HTC One Review: The Beauty Is A Beast

Last year, HTC made three excellent phones: the One X, the One X+, and the US-only Droid DNA. This year, it's focusing on a single dominant device: the HTC One.

It's a gutsy strategy — basically focusing all of your efforts on one device that will span across many carriers — but one that worked wonders for Samsung's Galaxy S III last year. And if any smartphone has a shot at repeat that success in 2013, it's this one.

NOTE: Tested with "international" device. This means that there was no LTE on the model we tested, and final software may be slightly different. Obviously, this will impact areas like data speed and battery life.

Read the full Australian HTC One review here

Design

The first time you see the One, there's a "Whoa..." moment. After you hold it and use it, that astonishment bleeds into awe. The One commands respect. From a hardware design perspective, this phone is unparalleled. It was machined from a solid block of aluminium, each piece taking 200 minutes to carve out. It's pretty light (143g) and thin (9mm), but it feels rock solid. The curved back sinks into your palm, while the slightly angled edges help you grip it.

On the front side of the device you find the Super LCD 3 screen nestled under Gorilla Glass 2. It's 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) spread over 4.7 inches, which gives it a heretofore unheard of (in a smartphone, anyway), 468 pixels per inch (PPI), which is excessive bordering on silly. Safe to say, pixels are invisible to the naked eye.

The bezels on the sides of the screen are very thin. Above and below the screen are speaker grates to give you actual stereo sound (more on that in a minute). At the top of the phone sits an 88-degree wide-angle front-facing camera, so you don't fill up the frame with your gigantic face when video-chatting. HTC opted to include just two capacitive buttons — Home and Back — though we would have preferred none. The microUSB port on the bottom doubles as an HDMI port (special cable required) for connecting your phone directly to a TV, although you'll also be able to do this wirelessly via Miracast. Speaking of TV, the power button on top the the device doubles as a IR blaster for using your phone as a remote control. All of the hardware buttons are flush (almost too flush) with the phone.

There are a lot of goodies under the hood too. There's what you'd expect in a contemporary high-end phone: 2GB RAM, 32GB or 64GB storage (unfortunately not expandable), NFC, Bluetooth, etc. The real star of the show, however, is Qualcomm's new Snapdragon S4 Pro 600. It's a quad-core chip clocked at 1.7GHz, and it's an absolute beast.

There's also HTC's proprietary ImageChip 2 attached to the 4MP rear camera. Yes, just 4MP, that's not a typo. HTC claims it's a totally redesigned imaging system that uses "UltraPixels" — bigger megapixels, basically — which lets in more light. The camera has an f2.0 aperture and optical image stabilisation, both of which are impressive for a phone. The battery is a 2300mAh, which is good, but we wish it had something closer to the 3300mAh battery on the RAZR MAXX HD. Then again, that would leave you with a bulkier phone.

Using It

At launch the One is running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) with HTC Sense 5.0 (the company's third-party skin) on top. Sense 5.0 is a pretty major redesign from its predecessor, and it has a lot of new features. The most prominent of those, BlipFeed, aggregates stories from your favourite news sources and social media into a more visually appealing array of tiles, much like you'd find on Windows Phone. It takes up one panel of your desktop, and while it's the default home panel, it doesn't have to be.

There are other changes in Sense 5.0 too, like a more customisable lock screen, an overhaul of the classic HTC clock/weather widget, and a new layout in the app drawer. Visually speaking, it's cleaner, more minimalist and more attractive than the old Sense, but it doesn't always work the way you want it to.

The first time the phone makes a noise, it's startling. HTC has claimed that its BoomSound (i.e. the dual frontal stereo speakers with built-in amps) gives you "bigger sound with less distortion and more detail". I was sure that was just marketing jibber-jabber. It isn't. It is hands-down the best-sounding phone I've ever heard. Listening to music on a phone's external speaker is generally an awful experience. With the One, you can turn the volume way up and it still sounds excellent (for speakers that size, anyway). You can really hear it on songs that utilise the two channels separately — there's a third-dimensionality that you just can't get from a mono-speaker. It's great for gaming too.

HTC's camera app is really nice, although it isn't as easy to switch between modes as it is on Samsung's Galaxy S IV. That said, HTC gives you a lot of granular control over the images you take, and the shutter is instantaneous. Viewing the things you shoot is much more enjoyable on the One, as the Gallery app has been revamped. It now shows automatically cut-together slideshows day by day. Basically, it gives you a little preview into the folder before you click into it which ends up being just mostly useless fun. On the video side, not only can it shoot HDR (high-dynamic range) 1080p video, but it records HDR audio. HTC claims that by using two mics tuned to different ranges (one higher, one lower), the One can cancel out distortion. Indeed, recorded audio sounded terrific for a phone camera.

We cannot give a conclusive opinion on reception, call quality or battery life until we have the US version. That said, our AT&T SIM card-wielding international unit's reception was generally pretty good. We are somewhat concerned about battery life, however. On days with moderate usage, we generally made it until 10pm before we hit 15 per cent. The day we used it the hardest (lots of mapping, web browsing, some gaming, constant emailing, a couple phone calls, and even some Wi-Fi hotspotting, all the while in and out of good/bad reception), we still made it until 6pm before it got worrisomely low. This is better than most high-end smartphones perform (though, again, nowhere near the RAZR MAXX HD), but we're nervous about what may happen when LTE gets flipped on, as it's a known battery-muncher. Consider the jury out for now.

Like

Having a high pixel count generally slows phones down, so our speed expectations were low. We were wrong! This thing is absurdly, unprecedentedly fast. How fast? It goes from fully powered off to all booted up and ready to go in eight seconds. EIGHT! Lag is all but non-existant. Apps open faster than we've seen on any other handset. Everything happening instantaneously simply makes this phone a joy to use. It's not just in our heads, either; it's been shattering benchmarks left and right.

Another pleasant surprise: the camera's UltraPixels actually live up to the hype. In our testing the One performed as well as if not better than the top smartphone shooters out there (check out our comparison). It also took better low-light (read: in bars) photos than any phone I've used, and I was extremely impressed by how accurate the colour rendering was. Now, if you're planning on printing your photos on 8x10s, maybe you'll miss the extra megapixels, but who really does that with their phone cam? For the web, you won't be able to tell the difference in resolution, and you will be able to tell the difference in low-light. Take a look at our Flickr gallery for some samples.

Also, in case you hadn't noticed, we love the design. There is just so much attention to detail. The phone is sleek, it doesn't feel bulky in your pocket, it's extremely sturdy, and it's an aesthetic marvel. We also preferred the One's display to that of the Galaxy S IV, finding it just a little sharper, a little brighter, and, most glaringly, the colours are more accurate. The little sound system on this thing is second to none.

No Like

As good as the camera is for stills, it takes very lacklustre video. The results aren't particularly sharp, and details get lost. There's also a watery, warble effect which may be rolling-shutter, or more likely, the optical image stabilisation not working quite right. Shadows get very noisy and lose almost all detail. HDR video was even worse. It helped with the contrast issues in some situations, but clarity is even worse. When light changes (i.e. if you're panning) it makes very harsh jumps up and down in an attempt to adjust the lighting. The 720p 60fps (frames per second) mode is the worst of all. Straight lines became squiggly, there's noise all over everything, and it's totally unusable. The super slow motion mode (768×432) is just as bad. It's a major disappointment that we hope will be addressed before launch (if it gets fixed, we'll update). Again, samples are in the Flickr album.

For all the accolades the One's hardware deserves, there are plenty of software disappointments. For starters, it's launching with Android 4.1. By the time this phone actually hits shelves (in April, most likely) that version of the OS will be almost a year old. For a flagship phone, you've gotta do better (Android 4.2 was released in November). Then there's Sense 5.0. As almost near-flawless as the hardware feels, the software seems rushed and unfinished, like a public beta. For BlinkFeed, why borrow from Windows Phone's Metro tiles but not copy the most useful elements? Why not include incoming messages, or allow you to set permanent tiles for specific contacts? It's pretty, but it's basically all distraction and no utility. It should be a widget, frankly, not the phone's default home screen.

Then there's the TV app that works with the IR blaster. It's a feature we really like in phones and tablets, but it feels incomplete here. The TV listings fall way short of apps like Peel (which Samsung uses) in terms of layout and utility, and the remote needs to be able to work with more devices (such as Roku) and be more flexible with button layouts.

Then there's the Sense keyboard. How can it still be this bad!? Between weirdly placed punctuation marks, and no spacing when you choose corrections, it's one of the most labor-intensive keyboards we've used. The good news is you can replace it with one of dozens in the Android Market (we prefer SwiftKey 4), and you can banish BlipFeed and most of Sense's influence by installing a third-party launcher (like Nova Launcher), so these aren't dealbreakers, but the point is that you shouldn't have to tinker that much in order to enjoy your fancy pricey phone.

The hardware underwhelms at times too; there's no expandable storage via microSD card slot. Yes, 32GB (the smaller size) is a lot of space, but if you start loading your phone with HD movies (and bigass games) for a trip, you may start to feel the squeeze. Also, though we still have to test the US version, we're still disappointed that the battery is only 2300mAh. You can subject the RAZR MAXX HD to all kinds of torture, and it's still nearly impossible to run out of juice before the sun comes up again. That is security, and phone manufacturers still don't seem to get how important that is to people. I'd trade a few dozen PPI for a longer-lasting device any day.

Should I Buy It?

While the jury will remain out until we get our hands on US devices, at this point, all signs point to yes. It's simply one of the most exciting pieces of hardware we've seen in a long time, including the Galaxy S IV. As of this moment, the HTC One is looking like the best Android phone you'll be able to buy for the foreseeable future.

The One is expected to be released in Australia in late March. No word on pricing or specific dates yet. Keep an eye out for our Australian review too. [HTC]

HTC One

Network: Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Virgin Mobile OS: Android 4.1 with Sense CPU: 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro 600 Screen: 4.7-inch 1920x1080 Super LCD 3 (468PPI) RAM: 2GB Storage: 32GB or 64GB Camera: 4MP rear ("UltraPixel")/ 2.1MP front Battery: 2300mAh Li-Ion Price: TBA


Comments

    I'm sticking to my gs3 for a while longer is my conclusion from this article.

    HTC is shaping up to be my favourite for when the time comes to upgrade.

    Great review, Just wanted to point out that at some points you have called it 'Blipfeed' and in other places the proper spelling; 'Blinkfeed'. It probably wouldn't bother many people, but I definitely noticed it. Thanks!

    Have the galaxy SII I9100 and I'm throwing up between this Phone and the Galaxy SIV. DEFINITELY going to wait and see what both phones are like before buying. Hopefully the XDA Devs come out with some good aesthetics to the software to sway me. Of Motorola comes out with that apparent XPhone, with a more nexus style UI, it may be my decider.
    Thanks for the review

    I don't understand why HTC are struggling so badly. They make gorgeous hardware and while I have seen users complaining about reliability, everyone I know with an HTC phone has loved it, all the way back to the WinMo 6.5 powered HD2. That's why I didn't hesitate to buy an 8S and despite it's status as an entry level device it has proven to be the best phone I have ever owned in almost every way. With an AMOLED screen it would be close to perfect.

    Last edited 16/03/13 1:03 pm

      I can't say for sure, but I've always felt (at least recently anyway), that HTC shoot themselves in the foot by spamming the market with flagships, and leaving the previous version behind.

      They released the One X - which was supposed to be a flagship - and then 3 months later released the One X +, and then 3 months after that, the One XL. Which one is the flagship? Why do they need to keep releasing them?

      Samsung and Apple have the 'right' idea with flagships I think. One flagship handset for the year, and incremental, significantly modified handsets if requires (Galaxy S3 4G for international markets).

        They also lose a fairly large share of the market because they don't include a removable battery or an sd card slot. Beyond those that find that factor a deal breaker, it is also a feature that is easy to compare before purchasing. I also don't think most consumers care how beautiful the back of the phone is, most people just put it in a protective case anyways.

          I'm with you there. There is no substitute for a removable battery and MicroSD slot. Unibody aluminum may be beautiful, but it is also the one thing that would prevent me from purchasing this phone.

        They could easily fix that by doing what Samsung does - call them all the same thing regardless of the internal differences. e.g. The new Galaxy S4 will be available with both quad-core and octa-core processors. HTC would give each of those models a slightly different name. Which do you think is more honest?

          Honest or not when the average dim witted consumer goes to purchase a phone and they're faced with a choice of multiple handsets from one provider it becomes to hard for them, looks like they're taking the lead from the apple/samsung camps and offering just one flagship. I hope it takes off, I had the orginal HTC deisre when it came out and my mate still uses it to run his business on and its over 3 years old now. I don't see many samsungs or iphones lasting that long.

      If I had to say one thing: battery life. It might be better now, but they had a deservedly bad reputation for battery life early on. Would not get you through the day.

        This was often the case with early android phones if you didnt know how to manage your battery (ie. turn shit off when you're not using it)

          Although this is definitely true, some handsets were better than others. I think a big part of Samsung's success was that they got the battery issues under control slightly before the other manufacturers.

            You could be right there, although I know a lot of people that had to replace the batteries on there SII's after 6 months or so but I suspect that was a bad batch that was sent to Australia, I was working for a telco at the time and everyone there that got one around the same time had the same issue with it.

        My 8S has battery life more than twice that of the other smatphones I've had/used. Right now my meter is reading 1 day 22 hours since last charge and 45% remaining. My Lumia800 had to be charged every day, although it was usually still showing at least 30-odd percent at the end of most days.

          Sounds like its improved. By the way, I hadn't seen the 8S before, but it was a sexy looking phone.

    I absolutely love this phone, but battery life is preventing me from purchasing it (or, any new smartphone)

    I have the SGS3, and while it is a great phone in many ways, I can't use it the way I would like to without battery life being a concern. I don't always have a charger with me, so having my phone available for normal call/SMS use is more important than utilising the great features these smartphones have.

    REALLY keen for a phone as good as this, with a battery that will last me 2 days of heavy usage without charge. I may be waiting a while....

      HTC One has 16.4 Hrs of 3G talktime and it tops the class !!

      The Nexus 4 has great battery life, I get 2 days of fairly heavy usage no problem, as a benchmark my HTX One X would typically be dead by 8pm after charging all night.

        That can't be true, I got 2 days for just answering phones and check FB... no games.

        With games (heavy usage), my Nexus 4 easily drops by 10 % for about 1 hour of gaming.

    I reckon the phone is great, but its just the Android Market letting it down. Is it just me, or does anyone else think this too?

      I'm with you there. I'd miss too many of my apps if I made the transition to android. It's a shame.

    I think it looks awesome, but I can see those fine front grills filling with sweat and gunk on the first hot day with it

    I'm struggling between this and the Xperia Z, while a little slower it appears the Z has better battery?

    Anyone want to swap with my GT-i9305 for the HTC. I have preferred HTC for the far better build quality but this had gone down with the one models. I think that when if comes time to upgrade I will be heading back to HTC

    The phone market will go in one of two ways.

    1: Phone makers keep trying to push the limits of hardware specs, pushing towards 3-4GB of RAM and 8 core processors, etc etc.

    2: They focus more on design and battery life.

    I honestly would prefer #2 any day over #1.

    The best looking phone by a country mile stunningly beautiful and an alluminum case not plastic well done HTC . This is on par with the iphone quality but with a bigger screen. Ithis phone is worth getting excited about. I will be dumping my S111 for this phone. Love it

    Looks really nice. Still, I'm waiting for the day when a manufacturer releases a top-range 4.3inch android smartphone. 468 PPI seems like overkill and just a drain on battery. I have a iPhone 4S and the screen PPI is satisfying enough. Release a 720p 4.3inch phone with the latest and greatest (good camera, SD slot, <10mm thick, <150g, metal construction is preferable, removable battery if possible but not vital) and I'll be more than willing to upgrade from my iPhone. The latest rounds of android phones are all too big and it's annoying to say the least. HTC 8X looks nice but I'm not sold on wp8.

    I think better wait and see what comes in e a year's time everyone is on almost same specs bit difference in design .everyone have advantages over the other while none of them ground braking technology little bit designand specks upgrade. In fact they have lot more to to give . Infact they are just rushing to announce but not ready for sale I would rather say they should have phone ready for shelves while announcing

    *also a htc owner*

    I hope the move to a single model goes well for them, a fine bit of kit indeed. Now if only they would do away with Sense and just offer a pure android xperience.

    Not exactly a big deal, but above you listed the battery spec as Li-Ion, when it is in fact Li-Po. (according to HTC's specs page).

    Another benefit of the beautiful aluminium design is that it actually helps dissipate heat better than say the polycarbonate of the luminas.
    If you want to know the ins and outs it helps to follow some HTC/Nokia/Samsung designers on twitter, hit me up if you want names.

    I want the #HTCOne for its: Design

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