HTC One (Sprint) Review

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In America, wireless carriers continue to exert a stranglehold on much of the smartphone experience. The features a device brings to the table often matter less than which ones your wireless provider allows you to use. Too often, a flagship smartphone arrives on retail shelves mangled beyond recognition, bearing a customized (read: ugly) casing and an enhanced (read: bloat-filled) software load, “proudly” flying the colors of its host carrier in the form of one or more overbearing logos silk-screened to its shell.

Exhibit A.

Fortunately, the landscape has shifted in recent years thanks to devices like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S III. No longer are all devices subjected to the torture of carrier “enhancement.” As the various smartphone platforms mature, manufacturers place more and more emphasis on excellent hardware design in order to stand out from the crowd – and they become less and less tolerant of carriers fiddling with that design. For HTC, a company already legendary for its hardware prowess, the One represents a new pinnacle in aesthetic fit and finish – an accomplishment that Sprint, to its credit, has left entirely unmolested. The HTC One for Sprint appears, on the outside, identical to the European version we reviewed several weeks ago.

But there’s more to the story. For years, Sprint has positioned itself as the champion of customer freedom. T-Mobile USA might be getting all the buzz these days for its recent “un-carrier” reinvention, but it was Sprint who popularized the truly unlimited plan on a nationwide basis, and who continues to leverage that all-you-can-eat philosophy as a key selling point. Just try to watch this commercial without becoming incensed that capped data plans even exist anymore:

That’s an iPhone 5 in the commercial, but Sprint’s unlimited philosophy is device-agnostic. So how well does it apply to the One, the most important device in HTC’s history? Can you really live the “unlimited lifestyle” with this aluminum beauty on The Now Network, or would your money be better spent elsewhere? There’s a whole review between us and that question, so let’s get down to business.

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Please note: Sprint has informed us that our HTC One review unit is a pre-production device (note the mislabeled carrier string, which reads “print” instead of “Sprint”). We will continue gathering impressions with official release hardware after this piece goes to press; should any of our conclusions change after release, we will update this review. For those curious about how long we spent with the One: our test period before publication was seven days long.

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Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me

Video Review

Specs

As mentioned above, Sprint’s HTC One is quite similar to its European counterpart. The quad-core, 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor humming along at the center of the One is unchanged, as is the 2GB of DDR2 RAM backing it up. The connectivity suite retains support for Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 ac alongside the more-typical a/b/g/n and NFC standards, and the IR blaster is just as ready to flip your TV channels on this unit as it is on the One’s siblings. The cellular side has been augmented with support for Sprint’s CDMA (800/1900MHz) and LTE (1900MHz) networks, allowing those in one of Big Yellow’s 4G markets to experience the company’s higher data speeds.

That means you, Orange Dots.

Other changes are minor, with one big exception if you’re a memory hog. Sprint users considering the One will have to content themselves with only 32GB of onboard storage, as the 64GB variant will be available exclusively from AT&T in the United States. Sprint users looking to augment their onboard storage will need to look to cloud-based solutions like Dropbox and Google Drive to do so, as there’s no more microSD expansion here than on the global edition. Sprint’s unlimited data plans will help in this regard, but true road warriors will want to remember that the One’s 2300-mAh battery isn’t removable, so syncing data with the cloud will need to be a judiciously scheduled affair.

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Hardware

From the moment of its announcement, we knew the One was going to tax the internet’s already-strained capacity for hyperbole. There aren’t many words to describe the One’s hardware, at least none that haven’t already been used and re-used across our various reviews, features, and comparisons. So rather than besiege you with a list of results we get from typing the word “beautiful” into thesaurus.com, we’ll just ask you to take our word for it when we say this is a stunning mobile phone. In terms of build quality, look and feel, it’s the best Android smartphone we’ve ever handled.

That’s the situation out of the box, anyway. We’re not really sure how well the One’s all-aluminum body will hold up over time, but the reflective finish on our silver version looks as though it would display scuffs and scrapes pretty loudly. Unfortunately, users who opt to forgo a case will probably have ample opportunity to see how the One deals with ground impacts: that aluminum unibody fuselage is very slippery in dry conditions, and we’ve come perilously close to dropping ours. Like, more than a few times. It’s kind of terrifying.

If you can get past the fear of constant droppage, though, handling the One’s hardware in day-to-day use is a sublime experience. The aluminum feels luxurious and cool to the touch. At 9.3mm, the thicker center of the casing butts up nicely against the palm, while the 4mm edges give it a sleek and slender look. The weight is perfect at 143g, neither too heavy nor too light. If you’re right-handed, the moire-patterned volume rocker sits perfectly under your thumb, and if you’re left-handed, your forefinger enjoys easy access to the power/standby key up top. The latter would probably have made more sense as a side-mounted button, and we’d have liked a dedicated shutter release for the camera, but these are minor quibbles in the face of the device’s otherwise excellent design.

Also worthy of a quick mention is the HTC One’s total lack of carrier branding. We thought this might be a consequence of our demo unit being non-final hardware, but Sprint confirmed for us that even the retail units will feature no Sprint branding aside from the custom splash screen in the software. That’s a pretty big accomplishment for any manufacturer, a distinction that only Apple’s iPhone has enjoyed up till now, and we think it especially significant that HTC is the first outside of Cupertino to manage such a feat.

That excellence continues in the display. The panel recalls the jaw-dropping performance of the screen found on the One’s immediate predecessor, Verizon’s Droid DNA, but here it’s even more impressive. The SLCD-3 panel has been shrunk from 5 inches to 4.7, but the full 1080p resolution has been maintained. This results in a screen with a ridiculous 468 pixels per inch, making it the sharpest smartphone display we’ve ever seen. Again, it’s overkill: we still can’t make out pixels on our Samsung Galaxy S III, which offers a density of “only” 306ppi. But combined with outstanding viewing angles and a lamination process that puts on-screen graphics right at the surface, the extra pixel padding makes the One’s display far and away the best in Sprint’s lineup – an ideal choice for those who’d use their unlimited data allotment for streaming Netflix or YouTube videos. Whether that holds true after the launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 will depend on your individual tastes, but the One certainly held its own in our quick comparison at Radio City Music Hall a few weeks back. Jump to 2:22 for our impressions:

Of course, a good display doesn’t mean much if a smartphone’s sound system doesn’t deliver. Let’s have a gander, then, at what’s flanking that display. Two grilles, one above and one below the phone’s screen, betray another of the One’s standout features: HTC BoomSound. You might think the brand name is a little over-the-top -and we might agree- but this isn’t just another case of a manufacturer putting lipstick on the mobile-audio pig. Dedicated amplifiers mated to speakers positioned on the front of the device where they belong creates a bassy, loud, all-encompassing listening experience. You won’t have any trouble hearing Spotify tracks or the turn-by-turn navigation lady in Google Maps. The BoomSound suite delivers -wait for it- the best audio performance we’ve encountered on a smartphone.

Cue the “is HTC paying you guys for this review?” comments.

We realize it’s unusual for a review to be so effusive, but that’s what’s important here: the One is unique enough to deserve the praise. From a build quality perspective, the HTC One handily outclasses every other Google-based smartphone in the Sprint lineup. It’s sleek, it’s svelte, and it’s beautiful from casing to display to speakers. If you need to swap batteries or memory on the fly, or take your device dredging beneath the waves, it’s not the phone for you – but for most Android shoppers, the One’s hardware should fit the bill nicely.

Index

UI

Our HTC One demo unit was running Android Jelly Bean version 4.1.2 during the review period, with version 5 of HTC’s Sense skin running on top. As we discussed in the full review, Sense 5 doesn’t impair Android as its earlier incarnations did; in fact, it improves on Google’s experience and brings the visual components of the software in line with the One’s hardware.

Sense on the Sprint variant doesn’t differ much from that on the European One. Grays and blacks dominate the interface, with bold touches like the oversized clock/weather widgets and stark, clear lock-screen notifications providing a very modern aesthetic. This is best exemplified by the Messaging app, which combines condensed sans serif fonts, effective placement of bold letters, and the occasional splash of color for an almost magazine-like presentation.

Another high point of Sense’s design is the Gallery, which presents images grouped by location, date, or “event,” and which selectively animates certain photos and Zoe images (see the camera section for more on that). It can be a little confusing depending on which display mode you select, and those who don’t like too much animation or other “business” on their screen might not appreciate all the chrome here, but HTC seems to understand that the Gallery can be more than just a static rundown of photos. The company treats this corner of the smartphone experience more like a repository of memories, and it’s upped the ante on its presentation to reflect that. As we frequently share photos with friends over drinks and around the water cooler, this is a touch we appreciate.

BlinkFeed, the Flipboard-style social media aggregator that lives on the One’s far-left homescreen, is somewhat underwhelming. That’s especially true considering how much attention HTC -and then the tech media- lavished upon it int he weeks following its reveal. BlinkFeed works well enough once you plug in your Facebook and Twitter handles and tell it your favorite news outlets, but it sacrifices usability for visual flair. It’s not nearly as efficient to browse, say, a Twitter feed when your brain needs to separate text from a background visual, and waiting for the latter to load over a slow connection gets old quickly. BlinkFeed is pretty, and we like having one place to quickly scan our notifications and recent events, but it’s not especially useful in its current form. Hopefully future updates will change that.

Like most carriers, Sprint loves gumming up its smartphones with bloatware, and that’s as true of the One as any other device. Though about 25GB of the device’s 32GB are available to the user out of the box, don’t let that small footprint fool you. The first few hours of use are marked by a near-constant barrage of pitches to try various features, from Sprint’s Visual Voicemail (“FREE TRIAL!”) to Sprint Zone (“Click to see who won our Android sweepstakes!”) to HTC Backup, which warns that enabling it “will disable backup to Google servers.” What? Why?

The upshot is that you’re going to spend a fair bit of time cleaning up the device’s home screen and app tray, and dismissing notifications trying to “help you” (read: sell you things). As mentioned before, that’s pretty common, and it’s definitely a small price to pay for such a capable, powerful smartphone – but it’s still annoying enough that we thought it worth mentioning.

Sense 5 isn’t without its hangups; there’s still some eccentric and annoying behavior, from the niche stuff like not being able to share a screenshot immediately from the gallery, to more visible shortcomings like the too-wide spacing of apps and widgets on the homescreens. But on the whole, the amount of thought that’s gone into building the One’s new software overlay is obvious in day-to-day interactions with the device. It’s powerful without being complex, beautiful without being stupid. It’s what smartphone software should feel like in 2013.

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Camera

Last week, we spoke with HTC about the construction of the One’s “UltraPixel” shooter, and came away with some interesting insights into the phone’s 4MP camera. In particular, HTC cleared up its “megapixels don’t matter” stance; the company isn’t anti-megapixel so much as it’s pro-holistic imaging. If that’s a little buzzword-y to you, just lay your eyes on some of the photos we took with our Sprint HTC One. It’s running a more-recent software build than the One we reviewed a few weeks back, so keep your eye out for what we think is some enhanced saturation and sharpness in the photos below.

There’s still room for improvement here, chiefly in situations where a subject is backlit. The viewfinder software is still very aggressive in terms of tap-to-focus: tapping on a brightly lit area will clamp down hard on the exposure, darkening dimmer areas to almost-black levels, and vice-versa. That’s true of all smartphone cameras to an extent, but we’ve found this overcompensation particularly egregious on HTC phones, and the One appears no different in this regard.

Still, the One delivers some excellent results in the right conditions. Low-light performance, which HTC told us was optimized for bars and restaurants, is the most-often-cited high point of the experience, but there’s other good stuff here too. HTC’s Zoe feature follows in the footsteps of other apps like Cinemagraph to deliver a result somewhere between a photo and a video, a product that really starts to shine in the rebuilt Gallery application and the new HTC Share feature. The latter is a very well-thought-out service, allowing a user to select up to ten photos and Zoes to share via a simple and streamlined browser-based slide show.

Pictures and Zoes sent via HTC Share, as viewed on an iPhone

There are still enhancements needed to smooth out the experience. Zoes are difficult to share by manipulating raw files, as they appear to a computer as collections of JPEG files – which of course they are. That spells inconvenience for anyone using Dropbox auto-upload or bulk file-management apps like WiFi File Explorer. Here we’ll remind you that we weren’t dealing with final software during our test period, so you’ll probably see some modifications either at or shortly after launch. One thing that doesn’t need too much tweaking is the One’s front-facing camera, which uses the same 88-degree lens we’re accustomed to from our time with the Droid DNA and the Windows Phone 8X: the wide-angle lens mated to the 2MP sensor has made us quite popular at parties full of people with comparatively puny self-portrait cameras.

Pictures of cameras taking pictures is the next big party trend.

Video performance is good, with speedy auto-exposure and auto-focus. Audio capture is excellent and so is frame rate, though we wish there were a bit less motion blur with default settings.

Ultimately, the HTC One’s camera delivers the same results on Sprint as on the global version: it’s neither as game-changing as HTC would like you to think, nor as unimpressive as the resolution-obsessed would have you believe. The One’s camera delivers impressive performance that keeps pace with competing flagship devices, and will certainly suit the average user’s needs just fine. Those intending to push the limits of Sprint’s unlimited offerings by uploading photo after photo to Facebook or Instagram will find little to complain about here.

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Performance

Sprint’s HTC One does well in synthetic benchmarks, its scores falling in line with those of its global variant. Our demo unit averages 2640 in GeekBench 2, 12256 in Quadrant Standard, and 959ms in the SunSpider Javascript test. We didn’t put the One through a genuine graphical stress-test to back up those benchmark scores, but common video apps like Netflix and Youtube worked without a hitch, and scrolling, tapping, and zooming in the stock browser was as fluid as you could hope for in a modern smartphone. Popular titles like Angry Birds Star Wars also played fine, though the device casing got a little warm to the touch after extended bird-flinging.

Those high scores also translate into tangible advantages in everyday use: performance throughout the One’s software is snappy and lag-free, despite the far-reaching tentacles of the immersive Sense 5 skin. HTC has finally managed to equal rival Samsung in this regard, crafting an Android skin that touches nearly every aspect of the user experience without imparting stuttering or drag to user interactions.

The speedy performance also owes some credit to a renovated multitasking screen. We weren’t entirely sold on the new design at the One’s NYC debut -and we still wish it better emulated the webOS approach it draws inspiration from- but HTC’s card-based multitasking has taken a real step forward in Sense 5. Improvements include a provision for nine recent apps on the multitasking screen (instead of the three present in Sense 4), and being able to double-tap the home button to summon it (rather than the long-press required by other manufacturer skins). This minor rethinking results in a much more efficient UI “flow” than on previous HTC devices.

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Battery Life

The 2300 mAh lithium-polymer battery powering the Sprint HTC One is the same one found in other variants, and its endurance is similar as well. In mixed 3G/4G coverage with polling and push notifications from two Gmail accounts, two Twitter accounts, Instagram, and Google Voice, as well as intermittent browsing, BlinkFeed scrolling, and GPS navigation, the Sprint HTC One lasted us a little over 16 hours.

That figure would have been shorter were it not for the HTC Power Saver, which kicked in during the last hour to crank down CPU cycles, reduce the screen brightness, and turn off haptic vibration. It also disabled the data connection during screen-off time. All of these Power Saver features can be disabled via the settings menu, but considering the extra life it offers, we find the feature useful enough to leave unmolested – but its constant presence in the notifications tray is a “feature” we could live without.

Sprint’s HTC One will last the average user a full day. It actually surprised us during one particularly heavy driving afternoon where we used Google Navigation to travel over a hundred miles -a little over two hours- and still had enough power left to make it through an evening of photo-taking and status-sharing. Power users might still scoff at the lack of a removable battery, but the average Joe can probably leave the charger behind without worrying too much about a dead phone on the commute home.

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Call Quality/Network Performance

Network performance is where the yellow variant of the One loses a few fractions of a point compared to its contemporaries. We tested the HTC One on Sprint’s CDMA and LTE networks over the course of seven days in and around the Greater Boston and Worcester, MA areas. 4G speeds were okay for Boston-area LTE connections, averaging 8.92 Mbps down and 5.35Mbps up. That doesn’t differ too much from our average throughput on Verizon Wireless in Boston, but it falls far short of our usual experience on AT&T, which routinely delivers download speeds reaching into the 20s.

Also, while outdoor coverage kept pace with AT&T and Verizon, indoor coverage … didn’t. Sprint’s version of the HTC One is only equipped for LTE on band class 25 at 1900Mhz, which is, right now, the only spectrum block on which Sprint has deployed LTE (or, for that matter, CDMA). That higher frequency means indoor coverage suffers, and the One frequently waffles back and forth between 3G and 4G inside. Sprint has announced plans to deploy LTE on the 800MHz holdings freed up by dismantling the Nextel network next year, but the One in its current form won’t be able to take advantage of that. So if you’re buying for the long-term, you’ll have to be okay with the One underperforming compared to the Sprint smartphones of 2014 in terms of 4G coverage. Fortunately its 802.11ac compatibility means it should scream on future WiFi networks using that technology.

Getting back to more conventional testing, there’s some good news. The One is a very solid performer in the phone-calling department. Callers said we sounded very clear compared to other phones, and even in noisy environments we could still hold a conversation with no problem. Callers did say they could make out more background noise when we rolled down the window in a speeding car, so the Sense Voice noise cancellation might not be quite up to par with Motorola CrystalTalk technology, but it’s still very effective. When we switched over to speakerphone, callers said they could tell they were now on a more-public call, but that the effect “wasn’t bad.”

On our end, the earpiece delivered rich, nuanced, and plenty loud sound, and that effect only grew more pronounced when switching over to speakerphone mode. The combination of front-firing speakers with the amplifier-driven BoomSound technology gives the HTC One almost unreal audio performance in speakerphone calls. If you’re planning on using your unlimited voice plan to chat with friends and family, the One offers the best audio experience we’ve heard from a Sprint smartphone.

Index

Pros

+ Outstanding build quality
+ Gorgeous display
+ Excellent audio experience
+ Camera’s low-light performance is top-tier
+ Sense 5 is responsive and adds value

Cons

Non-removable battery
Non-expandable memory
Camera resolution could be higher
Sprint 4G network buildout lags competitors

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Pricing and Availability

The 32GB version of the HTC One is available for pre-order via Sprint’s website for $199.99 on a two-year contract. It launches April 19th, the same day as AT&T’s variant.

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Additional HTC One Coverage from Pocketnow

HTC One Review
HTC One vs Apple iPhone 5
HTC One vs Droid DNA
Empty Nest: What I Miss (and Don’t) About the HTC One
HTC One HDR vs Normal Video
HTC One BoomSound Test
UltraPixels, Photography, and the HTC One: A Chat with HTC’s Symon Whitehorn

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Conclusion

Whether the Sprint version of the HTC One is the best choice for you will depend, as always, on how well Sprint suits you as a carrier. The nation’s third-largest wireless provider definitely has its ups and downs in terms of rate plans and coverage, respectively; only you can answer whether Big Yellow is the right fit for you where you live and work.

But one thing should be clear if you are -or are interested in becoming- a Sprint subscriber: HTC’s latest is something very special. The One matches excellent software and features with build craftsmanship we’ve never seen from a Google-powered smartphone. From display quality to audio performance to photos and video to phone calls, this phone does it all – and does it very well. It reminds us that Android skins aren’t always horrible, that mass-produced hardware doesn’t need to feel cheap, and that a wireless carrier doesn’t have to be first- or second-place in the country to carry a truly premium device.

It also makes clear, for the first time in a while, that those looking for a high-end smartphone experience don’t necessarily need to buy a phone with the word “Galaxy” stamped on it. If you’re on Sprint and you’re shopping for a high-end Android smartphone, the HTC One should be very near the top of your list.

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Scored For Me

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Galaxy Note II Image source: Ubergizmo

Sprint specific 4G info source: s4gru.com

Sprint coverage maps and info via Sprint Nextel

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!