HTC One review

HTC have walked a long road to get to this point. The evolution that led to the One’s design lies scattered in HTC’s history, from the Legend, to the Sensation, to the more recent One S and One X.

It was tough to imagine HTC one-upping themselves after the beauty that was the One X, and yet here is the HTC One.

HTC One: Design & build quality

Along the top is the power/wake button on the left which also doubles as an IR blaster to control your TV, along with the 3.5mm audio jack to the right of it. The power button is a little too recessed, which can make it hard to find at first.

The left side holds the microSIM tray, while the right has the volume rocker. As with the power button, the volume rocker is almost flush with the side. However, unlike the power button, the volume rocker is metallic with a circular brushed finish, adding a certain flair to something that is otherwise mundane. The microUSB port can be found along the bottom right.

The back of the One is a beautiful piece of aluminium, broken up only by two small plastic strips at the top and bottom respectively, and by the camera and its flash at the top middle. The back is curved, rather than completely flat, which means that the One sits snugly in your hand. It’s not quite as rounded as the One X, but also not nearly as angular as the 8X. HTC have found a fantastic middle ground.

The front, rather than being all glass as we’ve become accustomed to, has the screen wedged between two aluminium bits. Both the top and bottom have front-facing speakers in them, but the top has some extra sensors to the left of the speaker, along with the front-facing camera to the right.

Directly below the screen are two buttons, Back and Home, with an HTC logo wedged between them. HTC have done away with the Recent Apps button and instead given that function to the Home button. In fact, the Home button has 3 functions: a single short press will take you to your home screen, a long press will open Google Now, and double tapping the Home button will open up the Recent Apps screen. We’re not fans of this new configuration, in no small part because we found the buttons to be somewhat tricky to actuate.

The one big caveat to this beautiful sealed-unit design, is that it’s extremely hard to get to anything inside. It may not even be possible to do so without precision tools, which is why the HTC One ended up getting a rather dismal 1/10 on its iFixit score.

All in all, the HTC One looks fantastic and, better yet, feels solid. It’s a beautiful configuration of metal, plastic, and glass, and you’ll love holding it (and having other people stare at it) from the very first moment. Just don’t try to fix it yourself.

HTC One black
HTC One in black

HTC One: Internals and performance

Inside the HTC One is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset, with a 1.7GHz quad-core CPU and Adreno 320 GPU. This is backed by a neat 2GB of RAM, and 32GB or 64GB of storage (we had a 32GB unit). The storage is not expandable, but at least it’s a decent amount.

WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and HSPA+ round out the wireless side of things.

Worth mentioning is that we had some trouble with streaming audio over Bluetooth. Our headphones paired normally, but there were many stutters during playback. Our HTC One review unit did have Android 4.1.2 on it, for which there didn’t appear to be an update. Whether it’s an Android issue or an HTC issue remains to be seen.

In normal daily use, the One blazed through everything we threw at it. In our usual AnTuTu benchmarks, the One also came out on top with an overall score of 19950.2, a decent amount above the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE at 16099.2. We’re sure that the Samsung Galaxy S4 will have something to say about that, but until such time, the HTC One gets the top ranked spot.

HTC One nav bar
HTC One nav bar

HTC One: Screen and responsiveness

The screen on the HTC One is something worth discussing. It’s a 4.7-inch display, which isn’t particularly remarkable especially considering that most top-end phones are now being released with 5-inch displays. However, it is a 1080p display (1920×1080, commonly referred to as full HD), and it’s the first review phone we’ve received with a 1080p display.

Without dressing things up or mincing too many words, it’s beautiful.

Now, it’s not as drastic a change from 720p to 1080p as it was from 800×480 to 720p – at least not perceptually. Going to back to WVGA after experiencing a Retina or 720p display is almost painful – you notice the imperfections, jagged edges, and fuzzy images. I expected similar results when I switched back to my Galaxy Nexus after reviewing the HTC One. You can notice the difference when looking closely, but the difference isn’t nearly as stark.

Having said that, the HTC One has a magnificent screen. Colours were vibrant, text was wonderfully crisp, and images were simply beautiful. Viewing angles were similarly great, with very little washing out even at extreme angles. The screen also remained usable in direct sunlight without needing to crank up the brightness all the way.

In terms of responsiveness, we had very little to complain about – the One responded to our lightest touches and gestures.

Where previously HTC had the best screen on a smartphone with the One X, they now have the best screen with the One.

HTC One
HTC One

HTC One: Sound and call quality

Sound quality has always been an issue on phones. Most smartphone speakers sound like they came straight from the tinning factory. With the One, HTC are finally trying to fix the problem. Enter BoomSound.

Silly naming aside, BoomSound basically refers to the two front-facing speakers and the built-in amps that power them. Those two speakers won’t replace your 7.1 home theatre system any time soon, but they are remarkably better than anything we’ve heard on a phone before. BoomSound can be compared, rather favourably, to a decent set of laptop speakers.

We didn’t receive any earbuds or headphones with our review unit, but we had little to complain about when using our own.

Of course, Beats audio needs a special mention. The HTC One includes it and it switches on by default when playing music through any music app, though it can be turned off. We found it to be useful when using the front¬facing speakers, but preferred it off when listening through headphones as it tended to muddy up our music. Your preferences may vary.

Call quality is also something that HTC gave some attention to, and we have to admit that it was excellent with the One. We could make out what a caller was saying even in a crowded (sometimes loud) room, and vice versa.

HTC One rear camera
HTC One rear camera

HTC One: Cameras

HTC are trying something new with smartphone cameras. They’re quitting the megapixel race; that is, the race to adding more and more megapixels to smartphone camera sensors for the sake of having a bigger number.

Sure, there are reasons to add more megapixels. You get a higher-resolution image, and in good lighting conditions you can get a good, high quality image. Unfortunately, in low-light conditions, because you’re capturing so many pixels, you end up capturing a lot of noise.

There are a few ways to combat the noise. You could automatically post process the image, but this could also have a negative, blurry, effect on otherwise excellent photos. You could slap an outrageously large sensor on the phone, allowing you to oversample, but that might be impractical or expensive (or both). We’ve seen both of these approaches – the former in various smartphones to various degrees of success, the latter in the Nokia 808 PureView.

HTC are going a different route. The sensor on the HTC One is only 4 megapixels, which means that it only takes photos at a resolution of 2688 x 1520 (I know – “only”), and it still shoots 1080p video.

In terms of quality, in good lighting it’s easy to see that the HTC One will be outclassed by just about every top-tier smartphone currently out. Don’t get me wrong, the One still takes good photos in good lighting, but other top smartphones are better.

In dim lighting, when other smartphones show off all their grain, the One starts to do a whole lot better. Shots were less grainy and generally much better than what we’ve found until now. It’s not the best camera in all aspects, but the HTC One does what it set out to do, and we hope that it only gets better in future phones.

HTC One: Battery life

We were pleasantly surprised with the HTC One’s battery life. We figured we’d turn the screen on and watch the battery meter go down, but it turns out we needn’t have worried.

With a fair amount of usage – web browsing, social networking, reading articles, watching a YouTube clip or two, listening to music and podcasts, and snapping some photos – we easily managed to get through a day. Tuning it down just a little bit had us powered for a second day.

It’s not mind blowing, but we expected it to be a lot worse.

HTC One: Software

The HTC One comes with Android 4.1.2. While there may be an update in future, it doesn’t appear to be available to us right now. Of course, the HTC One doesn’t come with a clean  version of Android – it’s skinned with their own Sense UI (version 5.0).

While we’re not fans of UI skins on top of stock Android, we can’t find a lot to fault with Sense 5. It’s clean and neat, app UIs are consistent with each other, and importantly, are consistent with Android’s own design guidelines.

We do have two small complaints at this point. The first is that HTC’s Share dialog popup is tiny and feels cramped. The second is that, while the bundled Music app has a specific Podcast section, it seems that it only scans the Music directory on the device even though there was a Podcasts directory as well.

HTC includes the usual apps – things like Calendar, Clock and Mail – but they’ve also added a handy, if minimalist flashlight, FM Radio, and also a Tasks app that can sync with Google Tasks, and a Notes app that can sync with Evernote.

There’s also a TV app, which uses the IR blaster in the power button to control your TV. The TV app also asks you to specify your provider as it provides you with a TV guide, but South Africa doesn’t appear to be currently supported.

Dropbox and 7digital are also present and can’t be uninstalled. As with some previous HTC phones, linking your Dropbox account with the One will give you an extra 23GB of storage for free for 2 years (i.e. 25GB with a new account).

There are two new software features that need to be mentioned. The first relates to the camera and the feature is called Zoe. In the middle of the left side of the camera UI is an icon. When pressed, it switches the camera into Zoe mode. While in this mode, the camera will take up to 20 photos and record a 3 second video. You can then select the best photo of the batch to share. Photos taken like this appear “alive” in your gallery.

A note: if you use Zoe and Google+ (or Dropbox) automatic uploads, you’re going to be uploading a lot of pictures.

Zoe is a neat idea, and it’s quite fun to see some pictures in your gallery moving (like magical pictures in Harry Potter) – it draws your attention to those pictures. However, we can only imagine that, if you use Zoe a lot, your gallery would end up becoming chaotic with all the auto¬playing mini-clips.

The second new software feature is BlinkFeed – best described, at least from a visual perspective, as something akin to Flipboard. It takes your choice of news sources as well as social networks (Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter), and displays them in big blocks right on one page of your home screen.

BlinkFeed essentially displays content that you can snack on when you have a few minutes free between all the important things going on in your life. It’s handy, but it’s not something that serious news-geeks (like us) would use as their main source of news and it wouldn’t be the main way that we’d read the news. Having said that, we can see that it could be a handy source of interesting content for a lot of other people.

Unfortunately, it looks like you can’t completely get rid of BlinkFeed if you don’t like it. It will always be the leftmost home screen. However, you can set a different panel to be your default home screen, so you can make it so that you never have to see it.

HTC One in hand
HTC One in hand

HTC One review conclusion

HTC have taken some good internal hardware and placed it inside a magnificent shell. They then added a fantastic screen, excellent audio, and they’re doing something different, something interesting, (dare I say it) something innovative with the camera. The end result is the HTC One.

The HTC One is a very compelling device. It’s doing just about everything right in terms of hardware, and most things in terms of software. If you’re in the market for a new top-class smartphone we’d definitely recommend it.

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HTC One review