Hands-on with the HTC RE camera and Desire Eye phone

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Credit: Florence Ion

We live in an age where snapping selfies and shooting scenery is as much about showing off to our friends as it is about making memories. But how can you live in the moment if you’re too fixated on what your smartphone is doing?

That’s the conundrum inspired HTC when it conjured up the HTC RE, a $200 16-megapixel “lifestyle” camera that’s intended to inspire you to be more present in the scene. The device was announced on Wednesday in New York City alongside the Desire Eye, a mid-range Android phone equipped with 13-megapixel cameras on both the back and front.

Both products signify a serious shift in HTC’s product focus, and while the company made it explicit that smartphones will continue to be its main raison d’etre, both the HTC RE and Desire Eye signify the beginning of a new era for the Taiwan-based company.

And now for something completely different

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“Well, hello there! I’m HTC’s new camera. If you put googley eyes on me, I’d probably look like a real thing.”

HTC is normally known for its Android-powered smartphones, but the RE is something completely different. It’s a 16-megapixel camera with a toy-like, periscope-shaped body, and it’s quite a departure for the company. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The HTC RE is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Direct, an HD microphone, a speaker, and a capacitive “grip sensor” that enables you to turn on the camera by simply gripping the device with your hands. It also features a 146-degree wide angle lens and a standard tripod connector, and it’s IP57 waterproof.

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That big button controls most of the RE’s functions.

The RE camera is fairly easy to use, though there’s a bit of a learning curve. There’s a main “shutter” button of sorts on the top, a smaller “options” button on the front, and an expansion slot to pop in your own microSD card—up to 128GB. (The RE comes bundled with an 8GB memory card to get you started.) To snap a photo, press the main button once, or long press it to start recording a video. You can then press the “options” button to switch between recording modes, or to turn off the camera entirely.

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It’s supposed to look like a periscope. HTC said it shaped it this way to make it more ergonomic.

This whole process will require a bit of practice and memorization on your part, but it’s par for the course with some of the other action and lifestyle cameras out there. The Polaroid Cube, for instance, requires one long press of the button to turn on, one push to snap a photo, and the two pushes to start filming a video. Regardless, you won’t be able to truly “point and shoot” until you learn the Morse code-like operation that’s required of using the RE camera. 

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Don’t move or I’ll shoot! And then post it on YouTube. 

I’m not entirely sold on the elongated shape of the RE, either. You’re supposed to hold it up like a gun—giving new meaning to the whole “point and shoot” motif—and while it’s certainly easier than gripping a smartphone and holding it up to shoot a moment, it’s...just such a different way of holding a device. For the record, I had no problem taking selfies with it. Not that I tried (I did). 

You can tether the RE to your Android device via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct, and then use the live view finder feature in the companion app to frame photos and videos. The app also enables you to peruse through the photos and video you’ve taken with the RE, as well as set up some of the device’s other camera shooting modes, like Time Lapse, which takes up to 1000 photos at a variable rate.

I was surprised at how well the app and camera worked in tandem—even the Live View worked without any stutter. I’m curious to see how this all performs on a phone with mid-range hardware, however, since the phones we were allowed to use were the Snapdragon 801-equipped Desire Eye.

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A few snapshops of the RE’s companion app. From left to right: gallery mode, playback mode (in this case, me in slow motion), and the Live View mode. 

I didn’t get to keep any of the photos or videos I shot with the RE, but the end result was very “action” like. They resemble something a GoPro would produce, and since it’s a wide-angle lens, it seems to works particularly well with outdoor situations or large rooms where there’s lots of detail (and people) to include in the frame. The real test will have to happen once we have the device in our hands and can properly set up the RE for a head-to-head with some of its competitors. 

This device is a bold move for HTC, and though the company has started to see an upswing in its financial earnings, it still has a long way to go before it reigns at the top as it did a few years ago. “Right now, we’re in a transitional period…we’re trying to expand our purviews,” said Drew Bamford, HTC’s Vice President of software design, in a closed meeting with journalists on Monday.

The HTC RE is supposed to be a product for the “non-adrenaline junkies” with the ability to produce high quality shots without costing a premium price. Once you get over the awkwardness of holding the thing, the RE is a nice little entry-level action camera for those who want to simply capture memories without any distractions.

A phone with two 13-megapixel cameras

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HTC’s Desire Eye.

HTC’s Desire Eye is a phone that’s all about its cameras. In fact, nothing else about it stands out more than then fact that it has two 13-megapixel camera sensors—one on the front, and one on the back. There are also two LED flash bulbs embedded on both sides of the device’s white polymer casing, which means you’ll be able to take aptly lit selfies in the darkest of rooms (which leads us to ask: why are you taking selfies in dark rooms?).

Inside, the phone is powered by a blazing Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM. That’s a huge step up from any of the other mid-range phones out on the market. In fact, the only thing noticeably “mid-range” about this device is its plastic casing. It doesn't feel "cheap," either. 

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The backside of the Desire Eye. 

At a glance, the phone actually looks like an iPhone 6 Plus. It’s just a tad thicker than Apple’s new plus-sized phone, but it has a bit more character with its red-colored plastic band around the outside. It’s also really comfortable to use, and the sharpness of its 5.2-inch Full HD display is immediately noticeable once you turn on the screen. 

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The Desire Eye has Dual LED flash on the front, too. 

If you were just to glance at the hardware specifications sheet, you likely wouldn’t believe that this was a mid-range device. HTC said that the idea behind the Desire Eye was to put all the processing power from a flagship phone into a device that was an affordable alternative for those who couldn’t foot the bill for the aluminum-outfitted One (M8)

I didn’t have enough time to test the camera quality against the One (M8), but its performance was comparable. There was no shutter lag and the software was just as easy to navigate—one tap to quick change camera modes, of which you can choose from a variety, including: Screen Share, Face Tracking, Split Capture, Live Makeup, Auto Selfie, and Photo Booth. These features aren’t Eye exclusives, though they are dubbed the “Eye experience.” HTC said other phones will eventually get these shooting modes, but frankly I don’t think it should be in any rush. There are already plenty of apps in the Google Play Store that do this sort of thing.

The Desire Eye is a fantastic looking mid-range device—I already like it more than the HTC Remix, a miniature version of the One (M8) that just costs too much. What you get here is a seriously stylish runner-up in HTC’s device lineup, though unfortunately it’s launching exclusively on AT&T. There’s also no pricing available for it just yet, so we have no idea how much the Eye will actually cost. Its success will likely depend heavily on whether budget conscious consumers see the value in having both a rear- and front-facing 13-megapixel camera, though it will also depend on how well it can market it against the mid- to low-end devices that tend to nix photo quality to keep the cost down. 

This story, "Hands-on with the HTC RE camera and Desire Eye phone" was originally published by Greenbot.

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