HTC One Review

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HTC really, really needs the One to be a success. Their flagship One X of last year was nice on paper, but was plagued by a sub-par camera and software lag, not to mention lackluster and insufficient marketing. The new HTC One is truly different, though, even as the Galaxy S 4 is on its way out. The combination of new lofty camera claims, hardware that is undeniably beautiful and unique, and innovative features like BoomSound gets us excited about HTC’s future and their chance at getting back to financial health. Read on for our full review of the HTC One!

Video Review · Specs · Hardware ·  Comparisons · Sense 5 · Camera · Performance/Battery Life · Conclusion · Scored for Me

 

Disclosure to the reader: we tested the HTC One for 11 days.

Video Review

Note: video review gives the One a 9/10, while this written review gives it a 9.2/10. The latter score is the right one. Sorry about that!

Specs

The HTC One has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 quad-core 1.7GHz CPU backed up by 2GB of RAM (1.5GB of which is available to the user). Storage options come in at either 32 or 64GB (the 32GB model has 26GB user-accessible), and there is no way to expand storage. For wireless radios we have WiFi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0, FM radio, aGPS, and NFC. The battery is 2300mAh and is non-removable. The glorious Super-LCD 3 display is 4.7″ at 1080p 1920×1080 resolution, granting it a density of 468PPI. We’re reviewing the international model which has support for UMTS 850/900/1800/1900. The One is available in black and silver.

Hardware

Here she is. The HTC One looks truly different. The front glass panel is very resistant to smudges and fingerprints. The glass is flanked by the dual stereo amplified speakers (HTC calls it “BoomSound”), which are not only much louder than what’s on other phones, but more clear.

BoomSound is one of those features that we don’t know how we could live without. Speakerphone calls are super loud and clear, videos play back in true stereo, and listening to music is like having a mini boombox. BoomSound also helps make your alarm much louder (maybe you’ll hit the snooze button less) and it helps when navigating in your car if you’re following the voice-guided directions. What a great feature.

Here at the top we have the proximity sensor, the earpiece (which of course doubles as an external speaker), and the 2.1MP wide-angle front-facing camera. There’s also a notification LED behind the speaker grill which can blink either green or amber.

We were originally upset with HTC’s choice to include just two buttons. But after using the phone, it’s really not that big of a deal once you get used to it. It does seems strange, though, that the Home button isn’t centered. A tap and hold of the home button will bring up Google Now, and a double tap will bring up the multitask UI.

The spec sheet reveals that the One is a bit over 9mm thick, but only if you’re measuring the slope around the back. Like the Droid DNA (and many other phones these days), the edges of the One are what you feel in the hand…and those edges are a razor-thin 4mm.

The volume rocker has some nice detailing on it…kind of like an etched circular pattern.

The all-aluminum backing of the phone feels cool to the touch when you pick it up. That also means that it gets warm after a lot of use. The backing here is amazingly resistant to fingerprints and smudges.

The oversized lens contains HTC’s Ultrapixel camera, which is (for all intents and purposes) a 4MP sensor. More on the camera later in the review.

To lend some elegance to an otherwise brawny looking design, the HTC One, like the iPhone 5, has chamfered edges on the front and back. They catch the light nicely. You can also see here that the One does have some plastic: sandwiched between the top and bottom aluminum layer is a strip of white plastic.

On the bottom we have the off-center microUSB charging port and microphone hole. There’s another microphone on the back to help with noise cancellation and video recording.

Up top we have the power/standby button placed on the left (which is different for HTC). It contains an IR blaster, which we’ll talk about later. Also up here is the headphone jack.

The screen on the HTC One is incredible. It has fantastic contrast, excellent viewing angles, unbelievable clarity (at 468PPI, no wonder!), and the color accuracy is as good as, if not better than the iPhone 5. It’s a stunner.

Comparisons

For the pixel-obsessed, here’s a comparison of how the pixels look. Even at this very close distance, it’s quite difficult to see individual pixels on the HTC One. That’s what 468PPI will do!

HTC Sense 5

The problem with Sense before version 5 was that it detracted from the Android experience. It added unnecessary textures and reflections to icons and UI elements that didn’t need such complexity; it swapped the otherwise-adequate multitask UI for one that was 3D and slow; it was often slow and just cumbersome.

 
Sense 5 changes all of that. It enhances Android: the multitask UI is a handy nine-tile grid of active apps; textures and colors are flat, simple, non-distracting yet elegant; the stock applications (like calendar, email, browser, and settings) are beautiful, and so forth. Even the lock screen is simple and beautiful no matter which style you pick.

 
BlinkFeed: A well-intentioned concept, BlinkFeed, which aggregates news and social source on your homescreen in a Flipboard-like display, lacks sufficient customization to work the way you want. For example, you don’t have a choice on which items appear at the top, so you might have to flick down several times to see the start of your Facebook updates. This then begs the question: why not use Facebook, why use BlinkFeed at all? It has potential, but right now, it’s unsatisfying for those that like to have some control.

 
Homescreen, Widgets and App Tray: To the right of BlinkFeed is the traditional Android homescreen experience you’re used to. And, since this is Android, if you don’t like what HTC gives you, you can install a third party launcher like Apex or Nova. With a pinch of the homescreen, you go into the editor view, which allows you to place widgets onto up to five homescreens. All of the classic HTC widgets are there, like Weather Clock. What’s frustrating is that the 4×4 grid on the homescreen doesn’t take advantage of the high-resolution display on the One; the icons are just entirely too far apart. (If you like that battery widget, it’s a free one from Play called Battery Widget Reborn.)

 
The app tray is strange. You get a lot of stuff you never wanted: the dock, the time/weather (isn’t the time already in the upper right corner), and an entirely too small 4×5 grid. However, HTC has given you the ability to hide apps from the app tray (a feature typically found in most third-party launchers), which is going to come in handy when the One is released on carriers and gets loaded with bloat.

 
Productivity: The email and calendar apps are clean and productive. For example, the email app uses dark strips over color to represent read/unread states. Then the calendar makes especially good use of the high resolution screen. HTC Sense also makes a lot of use of pivot lists, which allow you to swipe from side to side to get different bits of information. It’s a nice way to navigate an app, and it’s very much a reflection of how stock Android works. We wish we could access the overflow button with a tap and hold of the Back button, because it’s always a stretch to reach the top of the screen to access those menu items.

 
HTC TV: Did you hear? Infrared blasters are coming back to phones! This time for controlling your TV, not for beaming data (like in the early 2000s). And you know, we’re not excited about it, yet. While it is a nicety to be able to take out your phone to change the channel if you don’t want to remove yourself from the sofa, a lot of devices are moving to RF control, which an IR blaster won’t help you with.

I set up HTC TV with my Samsung television, my Bose sound, and my Verizon FiOS cable box. It worked just fine to control the my television (power/volume, source, etc), but the other devices are hidden from sight because I use a universal remote to control everything else via RF.

The software could be a lot better. When you start the software for the first time, it asks you what shows you like and where you live, then asks about your components. Then it suggests shows for you…pressing on the shows image will take you to the right channel…but only sometimes. A lot of the time it would take me to the right SD channel, not HD. You can’t program the software to do macros (turn on TV, change source to HDMI 2, turn on receiver), which would be amazing. So, we think with some better software, HTC TV could be a real neat addition.

 
Other Stuff: As mentioned, Sense touches every built-in application, like Settings and Dialer, and that’s a great thing. Textures are flat, contrast is ideal, and navigation is generally intuitive. In the Dialer, Sense applies an interesting mosaic filter on contact pictures, which is pretty slick.

Camera

Here’s a look at how the HTC One shoots 1080p video. It has an HDR shooting mode, which increases contrast nicely, but doesn’t reproduce vibrant colors. Also evident within both video samples is a lack of sharpness, which you’ll see come through in the sample photos below.

Above is a batch of sample images, everything from close-up macro in low light, to an outdoor shot, to perhaps the most challenging low-light show of all: cityscape. These images have a lot in common. They’re good, but not great. Colors are under-saturated (in real life, the foam noses…first row, third in…are bright red; in the image, they are kind of a dark pink), there’s a lack of sharpness, even in ideal lighting conditions (consider the shot in the second row, fourth in) and low-light shots are over-processed with some very odd noise-blending happening, likely on the software end.

Granted, the One does do a valiant job at capturing an image in low-light. In fact, sometimes the One can see more light in a scene than our own eyes. It reminds us of the Lumia 920.

The images above are all taken in 2688×1520, or 4 megapixels. HTC claims that megapixels don’t matter, and that’s true, but only after a certain point. At 4MP, you cannot zoom in much because there’s not enough image data. If you were to view a photo on the Nexus 10 (which has a 2560×1600 display), you’re already at maximum resolution; again, you can’t zoom in. Megapixels do matter.

What gets us about the One’s camera is that, like with the One X, it’s been endlessly over-hyped by HTC. And so when we see shots like the above, expecting much better, we are sorely disappointed. It’s possible that with a software update, some of these issues can be fixed, but perhaps the Ultrapixel camera is just not ready for the limelight.

How does the One’s camera compare to other phones? Check out One vs. Lumia 920One vs. iPhone 5, One vs. 808 PureView, One vs. Galaxy Note II.

Zoe: When taking a still photo, you can check off the Zoe button, which will take a 6 second video, comprised of around 20 images. Why would you want that? Well, it’s an interesting way to capture memories, especially when you go back into the HTC One’s photo gallery and you see these Zoes animate. It’s a really neat way to relive an experience. Another cool part of Zoe is that you can scrub through all 20 images to find just the right image. This is helpful if someone closes their eyes by accident. The problem with Zoe is that if you have automatic upload turned on in the Dropbox app, you’ll get 20 images cluttering your feed every time you take a Zoe. HTC is working on a fix.

Highlight videos and Zoe share: Another really neat way the One’s software makes taking photos a bit more interesting is with the highlight feature. It takes photos, videos, and Zoes you’ve taken and combines them into a video with music and camera effects. You can choose which content is used, which song to play (there are very few options right now), or the One can do it automatically. If you don’t have enough images, the highlight can get very repetitive, even though it’s only 31 seconds long. Then you can share a link to your highlight video with HTC Share, like the one above.

Performance

In day-to-day performance, the HTC One provides a lag-free, fast experience no matter what you’re doing. Whether you’re bouncing between apps, opening a folder, playing a game, typing an email, or browsing the web, the HTC One operates at a consistent and rapid pace. It’s very satisfying to use because it always keeps up, and that’s something we seldom get to say about a phone we review.

Here’s a look at how the HTC One performs in the benchmarks.

Quadrant: 12,204

Geekbench 2: 2851

Battery Life

Battery life on the HTC One is no worse or no better than other flagships like the iPhone 5, Galaxy S III, or Lumia 920. With moderate to heavy use, you’ll get through a 12-14 hour day without needing a charge. If you’ll be out for a late night, you’ll definitely want to charge the phone, or else you might run out of power. The Qualcomm 600 chipset has Quick Charge 2.0 which is supposed to charge devices very quickly. The One must have this disabled because charging time from 0% to 100% is around two hours, which is average.

The One has a battery saver option that lives in your notification shade and cannot be removed. What’s interesting about battery saver is that it has very little perceptible impact on the experience….screen brightness is still adequate (though a bit dimmer), email stays updated, and the device doesn’t slow down (though we imagine that battery saver might underclock the CPU because benchmarks show worse results with battery saver on). So why not leave battery saver on at all times? We tried that and got 10-15% better battery life, so that might be a reasonable thing to do.

Network Performance

We tested the international version of the HTC One (we’ll have reviews for carrier-specific models)  over AT&T HSPA+ and clocked down/up speeds of around 6/2Mbps.

WiFi performance was a bit above average in terms of range. Here at the office, other devices like the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S III go down to one bar of WiFi reception if we walk down the hall to the elevator; the HTC One had two bars at the same spot.

Pros

  • + Build quality is amazing
  • + Design is unique, phone is well-weighted
  • + BoomSound changes the way you use the phone
  • + Display is unbelievably good
  • + Snappy performance no matter what
  • + Wide-angle front-facing camera is helpful with group shots
  • + Silver version if very fingerprint resistant; always looks new
  • + Sense 5 is minimal, useful, and beautiful
  • + Camera low-light performance is great

Cons

  • – Camera only takes 4MP shots, has inadequate color saturation and sharpness
  • – Off-center Home button can be annoying
  • – Phone is quite tall, difficult to use with one hand
  • – BlinkFeed, HTC TV needs more options to be useful

Purchasing/Availability

You can buy the HTC One unlocked from a European retailer such as Clove for around $650. In the near future, the One should be available in LTE models across all four US carriers.

Conclusion

The HTC One deserves the highest score we’ve ever given a device. It’s just that good. It’s incredibly well built, well thought-out (down to ergonomics, fit and finish, and even many little software features that are unexpected and delightful), and satisfying to use no matter what you’re doing and how hard you’re pushing it. We were rough on the camera, but the truth is that it’s good…just not great (once again HTC has over-promised and under-delivered). For many, 4MP is enough, and while the images aren’t as sharp and saturated as we’d like, many will find the fantastic low-light performance to compensate for the other issues.

Of course, the Galaxy S 4 is on its way out. We can’t fully comment on how the One compares to it until we get one in for review. And compare them we shall! Until then, the HTC One just cannot be beat. Bravo, HTC.

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About The Author
Brandon Miniman
Brandon is a graduate from the Villanova School of Business, located near Philadelphia, PA. He's been a technology writer since 2002, and, in 2005, became Editor-in-Chief of Pocketnow, a then Windows Mobile-focused website. He has since helped to transition Pocketnow into a top-tier smartphone and tablet publication. He's so obsessed with technology that he once entered a candle store and asked if they had a "new electronics" scent. They didn't.