The HTC One max will be the Galaxy Note 3’s first victim

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This morning brought news many of us have been anticipating for months. HTC made the One max – the larger brother to the renowned HTC One flagship from March – officially official. Except, instead of the HTC-made superphone we were hoping for, the One max is a bit of a downer.

We really liked the HTC One here at Pocketnow. It received, at the time, one of the highest scores we’d ever given to a smartphone – a 9.2 out of 10. And I could barely wait to get my hands on one. On top of that, many of us here at Pocketnow enjoy larger smartphones.

You would think the larger sibling of one of our favorite phones of 2013 would be quick to receive praise, as well. But that doesn’t seem to be the case thus far.

Unlike most recent, similarly-sized smartphones, the One max isn’t sporting the best of the best in specifications. And that’s fine; specifications aren’t always everything. But as our own Jaime noted, it’s already somewhat dated before ever having launched. Like the One, it comes with the Snapdragon 600 chip inside and the mediocre UltraPixel camera … but without optical image stabilization.

one-max-keyboardone-max-senseHardware is only half of the equation, though.

Like practically all OEMs who have tried their hand at oversized smartphones, HTC took what could have been an awesome opportunity to capitalize on a market Samsung has been largely dominant in, and it effectively tossed it out the window. Like the other Galaxy Note imitators, the One is lacking that special ingredient which makes the Note series so noteworthy.

After reviewing two extra large smartphones this summer, I admit, I walked away a bit jaded. It’s not that the Galaxy Mega 6.3 or Xperia Z Ultra were bad phones. They weren’t. They were just big. Too big. Even for me.

The Z Ultra, for one, barely fit in my pant pockets and often jabbed me in the stomach when sitting down. Despite the high quality of its build, it was still an awkward size and shape. It simply wasn’t comfortable to use, hold, or carry. And it became a burden to use after only a few days of use.

But both the Mega 6.3 and Z Ultra lacked that special element.

The Mega 6.3 was essentially a less powerful, larger Galaxy S 4 … without all the features. In its defense, it did come with the much-loved Multi-Window feature, which made great use of the extra display real estate. But, unlike the Note series, it was missing the S Pen. And the Z Ultra, for what it’s worth, implemented Sony’s Small Apps, which enabled users to either download applications which support the Small Apps API or turn any widget into a floating window.

scribe-digital-pen

While this was a valiant effort Sony, it wasn’t quite enough to justify having a phone that’s more likened to a small tablet than a large smartphone. And we’re still unsure why the Mega series even exists. Likewise, the Optimus G Pro failed to offer compelling software to utilize the additional display space. And the HTC One max is falling in line with all its predecessors in search of competing with the likes of the Note series.

With the Flyer in its past – which came with its own stylus, dubbed the Scribe Digital Pen, with Scribe software – we imagined we might see a serious attempt from HTC to create compelling software. The Scribe Digital Pen wasn’t perfect – it was sold separately for $80 and required a single, obscure AAAA battery to work. But it was a step in the right direction. Plus, two and a half years is ample time to come away from the drawing board with a new and improved stylus.

pocket-casts-mega

Alas, the One max has no stylus. It has no software to take advantage of the larger display. It’s practically a larger HTC One with a slightly revamped version of Sense – version 5.5.

The biggest advantage here is the lower DPI setting of the display. With a 5.9-inch 1080p display, the panel is rather large and very dense. Paired with a lower DPI setting, using density-independent pixels, HTC has effectively managed to squeeze more information on the display, rather than simply stretching that data. (With the same DPI setting, a 5.9-inch 1080p and 5-inch 1080p panel would display the same amount of information per page. See example at left. A lower DPI setting causes some apps to display a tablet interface instead of the smartphone UI.) But the tablet-oriented software ends there.

The Galaxy Note 3, as both Michael and I detailed in our reviews of the different models, comes with a handful of value adds, such as Air Command and one-handed operation, which make full use of the larger display.

multi-window-floating-keyboardone-handed-operationFor example, I find myself reaching for the S Pen quite often. Typing on the native keyboard isn’t terrible with the S Pen, but there is a floating keyboard mode which not only helps in typing with the S Pen, but also with typing when multiple applications are open at once.

And that brings us to my next point. The One max, despite being larger than the Note 3, has no software to improve upon the native multitasking features of Android. No floating apps are at your disposal, there is no split-screen view for running two apps at once, and there is no one-handed operation mode – a near must on a phone of such stature.

On the Note 3, swiping from the edge of the display towards the center and back to the edge shrinks the entire display for easy one-handed use.

All of this means one thing: the HTC One max is not a Galaxy Note 3 competitor. People will inevitably compare the two, due to their similar size. And the consensus will be the same; the HTC One max falls far short of the experience offered by the Note 3. But according to HTC, this was, more or less, intentional. The One max was to cater to the masses in Asian markets begging for larger smartphones, not to compete directly with the Note 3.

There’s a problem with that, however, a small problem indicative of the bigger picture.

HTC can create compelling devices and beautiful hardware. Few will dispute that. And it’s even proven it can develop beautiful software with plenty of unique value adds (e.g. Zoe). But it continues to stop just shy of the bullseye … every time.

The One max wasn’t necessarily intended to compete with the Note 3. But there’s no reason it couldn’t, if only HTC had put the extra effort into the device. The hype and anticipation were there … in full force. But now, after learning the max is nothing more than a scaled-up One with no OIS, that hype fizzled as quickly as the press release hit the wire.

But take a second and imagine an HTC One max that could directly compete with the Note 3: a Snapdragon 800 chip, 3GB RAM, Sense 5.5 with alternative software to compete with Multi-Window, Scribe Digital Pen part deux, and other software specific to a 6-inch phone. It’s enough to make a tech enthusiast weak at the knees.

one-max-note-3And here I am, staring at pictures of the One max and waiting on Michael’s review to upload, thinking about how uninterested I actually am in the phone. This is HTC’s Galaxy Mega or Z Ultra – just enough to leave us scratching our heads, wondering why the company would come so close without finishing the job.

No, I’m not part of the supposed target demographic of this phone. And that’s the problem. HTC is targeting limited niches instead of focusing on the masses and general consumers. It’s listening to small groups of individuals instead of the global demand for a true Galaxy Note competitor with an aluminum chassis and no TouchWiz.

Make that, HTC, and you will have my money, as well as a lot of other people’s hard earned cash.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+