HTC One max review: the behemoth cometh
“Excuse me – is that a phone or a tablet?”
“That doesn’t fit in your pocket, does it?”
“That must be one of them new ‘phablets,’ huh?”
“What … what is that thing?”
Carrying the HTC One max for the past seven days has been an exercise in patience – patience with the curious public. Like Samsung’s first Galaxy Note, and the LG Optimus Vu, and the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, and other pioneering slabs of the recent past, HTC’s latest smartphone is an audacious foray into uncharted territory. Yes, phones with larger screens and better specs have beaten it to market, but never before has a smartphone so … beastly in dimensions, mass, and material seen the light of day.
The world of the so-called “phablet” -the smartphone/tablet hybrid- is growing. No longer confined to super-high end devices with ultramodern specs, the phablet category now includes handhelds for a new type of buyer: the user who wants a huge screen, but doesn’t need a crazy feature set.
That’s the kind of customer HTC had in mind when designing the One max (not, importantly, “One MAX”): the person looking for an HTC One experience in a larger form factor. Like Samsung’s similarly massive Galaxy Mega, the One max is unquestionably a “phablet” in that it’s something more than a smartphone – but how much more? And how big does a phone have to get before manufacturers finally reach the limits of
sanity usability? Above all, just how good a product is the HTC One max? Read on to find out!
Videos · Specs/Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
Video Review & Comparisons
Specs & Hardware
The photo above is very cool – and not just because of the photographer’s total lack of humility. It’s a cool picture because it showcases a high-end HTC smartphone with a removable back cover, something that’s been conspicuously absent from the last few rounds of top-tier devices out of Taiwan. More important is what the removable cover implies: a duo of capabilities that rival Samsung has been more than happy to include in most of its own smartphones – expandable storage and a removable battery.
Well, the One max nails half of that equation, anyway. While the device’s embedded 3300-mAh power pack remains inaccessible to the user, its 16 or 32GB onboard storage capacity is expandable via MicroSD (and HTC has sweetened the pot further by offering 50GB of free Google Drive storage to One max purchasers, good for two years). That should be music to the ears of anyone who plans to store a lot of large media files on the One max – a likely scenario considering just how adept this monster is as a media player. That’s due mainly to its 5.9-inch, 1080p display, an SLCD3 panel with a pixel density of 367ppi. For the non-techies in the crowd: that string of words means the One max’s screen is one of the largest and sharpest available on a handheld device. Like the 4.7-inch panel on the One, it provides brilliant colors, excellent viewing angles, and deeper blacks than its LCD construction would suggest.
That display is flanked by accoutrements that have recently come to define the HTC brand: twin BoomSound speaker ports that give the One family its front-firing acoustic superiority. HTC told us the speaker hardware itself was identical to that found on the One, but on the max it’s been placed in a “bigger box.” We’ll leave the physical verification of that claim to others; for us, it’s enough to say this: these speakers are the best we’ve heard on a smartphone. We said that of the earlier One as well, but on the max, the speakers are also among the loudest we’ve heard. That combination of sheer power and dynamic, rich sound makes the One max the new phone to buy if you want a best-in-class multimedia experience in the palm of your hand.
Of course, there’s a flip side. Lying at the heart of many smartphones is a big fat ball of compromise – and the One max is no exception. Here, the tradeoffs affect two broad categories: spec heads and ordinary folks. The former group, having been conditioned by years of marketing influence to believe that bigger=better, may be put off by the One max’s processor. It’s not the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 found in many of its bleeding-edge contemporaries, but rather its slighter cousin, the 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600. And it’s backed up not by the headline-grabbing 3GB memory of the Galaxy Note 3, but a more-standard 2GB of DDR2 RAM instead.
Those specs are fine for the geeks to worry about (the Snapdragon 600 is still an excellent SoC, and it runs the One max quite nicely, as we’ll discuss below), but the real hurdle for mainstream folks contemplating this device is -you guessed it- its sheer size.
It’s impossible to overstate how large this device really is. At 164.5 x 82.5 x 10.29mm, it’s bigger even than the massive Galaxy Note 3. It positively dwarfs more conventional smartphones like the HTC One, to say nothing of even smaller devices like the iPhone and the Moto X. One-handed use is a virtual impossibility. The max is profoundly, ridiculously, absurdly huge. The kind of huge that requires two hands. The kind of huge that, at 217 grams, stretches out shirt pockets and causes un-belted pants to sag.
To be fair, that added bulk is due in part to the max’s aluminum construction, which looks almost as premium here as it does on the One. Aesthetically, though, the max more closely resembles the One mini: like the smaller phone, it lacks the edge-to-edge metal and the chamfered edges that gave the flagship device much of its appeal. With the arrival of the max, two-thirds of HTC’s “One family” now feature a substantial amount of glossy plastic edging, which is regrettable. The max is still a good-looking phone -one of the best-looking phablets out there, in fact- but the original HTC One remains the prettiest of the bunch.
Rounding out the feature set inside the brawny aluminum frame is a suite of capabilities common to many high-end smartphones: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, BT 4.0, NFC, DLNA, and IR are among the acronyms represented, as well as the expected HSPA/CDMA/LTE radios depending on region (our test unit is the “global” unlocked variant, sans LTE). There’s also a rather prominent fingerprint scanner located beneath the UltraPixel camera, both of which we’ll get to below.
In terms of software, the experience is a familiar one despite the increase in scale. HTC has bumped the OS version to Android 4.3, and overlaid it with a new iteration of its third-party UI, Sense 5.5. This does nothing for performance; Sense 5 was already the most responsive Android skin out there, with almost no room for improvement. Rather, the changes in 5.5 come in the form of added features.
HTC’s BlinkFeed social browser was a polarizing topic when it debuted earlier in the year. Some wondered if the feature would ever take off – but to our surprise, HTC shared some impressive BlinkFeed usage metrics at the latest Frequencies press event. The company has accordingly enhanced the experience in Sense 5.5, adding Instagram and Google+ functionality along with RSS support, offline reading ability, and tighter, smarter integration with Facebook.
If none of this pings your pong, though, and all you want is to remove BlinkFeed from your home screen, you can now do that as well.
The photo gallery has also been reworked in the new Sense. HTC has renovated an excellent-but-convoluted feature of the One into something … somewhat less convoluted on the One max. It still takes a while to learn how to properly build a highlight reel from photos, videos, and Zoes, but the end result is far superior, because the user has more control than ever before. It’s now possible to use locally-stored music as the background to Highlight videos, and there are many more themes to choose from, as well. There’s even the capacity to create animated .GIFs. It’s not as simple as it could be -an observation that holds true for the HTC Share service, as well- but the new version of the Gallery is a rich, full experience that outclasses everything else out there. What’s more: it looks incredible on the max’s giant display.
The picture isn’t so rosy in terms of security. The capacitive fingerprint scanner on the One max is nothing like Apple’s Touch ID sensor for the iPhone 5s, which performs very well and results in a positive ID nearly every time on our review iPhone. The max’s scanner requires a more precise swipe gesture that’s nowhere near as reliable, and the scanning window’s position beneath the camera ensures you’re constantly smudging your lens. That also makes unlocking the phone while it’s sitting on a table tricky – yes, you can opt to enter your password instead, but that’s as cumbersome as another Max feature: using different fingers to unlock directly into an app. In fact, “cumbersome” is a good way to describe the entire experience of using a finger to unlock such a massive phone. We’re not really sure why it’s here, and its implementation is weak enough that we sort of wish it wasn’t. Thankfully, you don’t have to use it.
Sadly, HTC has also made no effort to include multitasking enhancements to take advantage of the larger screen. The recent-apps view has been given larger tiles, which makes it easier to eyeball information within them, but there’s none of the side-by-side multi-screen functionality of Samsung’s phones, nor even a version of the dubious floating-window approach found on LG’s devices. And while the Scribble note-taking app is more polished and attractive than many of Samsung’s titles, there’s no integrated stylus on the max, meaning you’re forced to doodle with your finger – which is as unfulfilling here as on any other capacitive screen. So in terms of software, the One max really is just a supersized HTC One … and despite our genuine appreciation for that phone, that’s disappointing. Especially considering the fact that many of these enhancements will eventually make it to the One via a software update. It’s just one less reason to consider the max.
When it launched earlier in the year, maybe the only aspect of the original One more polarizing than BlinkFeed was its unique camera, which depending on who you asked was either outstanding or total garbage. By and large, we liked it. While its 4MP sensor may have produced somewhat noisy, relatively low-res photos, it earned major points for including optical image stabilization.
The One max features the same exact camera module, with one
soul-crushing major disappointment: the hardware image stabilization that gave the One’s camera an important leg up on the competition has been removed.
There’s really no getting around it: that’s a genuine failing, and we find it a truly bizarre tactical move on HTC’s part (when asked, the company had no comment on the decision to remove OIS). That said, it’s not quite as bad as it seems. HTC’s software people have worked a bit of magic in the new phone’s low light performance, making the max capable of delivering fairly respectable night shots despite the lack of OIS. On average, they’re still not as sharp as the One’s, but they did surpass our expectations.
Photos taken in normal lighting were also fairly good, though it was difficult to keep the massive One max steady while shooting, so expect some blurry photos if you take the thing on a boat ride. HTC has also included its fun filters for on-the-fly jazzing-up of pictures, and dual-capture is also here, for all ten of you who were asking for it. Of course the entire Zoe suite remains in place for quick photo capture, object removal, and the best video highlight reels you can get from a modern smartphone. Truly, if you want a smartphone that makes photo sharing fun, you need to get an HTC device.
Video performance is quite good, with rich color and sharp focus, but only average exposure correction and sound capture – especially in loud environments. 60fps recording is possible, resulting in smooth slow-mo when played back at 30 fps, and HDR is here as well for those seeking more balanced videos.
Overall, the One max’s camera is just passable in quality, with the excellent Gallery and sharing features (and the selfie-friendly wide-angle front-facing camera) propping up the experience on the whole. The max is a fun phone to shoot with, but it’s not nearly as good as it could or should be, thanks to that hobbled primary camera. Without OIS, it’s not going to age gracefully at all.
Around these parts, we don’t put as much stock in benchmarks as we used to, but we put the One max through our ceremonial battery of GeekBench 3, SunSpider, and 3D Mark anyway; a small sample of the results is shown above. The tests largely confirm what our day-to-day usage tells us: the One max is a very powerful device.
No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t trip it up with even the most demanding games or heavy websites: the phone handled everything from Asphalt 8 to Sparkle 2 with buttery-smooth alacrity. What’s more: thanks to its larger construction, the One max doesn’t get nearly as hot in the hand as its predecessors when it’s under a heavy load, which is nice.
As you might expect given the massive 3300 mAh power pack under the hood, the One max is quite the beast in terms of battery life. More than once, the device saw us through more than a full day of moderate-to-heavy use on HSPA networks at home and abroad, which included long periods of heavy browsing and demanding game play. The battery life should be good enough for even the most brutal road warriors, with HTC citing 25-28 hours of talk time. If that’s not enough, the company offers a Power Flip Case good for an extra 1150 mAh, but whether it’s worth the extra $90 is debatable given the phone’s already-appreciable endurance.
Elsewhere on the device, the fallout from the HTC-Beats divorce has led to a special milestone: the One max is the first HTC device in some time to ship without Beats Audio branding, and there’s also no Beats software to be found within the phone’s operating system.
To be honest, we don’t miss it. As mentioned above, HTC’s BoomSound is still here in all its front-facing glory, and despite the removal of 3D audio from the max, the device still performs exceptionally well. That holds true for voice calls, too: during our seven days of testing between London, New York, and Boston, the max delivered rich, clear sound on both ends of the conversation, with excellent noise cancellation even in very loud environments. The original One set the bar for the new generation of smartphone acoustics, and the max leaps right over it.
+ Loudest, clearest sound you’ll find on a smartphone
+ Best build quality we’ve seen on a phablet
+ Expandable storage
+ Excellent display
+ HTC Sense balances aesthetics, utility better than any other Android skin
– Sub-par camera for its class
– Huge, heavy hardware
– Software doesn’t fully take advantage of screen size
Pricing and Availability
HTC has announced the impending availability of the One max via its website, where you can sign up to be notified when the device goes on sale in America. US pricing is still unannounced, but HTC has confirmed that the One max will be coming to Verizon Wireless and Sprint “this holiday season.”
In the UK, the phone will launch on Vodaphone “with a contribution of £19 on the 3G £47 tariff or the £52 4G equivalent.” Off-contract (SIM-free) pricing was not available as of press time.
With the One max, HTC didn’t set out to do what we expected it would. We were ready for a take-no-prisoners Galaxy Note competitor, a phablet that would merge lessons learned from HTC’s short-lived Flyer tablet with the regal aesthetics of the One to create a force to be reckoned with in the superphone space.
That’s not what the One max is. Instead, it’s a transfusion of the HTC One experience into a larger footprint, with polished-but-limited software mated to hardware a little heavier on compromise than we’re used to seeing from this company. And it’s all bundled up in a package that looks more like a One mini on steroids than a natural evolution of the beautiful One. Frankly, it’s tough to imagine many people in the Western world dropping coin on this device.
But putting larger considerations aside, the question becomes: does the phone do a good job of fulfilling the function it was designed for? And the answer to that question is yes. It may not sell in huge numbers, but for those phablet-shoppers looking more for an oversized smartphone than a miniature tablet, the HTC One max definitely has a lot to offer – even if we’re not entirely sure why it exists.