Saturday, June 30, 2012

HTC One S Review

The word midrange is almost a dirty word when it comes to smartphones. Often maligned for notable shortcomings, the midrange smartphone is good enough for most users but leaves many others wanting more when compared to the high end devices. HTC looks to break that misconception by marrying specs that easily outclass last generations flagships with class leading design. The final product is the HTC One S and we see if it really is too good for the "midrange" moniker in our in depth review.

Overall Construction
If you've owned an HTC phone from the past two years, you'll already know that HTC loves to use aircraft grade aluminum in almost every single one of them. From the Legend, to the Desire HD, to the Sensation 4G and the Amaze 4G, HTC phones have been some of the most well constructed phones on the market. With the HTC One Series we expected nothing less than HTC to keep up this trend.

With the HTC One S, aluminum is once again the material of choice and we have to say this is HTC's best unibody offering yet. From the svelte feeling of the 7.9mm chassis, to the micro drilled speaker holes, to the cutouts for this antennae inserts, the HTC One S is a marvel of smartphone design. Just like its more high end sibling the HTC One X, the One S is a shining example of high quality industrial design and extreme attention to detail.

One would assume that given their extensive use of aluminum that HTC would plateau in terms of design and/or form factor and we saw hints of that in some of their phones of the late 2011. But the One S is a complete breath of fresh air as we have yet to see a handset of this profile from the Taiwanese handset maker.

In many ways, the HTC One S really feels like the successor to the venerable HTC Sensation. Other than the same screen size of 4.3 inches with qHD resolution, the One S pretty much checks off every box in terms of surpassing last year's HTC flagship device while still feeling very familiar.

For many people interested in the One X but turned off by the mammoth 4.7 inch screen, the One S is an excellent alternative in terms of ergonomics. One of our gripes with the form factor of the One X was the difficulty with which many people would probably have with reaching the power button or Navigation buttons given the behemoth dimensions of the phone. This is simply not the case with the HTC One S, every button was within reasonable reach and just about the entirety of the screen was accessible using one hand.

While we felt the screen on the One X is superior in many aspects, which we get into next, 4.3 inches is a far more "mainstream" screen size that will feel more useable to a significant number of people. The slightly curved back and slopped screen on the sides of the One S, like on the One X, provide a fantastic feel to the handset and really shows off the design language that HTC handsets have evolved into.

Just like with the One X, HTC had to make several significant sacrifices to reach the thinness that the One S gets. The battery is non-user replaceable and there is no microSD card slot in the One S. In addition, there was a significant compromise to the screen (which again we cover in the next section) that needed to be made and is probably the reason why the One S is so much thinner than the One X while having very similar internal hardware.

Two last thing that we also must mention is that we were a bit disappointed by was the fact the microarc oxidation treated black version of the One S is not available in Canada. Instead, carriers only carry the gradient blue version. While there is nothing wrong with the gradient blue of the anodized aluminum, the microarc oxidation process is quite intriguing and is a shame that we won't get to try it out.

The other issue is that from a utilitarian point of view, there is quite a bit of bezel space at the top and bottom of the device and could have been either reduced to reduce overall dimensions of the device, or used to expand usable screen space. This isn't a deal breaker by any means by certainly something that is a bit surprising.


Much like on its bigger stable mate, the One S' screen is the main subject of conversation but not with the same positivity. To be as thin as 7.9mm one of the main sacrifices has been in the screen. Traditionally LCD equipped smartphones need to dedicate significant amount of thickness to the LCD screen's backlight. AMOLED screens, on the other hand, don't need a backlight as each individual is lit up individually.

If you read our Motorola RAZR review you'll remember that the Motorola made the same sacrifice to get the RAZR to the 7.1mm mark. That being said, we wouldn't be at all surprised if HTC is using the exact same screens for the One S.

Just like with the RAZR, we don't completely dismiss the PenTile AMOLED display as many other reviews do. While we will admit we aren't fans of the pixel arrangement, we must concede that the colors are incredibly vibrant, contrasts levels were top notch, viewing angles were good and black levels were simply phenomenal, as expected from all AMOLED screens.

What we do however find disappointing is that HTC could not get a hold of 720p HD AMOLED screens. While qHD isn't a resolution to be scoffed at, since most phones out on the market are probably still WVGA phones, it simply cannot compare to the sharpness of a 720p screen. It is the main reason why the PenTile screen on the Galaxy Nexus got so much praise while the RAZR was vilified for its screen.

We suspect this is really what separated the One X from the One S and makes the latter a "midrange device". If qHD becomes the norm for midrange devices, we definitely think that's good news. So we see this situation in two lights; on one side if you consider the One S a truly "midrange device" then we have to consider the qHD resolution something good, but like us if you see the One S a new breed of middle ground between high end and mid range then you are like us probably left wanted a bit more.

Since the One series all use the same capacitive button layout and all have the same inherent problems involving the transition away from the contextual menu button we suggest checking out our review of the HTC One X for a more in depth look at how this will remain an issue in the near future.

Also mentioned in our One X review, we haven't been the biggest fans of side mounted power buttons but we certainly understand the need for them after using the One X and its imposing footprint. On the One S however, we feel that the form factor is small enough so that most people should be able to reach the power button comfortably with only one hand.

Again, we didn't believe a side mounted power button was even possible as we expect docks to take up the entire left side of the phone with the micro USB port and HTC isn't one to go Nokia style and mount the power buttons and volume rocker on the same side of the phone.

Battery Life
As is the trend in the latest unibody phones, the battery is completely encapsulated and is non-user replaceable. While most of our concerns were dispelled with on the One X, we were a bit concerned when we saw the One S would have an even smaller 1650mAh battery. Of course this is offset by the fact that the screen of the One S was significantly smaller, had a lower resolution and used an ultra power efficient AMOLED display.

However, just like on the One X, the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor showed its prowess in energy efficiency easily going through a full day's worth of usage with plenty of juice to spare (often 30%-25%). HTC's all in bet on the Snapdragon S4 platform really paid off as our concerns about the "smallish" battery concerns were totally off.

We were also surprised, at first, at the fact that this was the best battery life we'd seen on a Dual-Channel HSPA+ phone but then remembered that the same all-on-die solution of the S4 is what also gave the One X best of LTE performance.

Internal Hardware
As we mentioned in our introduction, the One S is a new breed of mid range device touting what are unquestionably high end internal specs.

- 1.5 GHz Qualcomm 4th Generation Dual Core Snapdragon S4 Processor
- 1GB of RAM
- 16GB of Internal storage (12GB available for users and 2GB for apps) no microSD expansion slot
- Adreno 225 Graphic processor
- 42mbps DC-HSPA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n
- 8 MP camera with LED flash and 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

Like with many other parts of this review, the experience on the One X was basically the same on the One S, from general responsiveness, to 3D gaming, to browser render speeds, everything was lightning fast.

In fact, contrary to what the "mid range" moniker might make you believe, the One S beat out the One X in some synthetic benchmarks, and we go more in depth on why in the software section.

DC-HSPA+ "4G" Capabilities
One of major differences between One X and One S is data connectivity. LTE in our mind is an absolute must for a high end device. The One S instead caps off at 42mbps, and to be frank, speed were average compared to what we've seen from other DC-HSPA+ phones like the Amaze 4G. Speeds were often between 3-5mbps which at this point in the maturity of the "Big 3's" HSPA+ networks is slightly underwhelming.

As with all speedtests we run, speeds will be indicative of one's experience in various places in Montreal. Speeds will vary in different parts of Canada.

Speaker and microphone
Again, at the risk of sounding repetitive, the One S had, in our experience, the same sounding earpiece, microphone as well as great sounding external speaker found on the One X. We suspect, again, that given the hardware similarities between the two, that the One S has the same tech behind the good sound.

Again like the One X, the One S was devoid of even the most basic HTC headset let alone a Beats by Dr. Dre headset. That being said, we do realize that this might be a cost saving effort for the possibly more expensive North American version of the One X but the One S is for all intents and purposes the same globally but doesn't offer a headset solution to North Americans.

For all intents and purposes the One S has the EXACT same camera experience as the One X. From the f2.0 backilluminated 8MP sensor, to ImageSense that allows the burst mode, simultaneous still and video capture and finally the fantastic camera software suite, there was nothing on the One X that we couldn't do on the One S.

The only tangible difference we could probably point out is the fact that the HTC One S' dimensions allowed for a slightly easier time doing certain things like focusing different times to get different shots, or accessing camera options/filters on the fly. But these differences weren't something attributable to the camera but rather the phone form factor.

Again like on the One X, if you have an aging digital camera, you might as well leave it at home because the One S really has you covered. Check out the camera section of our One X review for more information.

Sample Pictures
Android 4.0 /w HTC Sense 4.0
The Android 4.0 HTC Sense 4.0 experience on the One S is, as you might have expected EXACTLY the same as on the One X. There isn't any missing features, or "lite" versions of built in apps, since just about everything you can do on the one X you can do on the One S. The only difference that we have to point out is the fact that the UI and content like video is scaled down from 720p to qHD. This means, icons, text, UI elements, etc all are scaled down and of course are a little rougher around the edges in terms of looks.

This does have a significant upside however, since games, videos, etc all are scaled down, this means that the Adreno 225 has significantly less pixels to push around making it perform better that the One X in those given situations. As with almost every other section of this review, check out the software section of our previous review of the HTC One X for a deeper over look at Sense 4.0 and the additional enhancements made by HTC to Android 4.0.


We started off the review by asking whether or not the One S was "too good" to be called a "mid range" device. If it wasn't clear enough in the review, let me spell it out with a resounding "Yes"!.

The One S is in some ways a new product segment, far superior to past mid range offerings but lacking certain features to be considered a manufacturer's flagship device. For many carriers in the world however, when compared to their current Android lineup, it is most certainly worthy of being a carrier's flagship device.

When giving advice on which device to choose at the mid range price point, one is often asked what compromises they are willing to make, but in the case of the One S, no compromises are needed as it is one of the most well rounded smartphones we've had the opportunity to review. At the $99 on contract price from the Canadian carriers it's offered by, customers are getting a really compelling offering that really is a great value.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 9.5 /10
- Amazing advancement in industrial design, but we wish it had slightly less top and bottom bezels.

Screen: 8.5/10
- Much like the RAZR's screen, qHD AMOLED display was good but clearly behind IPS and Super LCD Panels

Buttons: 8.5/10
- Easier access to the power button than on the One X, will have same inherent software button issue until developers adopt ICS/JB guidelines.

Internal Hardware: 9/10
- Virtually same experience as the One X, slightly faster in benchmarks, DC-HSPA+ speeds were a bit of a letdown.

Battery Life: 9/10
- Excellent battery life.

Speaker and Microphone: 9.5/10
- Beats may still be "gimmicky" but we found it better than regular non-equalized sounds on other phones. Great loudspeaker.

Camera: 9.5/10
- Great overall camera experience.

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- Same software experience as on the One X, polished experience and inviting to new users.

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- Dropbox and Beats integration are nice additions that set the One S from the crowd.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10 (varies on carrier version)
- Pretty pristine installation of Android, little bloatware in our TELUS review unit. Other carriers are unfortunately more bloated, therefore score is normalized.

Final Score: 8.9/10

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