Rating: ★★★★☆

There’s something to be said for minimalist gadgets. Anything with just one purpose is usually built pretty well for that purpose, which is why today’s dumbphones are way better at making phone calls than smartphones. At the same time, we all want more, and we all want the ability to get more for a reasonable price. That’s where the HTC Wildfire comes in.

The Wildfire achieves a low cost in two ways: first, it’s a small device, featuring a 3.2” LCD display that’s as small as they come for an Android phone. It runs on Android 2.1, and is only 2.4” across, 4.2” tall and just shy of a half-inch thick. The capacitive touchscreen is smooth and fluid, and four touch-sensitive buttons below it allow for easy navigation through the operating system. Finally, a center, selector button has a sensor built into it to read finger movements, similar to a trackball, which provides easy scrolling for anyone who is used to Blackberry or just likes having the function.

Second, it runs on Alltel’s wireless network, instead of a major carrier like Verizon Wireless or AT&T. That means Alltel (which is owned by Verizon) typically works well in mid- to highly-populated areas, like cities. Testing the phone in Los Angeles county, including regions like downtown LA, Santa Monica, Northridge and Malibu, call quality was spotty the further away from the city I got, but still pretty good. It should be noted that leaving areas with coverage will put the phone on roaming, which will drain the battery faster and cost more per call.

The combination of these two may make or break your purchase of this phone immediately. Because it’s a lower-end model, there is no expectation that it will receive any updates to Android, which effectively limits the number of applications available for the device moving forward. Right now, that’s a non-issue, but with the expected release of Android 3.0 sometime in February, it may be just a few months before developers make applications that work only for newer OS versions.

On the same token, the weaker CPU may limit some application’s functions. The 512MB of RAM and 384MB ROM is excellent considering the small form factor, but the 528MHz is weak by today’s standards. Even then, the phone is surprisingly fast and smooth. Switching between applications is quick and snappy. Going from one screen to the next is fluid. Even an intensive built-in app like Maps is nearly as fast as on a Galaxy S phone or the iPhone, limited only by the data connection.

The HTC Wildfire, above the HTC Desire and Motorola Droid 2

But when it comes to third party applications like games and e-readers, the Wildfire tends to be extremely slow. Even playing Angry Birds, a very light game, is slow as the game chugs along between 5-15 frames per second. For basic phone functions, the Wildfire works very well, but outside of that app quality suffers. Which is odd, considering how smooth the phone is otherwise.

In fact, thinking that the Wildfire isn’t the right phone for you because it’s relatively weak when compared to other phones is a huge mistake. This phone will surprise users with how clean and fast it really is. HTC really did a great job in optimizing the phone with their HTC Sense Android overlay. The only reason someone wouldn’t want to buy this phone, based on the hardware, is the small and low-resolution (320×240) display, and because some more intensive apps will run poorly.

The Wildfire feels good to hold in the hand. It’s easy to grip in either hand, and I had no problem selecting any part of the screen with my thumb, without adjusting my grip. The power/standby and volume buttons are well balanced and easy to press. The battery panel is very tightly fitted, to a fault, and is somewhat difficult to open. However, compared to other devices which are far too easy to open, this is a nice change. The SD card can be removed without removing the battery. Alltel Wireless does not use SIM cards.

Along with the standard phone functions, the Wildfire also has a built-in FM radio, which is a feature every phone should have. Unfortunately, the radio only works when plugged into an external speaker source (headphones or speakers) because the phone uses those headphones as an antenna. Reception is poor because of this. Sitting still in a spot with very good reception using a standalone FM radio, reception on most local stations was clear, and on all good enough to listen to. With the Wildfire, the radio worked on a total of five local stations. Of course, users can opt to stream radio over their data plan using apps like iheartradio, but I think having an option for FM radio is a huge convenience.

Camera quality is mediocre for day shooting or in well-lit conditions, but poor for night shots. The lens is too slow to capture low-light shots fast enough, and bright light sources are too pronounced. Day shots lack detail and are too soft. The camera has many options, including adjusting the contrast, saturation, brightness and sharpness, but these don’t help produce better images. Video quality is sub-par, and only allows for a maximum resolution of 352×288. Suffice it to say, the camera on the Wildfire is best used only under emergency situations, or when there is no other choice. See the sample images below:

The HTC Wildfire is simple, sleek, slim and convenient in so many ways. It lacks a bright future more advanced Android models promise, but for someone who’s just moving up to a smartphone or wants a trustworthy device that won’t falter, the Wildfire is an excellent choice. Alltel, however, is not, and in fact their service is undoubtedly the limiting factor for the device. In the UK the Wildfire is more freely available, but if you’re in the US, chances are you won’t even get passed Alltel’s website zip-code entry. It’s a shame because if more people had access to the Wildfire, a generation of dumbphone users could have an in-between phone at a low price, with almost no compromises.

Amazon has an unlocked HTC Wildfire for $289 with free shipping.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.