Hands-on: HTC One review

The HTC One is the new flagship smartphone from HTC, which has stepped out fighting hard to win back Android fans. It's just been announced at events in London and New York, but Pocket-lint had the chance to play with the phone before today's launch.

We've had a chance to play with HTC's Ultrapixel camera, including the jaw-dropping Zoe capture, we've laid eyes on the full HD display, experienced Boomsound first hand and spent some time with HTC Sense 5 and the new Blink Feed feature. Read on to find out everything about the most dramatic handset HTC has released yet.

UPDATE: You can find the full review of the HTC One right here.

Design

From the front, at first glance, there's something of a likeness to the iPhone 5 or the new BlackBerry Z10, but in the flesh, the HTC One is very different. Yes, there's a small portion for the speakers above and below the display, but that's about it.

The HTC One bears a passing resemblance to the HTC 8X, with HTC confirming that lessons it learnt from cramming ("pyramid stacking" we were told) the components into the Windows Phone 8 handset have been applied here. The result is a handset that's loaded with technology, but also only 9mm thick at the largest point.

But while the engineering is to be commended, the design isn't hugely distinctive. It's practical, with the curved rear fitting nicely into your hand, but we're not as excited about the design as we were when we first saw the HTC One X in 2012.

In the hand the HTC One is reassuringly solid and there's quite a weight to it too. Gone is the polycarbonate body and now we're returning to one of HTC's favourite materials, aluminium. 

It's a unibody design, naturally, but the big boast from HTC in the HTC One is that this is now a full metal design: there are no plastic inserts, no plastic top or bottom, because HTC has cracked another problem along the way - death grip. That allows HTC to have a metal body, but stay connected.

Although HTC wouldn't say exactly what the solution is, we're told it involves a clever system of antenna switching to ensure that you're always connected. We have to take the Taiwanese company's word for it until we get the HTC One out into the real world.

Changing controls

On the control front there's an obvious change: HTC has dropped the recent apps button. Instead the bottom of the phone has the back button and the home capacitive buttons flanking the HTC logo and this rolls in some new changes in the way the HTC Sense 5 works.

The "recent apps" function is now accessed through a double tap on the home button, and rather than giving you the somewhat inefficient landscape-scrolling screenshots of Sense 4, you now get a simple grid of active apps. It's refreshingly lightweight, which is what Sense 5 is.

A long press on the home button launches Google Now, so it doesn't feel like you're missing out. There are other software controls that make the HTC One and Sense 5 very different from previous devices, which we'll come to in a second.

Hardware: Welcome back IR

On physical controls there's the normal power/standby button on the top of the phone. We didn't have long enough with the phone to really establish if it's going to a problem to reach, however there's something else smart that it does: IR control. The IR transmitter eye is the standby button, which is a neat solution.

HTC has its sights on your TV, recognising that many people are now sitting in front of the TV using their phones, so is offering you control of that too. You'll be able to set-up the HTC One as a remote for your home cinema kit, with most major brands selectable through the new TV app.

The app will also give you a programme guide, so you'll be able to see what's on and tap what you want to watch. Your remote will become obsolete, as the HTC One will also be able to learn over IR too, so you can also set up those obscure devices.

Sitting at the heart of the HTC One is a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, with 2GB of RAM. There's 32GB of storage, with 64GB available in some regions (not the UK we've been told), but no microSD card slot, again, though you do get 25GB of Dropbox storage.

All the wireless connectivity is in place: LTE, Wi-Fi (including the latest 802.11ac band), NFC, Bluetooth and all the sensors you'd expect.

Display

On the front of the device is a 4.7-inch LCD IPS display. It gives you a cracking resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, Full HD, 468ppi. HTC is pulling no punches with the display, it’s beautifully sharp with incredible detail, and at this resolution puts it on a par with the likes of the Sony Xperia Z in terms of definition, although it's slightly smaller.

It's topped with Corning Gorilla Glass and, as before, it's laminated to reduce the air gap so it's right there immediate and punchy. The viewing angles and colours, from what we've seen so far are hugely impressive.

We also see some of the attention to detail. As the glass runs right to the edge of the handset, it's beautifully polished down the sides, which looks great.

Sense 5 and Blink Feed explored

Not only does the HTC One sit on Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, it also ushers in a new version of Sense: HTC Sense 5. It's a much lighter take on Sense and although HTC Sense 4+ trimmed flab from HTC's UI, Sense 5 is a crash diet.

Apps and bloat that have been carved away as Sense 5 is stripped back to the essentials. In the process, HTC has addressed one of the biggest criticisms of its Android handsets.

The focus isn't now on widgets, the ubiquitous flip clock isn't blaring 10:08 in your face, instead you're looking at a minimalist weather clock sitting above a new headline feature: Blink Feed.

Blink Feed is an evolution of much of what HTC has been doing before, but rather than having lots of different widgets, Blink Feed is designed to be a glance-and-go method of getting relevant information, hence the name.

At a basic level, it is a content aggregator, drawing from multiple sources which you define. That might be your social networks like Facebook, but you can also tailor the content to you by selecting sources, with more than 1,500 on offer. You'll find the likes of UEFA in there, and Pocket-lint, and HTC say it is looking for more partners.

Blink Feed is your new home page, scrolling beautifully and letting you glance at headlines and images, clicking through to stories that interest you. It's really fast too.

If you don't like Blink Feed you can turn it off, and you can always swipe to the side to return to a conventional home page that you can fill with shortcuts and widgets, if that's what you want to do.

The apps tray also works slightly differently as you can create folders within the apps tray, making it easier to manage your apps, as well as being able to change the size of the grid of apps, so you can fit more, or less, on to the page.

HTC Sense in general is cleaner than ever before. The icons are simpler and default font has changed, so it feels like a user interface that has matured. Things like Locations and Footprints seem to have gone and you no longer have that awkward situation of hitting a map link in the calendar and it opening HTC's alternative mapping solution - it's straight into Google Maps. Huzzah!

Also stripped out are the hubs of HTC Sense 4, so the music hub is gone. Although that was a nice idea, a simple folder does just as well, which is what you'll find. We've gone into more detail of what you can find in HTC Sense 5 in a separate feature, link below.

READ: What's new in HTC Sense 5?

Overall, HTC Sense 5 feels like the sort of change we've been waiting for. It's slick, fast, and we're impressed with what we've seen so far. Of course, we've only seen demo devices and we'll be giving it a thorough investigation in our full HTC One review as soon as possible.

Boomsound and dual diaphragm mics

HTC promised to kick-off a new sound and camera experience in the HTC One and that means the birth of Boomsound. Yes, it's a silly name and something we probably won't add to our vernacular in hurry, but it means that HTC has focused on improving the speaker performance of the HTC One.

To achieve this, HTC has carved out space for stereo front-facing speakers, so they fire directly towards you from behind their signature micro-drilled grills. HTC is claiming they have the largest chamber of any phone. We put them to the test and they are pretty loud, although we didn't have the chance to test them extensively enough to determine whether they'll make a huge difference.

Of course you get Beats Audio in the mix, so the performance through headphones will be as rich as it's been on recent HTC devices, although you don't get Beats headphones in the box.

But speakers aren't the only thing that HTC has targeted. HTC is claiming that sound capture is better too, thanks to its using dual membranes on both mics, so your voice should sound better and video capture sound better too.

In addition, there's an extra clever feature coupled to the noise cancellation system in calling: when in a noisy environment, the phone will turn up the volume of the speaker so you can hear the caller without having to scrabble for the volume rocker.

On the entertainment front, HTC will now not only draw down the artwork for your music, which it has always done, but will also give you a visualisation mode, with lyrics, so you can sing along to your favourite tracks.

Ultrapixel Camera and Zoe Camera

Sitting on the back of the HTC One is a 4-megapixel camera, in what might be HTC's biggest spec sheet gamble. The company has made a departure from the megapixel race and taken a different tack, introducing what it is calling and Ultrapixel sensor.

Essentially what this means is that the actual pixels are much larger than in those in other phone sensors, in some cases letting you capture 200 per cent more light on the sensor. The aim is to give you better quality photos, with better low-light performance.

We've written about the Ultrapixel sensor in more detail in a separate feature, which is worth reading if you want to find out more about the technicalities.

READ: Ultrapixels: How HTC wants to redefine the smartphone camera

But hardware aside, it's some of the software sides to the camera that will prove the most popular. You get all the regular features, like HDR shooting and panorama, 1080p video and so on, but there's a new live mode called Zoe Camera that's really exciting.

Zoe Camera (the name is derived from the zoetrope) will constantly capture content through the camera when you're in the app. So you might press the button to capture a still, but the camera also has the action before the button press, as well as the time after.

Zoe will then produce zero-edit videos from this footage, mashing together video, stills, effects, themes and a soundtrack. The results are spectacular. It might sound like a gimmick, but Zoe will take any boring selection of photos and make it into something engaging and interesting.

So rather than sending a couple of choice photos to Facebook, you can share a Zoe and people can watch the action. Rather than boring your family with a slideshow of a day out, Zoe will do all the hard work for you. It's a feature that has to be seen to be properly appreciated.

There will be a hub for sharing "Zoes" called Zoe Share, with HTC telling us that this would give you 180 days, with aims of this developing into some sort of social community. Of course you'll also be able to export your Zoes in different formats, like MPEG4, as well as remix, change styles or alter the content if you want.

First impressions

We're really impressed with what we've seen of the HTC One so far. HTC Sense 5 is a step in the right direction, making the departure started in Sense 4. With bloat remove, it feel slick and fast, but is still distinctly HTC, with Blink Feed bringing a new face to HTC's flagship phone.

The build quality is good, but in many ways the HTC One lacks the drama of rivals like the glass monolith of the Sony Xperia Z, and it feels a little like "just another" HTC phone, even though, in terms of size, this is a big phone with minimal bloat.

But there are a host of exciting features. This isn't just an update on the spec sheet, it's a different feeling in the user interface and there are new things to play with. It really does feel like a new HTC.

The HTC One will be available from 15 March 2013 in black or silver. We will bring you a full and exhaustive HTC One review closer to launch.

READ: HTC One: Where can I get it?

Additional photos by Hunter Skipworth.