Review: HTC One – Welcome back to the A-list

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HTC ONE
£499, contract from £33p/m
HTC.com/uk

4star 100px

The HTC One is a stunning looking phone and an excellent performer – but will that be enough to topple Samsung, Sony and Apple?

The HTC One represents the company’s all in powerplay to pull itself back to the top tier of smartphone market – and with a product this good, they might just do it.

One of the former giants of the Android smartphone market (HTC was the biggest seller before Samsung got into gear), the last generation saw HTC slip on a banana peel and it tumbled out of the top five.

The company’s previous flagship, the HTC One X, was a rather bland, but high powered smartphone with a big screen that suffered from poor battery life and a shocking camera – it also had a plasticky body. It did not sell as well as the company had hoped, and CEO Peter Chou recently blamed the company’s poor showing in 2012 on marketing.


STUNNING DESIGN
This is how a phone should be designed. The machined aluminium unibody is without a doubt the best piece of industrial design on a smartphone since the original iPhone 4 – It is much superior to Apple’s dull iPhone 5 design and is one of the most comfortable phones I’ve ever held.

 

HTC One - Front and back

Stunning industrial design

What HTC’s designers have done that is quite smart, is what they call ‘pyramid stacking’ that means the rear of the phone doesn’t have a set thickness – more of a raised curve. This means they can stack more battery and electronics in (presumably), but more importantly it makes for an incredibly comfortable phone to hold. Being metal it also feels far more durable than its rivals – and its curved corners get away from the ‘boring, black rectangle’ design problem that has plagued the industry in the past few years.

The front of the phone has a nice double set of speaker/microphone grills, which not only make for clear phone calls (which to be fair, isn’t really a problem for most smartphones) but produce vastly superior sound if you’re using the speakers for music or video playing. Handy, since some retailers are offering a case that folds to sit the phone in a TV-style position – I found watching TV on it very doable, even without headphones.

The size of the phone helps; it manages to cram a 4.7-inch screen into a 137.4mm x 68.2mm frame. It helps that the screen is a more sensible size – rather than the 5-inches the market appears to be chasing. 5-inches (plus the phone’s body) usually means that it feels like a giant brick is being held against your head when making phone calls (especially if you’re female). The HTC One doesn’t have that problem, and like the iPhone 5, is a pleasure to hold and make calls on.

 

HTC's pyramid stacking and IR remote/power button

HTC’s pyramid stacking and IR remote/power button

It weighs 143g, which is essentially the same weight as the Sony Xperia Z, and it is thicker, at 9.3 mm. But this isn’t really a fair comparison – the Xperia Z is a flat back, the HTC One has a curved back. Either way, the difference isn’t noticeable. It just feels like a solid quality build.

HTC reps told us that the phone has four antennas incorporated into the casing of the phone (via proprietary technology they wouldn’t discuss with us), but there were no problems with reception – needless to say it’s a full 4G phone. The front speaker placement also means that your hands don’t get in the way – a solid industrial design that says HTC have put some thought into this phone.

The only problem I found here was the same one seen on the HTC One X – the phone really starts to heat up if you’re using wi-fi heavily, or during a serious gaming session. While not dangerously hot (it will still give you sweaty hands), it was more so than the Xperia Z or the iPhone 5. It did cool down quickly, but what is strange is how quickly it happens – your phone will start super-heating after just 5 minutes in a game. That quad core processor is certainly working hard.

STUNNING SCREEN
Speaking of which, the screen on the HTC One is absolutely fantastic. It’s a Super LCD3 screen with a huge resolution of 1920×1080, across a 4.7-inch screen that gives it an industry leading 468 pixels per inch (even the upcoming Galaxy S4 isn’t going to match it). It is a big leap from the previous generation, text, games and movies all look much better on that high res screen. But what HTC has done well is the colour reproduction, which is second to none. You don’t get the overblown, bombastic colours of the last generation of Samsung AMOLED screens, and while the Xperia Z’s screen is equally impressive in sharpness, its colours seemed a bit darker and less natural than the HTC One.

This is actually a phone screen that is quite comfortable to watch movies, surf the web and game on, without becoming so big you need a stylus. The HTC One’s body is sized well enough that you can still send text messages with both thumbs. Alex, who reviewed the Sony Xperia Z in the last issue, similarly felt that it was easier to handle than Sony’s glass behemoth.

DOES THE NEW PROCESSOR CANCEL OUT THE NEW BATTERY?

For spec junkies, the HTC One packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, a quad-core Krai chipset running at 1.7GHZ, with 2GB of RAM. In true HTC fashion, this is borderline overkill. There is nothing you will throw at this phone that will max it out, everything tested from 1080P HD movies, through to high end games passed with flying colours. In the entirety of our testing, the HTC One never missed a single beat, never showed any lag or shuddering and basically performed perfectly.

To run that high powered screen and processor, HTC have included a 2300mAh battery – which is acceptable. This drops just short of Sony’s 2330mAh on its Xperia Z and the 2500mAh on the forthcoming Samsung S4. To be honest, the added battery size is pretty much cancelled out by the processor and screen, so you’re going to get a pretty standard battery charge out of the HTC One.

For general use, it lasted a full day easily, so that’s not a problem. It remains a daily charge phone though, much like its rivals. Running some high end games, such as the Dead Trigger and the schizophrenic ‘Super Monsters Ate My Condo’ will see you losing around 25% per hour – so around 4 hours gaming total. Pretty middle of the road to be honest. You’ll get around 5 and a half hours of HD movie watching too.

Storage wise, HTC have gotten rid of 16GB versions (which makes sense in the modern world) – your choices are 32GB and 64GB only. There is no expandable SD card slot, nor is the battery removable.

HTC REDEEMS ITS CAMERA CREDENTIALS

The HTC One’s camera almost needs a review in itself, as HTC have opted out of the megapixel race (it’s a 4MP camera – rivals are taking aim at 13MP sensors) using instead HTC’s proprietary ‘Ultrapixel’ technology. 
It launches with what appears to be a below par 4MP camera, but this is misleading – the megapixel race has indeed reached ridiculous proportions. Sony’s latest Xperia boasts 13 megapixels – but no one is suggesting for a minute that this matches up to any top flight 12MP DSLR camera.

HTC One shot of the canal

HTC One shot of the canal – excessive sharpening?

HTC have taken the approach of reducing the MP count, which takes up less space on the sensor. If you’re cramming 13MP onto a 1/3-inch sensor sensor, your pixel size is just 1.1 micrometre. HTC claims its 4MP ‘Ultrapixel’ is 2.0 micrometres – put simply, it captures more light.

The camera uses the same optics as Apple’s iPhone, but with a superior aperture of f/2.0 (the Samsung Galaxy S3 is 2.6, the iPhone 5 is 2.4). What does this mean? A larger aperture (smaller f/stop) means more light can get into the camera and hit the sensor, producing better low light images.

The trade off (or another advantage, depending on your inclination) is that these 4MP images are much smaller – around 1-2MB instead of the 2.5-4MB files we’ve been used to on 8MP+ smartphone cameras. That is a good thing if you’re looking at the images on a small phone screen (or just posting them to Facebook), but if you’re planning on doing any more high end photo editing (including zooming or cropping) then the lack of resolution may be a problem. For regular users, it shouldn’t be of concern.

 The HTC One’s images are relatively sharp, the colours well balanced and it has reasonable low light performance. It’s still not going to beat the Nokia Lumia 920 in the dark (but it comes surprisingly close), but it is a superior lowlight camera to the Sony Xperia Z and the Apple iPhone 5. That wide aperture definitely helps. During daylight shooting, however, the difference between it and rivals is negligible – it is a pretty run of the mill camera. It isn’t hard to shoot in full light, and most smartphones (even several years old) do well enough here. It is, however, a leap from the very poor HTC One X’s camera from the last generation.

Its HDR mode is particularly good, balancing the light and dark in an image well when outside – but does seem to compromise sharpness when used indoors.

Like Hipstamatic, HTC’s camera software can also apply all the appropriate special filters (such as vintage, lomography etc.) as you shoot (rather than applying them after, as with Instagram), which is a welcome addition.

A great addition is the dedicated mechanical optical image stabilisation (to stop handshake blur in photos), which works quite well. HTC’s own ‘Zoe’ – which like Nokia and BlackBerry – takes a sequence of photos which can be selected from (in case someone shuts their eyes, etc.), which can also help reduce hand shake. HTC have made a big deal out of this (as have the aforementioned companies) but it’s not really a feature that gets used an awful lot.

Zoe also allows users to create video/image montages and upload them live – think of it as a 21st century multimedia gift card. Looks relatively interesting, but hardly a killer app (BlackBerry StoryMaker tried to do the same thing). 

The front facing camera is also a step up – its 2.1MP and this actually makes a surprising amount of difference for Skype calling. It’s definitely a step up, but remains grainy in quality and washed out when compared to the main camera – you wouldn’t use it for anything other than video calling.

The audio/video player however does get a few cool new bells and whistles – when playing music, it will display a graphic equaliser (optional) and/or connect to the internet and download the lyrics – which will play on screen. This was a feature I really liked – much better than static album covers. HTC has played down its Beats Audio partnership – it remains, but the sound quality difference is negligble – akin to a software equaliser pre-set.

THE NEW OS SKIN: HTC SENSE 5 + BLINKFEED

Do you want Blinkfeed on or off?

Do you want Blinkfeed on or off?

The launch of the HTC One also sees the launch of HTC’s new Android skin, HTC Sense 5. What HTC has done here is turned the home page into a live tiled newsfeed – called ‘Blinkfeed’ – you can insert your Twitter, Facebook and a bunch of other media outlets to it, and it will update similar to Flipbook and its clones. Sitting at the top is the clock and weather.

This can be useful, but like Flipbook is prone to getting clogged with junk. It will take some time for Sense to learn your preferences and favourites. I actually found it to be more useful when it had little more than Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook attached. But then again, that’s catered to with the notifications drop menu on Android.

Another problem is that Blinkfeed does not cache – so if you go offline (like, say, on an underground railway system), Blinkfeed is frozen to your last refresh. You cannot open any of the stories – this seems like a missed opportunity, it would be great if Blinkfeed competed with Pocket or Instapaper as a ‘read it later’ style bookmarking system.

Swiping right from Blinkfeed produces a couple of tiled app pages (or allows for the insertion of widgets, such as a media player or calendar) – but that’s it. It can’t be turned off and you can’t swipe left to add more pages (I have no idea why).

Handily though, Sense 5 has turned the app grid button into a toggle – that is, you can always have Blinkfeed as your default home page, or the app grid. This, in essence, removes Blinkfeed. It comes down to user preference.

Otherwise, the HTC One is using the latest Android (4.2.2) with a bit of a twist – it has no physical home button (as the Samsung Galaxy S3 or Apple iPhone does), just an onscreen home and a back button – minus the menu button. Instead you double tap the home button to bring up a 3×3 grid of the last 9 apps used. This is a feature I actually like – the less buttons the better.

HTC have taken a page out of Samsung and Apple’s book – lock the operating system down to your spec – not Google’s. It does make for a far cleaner and simpler experience, but modders and techno-junkies will be unhappy with the rigidity of HTC’s version of Android. It isn’t quite Apple’s walled garden, but it is a long way removed from the Google Nexus 4.

VERY TV FRIENDLY

Another area the HTC One is going up against Sony is in its TV integration. It has an infrared transmitter built in (inside the power button no less), and can be used with your TV, home theatre or any other compatible IR receiver as a remote – you can even download the codes for your product off the internet.

TV also has all the latest program guides, and the ability to pop up TV show reminders in your Blinkfeed (or calendar) to remind you of upcoming shows. There are apps that do this for you already, but the TV remote is definitely one of those excellent features that make you think ‘why has the industry only got around to this now?’. It works well, and you may never have to hunt for your remote again.

It doesn’t have the NFC handshake features the Xperia Z has (the ability to ‘throw’ content to Sony branded TVs and stereos with a tap of your phone), but the HTC One does have full NFC support, so I imagine it wouldn’t be hard for either HTC or modders to add this kind of functionality.

CONCLUSION
The HTC One is an impressive device. Its screen and industrial design are now industry leading, and while its processor is impressive, it may be a bit overpowered (sacrilege!) as the punishment comes in the form of battery life. The HTC One still gets as much of a daily charge as its rivals, but it is really nothing exceptional here, and perhaps one of the phone’s few weaknesses.

HTC Sense 5 is the most modified and locked down version of Android yet – compared to the Nexus 4, it is borderline Apple-ish. If that bothers you, too bad – HTC have streamlined the experience and made a very usable version of Android – a lack of intimidation and overblown OS feature sets means this is a phone I’d be comfortable giving to my dad. The camera has brought HTC back to the fore (after the appalling HTC One X), and most of the features added by HTC don’t feel as frivolous and spammy as Samsung or Sony’s do.


PERFORMANCE
5star 100px

FEATURES
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USABILITY
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DESIGN
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OVERALL
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PROS AND CONS
+ Stunning industrial design
+ Stunning screen
+ Good camera

- Battery life is only average
- HTC Sense 5 is a more locked down Android, Blinkfeed is an acquired taste
- Phone gets very hot when working hard

VERDICT


Let’s welcome HTC back to the party, because they have produced a top shelf phone here – one that is more than capable of taking on Sony, Apple and Samsung. It does most things right, but particular note has to go to the physical design and that screen. The camera is OK, but its OS is a bit restricted and battery life is only average – it also gets a bit hot.

TECH SPECS


Dimensions – 137.4 x 68.2 x 9.3 mm, 143 g
OS Android 4.2.2 Jellybean
Screen Super LCD3 capacitive touchscreen,1080×1920 (468PPI). Gorilla Glass 2.
Processor – Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, Quad-core 1.7 GHz Krait 300
RAM – 2GB
Storage – 32GB/64GB internal, non expandable.
Cameras – 4MP ‘Ultrapixel’, LED Flash, optical image stabilisation. Front – 2.1MP. Video 1080P @ 30fps.
Wireless – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, Infrared.
Ports – Micro USB, 3.5mm audio jack.
Battery life – 2300mAh