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It Took Five Years To Make A Beautiful Android Phone

Android has become an enormous success in part by appealing to a lot of people who don’t prioritise aesthetics. It’s no wonder it’s been ugly for half a decade. But it has finally spawned a truly gorgeous object for everyone: the HTC One.

Google’s take on phones was never meant to be pretty — it was just supposed to do all the things the iPhone could. All that mattered was that big touchscreen and Computer Lite things, like email and internet. And it did! It was rough, but, hey, so was the first iPhone.

As the software advanced into a fantasy cartoon playground for people who care about custom ROMs and spending hours tinkering with settings, the hardware stalled. Every new Android phone was like every other Android phone — and not in an Ah, slight refinement! way. Just a lazy way. Just a, Hey, let’s make this part red now way. All smartphones are basically just glass rectangles, but the Android lineage has never cared to be anything more — never put any attention into powdering its pedestrian little face.

And so for the past half-decade, we’ve been buying phones like these.

Jetson family heirlooms.

Black chunks.

Early-aughts throwbacks.

Oh, come on.

This looks like an Alienware PC and that’s not a compliment.

This rectangle is shiny.

These rectangles look like they fell out of Mad Max’s pocket.

Even the mega-hype Galaxy S 4, with internal components of the deities, is identical to what came before it. Just another plastic candy shell.

OK, but here’s the HTC One. It’s not an anonymous black rectangle, a chintzy plastic slab, or wrapped in some kind of x-treme GI Joe kevlar muumuu. It’s machined out of aluminium with the kind of industrial grace and attention that I’ve seen from the iPhone 5.

Tiny details abound and — with the exception of the just-short-of-barf Beats branding on the back — all of them sing.

The delicate grille above and below the large, crisp screen is yanked straight of the Dieter Rams/Jonny Ive lovechild playbook. It’s a little bit of ornamental abstraction, a little bit of functional kick if you’re triggering the speakerphone, and something that gives the handset an actual visage — some personality. It has charm. And when we’re staring at something every single day of our lives, it’s important that it looks back at us with even a faint wink of warmth.

The One’s back and front are friendly in every way that Android is stubborn or overwrought, cold and alienating, while still looking everything like a sophisticated and powerful little computer. There’s no Fisher Price DNA here, or Nokia’s occasional brush with infantilism. Nothing dinky. Nothing effete.

And maybe even more interesting than Apple, standing here in March 2013? Yes, I think so. That’s not to say it’s better than the iPhone, or necessarily worse, but HTC’s managed to build a phone that looks beautiful without aping anyone. It didn’t show up to the salon with a glossy cut-out page of some A-lister’s hair. It is its own beauty, and that’s enough to be a wonderful beauty.

This doesn’t excuse HTC’s bloated, totally superfluous software skin. It doesn’t do much to fix Android’s ethos of DIY ROM-modding, touchscreen Tinker Toys for IT Lotharios. It won’t change that. But it might shift Android away gradually from the kind of phone you get because it’s free on-contract — or because it’s the only phone that will let you tinker all day long. It might make Android the kind of software that’s put in a beautiful tiny home made out of aluminium, with a slender curved back and Space Age detailing. It might make beautiful Android phones — even the inexpensive ones, because, yes, HTC, we know you can do it! — the rule, rather than the once-in-five-years pleasant surprise. Most of all, it might make Android an appealing decision rather than a rational one.