It’s crunch time for HTC.
After a disastrous 2011 in which they released a boatload of devices that were pretty much the same phone but a bit less dodgy, they decided to focus on one ‘hero device’ that would carry their brand. That device was the HTC One X, and to HTC’s credit it was actually a very good phone – better, some would say, than the Galaxy S3.
Unfortunately for HTC though, a combination of a tarnished brand image from the previous year, an underwhelming marketing campaign and HTC’s baffling decision to then muddy their own waters with the One S, One V, One SV and One X+ meant that Samsung’s flagship went on to become the ruler of the roost in 2012.
The Taiwanese manufacturer finds itself in a situation where they’re almost down to their last roll of the dice, and CEO Peter Chou has confirmed the gravity of the situation by claiming that he will step down from his position should the HTC One not meet the company’s goals.
This time around, HTC have actually committed to a single hero device, and their all-in approach to the One shows in pretty much every aspect of the phone, from its industrial design to truly unique features such as its camera hardware and software and Boomsound audio. Without any further ado, let’s take a closer look at the HTC One.
Build Quality and Hardware
HTC have spared no expense or effort in the manufacturing process for the One. The phone is crafted out of a single block of aluminium (a process which reportedly takes 220 minutes for each phone), with a curved back that makes it fit nicely in the hand. Unfortunately I wasn’t given the liberty to perform a drop test on our review unit, but it certainly feels like a solid device, and has that ‘premium feel’ that people seem to care so much about. There is a downside to having so much metal, though, as it does feel a little bit slippery compared to the plastic that most of us are accustomed to. While the aluminium unibody is naturally resistant to fingerprints and smudges, there is the danger of increased visibility when it comes to scuffs and scratches.
Props must be given to HTC for departing from the tired design aesthetic that they had tried to stick with a few too many years, and with the One they’ve truly come up with a bold and unique design that has proven to be an instant eye-catcher when pulled out in front of friends and strangers alike.
The power button, though a little too recessed into the phone’s body for my liking, is ingeniously integrated into the IR blaster that allows you to control your TV and various living room media devices. This obviously had a big influence on their decision to place the power button at top-left, with the trade-off being that it’s awkward to reach when using the phone one-handed (both left and right). The brushed metal volume rocker on the right side of the device fits in nicely with the design of the phone, but also sits quite flat and can take a little effort to find.
The headphone jack is situated at top of the phone, which makes it uncomfortable to put into your pocket upside-down, but that’s mostly a matter of personal preference. HTC have finally budged on their insistence upon placing the charging port on the side of their phones, though device manufacturers still can’t seem to agree on which way the micro USB port should face (the One’s is ‘wide side up’, the opposite of the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4, but the same as the Nexus 7. I know, right?)
A notifcation LED is hidden in one of the small holes that make up the top speaker grille, letting you know when you have missed messages, calls or e-mails. Unfortunately the light is quite small and not the kind of thing you’d see out of the corner of your eye, which kind of defeats the purpose of it.
The buttons get their own separate heading because they’re one of the few cons I could find on the HTC One. Firstly they’re capacitative rather than on-screen, meaning they don’t conform with Android standards. But before you go and accuse me of being some kind of stock purist, there’s much more to it than that. Firstly, the buttons have a rather small touch target, making them seem unresponsive and difficult to press. Secondly, there are only two of them: back and home.
Because of the presence of the dual front speakers and subsequent shortage of real estate, there was a clear choice to be made: keep the task switcher button or sacrifice it to stick the HTC logo at front and centre. HTC went with the latter, which is completely understandable from a branding point of view, but the user experience suffers as a result.
The home button is shifted to the right side of the device, which makes no sense regardless of which way you look at it. When it comes to trying to access the task switcher, new users will be completely lost, while seasoned Android users will instinctively long-press the home button, but doing so brings up Google Now. The task switcher is accessed by double-tapping the home button, which is completely unintuitive and annoying because of the difficulty in pressing the buttons.
The HTC One rocks a 4.7″ Super-LCD 3 display at 1920×1080 resolution, giving it a pixel density of 468ppi (for reference, the iPhone 5’s screen is 326ppi). The screen is just gorgeous, with great colour reproduction that gives vibrancy without having to be over-saturated like Samsung’s AMOLED displays.
The viewing angles are also very impressive. If you try to rotate the screen away from yourself to make the viewing angle smaller, you’ll end up looking at the side of the phone before the screen fades out.
The auto brightness on the HTC One works really well too. I never found myself having to adjust the brightness manually because it was too dim or bright, which hasn’t been my experience with many other phones.
You’ll end up looking at the side of the phone before the screen fades out.
Video and text are both delightful on the One, and I had no qualms about watching movies or reading eBooks on long train rides.
In short, the display on the HTC One is better than any you’ll find on the market today, and I don’t expect that to change even when the Galaxy S 4 hits shelves.
Every now and then, a company does something that makes you think ‘why hasn’t it always been like this?’ The dual front-facing speakers on the HTC One (cheesily named BoomSound™) fit into that category. Once you experience the audio on the One, you’ll feel like a schmuck for all the years you spent cupping your hand around the back of your other phones. See below for a quick comparison with the Nexus 4:
The speakers perform admirably with both music and videos, easily filling up any room in the house and enabling you to share Youtube clips in noisy settings. They’re not just loud, though – the sound quality is top notch, with no cracking or tearing even at maximum volume.
The One even drives earphones impressively – I don’t recall ever turning the volume all the way up with mine plugged in. Those who are considerate enough to share their music with other Cityrail commuters using leaky headphones will love the One’s ability to fill up a train carriage.
In the past, Beats Audio enhancements have been a bit of a joke – little more than a glorified software equaliser that only worked when you plugged earphones in. With the HTC One, the enhancements are also available with the phone’s built-in speakers, and they make a big difference. I could prop the One on top of the mirror whilst taking a shower and listen to audio books and podcasts with no problem. I know it sounds silly, but try listening to anything with your current phone’s speakers in the shower then try to tell me that’s not impressive.
The ambition shown by HTC with the One extends to one of its most important features: the camera. In a time when other manufacturers are pushing 13MP in their phones, HTC have taken a big risk by refusing to participate in the megapixel race, choosing instead to fit the One with an ‘Ultrapixel’ camera that is equivalent to 4MP.
I won’t go into the specifics of the technology though, as you’ll find much better explanations elsewhere than I can muster up. Thankfully, the camera module doesn’t protrude as it did on the One X, meaning that the lens isn’t the first thing to make contact with flat surfaces.
To put it simply, the camera on the HTC One is pretty darn good. Shots are crisp and colourful, and unless you use a lot of digital zoom or print out wall-sized posters from your smartphone photos, you won’t miss the megapixels most of the time. The automatic settings will produce a good image pretty much every time, though you might want to adjust the Scene setting in some situations.
There is however, a bit of a trade-off with the Ultrapixel camera. Although low light performance is probably better than any other smartphone on the market, in daylight conditions the low resolution shows its weaknesses in terms of detail, where phones such as the Xperia Z, Lumia 920 and iPhone 5 perform better.
It’s in low-light conditions that the camera on the One really excels. The phone’s optical image stabilisation and Ultrapixel sensor mean that you’ll capture superior, reasonably-lit photos in low light. If I may offer the simplest possible explanation for this, bigger pixels catch more light per-pixel (about three times more, if HTC’s claims are to be believed).
The thing with demoing low light shots is that if they’re any good, they no longer look like low light shots.
The 2.1MP front facing camera, while not exactly a standout feature, has a wider angle lens than you’ll find on other smartphones, making it possible to take group photos without having freakishly long arms.
My only regret with the HTC One’s camera is that the phone ships with Android 4.1.2, meaning that it isn’t yet able to take Photo Spheres (a feature introduced in Android 4.2), though we can reasonably expect that to be fixed in a future update. Our review unit came without the software patch that reportedly improves the camera, so we look forward to seeing the difference once that rolls out to users.
The HTC One records video at up to 1080p resolution at 30fps, or 720p at 60fps. There is also an HDR video option, which drops the frame rate down to 28fps as well as narrowing the field of view. Videos are recorded in MP4 format at 20Mbps, while audio is recorded at 192Kbps in stereo.
Like the photos taken with the One, the video quality is also good, with plenty of detail and little noise, and the image stabilisation lends a hand when recording videos to produce an impressive result. There is an option to enable continuous autofocus while shooting video, though the focus can also be locked if this is more to your liking.
Here’s a sample video that I probably didn’t need to take with HDR (and suffers for it):
HTC Zoe and Gallery
When I first heard about HTC Zoe, I thought it was just a worse version of Vine and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Having lived with the phone for a few weeks though, I’ve come to think that it’s one of its best features.
A Zoe (from Zoetrope) is basically a three second video clip. There’s a small button on the left of the camera app that activates Zoe mode, and once you press the shutter button it turns into a progress bar that fills up with red over three seconds. ‘What’s the point of that?’ I hear you ask. Let me try to explain.
The most basic functionality is that you can scrub through the 19 frames that make up the Zoe and choose which one you’d like to save as a regular photo, after which you can edit and share it just like any other picture.
Zoe is one of the phone’s best features.
One of the benefits of a three second video as opposed to a still image is that you have a lot more information to work with. If you take a Zoe of a friend standing in front of a landmark and an unsuspecting tourist walks past in the background, the One’s software will detect that they’re not supposed to be there and give you the ability to remove them from the photo.
With HTC Zoe you can also make sure everyone in a photo is smiling or has their eyes open. After shooting a three second clip, a circle appears around all of the faces and you can change each person’s facial expression to anything within those three seconds. There are additional options that allow you to make people’s eyes bigger, slim their face down, smooth their skin, and remove things like red-eye unwanted shiny spots.
The ‘Sequence Shot’ feature allows you to break an action shot into individual frames and display them all in one picture, producing the kind of effect you see below:
Photo by Garrett Reeves
Finally, the HTC One’s gallery software groups your photos and Zoes into events based on the time and location in which they were shot (pro tip: rename your events regularly, otherwise you’ll just end up with a whole bunch of albums named “[SUBURB] – [DATE]”).
You have the ability to take the Zoes and photos from an event and automagically compile them into a 30 second highlight clip, complete with music, transitions and hipster video effects. One thing that really impressed me is that the highlight videos render in realtime on the phone, after which you can save to an mp4 file if you’re happy with the video.
Here’s a sample of a Zoe highlight clip:
To get a bit of control over what content makes it into the highlight clip, you can click a button to mark a particular photo or Zoe as a highlight. For even more control, you can choose to manually pick up to 13 photos and Zoes that you want in the highlight clip. There’s also a shuffle button that mashes everything together in a slightly different way. At this point there are only six ‘scenes’ (combinations of music, effects and transitions) available, and personally I found that most of them contained too many still images where I would have preferred utilising a lot of Zoes, but hopefully we’ll see more scenes in the future, as well as the ability to add custom music.
This provides a compelling way to share memories, being able to share a snappy, professional-looking video clip instead of scrolling through a gallery of photos. It really changed the way I thought about the photos I was taking, and I even found myself taking ‘b-roll’-like stock clips to serve as interesting transitions in my highlight clips.
Since everyone loves cats, it can’t hurt to share another highlight clip sample:
Taking a collection of Zoes instead of only still pictures makes the phone’s gallery much more interesting to look at, as the preview tiles are animated as you scroll through your albums, giving a kind of “magic moving photo” effect (popularised recently by the Harry Potter films)
Zoe clips are thankfully saved as MP4 files rather than a proprietary format, and you also get the 19 still jpg files that make up the Zoe (great, but it makes a total mess of your Dropbox Camera Uploads folder). You also have the option of sharing them via the HTC Zoe Share service, which gives you a public link to share with your friends, although the HTC-hosted file only lasts for 6 months.
The other cool thing about the gallery software is that all of your photos are geotagged, and you can view them based on where they were taken. If you’re a frequent traveller, you can look at all the photos taken in a particular country, then zoom in a little to city level, then suburb, and all the way down to individual houses.
The HTC One features a 2300mAh non-removable battery, which is pretty much par for the course and clearly the direction HTC has been going since last year’s One X.
While it’s difficult to measure and test battery life in a way that’s meaningful to real world usage, I found that the One got me through a day of moderate usage quite comfortably (which, for me, means listening to a few hours of podcasts, taking some photos and checking e-mails and social media periodically). Obviously when you’re playing with a new device you’re going to be pulling it out every few minutes, showing it off to friends and generally pushing it a lot harder than you would in everyday life, and on particularly heavy days I ran the battery flat by dinner time.
A 3000mAh battery would have been nice, given the big bright screen and powerful speakers that it has to run, but unless you’re working the One particularly hard you won’t find yourself doing emergency charges throughout the day or nervously checking the battery meter every couple of hours.
For those who are interested in that kind of thing, I took a few screenshots of BetterBatteryStats as the phone was about to die. Take note of the time of death and make of them what you will:
Performance and Stability
Performance on the HTC One is buttery smooth, and I don’t recall a single time when I felt it stuttering or lagging. Animations are smooth, apps open quickly and scrolling is effortless. Stability is pretty impressive too, with no notable system crashes or even force closes.
Sense 5 (disappointingly not named “Newsense”) is a far cry from the garish reflections and bubbles that made previous versions of HTC’s custom software a bit of an eyesore. It’s been cleaned up a lot, and actually looks quite nice now. In my opinion, it’s the most attractive of all of the manufacturer overlays on the market – certainly much easier on the eye than TouchWiz.
Unfortunately the One runs Android 4.1.2 out of the box, and we haven’t yet heard anything regarding an upgrade to 4.2 and beyond in the near future. I worry that by the time Google I/O rolls around, the software on the One could start to look outdated very quickly.
Disappointingly, notification power toggles and expanded notifications are completely missing. This is more due to the lack of Android 4.2 than anything else, but even pre-Jellybean other manufacturers such as Samsung included notification bar toggles in their respective overlays. After using the expanded notifications that allow you to do things like archive e-mail, reply to messages and control music from the notification bar, it’s hard to go back to a phone that doesn’t have these features.
It’s hard to describe what BlinkFeed is without saying the words ‘like Flipboard’. Basically it’s a news aggregation homescreen that displays snippets of news from a customisable list of categories, as well as giving you the option to add your Facebook, Twitter, Flicker and LinkedIn feeds … like Flipboard.
The categories are easy to customise to one’s liking, though at the time of writing the list of news sources is limited to the initial partners that HTC has worked with. We still hope you’ll see Ausdroid news popping up on BlinkFeed in the near future!
The Blinkfeed homescreen is always the leftmost screen, which somewhat annoyingly can’t be customised, nor can you enable infinite scrolling. Thankfully though, you can change the default homescreen from BlinkFeed to a regular Android homescreen.
If you’re a hardcore feed reader who needs to soak up every story about a particular topic that was posted in the last 24 hours, BlinkFeed is not for you. It is, however, a handy way to ‘snack’ on news (to use HTC’s own language) while you’re waiting somewhere, or have a couple of minutes to kill. Even as someone who fits the previous description, I found myself scrolling through BlinkFeed every now and then to get the highlights of my areas of interest, so there’s definitely some value in there and I can see it being a feature that many users like.
I’m not a fan of the Sense keyboard. It was probably the biggest battle I faced with the HTC One, and I resisted the urge to install a third party replacement in the name of doing a proper out-of-the-box review.
It’s hard to describe something like the feeling of a keyboard, and maybe my experience is unique, but the HTC One’s keyboard didn’t ‘just work’ for me. I wasn’t able to roughly tap what I wanted to type and have the prediction engine and autocorrection do the hard work for me. There are some other things about the keyboard that made me want to avoid using it, like the fact that hitting backspace after having a word autocorrected turns it back into the jumble of letters that you initially typed.
A Swype-like gesture typing mode called Trace can be manually enabled and works fairly well but again, it was really hard not to give in and just install SwiftKey. Your mileage may vary.
The HTC One ships with a TV app that displays the programs showing on each channel and uses the phone’s IR blaster to switch to that show, effectively turning your phone into a TV remote. You simply pair the One with your TV, (a very simple process as long as you don’t own an extremely obscure model manufactured by a no-name brand), then tap the tile representing the show you want to watch.
The TV app is unique on the device, in that it actually allows rich notifications – you can pull down the notification bar and easily switch channels or turn the TV on and off. Another nice touch is that if you’re using the TV app and your display times out, it will automatically wake up when you pick up the phone again without you having to unlock it manually.
There are a few things that weren’t significant enough to make it as a dot point under Cons, but that I must point out:
In my apartment – which pretty much has no reception unless you’re standing near a window – the One seemed to get noticeably better reception than other phones in the household. I didn’t experience any dropped calls, which is a minor miracle.
The earpiece volume is loud and clear, and the result of my horribly unscientific test of the microphone quality was “it sounds pretty good on my end”. The phone features two dual-membrane MEMS microphones which purportedly improve recording, though you might need to be on something like Telstra’s HD Voice network to really be able to hear the difference.
Despite the all-aluminium chassis, the One doesn’t suffer from any WiFi or cellular connectivity issues. As far as I can tell, there’s no wrong way to hold it. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance test the One on LTE.
ConclusionThe most frequently asked question I got while using this as my daily driver was “are you going to buy one?” The answer is ‘maybe’, which is actually a big deal considering my Nexus 4 is only a few months old. It’s even more amazing that I’d say that about a device running a manufacturer overlay.
Gone are the days when HTC Sense was just an overly stylised Android skin. There is actually a heck of a lot of features that you miss out on when running purely stock Android. In the days following my return to the promised land of stock Android, my photo gallery felt rather stale, and I found myself missing the ability to capture moments in motion (shooting videos all the time just isn’t the same). I’ve even been genuinely tempted to purchase an HTC One so I can preserve all of the Zoes and highlight clips I captured in the short time I had with the phone.
The speakers on any other phone feel woefully inadequate once you’ve been exposed to the HTC One’s BoomSound, and my morning shower has become a lot less enjoyable without the HTC One providing background noise.
The phone is not without its flaws. Many will point to its lack of removable battery and storage as major downsides, and these are legitimate concerns for some users. I don’t imagine it will be the make or break difference when it comes to decision time for most buyers.
The second most frequently asked question I got was “should I buy one?” The answer is yes, you should. HTC have really put all their eggs into this basket (as reflected in the phone’s name), and the result is a beautifully designed device with a lot of functionality that will make Nexus users and even Galaxy S 4 owners envious.
“Should I buy one?” Yes, you should.
Time will tell how the competition pans out and whether HTC can compete with Samsung’s marketing behemoth, but on merit alone the two devices look very evenly matched, and one day if I’m feeling particularly bold I may even dare to say that the One is the better phone.