HTC is making its biggest bet for survival this year with the new HTC One that started shipping last week (in the US). I finally got my hands on the HTC One a few days ago. This is my comprehensive review of the device after 2 days of use.
In light of rapidly eroding marketshare to Samsung and Apple, HTC revamped and simplified its product line in 2012 to create the One X. The One X was a fantastic device that sold much less than it deserved to. It had a great camera, an awesome display that beat the crap out of all competition in 2012 and a handsome design. Yet, it got rolled over by the behemoth that was Samsung Galaxy S3.
Fast forward to 2013 and HTC has its last real shot and competing in a business that is increasingly becoming a two horse race between Apple and Samsung. The HTC One is the Taiwanese handset maker’s Hail Mary!. The billion dollar question is, will it make it to the receiver’s hands for a touchdown?.
Look and Feel- Let me get it out of the way first. The HTC is the most beautiful Android phone I have ever had my hands one. I could make an argument that it is as good as the iPhone 5 in hardware design which is saying a lot. In many ways, bests the iPhone 5. Until the One arrived, the iPhone 5 was the standard to which every smartphone ever made would be measured. It represents a level of hardware design that everyone aspires to. The One equals that and bests it with an even better display, larger screen, front facing stereo speakers and a gorgeous unibody design. If hardware design is why you stayed with Apple, this should be the one that makes you switch. It is that good.
I borrowed an iPhone 5- the benchmark for smartphone hardware design and placed the One next to it. With the curved back design, the One looks thinner than the iPhone 5 when placed on top of each other while in reality it is a tad thicker. The smart bezel design gives the feeling of an edge to edge display. See below for comparison shots with the iPhone 5.
UltraPixels- Much has been made about the unique and very risky UltraPixel camera that HTC has shipped with the one. It is a 4 megapixel camera (paltry by today’s standards if you look at it from a pure megapixel standpoint) but one that packs a much larger and better sensor. In practice, this should allow for much better pictures. See the gallery below for some sample pictures.
In my tests, I found the claim to be very valid for low light pictures and not much of a handicap for outdoor pictures in good light conditions. See the gallery below for a low light comparison shot between the iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One.
BoomSound- With the One, HTC has introduced the best smartphone speakers in the industry. They call it BoomSound. What it means is that the phone has two front facing speakers- above and below the display to give a stereo effect. And it excels. When placed next to an iPhone5 and Samsung Galaxy S3, the sound emanating from the One’s twin speakers were far better. Coupled with the fantastic display, it made for immersive video viewing.
HTC One ships with Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2. This is a reasonably new version of Android and has the fantastic Google Now. It also includes some of HTC’s innovations. HTC’s Sense gets a major refresh with One and is called Sense 5.0. Outside of the Android improvements, Sense 5.0 boasts some new features – BlinkFeed, Zoe and better pictures with the unique and risky UltraPixel camera.
BlinkFeed- HTC created BlinkFeed, a news and social network aggregator that sits front and center on the home screen of Sense 5.0. It is not unlike Pulse or Flipboard and in looks, very much like Windows Metro UI. That said, it is harmless and partially functional. The good news is that it can be relegated to a non-home screen. The bad news is that unlike widgets, it cant really be removed completely.
Zoe- Zoe is an interesting take on pictures and video. I would go to the extent of calling it a stepchild of the two. In the camera mode, HTC allows for the Zoe feature to be activated which takes a second of video before the picture is shot and about 3 seconds after the still picture is done. The picture and the videos are available but in addition, this combo of the two is also created and HTC calls it a Zoe. In practice, it is pretty neat and occasionally but not always handy to have.
TV Tuner- The HTC One packs an IR blaster (which is conveniently co-located with the power on/off switch on top of the device). To support the IR blaster, there is an app from HTC built into the phone simply called “Remote”. I put the feature to task on my 7 year old LG Plasma TV and my Comcast cable box. It took me all of 5 minutes to have both my TV and Comcast box completely controlled from the remote app. The process was simple and all I had to do was switch the two boxes on/off a couple of times as part of the setup and also plug in my zip code to go with the Comcast channel guide. Once done, it was so easy to control everything from the phone that I found myself grinning. It is the simplest and handiest universal remote I have used and it worked just out of the box.
I didn’t get a chance to try this on newer TVs with built in apps. The remote works with Hulu boxes also. Not sure if it would work with PS3′s and Xboxes. I know the PS3 uses Bluetooth for remote control. So I may need a different piece of software to control the PS3 in that case.
Which brings me to the most important part of this review- the overall experience. Often times, phones are good in parts but not as great when things are put together. The HTC One X was a great phone that had issues once I plugged in Jelly Bean. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is a completely functional and good device that falls short in one quality- what you feel when you hold it in your hand. I am happy to announce that the One passes all those tests very well.
The HTC One is a fantastic device built with attention to detail. From the aluminium unibody design which turns heads everywhere (yep, it does) to the gorgeous 1080p 469ppi display which is stunning to say the least, the device makes for a great first impression. But it doesnt stop there. Sense 5.0 (barring BlinkFeed) is a much more subtler skin of Android 4.1 and there is more Android and less HTC here. And thats a very good thing. When HTC started skinning Android, Google’s UX was a work in progress and thats putting it mildly. After Ice Cream Sandwich, Google has been on a tear. Android 4.0 onwards is feature on top of feature that truly differentiates Android from iOS and Windows Phone x. Android is now by far the smartest OS and is well integrated with Google properties that is so widely used.
There was a time when Android was an open place where all junk went in, including Google’s own. Today, it is a sophisticated and polished OS that has a clean UX while still allowing for all the user customizations one wants in android. Google Now is the biggest single leap in mobile OS feature set in the last year or so and Google is only getting started. As they add more cards to Google Now, it should be the definitive element of the Android experience in the coming years. Google Now is the “smart” in the smartphone.
The UltraPixels camera definitely shows promise. Videos came nice and rich. Color reproduction was very good. The stereo speakers made for great listening. The almost edge to edge display is a thing to behold especially when viewing HD videos.
Battery Life was good in the limited testing I performed on the device. It lasted a full day and was on its last legs around 9 pm. While it is a tad less than the iPhone 5, it is still more than decent for a 4.7 inch 1080p display device.
Cellular connectivity was on par with my Samsung Galaxy S3 and voices sounded clean and clear. I was unable to see anything special with the Sense Voice that HTC is advertising but it was as good an experience as any other high end smartphone.
WiFi performance was good. I did not do throughput measurements since it would be an exercise in measuring my Comcast experience more than anything else. The One supports 802.11ac. I am expecting to get an 802.11ac router in a few months and will put the feature to test then. NFC worked when I used the Samsung TecTiles with the HTC One.
Overall device performance was excellent. The device was very snappy and responsive. Touch response was great. There are only two buttons with the One X instead of the usual 3 that Android phones have. It took me a few hours to adjust but once the adjustment phase is over, it feels very normal and natural. The basic model ships with 32GB which is more than sufficient for me given how much of my content I access directly from the cloud. The 2GB RAM definitely helps in speeding things up.
For a Hail Mary, HTC One is as good a throw as it gets. With its stylish good looks, innovative design, premium materials and finish, top of the line hardware specs and an excellent version of Android OS, it is made to appeal to everyone. It is a compelling product in the space and most certainly the best Android phone ever made. If you are in the market for a smartphone, you should give the One very serious consideration. You will not regret it.