Review: HTC One is the Android phone to beat
At a Glance
HTC knows how to make good-looking hardware. I loved the white ceramic body of the HTC One X and Nokia could learn a thing or two about making Windows phones by taking a closer look at the HTC Windows Phone 8X. The company’s latest offering, the HTC One, is a paragon of industrial design: Its chiseled chamfers, rounded edges, and chrome accents are sure to turn more than a few heads when you whip out the phone in public. But the One is more than just a pretty face: HTC packed a lot of power under the phone’s hood, and the handset’s camera benefits from numerous software and hardware tweaks that should excite fans of mobile photography.
A feast for the eyes
The first thing you’ll notice when holding the One is how well it sits in your hand. At 5.4 by 2.7 by 0.4 inches, the phone is larger than Apple’s iPhone 5 but smaller than HTC’s previous handset, the Droid DNA. Though the phone comes with a 4.7-inch display (shades of the Samsung Galaxy S III), the One’s aluminum unibody design and gentle curves compare favorably to the S III’s primarily plastic body. That slick exterior does come at a price, however: The One’s power and volume buttons sit flush with the phone’s chassis—which makes them difficult to press—and the 2300mAh battery is nonremovable. The phone also lacks a microSD card slot, meaning that you’re stuck using the supplied 32GB (or 64GB, if you buy the larger model) of on-board memory to store your photos, apps, music, and movies.
The absence of expandable storage is lamentable, especially since in other respects HTC designed the One to function as a multimedia powerhouse. The One’s 1920-by-1080-pixel display packs 468 pixels per inch, which makes viewing HD content a feast for the eyes. Bordering that gorgeous display are two large, front-facing stereo speakers, which pump out surprisingly loud, clear audio. One big advantage of positioning the speakers on the front of the device rather than on the back is that audio doesn’t get muffled when you set the phone down on a flat surface. I did notice an occasional pop at higher volumes, but the speakers’ sound quality was more than acceptable overall.
If you tend to mislay your TV remote, you’ll appreciate the One’s built-in IR blaster, which lets you use the phone as a universal remote control. The phone has a TV app with a setup wizard that simplifies the task of programming the One to work with your TV, cable box, and home theater. The app also pulls listing information from Peel, showing which TV shows and movies are currently playing. You can arrange for the phone to remind you when your favorite shows are on and to provide a brief synopsis of specific episodes. I tested the remote functionality of the phone with an LG TV and a Motorola cable box in our office and was surprised at how well the combination worked. Though I was 13 feet away from the cable box, I noticed little or no delay when I changed channels or browsed through the guide. The app is so well made that I almost wish I subscribed to cable...almost.
Built to be social
Another cool bit of software that the One offers is BlinkFeed. HTC is marketing BlinkFeed—which resembles the Live Tiles on Windows Phone to some extent—as a “magical” way to stay up-to-date on your social networks and news feeds, but in reality it’s just a glorified RSS reader that lives on your home screen. You can tie BlinkFeed to your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts so that your friends’ updates show up there; however, clicking an update just kicks you into the corresponding app. You can also instruct BlinkFeed to display news headlines, but the news outlets you can subscribe to are limited to a handful of blogs—though you can subscribe to a catch-all news category like ‘lifestyle’.
Despite using the phone for several days, I never felt inclined to spend much time with BlinkFeed. Though I loaded all of my social accounts into it, I ended up using the stand-alone Twitter and Facebook apps to update my status and to see what my friends were up to. Being able to browse headlines quickly was convenient, but other dedicated apps such as Zite perform better in that regard. Most annoyingly, you can’t turn BlinkFeed off: It always appears as your leftmost home screen, and you can’t get rid of it without installing a different launcher.
UltraPixels make a difference
The other features that HTC played up when it announced the phone were the One’s camera and camera software. Rather than perpetuate the myth that the more numerous the megapixels, the better a camera’s image quality, HTC opted in favor of a 4-megapixel camera with larger pixels than those traditionally used in smartphones. These UltraPixels are designed to take in more light, making them better for capturing photos in low-light environments.
After taking the One’s camera out for a spin, I think HTC may be on to something with UltraPixels. The One handled everyday shots well enough, but it excelled at taking photos in areas with less-than-optimal lighting. Photos were less noisy than comparable shots taken with an iPhone 5 or a Nokia Lumia 920 under the same conditions, and the One’s flash didn’t completely wash out the subject. The iPhone 5’s outside shots looked better than the One’s, but the two were more evenly matched on indoor photos.
The One’s biggest advantage over the iPhone, however, is in the number of features that HTC packs into the phone’s native camera app. The default Android camera has various extras built into it already, but HTC seems to have omitted only a kitchen sink app in assembling the One’s camera software: Among the available shooting modes are HDR and panorama; and you can apply filters to your photos without having to resort to third-party apps such as Instagram.
Another noteworthy shooting mode is Zoe. When you activate Zoe, the phone takes up to 20 photos and records about 3. seconds of 1080p video. The feature is designed for action shots, of course, where you’d expect a lot of movement; and you can select and pull additional stills from the 1080p video. Though Zoe mode is a neat extra, I didn’t find much use for it in my day-to-day life. Perhaps very creative people will find some cool uses for the feature.
The processor steps up the power
The One’s many features require a lot of processing power, which the One has in good supply. The One is the first handset to ship with Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, which is supposed to deliver superior graphics and battery life. The phone gracefully handled every app I threw at it, including games like Shadow Gun and Temple Run, though it did get noticeably warm when performing processor-intensive tasks (like gaming) or downloading 20+ apps at once.
The phone’s battery should survive an entire day of normal use (about 9 hours), so you don’t have to worry about the One dying on you in the middle of the day. If you like to play lots of movies or games on your phone, however, you’re well advised to bring along your charger: The One’s high-resolution screen can be a real drain on the battery if left on too long.
We received the Sprint version of the One for testing. (It will also be available on AT&T and T-Mobile.) Call quality over Sprint’s network was solid, with little or no static on either end of the call. Unfortunately, Sprint’s data speeds were somewhat underwhelming. In San Francisco, where we have access to Sprint’s LTE network, I often found myself using the One on Wi-Fi when streaming HD video or downloading large apps. Its performance might improve as Sprint fleshes out its LTE network, but for now don’t expect miracles if you’re a Sprint customer looking to upgrade to the One.
Even with its handful of quirks, the HTC One is among the best Android phones you can buy. Heck, it’s among the best smartphones you can buy, period. A superb design, a beautiful screen, and such extras as the IR blaster and the Zoe camera mode help it stand out from the pack. If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, this is the one to get.