Back in 2010 HTC was well placed to become Android’s dominant manufacturer. It had popular, big-selling ranges at all the key price points and had also been chosen by Google to make the first Nexus phone. In 2011 it released too many mediocre handsets, with muddled branding and poor marketing just at the time Samsung was making its move with the Galaxy S II, and all its momentum was lost. In 2012, despite a recognition of its mistakes, the company was still not able to a generally positive reception for its devices into sales. Now in 213 we have the HTC One. It will be HTC’s only flagship device of the year, and the handset tasked with turning around six consecutive quarters of loss.
It certainly feels like a fresh start. The One displays incredible attention to detail, as if every single feature of the phone has been thought and rethought. HTC has pulled back from the unwinnable specs race, taken its own path in industrial design, and in the process has produced the most impressive Android phone we’ve seen.
Design and build
The HTC One raises the bar for the design of not only Android devices but all other smartphones. It’s safe to say that it is in a class alone with the iPhone 5, but where such comparisons would normally involve an amount of wishful thinking on the part of the Android camp here it is not so. You could easily argue that HTC has surpassed what Apple has been doing – the One unquestionably looks like the more modern device, and is beautiful.
HTC has returned to the aluminium unibody design that it helped pioneer and has now perfected. The phone feels incredibly solid, it is weighty but not heavy, and with a curved back helps it fit comfortably in the hand. With a smaller than normal bezel down the edges of the screen the phone is also a couple of millimetres narrower than you would normally expect of a 4.7” device, and that also has great ergonomic benefits.
Stereo speakers sit above and below the screen and are nicely integrated as a design feature. Also below the screen are capacitive buttons for Back and Home. The Menu button is now virtual and only appears as and when needed, and the task switching function is assigned to a double tap of the home button. The two buttons straddle an HTC logo in the centre, and although it is an irregular arrangements we never had any issue with it.
The power button is located top left. This isn’t ideal although in this instance the button serves a secondary function as an IR remote control. Other features are minimal. The micro SIM tray requires a tool to open, there’s no memory card slot and the back plate is, of course, not removable.
The phone boots incredibly quickly, and within about seven seconds you find yourself staring at the best screen on any smartphone today. Like with last year’s One X the screen is laminated, meaning there is no discernible gap between the actual display layer and the glass above it. The 1080p resolution over 4.7 inches gives a pixel density of 468ppi, higher than any other device.
It is noticeably better than 720p displays, and also better than another 1080p display, in the Sony Xperia Z. The One has vastly superior viewing angles, far deeper blacks and more vibrant colours. It’s even viewable in the (winter) sun, although we might need to revisit it in a couple of months to see how it holds up in the middle of summer. The screen goes very bright if you need it to. We found the auto-brightness setting to be acceptable for most purposes, but a bit too dim for video. A quick download of MX Player, with its own app-specific brightness setting, quickly rectified that.
Performance and battery life
Even though HTC has made the One about much more than its core specs, the device is still bleeding edge and still holds its own against all comers. There’s a quad-core Krait processor clocked at 1.7GHz, Adreno 320 graphics and 2GB of RAM, which all help things moving along as smoothly as possible. It is aided to an extent by a version of HTC Sense that is much lighter than normal. All traces of lag were all but eliminated – any very minor jerks that we may have encountered were those that appear to be unavoidable realities of the Android OS.
Our review unit had 32GB of storage, and a 64GB version is also available. Of that 32GB about 29GB was available out of the box.
The overall hardware performance can be largely taken for granted. No apps can really stress the hardware in modern smartphones, so whether you’re using them for web, video, gaming or phone you will be satisfied. As a phone, incidentally, the One also impressed, with clear call quality and good reception.
Away from the basic specs the other hardware features also add real value. We’ve mentioned that we like the look of the front facing speakers, but they are an awful lot more than a superficial design feature.
For almost the first time in a smartphone they sound like proper speakers, something that you actually want to use instead of reaching for the headphones at the first opportunity. There’s no chance of you sleeping through the alarm with this device, and the awesome stereo output combined with that display helped give us the best mobile video experience we’ve had.
Audio recording was equally impressive, as was the inclusion of an infra-red transmitter to use as a remote control for your TV. With a large database of supported TVs and set-top boxes, along with the ability to ‘learn’ from any other remote, plus an interactive TV guide that will automatically change the channel to the show you want to watch it was surprisingly useful and has lots potential to grow in future as well.
With so much power in the One battery life was always going to be a concern, especially as it is an area where HTC device tend to stumble. Thankfully the 2300mAh battery surpassed our expectations. It comfortably got us through a day or ‘average’ use and with heavy use would start to hit warning levels around early evening. We did not have a chance to test the phone on a 4G network, which may reduce battery life further.
The main area where HCT has rethought its approach is with the camera. Rather than follow the crowd and go for a 13 megapixel sensor the company has stepped back to 2006 and chosen a mere four megapixels.
HTC rightly talks about the megapixel myth, how the idea that more megapixels is automatically better is wrong. In an imaging sensor of the same size, more the more pixels there are, the smaller they are. The smaller they are, the less light they can take in. This is what causes grainy, noisy images to be produced in low light conditions. HTC’s approach means the four million pixels in the One’s camera can capture 300% more light than the 13 million pixels in a camera such as that on the Galaxy S IV.
To try and avoid direct comparisons – however flawed – with higher megapixel cameras HTC is calling its pixels Ultrapixels, but this is pure marketing and has no actual meaning in an imaging sense.
The lower megapixel count is also not without some downsides. Four megapixels offers little in the way of future proofing for your images. The display on the Nexus 10 tablet already has a four megapixel resolution, so you wouldn’t be able to zoom in on your shots on that device without a serious loss in quality.
More megapixels also equates to more detail in an image, and the loss of detail on the One’s camera is noticeable. If you’re shooting purely for sharing online then you won’t have issues with this, but more ambitious photographers will certainly need to bear it in mind.
It’s also worth noting that the One shoots in 16:9 aspect ratio. This is fine for shooting in landscape mode but not for portrait. You can switch to 4:3 but this only crops the images, reducing the resolution yet further to 3.1 megapixels.
To aid low light capture the One is also equipped with an f2.0 lens, which allows in 44% more light than the f2.4 aperture lens in the iPhone 5. And there is also optical image stabilisation which enables you to shoot at lower shutter speeds (to allow more light in) without introducing motion blur. It also helps smooth out the judder in handheld video.
And HTC has one further trick up its sleeve in the form of Zoe Capture. This is a brand new feature that begins shooting fractionally before you press the shutter button and continues for a couple of seconds after. If you’re trying to photograph a moving subject it takes away the pain of timing your shot just right – just tap the button and you’ll capture around three seconds worth of images from which you can pick the best shot.
It’s a great idea, and does work very well in certain circumstances. Users with young children who refuse to stay still will love it. But be warned: excessive use of Zoe will eat away at your storage space quite quickly, and if you have auto-upload turned on on one of your cloud services they will all end up there as well.
So how does the camera perform overall? The honest answer is: not quite as good as we’d have hoped.
It is the most usable camera we’ve seen in a smartphone, with fantastic software and effectively no shutter lag. The stabilisation works brilliantly. Stills are possible in low light without resorting to the feeble LED flash where on other devices they wouldn’t be (although note that with the shutter speed typically dropping to around 1/15 of a second moving subjects will still come out blurred).
In video it is even better, introducing a steadicam effect that enables you to shoot while walking and not bring about a feeling of seasickness in anyone watching the resulting clip.
But if you’re after sharp, clean low light images then HTC’s ‘Ultrapixels’ are not able to deliver. There are improvements over rival camera phones but colours were washed out and heavy noise processing was still evident. It is good, but HTC has not reinvented camera phones with the One.
The HTC One runs Android 4.1.2 with HTC’s Sense 5 skin. It’s a vast improvement over previous versions of Sense. It’s quicker and lighter than in the past, the cartoony graphics have been largely replaced by a more mature styling and there’s far less bloat. It’s not perfect: the condensed system font would not have been our choice, and the app drawer’s default grid size of 3×4 makes a poor use of space (although it can be changed to a more traditional 4×5 easily enough).
Sense 5 contains two new pieces of software. First is BlinkFeed, the new main home screen panel. This is essentially a full-screen Flipboard widget, showing news, Twitter updates and the like. It guarantees you’ll have something to look at whenever you’ve got a few second to kill, but we didn’t appreciate having the news headlines thrust in our face every single time we turned the phone on.
You can’t disable BlinkFeed but you can set a standard Android home sceen to be the default – with BlinkFeed positioned one swipe to the left it became less intrusive and more useful.
The other feature is Zoe Highlights. This, an only partly related companion to Zoe Capture, groups stills and videos in the Gallery app into ‘events’ – stills and videos shot at the same time or in the same place – and automatically edits them into short movies without any user input at all.
Zoe Highlights is a wonderful innovation that has massive potential. Yet in its initial form it is crippled. The videos can only be uploaded to HTC Share, and they’ll only be hosted for 180 days. If HTC doesn’t update the service so they can be posted directly to Twitter or Facebook then it will be a wasted opportunity.
Elsewhere the software is equally great. You can launch four apps from the lockscreen, including the camera even when the phone is password protected. The extra apps are well chosen and useful, ranging from a full office editing suite and notes app with Evernote integration to a music player that displays song lyrics. HTC’s own widgets are as valuable as always, and you even get support for Flash. The keyboard is also good, especially with swiping support, which is turned off by default.