Sunday, May 26, 2013

HTC One Review

It’s no secret that HTC has been in rough financial waters for the past few years. While many have been saying that this is HTC’s last shot, we don’t think this is the case. That being said, HTC is acting like it is their last chance. The HTC One is the culmination of that desperation, from design to innovative hardware features, HTC has without a doubt brought their "A" game. The HTC One X was a commercial shortcoming despite being almost universally praised by reviewers, we’ll see if this year can be different in our review of the HTC One.

Overall Construction
For the past few years you couldn't fault HTC on the design front. From the Nexus One to the One X, HTC has sought to push the envelope when it comes to industrial design and build quality. Their use of materials like unibody aluminum and polycarbonate has led to some of the most interesting smartphone handsets on the market.

At a husky 9.3 mm at its thickest point, the HTC One isn’t the most spectacularly thin device but in the hand feels razor thin thanks to its tapered edges that are about 4mm thin. This pyramidal design allows for HTC to pack in a significant amount of components into the phone while giving off the illusion of thinness to the user.

The edges of the unibody aluminum chassis of the HTC One have a chamfered finish, not unlike the iPhone 5, which gives it a nice feel when tightly gripping the phone on what would have otherwise been hard edges. Injected polycarbonate bands run along the top and sides of the phone as well as on two small strips on the back that allow for the various antennas on the device.

With the tapered pyramidal design and at a healthy 143g light, the One feels very nice in the user’s hand, allowing for a natural and balanced ergonomic grip, despite being a rather large device. On the topic of dimensions the One is somewhat taller than its predecessor the One X, as well as most other Android flagship handsets, which was needed to accommodate the Boomsound speakers. This makes it a bit awkward to grip the devices in certain situations like when trying to press the power button, but we’ll cover that later.

Being one of the first phones with dual front facing stereo speakers, the One calls upon the micro drilling process that they first introduced on the One series of yesteryear. On the top and bottom, flanking the 4.7 inch Super LCD 3 displays are the Boomsound speakers. On the top speaker is where one would find the embedded notification LED and cutouts in the aluminum for the Proximity and light sensor as well as the front facing camera.

The front of the One isn’t reminiscent of any HTC phone we’ve seen before. It has drawn comparisons to both the Apple iPhone 5 as well as the recently launched Blackberry Z10 but really isn’t anything like the two phones in person. The only thing in common between the iPhone 5 and the One would be the use of a chamfered edge finish and between the Z10 and One there is the two toned face of glass/hard plastic on the Z10 and glass/metal on the One.

To be perfectly honest, Android has yearned since its inception for an amazingly designed handset with outstanding build quality and the HTC One is that phone.


While it isn’t the first, and certainly will not be the last, 1080p clad smartphone we have reviewed, the HTC One is the first in Canada to sport their latest Super LCD 3 display. Last year when we got to try the HTC One X we thought the 1280x720 HD display was incredible. This year the Super LCD 3 1920x1080 display is even better.

At a retina shattering 469 pixels per inch, the One has the highest pixel density of any smartphone available in Canada. When side by side with our gold standard One X it’s pretty clear which was the better display. While pundits were quick to point out that 469 ppi was overkill, in our experience the difference in sharpness was noticeable between 720p and 1080p.

The Super LCD 3 display on the One was the most understated feature when HTC unveiled the device at their event in February. While we do appreciate the other features of the One, the display is what users will be looking at for the majority of the time and HTC hit this display out of the park.

Just like on the One X viewing angles were supers, colors were vibrant and saturated, black were dark and deep and all of this coming for a LCD panel that is once again laminated directly to the glass portion of the display. The main differentiator here is the resolution and it results in near perfect font representation with no aliasing what so ever. This quality increase also carried over to the viewing of high res pictures and the native playback of 1080p Full HD videos.

In recent reviews, we’ve praised manufacturers for taking the extra step and putting a considerable amount of effort into the design of the hardware buttons on their devices. Motorola’s RAZR HD LTE and Sony’s Xperia ZL come to mind but HTC has shown they don’t overlook those details either. The Panache and the Amaze 4G both had great hardware camera buttons which unfortunately didn’t always translate to the power or volume rocker.

On the HTC One it’s a completely different story. It’s clear from the get go that the buttons of the One were given a TON of time in terms of hammering out the details. For one the volume rocker is one of the most stylish we’ve seen from HTC. Made from that looks to be a piece of machined aluminum, the volume rocker continues the premium feel radiating from the unibody chassis of the device. We did find it a bit recessed for our tastes but not enough to warrant great concern.

The power button, while a bit out of place on the top rather than the side of the all-white polycarbonate inserts is like the volume rocker, a bit recessed for our tastes but still tactile and solid feeling. It isn’t machined out of aluminum but rather a smooth translucent plastic, but for an important reason, it houses the One’s infrared blaster. This allows it to perform double duty as power button and IR blaster, more on those capabilities later in our review.

Unlike Sony and Motorola, HTC has decided to not only stick with capacitive buttons, but go even a step further but get rid of the multitasking key. This caught many by surprise and angered some of the most hardcore Android fanatics. Many argued that this would confuse people coming from another Android device and that the multitasking menu was useful. While I personally use the multitasking key very often, anecdotal evidences makes me tend to believe that few people do.

This setups also leads to the return of the dreaded on-screen menu button. Again this totally unsightly waste of space is due to the persistency of legacy apps that foolishly continue to implement the hidden menu button. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly depending on the way you look at it), many of the apps that break the guidelines are large companies that simply try to make a “dirty” port of their iPhone apps to Android. Thankfully this occurrence is on the down trend as we see more and more apps using the in UI contextual menu button from Google’s official UI guidelines, making the menu button situation much less of a big deal than this time last year on the HTC One X/S/V.

Battery Life
With the One X, HTC ruffled quite a few feathers in the Android enthusiast community by making the battery completely sealed. While this wasn’t the first Android smartphone to do so and most certainly not the first smartphone to do so, this was a significant first for HTC.

With its 2300 mAh battery the One did worry quite a few people in the battery life department given the bumped up specs of HTC’s new flagship. In practice battery life was pretty good, with decent use including browsing, push email (2 accounts), listening to music and watching some YouTube videos, the One got through days starting at 7 am and finishing at 9 pm with typically 20-30 left. Of course this will vary on each user’s usage patterns but we’re fairly confident that the One will get most people through their day on a single charge.

Internal Hardware
The One is sporting the most cutting edge hardware available on the market today. While the Snapdragon 600 isn’t vastly different to the Snapdragon S4 Pro, it is clocked slightly faster and has shown to do better in benchmarks.

- 1.7 GHz Qualcomm Quad Core Snapdragon 600 Processor
- 2GB of RAM
- 32/64GB of Internal storage
- Adreno 320 Graphic processor
- LTE/HPSA+ capable chipset
- WiFi b/g/n/ac
- 4 MP "UltraPixel" camera with ImageSense 2 and 1080p video recording capabilities
- NFC (Near Field Communication)

As mentioned earlier, the One’s Snapdragon 600 processor does fair better than the Snapdragon S4 Pro in synthetic benchmarks. But in terms of overall usability there isn’t really that great a difference.

In synthetic benchmarks, the One scored 24000 in Antutu while scoring 12000 in Quadrant. The One was extremely responsive in all usage scenarios from gaming, to browsing and launching applications. The powerful hardware with a paired down HTC Sense performed wonderfully in everyday use.

One thing we do feel is worth mentioning is the fact that the One starts with 32GB of storage as the standard capacity and 64GB for those looking for more storage. Of course some will complain that the lack of microSD card storage is a negative here but we feel that 32/64GB supplemented by cloud storage services like Dropbox, Box and Skydrive should be enough to satisfy the vast majority of users.

LTE 4G Capabilities
Our specific version of the HTC One was a TELUS handset. In our experience in Montreal, the TELUS LTE network had some holes in coverage but nevertheless when we did have LTE connectivity, the speeds were outstanding ranging from 20-35mbps. More than enough for anyone’s multimedia needs. Again, your mileage will vary on your area and your carrier.

Speaker and microphone
If you’ve read any of our previous reviews, you’ll know that this section of the review never gets longer than one or two paragraphs and there is a good reason for that. But on the HTC One we are going to make a big deal about them.

The HTC One is one of the first, if not the first, to be equipped with not only dual stereo speakers, but to have them facing in the right direction when watching videos of listening to music. While it isn’t the first Android devices to do this, as we saw a similar setup on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and Galaxy Note 10.1, this is the first time we see them on a smartphone.

The sound coming from the front facing Boomsound speakers is simply incredible. They are loud with little distortion and provide a listening experience that we have yet to hear on another smartphone. We came away very impressed by the speakers and are really hoping for this kind of innovation to make it to all smartphones.

Another aspect of the One where HTC really outdoes the competition is in sound recording. When taking video with the One there was a level of sound fidelity that we've never seen in phones before. Unfortunately, the microphone used in the One is the very mic that Nokia was claiming that ST Electronics sold to HTC against the agreed NDA between ST Electronics and Nokia. Hopefully HTC can find a suitable replacement like how they transitioned from AMOLED screens to Super LCD screens on the HTC Desire/Nexus One.

Call quality was fairly good with performance in the microphone and noise cancelling mic being about what we expect for voice calls.

Starting with the Amaze 4G, HTC has really strived to improve the camera on their devices year on year. With the HTC One they took their biggest risk yet by dropping out of the megapixel race and branding their new camera as an "UltraPixel" camera.

In essence, HTC decided to buck the trend in the megapixels arms race and instead of once again increasing the number of light sensing pixel in their camera sensors, they went an alternate route by increasing the size of the pixels themselves. Theoretically, this means a tradeoff in pixel count for more accurate but smaller pictures.

In practice, the story is a bit different. While we don’t believe the reduction in photo resolution is a big deal, since few people actually print blow up versions of their smartphone photos, we do think the loss of detail hurts the One’s camera in good lighting situations. Pictures came out looking quite good but lacked a bit of detail and was softer than we would have liked. Of course this could be attributed to some software compression being used in the One to reduce picture sizes but that would be unnecessary given the resolution of the photos.

The "UltraPixel" camera did however easily outperform all other smartphones in one situation and that was in low light. Shots in low light were absolutely fantastic, with little to no noise in the dark shots we were blown away by the quality of the low light pictures. Shots taken with the flash enabled were also quite amazing. Usually LED flashes will over compensate and give a ghostly look to subjects. With the One subject came out looking balances and not over overexposed.

Video quality on the One is about on par with what we’ve seen from previous HTC devices. Recording also had all features you’d expect from a smartphone in 2013 like simultaneous photo and video capture as well as new tricks like optical image stabilization and HDR recording. There is also the slow motion mode from last year’s One X/S as well as a new 60FPS 720p mode. We didn’t particularly find 60FPS much smoother than 1080p at 24FPS so were include to recommend that users keep the camera on stock settings for most situations.

The last significant differentiator on the HTC One’s camera are its abilities to create what HTC calls "Zoe". Short for Zoetropes, Zoes allow users to make short 3 second videos that include frames before and after the user hits the shutter button. The Sense gallery application then can take Zoes stills and video and stitch them together into short videos applying vignettes and music. More on that later in the software segment of our review.

In the end, HTC took a huge risk by going with the "UltraPixel" sensor and in a way it does payoff as we believe low light scenarios are the most likely scenarios for one to use their smartphone camera. On the flip side we can’t help but feel like the technology hasn’t progressed enough to make it a clear cut better camera than other smartphones. We can only imagine in awe what an 8MP "UltraPixel" still will look like.

On the front there is a 2.1MP Ultra wide angle 1080p capable camera, good for the usual vanity shots but now with a wide enough angle to fit multiple people.

Sample Pictures


Android 4.1 with Sense 5
Sense 5 is the most significant change in HTC’s UI design paradigms yet. From the lockscreen, homescreen, shortcut dock, app launcher, widgets and settings menu, everything has been changed. Out are the old skeuomorphic icons and widgets (except the iconic Sense clock widget) and in are the new flat and colorful icons as well as two toned clock and weather widgets.

Gone is the unlock ring of the past two major iteration of Sense. Instead you find an unlock icon, which oddly enough isn’t the only way to unlock the phone, flanked by the shortcuts set by the user on the shortcut dock. This should be more intuitive for users to know that the icons on the dock are the same ones that will appear on the lockscreen.

On the homescreen there are quite a few changes. When the phone is first setup BlinkFeed is the default homescreen, more on it in a bit. The default can be changed to any other homescreen but BlinkFeed cannot be removed so it will persist was the leftmost screen permanently. On the bottom you find the flatter shortcut dock where users can swap out the apps of their choice but it is drastically different to the way it’s done on any other Android phone.

On most phones you simply open the app tray, press and hold the app of your choice and drop it into the dock or on your screen and voila you have a shortcut. But on the One, things are different and in our opinion it isn’t really for the better. After opening the app drawer and pressing and holding an app you can either drop it in the shortcut dock, which oddly removes the app from your app drawer, or drag it to the shortcut icon which then allows you to put a shortcut on the homescreen of your choice. We find this extremely confusing even for the veteran Android user and more so for new users to the platform.

It’s not all bad though, we do like the newfound flexibility of the app launcher. There is a clock at top to show you the time and weather and apps can be displayed in "Custom", "Alphabetical" and "Most Recent". In Custom, users can actually make folders (like in Samsung's TouchWiz) and arrange the vertical pages to their liking. User can even hide apps from their app launcher directly from the "Hide App" menu option. On a last note about the app launcher for some odd reason HTC defaults the amount of apps shown to a grid of 3x4, we recommend switch it to 4x5.

Getting back to BlinkFeed, the more prominently shown off feature from HTC's unveiling event. Most if not all enthusiasts will probably not like or care about the Flipboard lookalike. But to more moderate users and mainstream users I can see the appeal for this kind of information aggregator. Pulling articles from sources curated by HTC as well as your signed in social networks, BlinkFeed presents users with a clean interface of article with which to "snack on".

Admittedly, I didn't mind it as much as I initially thought I might dislike it. BlinkFeed seems to be designed for not only those moments you were waiting in line at the groceries, but also for those hundreds of times one might seek refuge from an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation by looking at your smartphone as if you had something important to look at. We are all guilty of this questionable behavior and BlinkFeed only worsen this habit but kudos to HTC nonetheless.

Most of the stock Apps the come with Sense (Mail, Calendar, etc) most work the same as their Sense 4 counterparts and differences are mostly just skin deep, although in a good way as most are not more in line with the Holo UI design guidelines laid out by Google. But what is significantly changed is the Gallery Application and a lot of it has to do with Zoe.

In the gallery, instead of having the usual set of pictures either sorted by date, or location (if you have geotagging on) HTC's gallery app takes it a step further by using the same tiled design used in BlinkFeed to show you a collage of your photos and videos. The gallery will also actively create short films from pictures and videos taken in the same place and on the same day. So your content from a vacation for example would be aggregated without any user input necessary. We do think there is a little too much hand holding involved as the user can't choose which music of vignettes appear on video but hopefully these will be made options in a future update.

Lastly, we have to mention that the HTC One is running Jelly Bean Android 4.1.2 and not the latest version 4.2. Although it has been confirmed by HTC that a 4.2 upgrade is on the way and rumors indicate it might be as close as a couple of weeks away. The difference isn't too drastic as the only things we really wished we had are the improved notification shade and maybe photosphere.

Overall, we like the direction with which HTC has taken Sense. At some point, we hope that we will stop saying that it is headed in the right direction and will actually be in a place where we have little to nothing to complain about but with the ever changing Android landscape chances are that won't happen. Nevertheless, Sense 5 is slick and clean looking and most importantly is pretty lightweight compared to its previous incarnations. While some enthusiasts will eternally hate custom UIs, this is one time where I think the hate it unwarranted.

Extra features
One thing we haven't mention much is the IR capabilities of the One. Having a blaster allows the HTC One to control various devices around your home theater. Couple this with HTC Watch and perhaps the HTC Media Link HD you have quite a nice media hub at your hands. We setup several different TVs and all of them worked seamlessly with the One.

As we mentioned several times during the review, Zoes are a nice additional feature to the already robust camera suite that comes with the HTC One and also adds quite a bit of value in the gallery app.

Much has been said about the lack of microSD card support and the 25GB of DropBox data is one part of the solution on the One. It's always nice to know that for (most) of the lifetime of the device you will have 25GB of cloud storage at your disposal with which to use on the go.

The last significant addition is once again not a new feature but a nice one nonetheless and that's the Beats Audio integration. While many will argue that it's useless and it's just a gimmick, well to a certain extent it's true but then we have to ask what isn't a gimmick when it comes to audio.

At the end of the day, Beats Audio is simply an audio software equalizer tuned to be heavy on the base and the highs. Of course this doesn't fit every genre of music but really there isn't one that fits all either. The "Authentic Sound" might be a misleading claim but we certainly feel that Beats Integration still bring some value to the end user regardless of how they feel about the Beats brand.


HTC is in a particular situation where every choice they do from now on is of so much importance that there is no detail they can afford to get wrong. The HTC One is so audaciously close to smartphone perfection, it’s staggering to think how far phones have come. So much so that you start to wonder how HTC got into the precarious situation they find themselves today.

With stiff competition from the ubiquitous Galaxy S series and iPhone series, the One will have a lot to contend with. However, we believe that if it is given a fair look, people will double-take at what is a magnificent marriage of design, innovation and engineering.

HTC has a winner on its hands and if it really is their swan song, which we still doubt despite all the negativity in the news about the company, no one can blame them for a lackluster final effort. Early indications are that the One is selling fairly well with about 5 million units sold as of right now, so response form the public seems to generally be pretty good.

Final Verdict
Overall Appearance: 10/10
- Pinnacle of design and build quality. Exudes the kind of attention to detail we have never seen in an Android device.

Screen: 10/10
- Simply superb. Continues on the rich legacy left behind by the One X and outperforms it.

Buttons: 8/10
- Great feeling volume rocker, but like the power button a little too flush with the phone. We don't like the omission of the multitasking button.

Internal Hardware: 10/10
- Blazing performance from the Snapdragon 600. Nothing we did as a user could slow it down. LTE speeds were fantastic.

Battery Life: 8.5/10
- Decent battery life. About par with what we expect form a modern smartphone

Speaker and Microphone: 10/10
- BoomSound speakers were absolutely phenomenal and are the new watermark for other OEMs to match and surpass. Sound from the front facing speakers was magnificent.

Camera: 9/10
- Big risk with partial payoff going with "UltraPixel" sensor. Outstanding low light performance, decent in good lighting conditions. All around a solid camera with good features.

UI Changes: 8.5/10
- Gone is the gloss and skeuomorphism, in is a clean design and is fast and fluid.

Addition Enhancements: 9/10
- Beats, Dropbox integration, Zoe and HTC Remote with the IR Blaster add some nice useful features.

Included Apps/Bloatware: 8/10
- TELUS version only came with only 1 preloaded app (App House) which is great to see. Unfortunately we have to normalize the score base on the bloatware present on the other carrier versions.

Final Score: 9.2/10

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