review There’s a new category of smartphone out there — the super-phone. Dozens of new smartphones get released in Australia every year, but usually there’s only a handful that matter and gain sales momentum. Does the HTC One do enough to make it into this class? Read on to find out.
Note: Sections of this article are largely identical to our previous preview of the HTC One. If you’ve read that article and are only interested in how the HTC One performs in the wild, we recommend you skip the ‘Design’ and ‘Features’ sections and skip to ‘Performance’.
We’ve always really liked the physical design of HTC’s handsets, and the company has dialled its efforts up to maximum with the One. There are definitely elements of previous HTC models here — the One X/XL and S particularly come to mind, but with the One HTC has taken its already stellar design sense one step further, integrating much of the ethos which we liked in previous HTC models with some of the more finessed style found in Apple’s iPhone 5.
The One is similar in size to HTC’s previous One X/XL models, which you would expect given that it features a similar 4.7″ screen. However, its casing is fundamentally different — being composed of aluminium, not unlike the casing of the iPhone 5. This casing comes in either dark grey/black or silvery white (we reviewed the silvery white model). Also, unlike some HTC models, which have had a tapered feel, or the iPhone 5, which is flat, the back of the One is slightly curved towards the centre in a way which reminds us a little of Apple’s new iMacs.
HTC has also taken cues from the iPhone 5 with the chamfered edges of the One. And, as with the iPhone 5, it has cut down the amount of casing which surrounds its large screen on both the left- and right-hand sides, as well as above and below the screen. Of course, the usual HTC volume rocker button can be found on the right-hand side of the smartphone, the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack sit on top, and a micro-USB port sits on the bottom. The buttons are composed of the same aluminium as the case, meaning they are a little tougher to push in than most smartphone buttons we’ve used, but also that they feel good and look stylish. The camera is in the usual place on the back, and there’s a front-facing camera and two rather large speakers on the front.
There’s one unusual element to the One’s design in that one of the normal three Android capacitive buttons (the multi-tasking button) has been removed, with only the home and back buttons remaining. The One has a moderate weight, with a solid feel in the hand at 143g, and it measures 137.4 by 68.2 by 9.2 mm.
Perhaps the standout features of the One’s physical design is, as with most smartphones of this generation, its screen. The One’s screen is beautiful, bold, bright and clear, and floats in the middle of its casing delightfully.
In general we’d have to say this is the best-feeling HTC smartphone we’ve played with, and given how strong the company’s design ethos has been for some time, this is a real statement. You won’t want to put the One down after you’ve been playing with it for a while; it feels like the perfect merging of the design philosophies of HTC and Apple, and while that might give some of the intellectual property lawyers a headache, we absolutely love it. The One screams quality in all aspects of its physical design.
If we had any complaints to make about the One, they would be in that the device does feel a little heavy compared to other high-end models on the market (the Galaxy S4, for example, is 13g lighter at 130g), and its curved back makes the One feel a little bulkier than we like. However, these are minor quibbles about a phone which is clearly one of the best-designed on the market. Everyone about the One just says “class”, very loudly.
The One is one of the most advanced handsets you can buy right now when it comes to its featureset. Seriously — this is one handset which is pretty much in a class of its own right now, with only Sony’s Xperia Z and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 challenging it.
The One’s beating heart is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core CPU running at 1.7GHz. It comes with on-board storage of 32GB or 64GB, depending on which model you buy, and 2GB of DDR2 memory. It supports the 1800MHz 4G/LTE networks used in Australia by Telstra and Optus (as well as Vodafone), and supports NFC for mobile payments. The micro-USB port used for charging and synching can also be used as a HDMI output connector with a special cable, and there’s also an infrared connector that is designed to be used to communicate with your television. The battery is a 2300mAh model.
The One features dual frontal speakers with “built-in amplifiers”, a high-definition microphone and what HTC is boasting as “studio-quality sound” with its Beats Audio partnership. We’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Beats Audio, but the One’s speaker setup does look to put most other smartphones to shame at this point.
And then we get to the really good stuff.
The One’s 4.7″ screen does full HD at a resolution of 1080p (1080×1980), which delivers it a pixel density of 468 pixels per inch. To say this is incredible is an understatement. For comparison, the next-closest smartphone in terms of screen pixel density is Sony’s just-released Xperia Z, which has a pixel density of 441 PPI; this comes about because the Xperia Z has the same resolution as the One, but a slightly larger screen at 4.7″. For comparison, the iPhone 5’s retina display only does 326 PPI. HTC is touting the One’s screen quality as the best on the market, and it is pretty amazing. You won’t be able to see any individual pixels on this baby. It’s that good.
Then there’s another major new feature in the form of the One’s main camera. In 2012, much of the smartphone industry standardised on eight megapixel cameras. In 2013, Sony has already gone larger to 13 megapixels, but HTC has actually gone the other way, to a smaller pixel rating of four megapixels. The catch is that HTC has developed what it terms ‘ultrapixels’ which let its smartphone cameras capture dramatically more than conventional cameras. In short, HTC’s megapixels are probably not directly comparable to other megapixels.
And then there’s a bunch of extra HTC software and customisations bundled which you may or may not like, depending on your personal preference.
Firstly, you’ll need to get used to a home screen takeover called HTC BlinkFeed. HTC describes it as a “bold new experience that transforms the homescreen into a single livestream of personally relevant information such as social updates, entertainment and lifestyle updates, news and photos with immersive images so that people no longer need to go to separate applications to find out what’s happening”. We call it a mix of Microsoft’s Windows Phone user interface with a bunch of feeds pulled from places such as your social networking profiles … and while we’re sure many will like it, we don’t think it’s so crash hot as we generally prefer stock Android over vendor customisations. There’s also HTC’s Zoe functionality, which gives the One’s camera the ability to shoot high-res video snippets of three seconds of length — similar to the way Twitter is now doing six second videos.
The audio experience on the One has also been re-badged BoomSound, and the TV remote control functionality has been labelled HTC Sense TV. And of course a new version of HTC’s Sense overlay will be layered on top of Android 4.1.2 (with an upgrade to 4.2 in the works).
To be honest, we would rather do without all of these extra software features. The stock version of Android found on the Nexus 4 built by LG in conjunction with Google is by far the best version of Android we’ve found out there yet, and we have to say that a stock version of Android with the One’s hardware would very likely make it the best Android smartphone on the market right now, bar none. The fact that we have to deal with HTC’s layers on top of Android is annoying and we’d rather go without; but if you’re a long-time HTC user, you’re probably used to it by now.
Firstly, the feature which we most loved about the One, straight-up-front, is its sound. This may sound like a strange thing to like about a phone, but we tend to watch a lot of YouTube videos on our devices, and the One’s sound quality is in a class of its own. As soon as you start playing a video or a song on the One, you’ll notice just how much louder and better the sound quality on this smartphone is than anything we’ve seen on a smartphone before.
Most smartphones have a small speaker on their front and a small speaker on the back. But with the One, you get massive fat dual frontal stereo speakers that just make sound ‘pop’ in a way that we haven’t seen previously. Coupled with the One’s amazing screen, which is pretty much the best in the market in terms of any measure (it’s a great size, its colours and vibrancy are amazing, and it has great pixel density at 469 PPI), what this means is that the One offers one of the best multimedia experiences on the market.
Secondly, there is the overall speed and responsiveness of the One. Its powerful processor and ample specifications in every area mean you’re going to have no problems with any application you run on it. This thing runs like a dream. If you’re an Android affionado who likes performance, then you’ll love the one; it’s a powerhouse.
Unfortunately, these aspects — its physical design, its multimedia experience and its powerful specifications — are the limit of what’s great about the One. Let’s go through the reasons why.
At the moment, my standard smartphones for personal use are the Google Nexus 4 and the Apple iPhone 5. There’s a reason for this. I need to keep up with the Apple iOS world on a daily basis, and I have some apps that only exist on iOS. When it comes to Android, I vastly prefer the stock Android experience because it’s, flatly, the best. I have always hated the way that manufacturers such as HTC and Samsung love to customise Android with their interfaces and apps that I generally don’t use. So my preference at the moment is to buy a Nexus device to keep up with the Android world. If you’ve read my Nexus 4 review, you’ll know I love this model.
What the One represents, in so many ways, is everything that’s wrong with the Android manufacturers.
As soon as you start using the One, you’re confronted by HTC’s BlinkFeed, which is a widget a little like Flipboard that integrates with online news sites, as well as social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, to generate what we can only describe as an aggregator of sorts that will give you a page full of updates and images about your social networks and personal interests.
We’re sure that BlinkFeed worked well in testing for HTC. Under controlled conditions, with only a normal amount of social contacts and a few set interests, it would probably serve many consumers’ needs well. However, personally, I really didn’t like it. As a journalist, I have a lot of contacts, and BlinkFeed quickly turned into a chaotic, uncontrollable mess that I wanted to switch off.
The only thing is, you can’t switch BlinkFeed off entirely — all you can do is set another home screen as your default home screen. This is a little annoying. It’s my phone, after all — why can’t I have control over it?
This kind of HTC thinking extends to every area of the version of Android found on the HTC One. For some unknown reason, HTC appears to have decided that the way things are organised (apps, settings, the way you swipe the screen right for more apps, for example) is inherently wrong, and need correcting. What this means is that even if you’re a seasoned Android user like me, and even if you’ve used HTC Android devices before, you’re quickly going to wind up confused as you deal with the fact that this isn’t the Android you thought you knew, and you get lost just trying to change the Wi-Fi settings or turn your phone to mute. You can fiddle with quite a few settings to return the One’s UI to “sane”, but it will take you a while initially to find your way around the device.
Exacerbating this already annoying situation is the fact that HTC has rearranged its capacitive buttons. Instead of a third ‘window’ or ‘options’ button, you get a back button on the left and a home button on the right. In the middle, confusingly, is the HTC logo. This location is where I’ve been conditioned for years to click on for ‘home’, in the Android world, so I often found myself touching it, to no avail.
There’s a fundamental philosophical issue here, which HTC just isn’t getting, and that is that the stock version of Android is the best version. By adding its cruft on top, HTC is only screwing up the excellent Android default experience. I have no idea why the company isn’t content to bundle some of its apps with a default Android install and let users choose if they want to use them.
There are also other issues with the One. One of the One’s key selling points is its radically different camera. In an age where most high-end smartphones ship with 8 megapixels and some have ventured into 13 megapixel territory, HTC has actually gone backwards with the one, to four megapixels. However, along the way those pixels have gotten larger, meaning the One can theoretically capture a lot more light than most cameras, making it better in low-light situations.
Now, don’t get me wrong. HTC’s Ultrapixel technology does wonders for the One’s performance at night, particularly. I took a few shots of my family in a darkened restaurant, for example, and then repeated the same shots with an iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 barely picked up anything, whereas the One’s camera produced clear, well-lit shots. And in general, the One’s camera is very good; certainly it’s better than most other smartphone models on the market. Many people won’t notice any issues with it.
However, those four megapixels do take their toll, and in general when you blow up photos from the One, you’ll see that they’re not as well-defined close up as they appear to be. In short, the One’s camera is much better in some areas (low light, particularly) than the competition, but in other areas where others are strong, it needs improving. This is never a situation which we like to see, especially in a market such as smartphone cameras, which is already so mature.
The following shots were taken at the same time and place with the listed devices. No modifications were made — they were merely resized in Photoshop and saved as moderate quality JPGs. Click for a bigger view of each image.
Samsung Galaxy S4:
One software feature which we did like is something HTC calls ‘Zoe’. If you set it to on as part of the normal camera experience, the One will capture up to 20 photos and a three second video of whatever you’re focusing on, meaning you can easily pick the best one. This is a feature we’d like to see built in to every smartphone.
When it comes to the One’s battery, we also have concerns. Regular readers will be aware that for a while I owned HTC’s One XL as my primary smartphone, and those who have also owned the One XL can testify that that unit’s battery life is not crash hot. The One improves things in the battery department compared with the One X/XL, but not that much — you’ll usually find yourself reminding yourself to charge it every night, and it died completely on us a few times when we forgot to give it its daily juice kick.
One important thing to note here: Over the past few weeks, I’ve had four smartphones in the office: My normal Nexus 4 and iPhone 5, as well as the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. Out of those models, the clear winners in terms of battery performance are the Nexus 4 (perhaps owing to the fact that it doesn’t support 4G, a notorious battery sucker) and the Galaxy S4. Both normally last a couple of days of moderate usage.
Like the iPhone 5, the One will get you through a full day and perhaps most of a second if you’re using it for light to moderate usage, but expect to charge it regularly, and if you get into a third day without charging it, think carefully about where your next power point is coming from.
The HTC One is a very high-powered smartphone with awesome build quality, best-in-market sound and screen quality and a solid camera which takes great pictures in low light. It also comes with some innovative software features such as the Zoe camera option. These features and the overall experience of using the HTC One are enough to vault it into the top echelons of high-end smartphones available in Australia today.
For our money, there are really five high-end smartphones at the moment which we recommend people to check out if they need a new phone. There’s the Apple iPhone 5 and the Nexus 4, which are both excellent models. There’s the Lumia 920 if you like Windows Phone as an operating system. And over the past month or so we’ve gotten two new models to add to that list — the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. These are our top five — and they’re all fantastic models.
There are other models available of course — LG, Nokia and Sony have all released new high-end models recently, and even Huawei’s having a play. However, personally, from what I’ve seen, I rank these brands in the second tier of smartphone offerings at the moment. All of these companies have good models, but the Apple, Samsung, HTC and Nexus brands are out in front with epic offerings.
However, we do also have to note that the One is hamstrung by HTC’s annoying revamp of Android, and HTC has sacrificed some quality on its normal camera shots because of the low megapixel rating on the One’s camera. It’s battery quality is better than that on some previous HTC models, but it still needs work.
Because of this, we have mixed feelings about the HTC One. On the one hand, if we were to recommend a list of high-end smartphones to our friends to check out, if they’re buying a new phone, then the One would definitely be on that list. However, on the other hand, this is not the sort of phone which has left us wanting to buy one ourselves. And that does say something about the One — that HTC has screwed some things up here. We were happy to give the review unit back.
To be the best smartphone it could possibly be, the One needs one little modification which HTC has consistently refused to deliver: It needs to ship with a stock version of Android. Reviewers consistently remind smartphone manufacturers that this is a highly desirable feature which would improve their Android models, but so far, manufacturers seem very unwilling to come to the party. Perhaps you could crack the One and install CyanogenMod on it … but why can’t HTC just make stock Android an option right up front?
It’s a pity. On the other hand, Google announced at its I/O conference that it would shortly be shipping a version of Samsung’s Galaxy S4 with a stock version of Android. Now that does sound very tempting — very tempting indeed.
Image credit: HTC/Delimiter