The HTC One family and Sense 4.0: Welcome to a new HTC
HTC has outlined its new phones for 2012, hoping to revitalise and rediscover its success with what it is calling a new HTC.
"We are young, but even in our short life the market has changed dramatically," James Atkins, head of UK marketing at HTC, told Pocket-lint, acknowledging the meteoric rise to fame, but also a constantly changing market.
The company has witnessed a dramatic change of fortune in the past decade going from white-label handset manufacturer, to the crowning glory of Android, to losing the top spot to Samsung. It is an era that the company is hoping to put behind it.
"It's about raising the bar," confirms Atkins. "It's a bit of a new HTC, an new way of thinking about how we talk to consumers."
With Android natively becoming more user friendly and updating regularly, and the growth of the Android Market and apps from all the major online services becoming commonplace, some of what HTC Sense offered became redundant very quickly, or obscured the sensible Android approach underneath.
With the 2011 launch of the Desire S, the Incredible S, the Wildfire S, the Sensation (and the XE, XL) many felt that HTC had taken a step too far. HTC Sense was all encompassing, eclipsing some of the charm of Android and not offering much variation from previous iterations in terms of UI and device design.
And so we land in 2012 and we have a new family of devices: the HTC One series. Three handsets: the One X, One S and One V, all launching on Android 4.0 Ice Cream sandwich and all land with a new, less oppressive HTC Sense 4.0.
However you look at HTC's new One series of handsets, it's clear that some things remain the same: you still get an HTC Sense experience that offers a customised take on Android.
In a briefing on the new updates, Graham Wheeler, director of commercialisation product management at HTC, told us that in Sense 4.0 should be "nothing that takes away" from the Android 4.0 experience. But that doesn't mean that HTC has left things unfettered.
The Ice Cream Sandwich recent apps view is different, for example. It has it's own button, with the adoption of three capacitive buttons across the bottom of the new handsets, and you can still swipe apps away to close them, but it's been given a facelift. The recent apps view will rotate into landscape too, something that native ICS won't always do.
The Sense 4 dock/favourites tray looks more like Android than it ever did before. With four shortcut spaces flanking a central apps tray icon, you don't have to sit there and look at a "personalisation" button you can't remove. For many, this change will make a huge impact on how they use the phone. That 3-year-old apps/phone/personalisation dock is gone.
The new favourites tray makes it much easier to add shortcuts to your HTC One X, One S or One V without using up homescreen space. You can create folders and drop them into the favourites tray, so rather than having a single icon, you can group all your social networks in a folder, which will then pop-up for easy access.
But the more you explore HTC Sense 4 on Android 4, the more you'll discover that HTC has made alterations throughout. Where Ice Cream Sandwich looks different from Gingerbread, Sense 4 doesn't always look dramatically different from Sense 3.5, once you step away from the homescreens.
More importantly, Sense 4 doesn't always pick up on the visual themes of Android 4, so that blue on black is lost, the futuristic edge that ICS offers has been pushed into a Sense that's still very much about HTC. That might be a problem for some people looking for a substantial departure from the past, or an HTC closer to Android.
HTC has focused on four main areas with the HTC One family. These main areas are: camera, audio, design and the connected world.
The camera app is much better than stock Android 4 and it has been redesigned from the old Sense. You can now instantly switch from stills to video because you have separate buttons for each, but you can always capture stills, even when shooting video, by pressing the camera button.
Not only that, but holding your finger on the shutter button will take you straight into burst mode. HTC also tells us that the new camera will detect the range to the subject and adjust the flash accordingly. Add that to f/2.0 lenses and backlit sensors on the new phones and you have an indication of how important HTC think the camera is.
Beats isn't now reserved for special editions, it's a standard feature. The One series all feature Beats Audio and Beats Audio is device-wide, rather than being restricted to the native media apps as it was before. This means that you'll get the benefits of Beats processing, whether you're in the default music player, Spotify, Netflix, BBC iPlayer or anything else.
Design has been something that HTC has been shouting about since the Hero arrived in 2009. The three new handsets all look good, but they don't step away from what we expect. HTC has chosen to keep capacitive buttons at the bottom of the phones. With the Galaxy Nexus ditching it's "buttons" some might say HTC haven't moved their design on quite far enough.
There are actually four designs, because there are two versions of the One S - one manufactured using microarc oxidation, the other using graduated anodisation. The HTC One S gives you a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor.
The One X, the flagship superphone, has been hewn from polycarbonate, like the Nokia N9 or Lumia 800. It feels tactile in the hand and it is light for a 4.7-inch smartphone.
The One V is an evolution of the HTC Legend's unibody design, with that signature chin. All the new handsets looks and feel like premium phones, but then hasn't every HTC phone of the past three years?
But design and materials alone won't sell your phones. Just look at the success of the Samsung Galaxy range which make heavy use of plastics. It's the interface and the user experience that really matters.
In that final user experience comes HTC's fourth focus: the connected world. This rolls into Sense, but on a more literal level the wireless HDMI mirroring that will let you use a three-finger swipe to send your device display to another screen sounds fantastic, even if you'll need an HDMI adaptor to use it.
As HTC redefines its handset range, the bombastic phone names have been retired and Sense has had itself changed, but the new phones are still very much HTC. They're up to date, hit all the right points on the spec sheet, but if you're looking for naked Android, then you won't find it here. This may be a new HTC, but it's still very much HTC.
What do you make of the new HTC?