HTC has done more for Australia than you realise. It was the first big manufacturer to introduce Android into the country via a major telco, and went on to make some incredible gear. Things tapered off in the last few years, and we wondered if we would ever see an Android-powered HTC handset that made us believe in the company again. Enter the HTC One: the saviour, the hero, the new yardstick.
What Is It?
Put simply? The HTC One is a beast in a shiny, silver jacket.
Underneath the bright, 4.7-inch, 1080x1920 (469ppi) Super IPS LCD3 display hides a monstrous 1.7Ghz quad-core Snapdragon 600 chip, 2GB RAM, a 4-megapixel camera with Ultrapixel technology and either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, all kept juiced by a 2300mAh lithium-polymer battery.
On top of the hardware sits HTC's re-imagined vision of its proprietary Android UI, named Sense 5. Sense has been re-engineered to act as less of a shortcut-based Android launcher, and instead stand-in as a more mature hub on your home screen. That sounds vague but it's actually a tour de force from a manufacturer previously guilty of producing one of the most annoying UIs in the business. Sense 5 aggregates content from global news sources as well as your apps and important social networks, and lets you completely customise what is displayed for you.
Once you have selected what you want in your feed, Sense 5 formats it beautifully into an infinitely scrollable, Flipboard-style news reel complete with beautiful images, clever formatting and smooth animations.
Could a manufacturer's-own Android UI actually be good for a change?
As we mentioned, HTC hasn't done so well for itself in the last few years. Despite tremendous handsets like the One X hero from last year and the Windows Phone-powered 8X, profits continue to tumble. HTC decided it needed to build something that would blow the doors off the mobile market.
Great innovation is often born out of hardship, and the troubled manufacturer has certainly pulled out every trick it has to overhaul the smartphone experience to make it amazing for the One, and whaddaya know: it's working.
As usual, HTC has built a gorgeous handset in the One. It's large without feeling bulky, thin without feeling flimsy and has sexy curves in all the right places. It fits into your hand like the two of you were made for each other.
Design is one thing HTC has always done well, though. What it really needed to perfect was how the phone would interact with the user.
When building what would sit inside the One, HTC decided it had to overhaul four key areas that it thought others weren't doing well enough: camera, content, entertainment and sound. Bold ambition, but how has it done on each front?
In its quest to fix cameras, HTC invented a special little app on top of it that it calls "Zoe". Stupid name? Yes. Amazing feature? Absolutely.
Zoe follows a similar principle to other timeshift cameras: take a few seconds of video, choose the best frame for your photo and there you have it. Zoe, however, is like timeshifting on steroids. It makes face detection and timeshift features incredibly useful by adding a bunch of nifty retouching options.
Someone not smiling in your photo? That's cool. Select just their face and scrub your footage to find if that person ends up pulling a better face. The rest of the photo stays untouched. Is there a shadow across someone's face? No drama. Boost the exposure just on their face and you'll be fine. Someone photobombing your shot? That's fine. Select their stupid photobombing face and mark it as something you want gone, and Zoe will put your primary subjects on top of the background action it saw when that douchebag wasn't there.
My favourite feature to mess with, however, is the Sequence Shot, which is super-important for people who love a good action shot. Take three seconds of video with Zoe and hit the Sequence Shot button to have it distilled into a multi-frame action scene of your buddy's backflip, bike trick or faceplant. It's awesome. And because all of this software sits behind HTC's new 4-megapixel camera with Ultrapixel technology, you're going to get a great-looking shot.
Speaking of HTC's new camera-marketing buzzword, how does Ultrapixel technology hold up against regular cameras. HTC says that because the sensor has bigger pixels than the sensors of other cameras, it's able to pick up light better. Check out the low-light comparisons below.
Click to enlarge...
Nokia Lumia 920
Apple iPhone 5
Bottom line? The HTC One and the Lumia 920 are a dead heat: both as pretty as each other. The HTC produces more natural colours in my opinion, while the Lumia often throws yellow into the image to compensate for the low-light.
The speakers on the One are loaded with Beats Audio enhancements, and despite the appearance of yet another obnoxious marketing buzzword, the sound is actually goddamn incredible. This tiny handset produces bigger sound than most ultrabooks. It's full, it's clear, it's bangin'.
Sense 5 makes up a large portion of HTC's push back towards Android-relevance. Instead of just being a boring shortcut-based launcher that slows just about everything on your handset down, HTC decided to make its own skin around Android to improve the OS. Choose your feeds from anywhere in the world and Sense 5 formats it into a nice little digital zine right there whenever you unlock your phone.
If you don't like that particular aspect, however, you can choose to have the phone unlock itself on a Sense 4-like homescreen or just straight have it dunk you straight into the app drawer itself.
I hear what you're asking next, though: wouldn't a heavier UI, a super-bright screen and a bunch of camera and speaker tech crush a handset? Normally, the answer would be yes, but HTC isn't done yet.
Under the hood, the One is a power plant. It outperforms every Android device we have ever benchmarked, including the weaponised Nexus 10 tablet from Google. That makes it stronger than the iPhone 5, Sony Xperia Z and the Samsung Galaxy Note II. To give some real perspective: there are laptops that dream of being as powerful this smartphone.
All up, I'd say HTC is close to hitting a home run with the One.
Zoe is great but you have to be really specific with the shots you take for some features to work. Sequence Shot needs the subject to be dominating the frame, and even when it does, it still skips a few frames that you really want in there, and Object Removal requires the idiot you want removed from the photo to have moved into shot after you hit the capture button so that Zoe knows what's behind them. It's brilliant, but not perfect yet.
Sense 5's BlinkFeed content home screen is also fantastic, but it doesn't refresh itself nearly as often as it should. It's meant to placate hardcore news junkies as well as so-called "information snackers", so why does it only update once every few hours? Perhaps these are the unrealistic demands of a journalist, but a few more frequent updates wouldn't have hurt anyone, except maybe the battery, which is already pretty disappointing.
The One isn't a light handset in terms of what it actually has running on it, so you'd think that HTC would throw a sizeable battery at the device. Turns out it sort of did: 2300mAh is in board to do the job, but even still, the device chews through its charge power in about 8 hours with heavy use. You'll be scrambling for the charger at 10 hours. The fact that the battery is integrated into the handset will frustrate some folks, too.
As our US counterparts mentioned, the video leaves quite a bit to be desired and it's disappointing that a new, hero handset won't feature the latest version of Android when it hits the shelves. The lack of expandable storage is also a bit of a bummer, especially when every photo you take is a three-second video which then becomes a still or three later on. You wind up chewing through your storage space pretty fast.
Should You Buy It?
The One is HTC's true return to form. For so long it had been out in the wilderness, wasting its talent designing middling smartphones designed for pre-paid markets and band-aiding the ones it already made. Much like the Xperia Z represents the mojo-tastic comeback over at Sony, the One is HTC's blockbuster. I'd say that both of those handsets are infinitely more impressive than Samsung's Galaxy S IV that was announced last week, and the best part is that you can go out right now and buy it, instead of having to wait for months to get your hands on it.
HTC trimmed down its product line last year to make way for the One series, and up until now, there has never really been one that has blown the doors off the Android market. The One represents that explosive return to form. The One is the One that we deserve.
HTC has tied with Sony for the best Android phone on the market right now. That's something I had always wanted to say, but I never thought I would get the chance.