact that the HTC Explorer is a small phone. With that in mind it’s a snug fit in the hand. It never really feels like it’s too small.

The screen’s resolution clocks in at 320 x 480, which isn’t at all bad on the small screen size. Sure it’s not the most high-res screen but text never looks borderline-illegible. The edges of fonts and images on websites are always well defined, and brightness and contrast is strong. Viewing angles, for what its worth on a screen of this size, are also good.

Down at the bottom on the front sits four soft-key controls. These are the familiar Android buttons laid out in the regulation HTC fashion - Home, Menu, Back and Search - which allow you to easily navigate and access features of menus, web pages and apps. Soft key controls on phones towards the less-expensive end of the spectrum tend to be not that great, so we’re happy to report that this is not the case with the HTC Explorer.

On the left hand side of the Explorer there’s a micro USB port for charging/data connections, the 3.5mm jack and the power button sit on the top and over on the right there’s a volume rocker. On the back there’s 3-megapixel camera top and centre, in the middle of a metallic strip.

HTC Explorer: Interface

The HTC Explorer features HTC Sense 3.5, a layout that’s as easy on the eye as it is to use. In terms of finding your way round it’s a piece of cake.

Double tapping on the Home key when you’re at the centre homescreen launches a ‘leap’ mode, a way which allows you to quickly jump to any of the seven homescreens at once. It’s a trick that HTC has featured on many of its phones before and it works just as well here on the Explorer.

The main homescreen, as you can see from the pictures features five shortcuts to your text messages, the camera and the rest. These can be customised with shortcuts to virtually whatever you like, the Settings menu, a favourite contact, Angry Birds, you name it. Being able to create a speed dial-style menu of shortcuts to any five things is really useful.

The same goes for the customisable lock screen, another thing that HTC Android phones are known for.

When you’re unlocking the Explorer, you can either pull on the large silver ring the unlock the whole phone or drag one of four customisable shortcuts into the centre of the ring, unlocking the phone and jumping straight to the dialler, text messages, email or the camera. Or whatever you want - again, you can chop and change these shortcuts in the Settings to suit your needs the most.

It’s really easy to change the wallpaper - by default set to a vibrant spectrum of all colours - choosing from a number of pre-set backgrounds or adding your own from the gallery.

All of your text messages can be displayed in a carousel-style widget and your Facebook and Twitter feeds can be aggregated in the FriendStream widget. These are optional feature of course; you don’t have to use them.

In fact, it might be an idea to drag and drop the text message widget into the bin (hold down on the widget/’long press’ and then drag it to the trash can icon) in case you’re worried about anyone glancing at your texts as they pass by...

HTC Explorer: Browser

The HTC Explorer’s default browser is the same one found in most HTC Android phones and thus comes with all the bonuses (and limitations) that this offers.

Perhaps the best thing about the browser is that you get a whol host of pop-up disablers plus the ability to make plug-ins (for Flash stuff) optional.

This means that while you’re able to watch Flash videos on sites like Newgrounds on an on-demand basis, you can also block any annoying banner adverts, that’ll just eat into your data allowance and your battery. Who wants to pay to look at adverts? Not us.

Another thing we really like about the HTC Android browser is how that text on news articles automatically resizes to fit as you pinch to zoom. This is a very cool feature that’s perfect for reading news stories on the train; from the settings you can also stop the browser from loading images, saving your battery and stopping your data connection getting hammered in a 3G-less area.

The only major downside of HTC’s browser is that you’re limited to only having four windows open at once. A real kicker if you like to have lots of tabs open at the same time.

You’re of course welcome to install other web browers like Opera Mini or Skyfire any Android browser of your choice.

HTC Explorer: Multimedia and camera

Not coming with any headphones in the box we popped our own Scosche and Skullcandy headphones in to the Explorer; sound quality was surprisingly good for a small, budget phone. The Music app is fairly basic, but it’s easy to skip through tracks and organise playlists that you’ve loaded on to a microSD card.

A good selection of audio files are supported too, AACs, MP3 and WMAs (the regulars) get a look in alongside OGG, M4A, MID and WAV files too.

The camera of the HTC Explorer - 3-megapixels, no flash - is very basic. We found it to be ok at taking snaps of friends’ faces, but it’s pretty poor for long-distance shots; good luck trying to capture a decent photo of that beautiful sunset. The lack of a flash also means that it performs poorly in dark or dimly-lit areas.

You get a good amount of effects filters thrown in like Sepia, Negative and Solarize which are fun to mess around with. These are ok for fun snaps, but not much else. The video quality is nothing special either; sound is pretty muddy and video quality is blurry if your left-right pans are too quick.


HTC Explorer: Performance

Aside from the camera, we’re really impressed with the overall performance of the HTC Explorer. Given that it’s not a top-of-the-line multi-core processor smartphone with a gigantic screen, it’s an incredibly slick operator.

Flicking left and right through the menus, web pages and homescreens is very speedy and slick; not once did we notice any majorly disagreeable lag. Even with our big hands, we found texting on the HTC Explorer fluid and easy. It’s generally a very nippy and responsive phone.

We struggled a bit with Google Maps on the Explorer, which sometimes took a while longer to load than we’d have liked. It otherwise works well - given the small screen and comparatively low resolution, we weren’t expecting mircales here. But for locating train stations or that pub your friends are in you can - just about - make good use of the Explorer for this.

It won’t be able to cope with many of the big, higher-end titles available form the Android Market - Grand Theft Auto III simply didn’t want to know - but casual titles like Drop 7, Fruit Ninja and the rest play OK.

Battery life varies depending on what you’re doing. The spec sheet says you get 7 hours and 40 minutes of talk time which we’d say is probably right; a whole day of emails coming in, checking Facebook and playing the odd game and you’re looking at more like 4-5 hours. Take a charger/spare USB cable with you.


Conclusion

The HTC Explorer represents great value for money. It’s very easy to get to grips with and the layout is easily customisable. Overall performance is very smooth for a phone of this price and will more than satisfy those after an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone.

Our only real criticisms of it are that some may find it too small. That and that the flash-less 3-megapixel camera isn’t very good. If you want a cheap touchscreen phone with a better camera then you ought to consider the HTC Wildfire S, which can be had for a little more money but is otherwise very similar to the Explorer.