Featured: The HTC One Review

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HTC might be a company that look as if they’re going down with a sinking ship but, you wouldn’t think it when you take a look at the One. They’ve put all of their eggs into this aluminum basket and they’re hoping that pushing one flagship device will help them stand out, and reaffirm their status as a company that can deliver not only quality hardware but, everything else that goes along with it. There’s no denying the HTC One is at the top of the smartphone game, matching Samsung’s Galaxy S IV for specs and some would say blowing its build out of the water.

The question is, can HTC deliver a smartphone that not only takes on Samsung but, the rest of the smartphone market? Read on to find out.

Design

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The first thing you’ll notice about the One is that it’s different, and familiar all in the same breath. There’s the familiar grills that made their debut with the One Series last year and you can certainly tell that this is an HTC device. Where it’s different is in the materials used and the design cues. There’s been a bit of a stink recently over “plastic vs premium” materials and whether it really matters. When picking up the One though, you’ll instantly think “it matters”.

Of course, it’s not perfect. There are a couple of niggles with the design, the first is very minor in that HTC simply cannot make up their mind on where they want to put the power button. Last year’s flagship – the One X and the X+ – saw the power button on the top-right of the device and the Droid DNA has the button in the center. Is it so difficult for HTC to make their mind up? Something else that HTC can’t seem to decide on is software buttons vs physical buttons. Again, they’ve decided to go with capacitive buttons but, they’ve only gone with two here, back and home. It’s a very strange choice and it’s not one we believe to be a good one but, as with a lot of things once you’re used to it, it’s not too bad but, why HTC have not gone with software buttons is still puzzling. Especially when you consider that the awful three-dot menu in Sense is going to be here again.

The microUSB port is in an awkward position, set off to the bottom-right of the device, which might be a little awkward if you’re docking the device, otherwise it makes little difference.

The One is a beautiful device, there’s no question about it. From the curved back that fits nicely in hand to the stylish look of the white lines etched into the aluminum chassis. The dual-speakers don’t look too out-of-place and the display really stands out. With its machined edges and solid feel, the One is one of the best-looking smartphones on the market. Sure, dropping it is probably going to end up in a dent or too but, this Editor would gladly take that risk for a device this nice.

Display

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It’s pretty hard to ignore the display on the One, it’s big but, no bigger than last year’s One X and yet it still manages to pack that stunning 1920 x 1080 resolution into it. That gives HTC’s One a pixel density of 468 ppi, which is quite frankly, insane. It really makes a difference when reading text and watching HD content, it might not be noticeable to most people but, thanks to the huge amount of pixels text looks natural and you’ll really have to hunt to find a jagged line.

Up close it really does look stunning, text looks natural and color representation is accurate without feeling washed out. This is certainly one of the best displays I’ve seen on a smartphone and while those used to the over-saturated colors of AMOLED displays might not be wowed by it at first, you soon learn to appreciate the realistic color tones. It’s also very bright, without being obnoxiously so, which makes for a device that stands up well in sunlight – as much sunlight as Britain gets, anyway. The display here is perhaps one of the best out there, as HTC delivered with both the Droid DNA and the One X last year, colors are well-represented and viewing angles are superb.

During testing I experienced no problems with the display and while its full setting on brightness was very bright, I did feel like I wanted a little more. Colors are represented accurately which means that those YouTube videos are going to look natural and true, although they won’t necessarily jump out of the display at you.

Video Review

Below is a quick (but not so short) video review. You’ll have to excuse any issues with the video as our UK Editor Tom desperately needs a new camera!

BoomSound

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So, a phone with twice the amount of speakers must surely be twice as loud? Well, you’d be right but, there’s so much more to BoomSound than just volume. For one thing, BoomSound delivers a fuller sound than most other smartphones. By that I mean that it’s not just the highs and the lows you get when listening to the One, the middle is very much alive and kicking, which is often lost through most smartphone speakers. Is the One good enough to fill a room? That depends on how big your room is but, it’s easily good enough to share a song with a few friends and it’s loud enough to hear some distance away.

Of course, you shouldn’t expect something magical from the One, it is still a smartphone after all, a Hi-Fi replacement this is not. What it is however is the best portable music experience you’re going to get without having to carry a small bluetooth speaker or something like that around with you. That it can replace, and surely that should be good enough for most people? The few friends and family I played music to all had brilliant things to say about the speakers.

BoomSound helps to bring YouTube alive and you could happily listen to some of your favorite music at full volume without it distorting or feeling like the track has been done an injustice. I’d perhaps go so far as to say that the One had better speakers than a lot of laptops out there and when you hear it, you’ll really notice the difference. BoomSound is not just a gimmick, and while that second speaker grill might turn some people off (it did me, at first) it’s very much worth it.

UltraPixels

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Just what the hell is an UltraPixel? Well, essentially it’s a pixel that absorbs more light, and therefore more data than a non-“ultra” pixel. So, what does this mean for the “UltraPixel” camera in the HTC One? It meas that the One is capable of taking in more light than regular smartphone cameras and in theory that should produce a better image, right?

The answer to that is a very mixed, yes and no answer. Overall, I would say that the camera experience on the One is very good, it’s not spectacular and it certainly isn’t as revolutionary as HTC would have you believe. Taking in more light has been achieved at a compromise and in the One, it means lower-resolution images, the camera in the One is essentially a very good 4 MegaPixel camera sensor.

Does that mean it’s a bad camera? No.

First off, the camera software is a great compromise between having enough features, and not overloading the user. There are a whole bunch of advanced controls hidden away for you to tweak:

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There are a myriad of options to take into account, but what’s nice is that HTC don’t have them out on show and the menu system works really quite well. There are a host of options here that determine the shot and for those that like a little more control when they take a shot, the One will not disappoint.

Below are some sample pics from a short walk around my village – yes, all Englishman live in a Village or a Hovel:

Zoe

Of course, HTC have tried to throw in something extra when it comes to the imaging side of things in the One and they’ve done that with Zoe. This is essentially an add-on for the camera software that tries it’s very best to help you get the best shot with little to no effort. Basically, Zoe takes a 3-second video of the subject and then brings out a best shot picture from that short footage. It’s a nice feature and it does work well, but it will leave a hefty trail of images in your photo folder.

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When using Zoe just hit go and then a short video will be taken, after that you’ll see the shots in a sort of slideshow:

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Zoe can be put to work for a lot of thing, it’s great for moving objects for instance, like sporting events. Being able to capture a number of images with very little user input is a real boon and unless you’re watching land-speed records being made you should be able to get a decent shot of the action every time.

Final word on the camera here is that it’s a solid offering, and while it’s not revolutionary by any means, it’s fantastic for taking quick snaps and decent shots throughout the everyday. What’s particularly refreshing, is that the camera software doesn’t overload you with choices, it’s kept simple and all of that gorgeous screen is there to take the shot. There are advanced controls if you need them, and they work well. This isn’t going to replace your digital camera when you are travelling but, when you want to take a picture and don’t have your point-and-shoot handy, the One will easily perform in its place. You’ll feel a lot more confident about taking photos on the fly with the One, and when we’re talking about a phone, that’s perhaps the best we can really hope for.

Sense

I could call this portion of the review “software” but, when talking about a device from HTC it really means Sense and yes, it’s back again. This time around though HTC really have done something with it. No longer is Sense the bloated behemoth that continually got in your way, there are no more annoying animations, and there’s very little to distract you. This time around, Sense 5 feels more like a theme on top of Stock Android than it does a complete transformation of the software.

For the most part, the launcher is a launcher, you get to add panels and moving between them is no longer greeted with funky 3D animations. Also, your homescreen is left up to you out of the box, no longer are hundreds of fancy widgets thrown at you – although there is a lot of them on offer should you want them. Customizing your homescreens is something that will remind you of the Honeycomb days however. In this regards, Sense tends to feel a little clunky.

To add a widget to your homescreen for instance, you’re greeted with this:

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It’s nothing too jarring but, it does require some getting used to, as does the way the app drawer is laid out, when you open up all apps you’re greeted with this:

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Things are arranged in a three-by-four grid and finding an app can be a chore at first, with some tweaking though, you can quickly get a more normal app drawer layout:

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The apps that make up sense, the Clock, the Calendar etc do look different from their stock Android counterparts but, the only app you’ll notice a really big difference is the Gallery. Again, these apps feel like apps with a different theme on top, not entirely different apps. They take only a little time getting used to and they certainly don’t get in the way.

Sense is still not preferrable to stock Android, and there are some choices that really don’t make much “sense”, like the way HTC handle multitasking on the One. First of all, holding down Home won’t send you there, you have to double-tap home instead. Once you do, you’ll see a grid of nine apps:

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Surely, this would suggest that you can have no more than nine apps open at a time, right? Throughout my testing I only ever had nine apps open, because that’s all that Sense deemed me worthy to have open. For a device with 2GB of RAM this is a pretty strange decision. Having said that, it’s nothing compared to the way Sense 4 handled multitasking.

BlinkFeed

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It’s extremely easy to pass off BlinkFeed as yet another app to tell you the news – which it is – but HTC have done a decent job at making this a feature you can simply take or leave. When you hit the home button on the One, you’re sent to the front page of BlinkFeed but, getting to your homescreen is as simple as swiping to the right. BlinkFeed is a nice addition to Sense, it doesn’t feel cumbersome and there are enough categories – Android Headlines are in there, for instance -on offer to cater to your tastes.

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Blinkfeed is so seamlessly integrated into the whole experience that it doesn’t feel like a bolted on app or another widget, it feels part of the OS itself. It takes a little bit of getting used to but, when you think about it most of take our smartphones out of our pockets and head to one of our news sources. With BlinkFeed the middle-man is taken out of the equation and you can simply and easily see what’s new to you.

When you open up an article you can easily read it there and then, you don’t have to hit another link to take you to a browser, for example here is one of our stories in BlinkFeed:

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Overall, BlinkFeed is a feature that’s worth it’s place, and if you’re someone that constantly flits between websites to get your fix or loads up various apps, BlinkFeed will make the experience clean and minimal.

Part of me wishes that it weren’t so intrusive right out of the box but, it’s really not the nagging pain that a lot of people seem to think it is. Sure, there’s no need for it to be here and it’s not as if we were crying out for it but, it works well and could be the best way to stay up-to-date at all times.

Included Apps

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It wouldn’t be a review if we didn’t take a look at the included apps that HTC have thrown in now would it? The version of the One that I had to review was a European, GSM Unlocked version so there’s absolutely no carrier apps. I can’t speak for versions sold in the US or elsewhere. I actually like the approach that HTC have taken here, it might look like they’ve put a lot of apps in there but, when you look at them it’s every app you could want right out of the box. Refreshingly, every major Google App is here including Play Music, Play Magazines, Play Books, Google+ and of course Google Maps. Twitter and Facebook are included by default which might irk some of you but, they’re popular apps and a lot of you would install them anyway.

Flash Player is here, as is a PDF viewer and a few other extras. Overall though, it’s nothing too out of the ordinary and a lot of these apps tie into Sense anyway. At least HTC haven’t S Spammed our app drawers…

Storage

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Here’s the part of the review where people are going to disagree with me regardless. Storage on smartphones is a very subjective matter. On a personal note, the 32GB that comes as standard with the One is ample for me. However, those looking for more storage options will either have to go with AT&T for the 64GB version (and pay more in the process) or look elsewhere. It’s worth noting that you do get 25GB free for two years with Dropbox so, you should have a decent amount of room to take advantage of the excellent camera.

There’s no way to augment the included storage with a microSD card as you can do with Samsung devices but, in real terms, how many of you use that feature? My last three personal smartphones haven’t had microSD support and while 16GB can be a struggle, 32GB is fine for me. If you need to have a microSD card then you’re probably looking elsewhere already.

You’ll notice that 22.17GB of the 32GB is made available. Which is….less than stellar, especially for a device that doesn’t seem like it packed to the rafters with stuff. If something like this worries you, or really annoys you then you might be better off looking for a device with expandable storage, especially if you’re on a limited data plan.

Benchmarks & Performance

The Snapdragon 600 and 2GB of RAM inside the One make for a super-fast smartphone. Web pages load incredibly fast – both in Chrome and the Sense browser – panning pages is fluid and there’s not a hiccup in site when it comes to transitions or load times. Network performance was fast but, for the most part I was on WiFi – you don’t want to see me do a 3G speed test, now do you? Games ran smoothly on the One and every game I tried seemed to deliver a fluid frame rate and responsiveness was never an issue. In the “real-world” type of use cases, the One is a fast device, there’s no denying that.

Honestly, I don’t much buy into Benchmarks but, it wouldn’t be fair to let the One get away with it, when other devices don’t. We ran the One through a few benchmarks and here are the results. First up, Vellamo:

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And here’s AnTuTu:

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Here’s the One fared when running Basemark:

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Last but not least here’s Linpack:

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Battery Life

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Again, this is going to be somewhat subjective. How I use my phone is not going to be how those reading this are going to use their phones. The 2,300 mAh battery inside the One is a decent size and you can boil down the battery life on this phone to “good”. It’s not “great” and it’s a long way from being anywhere close to the Note II or indeed the RAZR MAXX but, it’s a solid outing from HTC here. It will easily get most of you through the day and then some.

Now, using certain features of the device will incur more of a battery drain than others, such as the use of the camera and BoomSound. Depending on how much you use these features will have a noticeable impact on how long the battery life will last. Then again, that’s pretty much the same for all smartphones – play games all day long and your battery will be dead come sundown, it’s no worse than others but, no better either.

On a personal note, it’s miles better than the One X from last year – at least the International Tegra 3 version – that was really pretty awful when it came down to battery life. Here, I think that the gains in battery life are owed to the Snapdragon 600 and not to HTC putting in any extra effort. Keeping an eye on your battery is a little more difficult with the One than other phones but, it’ll certainly let you know when something is running away with your battery life.

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Call Quality

Okay, okay I know what you’re going to say – who makes phone calls now? However, we all know that we still like to actually verbally communicate with one another and our smartphones still do that. In the One’s case it’s a decent step up from the rest, mostly due to the BoomSound side of things. Voices had a much warmer tone as I spoke with family members and friends that I’ve spoken to on numerous phones before. They were loud and very crisp.

Obviously, I am going by what others have said in return but, the general consensus is that I sounded “clear” on the phone and it was no worse or better than other devices. Considering that HTC are more than likely going to have to change microphone suppliers soon, our voices might sound differently as well.

If you’re going to use the One as a phone – and I encourage you to do so – you won’t be disappointed.

The Final Word

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HTC have done a great job with the One and it kickstarts 2013’s big smartphone releases extremely well. It’s not a perfect device – no device is – and there are some niggles with it that take something away from the overall experience. Having said that, this is easily the best HTC smartphone to date and is reminiscent of the HTC of old, who made stunning handsets and didn’t leave the software behind. Sense started out as a welcome change to the boring and bland early releases of Android but, as Android got better and better, Sense seemed to get more and more in the way. Here though, HTC have understood that Android is good and for the most part they have tried to make it their own. Think of Sense 5 as HTC’s touch on Jelly Bean and less of HTC trying to fix something that isn’t broken. On a personal note, I almost exclusively use stock Android on my devices – I just prefer it – but, the urge to strip Sense away and find an AOSP based ROM is not as strong here as it has been with previous releases, I could easily learn to live with this version of Sense.

From a design standpoint the One is a great-looking device and the attention to detail and build really come through when you’re using the device. I’m not sure why HTC change their mind when it comes to power-button placement but, this is a minor niggle. It’s true that metal will ding, and scratch but I didn’t feel like the One was fragile at all and the nice heft the device has made me feel confident using it without a case. Add in the curve around the back and you have a device that is easy to hold for long periods of time and a quality piece of engineering that is easy to admire.

BoomSound and UltraPixels are big features of the One and while they don’t stand out as the crowning jewels of the One and they’re certainly very shiny, although they’re not pure Diamonds. BoomSound is really quite excellent and it’s perhaps one of the best sounding smartphones there is, the sound produced by those stereo speakers is as true a sound you can expect from a smartphone. The UltraPixel Camera however, is evolutionary, rather than being revolutionary. Certainly, it takes some brilliant pictures, and the speed in which it does so is brilliant but, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Essentially what you get with the One’s camera is the best “snapper” in a smartphone, you can quickly take a photo of something without having to worry too much and HTC will produce a realistic image. At times though, pictures can appear muddy and not as crisp as we’d have liked.

If I were to buy a smartphone right now. I’d choose the One. Simply because of the excellent build quality and the overall experience HTC have put on show here. It’s not going to be everyone’s perfect device, of course, those that want to swap batteries or add storage are out of luck here, unfortunately. If you’re looking for a quality device that’s well-built and takes a big step forward, then the HTC One is a brilliant device to consider. The fact that HTC have finally delivered one of their smartphones to more than just AT&T is marvelous. There’s less fragmentation from HTC here, and that’s a brilliant thing.

The HTC One was sent out by DialAPhone, where our UK readers can take a look at HTC One deals on a number of different networks. 

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