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.
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 (1920×1080 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 1920×1080 Super LCD 3 (468PPI)
Storage: 32GB or 64GB
Camera: 4MP rear (“UltraPixel”)/ 2.1MP front
Battery: 2300mAh Li-Ion