HTC One review
HTC was once known for its device names: Hero, Desire, Incredible, Legend, Sensation. Names that stirred passion, names that told you these were the latest and greatest smartphones out there. Each device name took it higher than the last, as though HTC was working towards some sort of nomenclature orgasm.
Then we had the comedown, a run of "S" devices, and we arrived at 2012. Looking to refresh, the HTC One was born. Only it wasn't. HTC One was a family, and history repeated itself. Finally we land in 2013 with the HTC One. One flagship, one phone which carries with it the hopes and dreams of a struggling giant.
With the HTC One comes a lot of change: a departure from the megapixel race, innovative new features, HTC Sense 5 and a design that's sure to wow. But will this phone put HTC back into the hands of customers and win back the title from Samsung?
HTC has the tagline "What will you bring to life?" on the HTC One, but the real question is: will this bring HTC to life?
HTC is no stranger to sensational design and the HTC One follows that fine tradition. Cased in a metal body, it's staggeringly good looking. The anodised aluminium unibody makes up the front and back of the device, with a plastic insert that runs around the middle.
Although the message is very much "all metal body" from HTC, there are still plastic breaks, so it's not quite the metal monster it's made out to be. It is, however, solid, with no sign of flex or bending when you manipulate the phone.
On the front the display appears to stretch from edge-to-edge although, looking closely, it's edged with black strips that keep the display in place, although they are barely noticeable. Soft curves and chamfered edges result in a look that's ultra-modern and ultra-sophisticated. We liked the polycarbonate unibody of the HTC One X, but the HTC One makes it look a little toy-like, a relic of HTC past.
The HTC One measures 137.4 x 68.2 x 9.3mm and it weighs 143g. It's heavier by a fraction and slightly taller than last year's hero the One X, partly because the new design now accommodates two forward-facing speakers, both with HTC's signature micro-drilled finish. It's more conventional than the HTC One X, some might say less dramatic, but then it has a simple elegance and a beauty that we now appreciate.
In the hand the narrower body with a curved back feels nicer to hold than the Sony Xperia Z, which very much rivals this device. However, the placement of the power/standby button on the top feels as though it favours those using it in the right hand, as it's nigh on impossible to reach with a finger if you're using it one-handed in your left hand. With a display that's 4.7-inches on the diagonal, it's a bit of a stretch to get around, but as larger devices become the norm, we can't say it has been a problem.
With any anodised metal device, the question of just how long the finish will last always comes into question. It was something that Apple encountered with the iPhone 5, and we've already scuffed the HTC One, leaving scratch marks on the body, despite being really careful with it.
We're not sure how it would survive a drop on to the pavement - probably surface scratches, maybe a dent or two. As an aside, when we dropped the Xperia Z, the damage was minimal, when we dropped the Nexus 4 we cracked the back. All accidental, of course.
There's also one oddity that we've noticed. Tapping the phone around the top near the camera gives a little rattle. We're not sure what this might be, but it doesn't rattle when you shake it, so it's not a huge concern. We've asked around and had confirmation that this isn't limited to this phone: we'll talk to HTC and see if this is deliberate or not.
READ: Sony Xperia Z review
Overall, it's a great-looking phone. Some might say it lacks the drama of something like the Xperia Z, but it is sophisticated and elegant, and it feels fantastic in the hand.
The HTC One display is one of the best we've seen on a mobile device. Not only does it give you a full HD resolution, that's 1920 x 1080 pixels, a pixel density of 468ppi, but it also offers great viewing angles and colour reproduction.
The PPI is marginally higher than that of rival devices like the Xperia Z, but at this level, that doesn't amount to anything. Both look cracking when it comes to displaying fine detail.
Where the HTC wins out though, is that it has better contrast, with deep blacks and nice bright whites, with much better viewing angles than Sony's flagship, if that sort of thing bothers you.
Auto-brightness is offered, but tends towards the brighter end of the scale we feel, so might need manually nudging down at night. At the same time, the brightness can be limited by the "power saver" mode. This limits the maximum brightness, and on a sunny day in bright conditions you'll have to switch off power saver so you can see the display.
Hardware and performance
The HTC One has a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chipset at its core, offering plenty of power. There is 2GB of RAM and combined, the result is that HTC One skips through just about anything you throw at it. Push the HTC One and it will soon become warm, and as metal conducts heat, you'll feel that warming glow spreading through your fingers.
In terms of connectivity, however, you get everything. The HTC One is an LTE handset, you have dual channel Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4 with aptX support for enhanced fidelity in wireless music, and NFC. Physical connections offer you Micro-USB on the bottom, incorporating MHL for connection to a larger display. There's a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top.
The design, however, doesn't give you the opportunity to expand the internal storage over the 32GB that's on offer (64GB will be available in some territories). In a spec sheet showdown, rival devices from Sony and Samsung will offer you those expansion options, and flexibility has always been the downside of this type of sealed design. There is, however, 25GB of free Dropbox space included for 2 years when you sign-in to your new device.
The other thing you don't get access to is the battery. It's rated at 2300mAh, which is a marked improvement in capacity over last year's HTC One X, which only arrived with 1800mAh, and struggled. But with more going on, more live elements, LTE, a higher-resolution display and more, how does the HTC One cope?
We managed to get through a typical day without the battery being a huge worry, but with so much on offer, obviously, that can quickly change. On a busy day, we found the battery lasted around 12 hours before we needed to top up. That includes listening to music, lots of data and playing with the camera a lot, as well as taking calls and messages. Of course, if you're always connected to 4G, have the display up bright and are constantly sharing the latest Zoe video, it's going to have an impact on your battery.
HTC offers a "power saver" mode, which works the same way as it is has done previously. It offers control over CPU power, display brightness, vibration and your data connection, turning off data when the screen is off.
It's a nice nod to cutting down on using things that waste power unnecessarily, but it's not as smart as the offering from Sony, who will let you specify which apps get data connections and which don’t, as well as smart things like turning off Wi-Fi when you move out of a recognised Wi-Fi zone, although third-party apps can help here.
We've used two HTC One devices in the writing of this review. The first was a pre-production sample with final software and the second was a retail device. Having switched, it's too soon to judge definitively so we'll keep working on the battery over the next week to see how it performs, but so far, we're not concerned about it.
Calling and BoomSound, Beats
It might seem odd to bundle together calling and audio, but in actual fact it makes perfect sense. The calling experience on the HTC One comes across as something of a surprise, as the ear speaker is very impressive. The quality of the caller's voice is rich and natural, a departure from many phones of the past.
That's paired with effective noise cancellation to make sure the person you're talking to can hear you too. We tested the call quality in various situations and found the results to be universally good. HTC is calling it Sense Voice and it uses dual mics, front and rear to detect what should be captured and what shouldn't. Those mics are also dual diaphragm, again cutting down on unwanted vibration for better quality audio capture.
One of the reasons the calling sounds so good is down to the attention lavished on the HTC One speakers. Going under the somewhat cringe-worthy name BoomSound, you have two forward-facing speakers that offer really good performance. Gone are the days of tinny smartphone audio, the HTC One really performs in this area.
The speakers not only offer great volume, but the stereo effect is also commendable. You get the sort of separation you want for watching videos or playing games: firing-up a movie on Netflix or playing a game like Real Racing 3, with its thumping soundtrack, the audio is really impressive, easy outclassing other smartphones.
You also have Beats in the mix, bring its bassy richness to everything. Beats now operates on the BoomSound speakers as well as headphones. Although you don't get Beats headphones in the box these days, plugging in a set of good quality headphones reveals that the HTC One sounds great when plugged in too.
HTC Sense 5
With a new flagship device comes a whole world of changes in HTC Sense. The new edition, Sense 5, debuts on the HTC One and brings a refreshed look and feel to many aspects of HTC's user interface.
We've witnessed a progressive shift in Sense towards this point, with each of the previous steps adding in some areas, but stripping away in others. In HTC Sense 5, the change is both significant and welcome. The headline change is the addition of Blink Feed, but there's a lot else going on here.
Visually, things look different. Much of the clutter has been removed, there are fewer apps, icons are simpler. The whole thing feels lighter and more mature, with finer fonts used through out that take advantage of the high-resolution of the display.
There's a fairly major change in control. At the bottom of the display there are two capacitive buttons. These offer you home and back, and flank the central HTC logo, which isn't a button.
In making this switch, HTC combined functions on the home button. A single press will take you back to the home page you were on, a subsequent press returns you to your designated main home page. A quick double press will open recent apps, although HTC has completely changed the layout of this function so you get a grid of nine apps, which is much more efficient than stock Android's list.
Finally, a long press on the home button takes you to Google Now, which operates exactly as it does on any other Android Jelly Bean device. Sitting under Sense 5 is indeed Android 4.1.2 at launch.
Moving on to the apps tray, HTC has re-engineered how this works. First, the button in the centre of the launcher will switch between Blink Feed or the apps tray. You can customise the layout of the apps tray, which is nothing new or exciting, but you can also change the density of apps displayed, so there's less wasted space. The minimalist weather clock widget flows into the apps tray, scrolling away as you move down the page.
You can now make folders in the apps tray too, allowing you to organise things as you wish. It's something that Sony also offers on the Xperia Z and we like it a lot. It means you can group things and reduce the number of pages of apps you have. But there's a twist.
HTC has changed the relationship between the launcher (the bottom bar) and the apps tray. If you place an app in the launcher, the icon is no longer in the apps tray. That means there's no duplication of the caller or messages app, for example, which make everything cleaner. We like to put folders on the launcher with all our core apps and now in Sense 5, that means that the apps tray is much cleaner and finding other apps you use less frequently is much faster.
On notifications there hasn’t been a huge change: drag down the top bar and you’ll have access to a shortcut to settings, but that’s about it. HTC hasn’t incorporated hardware controls here and we wish they would. You do get music and controls from the TV app, as well as the normal run of Android notifications, however.
The keyboard is almost certainly the best keyboard that HTC has offered. It’s responsive and fairly smart, with trace entry (available in older versions of Sense) competing with the stock Android Jelly Bean offering. Unfortunately you don’t get access to the stock Android keyboard by default.
HTC’s corrections are pretty good, but it doesn’t compete with intelligence of something predictive like Swiftkey. HTC will offer next word prediction, but it doesn’t work when you have trace entry enabled. Overall, unlike some devices, HTC’s efforts here are actually fairly inoffensive and we were happy to use it.
There’s one poor design decision that's been made, however. The HTC Sense 5 keyboard uses a dark grey background and white letters, but uses light grey for secondary characters. Because they’re small and there’s minimal contrast between the two, in bright conditions you can’t see them at all.
HTC is still shipping a custom browser, in addition to Chrome. The advantage of its browser is that Flash is still supported. You'll have to turn it on, but you can then, potentially, view web content that uses Flash, like adverts, or some websites behind the times.
Blink Feed is one of the new headline features of the HTC One. It's designed to give you glance and go information, pulling from social and news sources, which you nominate, to give you the aggregated feed you want. It forms part of a running theme through the HTC One and that's about bringing things to life - hence the company's tagline for the device. In this case, Blink Feed brings your home page to life.
It will pull in Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn feeds, as well as your calendar, Zoe Share (HTC's new image sharing portal), Best Deals and TV. You can select what you want and what you'd rather leave out. You also get the option to post to Facebook or Twitter directly, so you don't have to open those apps specifically to update your status.
Then it will offer you news from various sources, like highlights from The Guardian or Reuters, as well as curated sources in categories. If you're interested in football, it will give you football, if you're into motoring or smartphone news you can select those at your leisure.
It's a useful feature, because it's right there, with pull to refresh, so you can flick through in those spare moments and find something to enlighten you. But it's not a replacement for heavy RSS feeds or social essentials. If you follow 600 people on Twitter, you'll never keep up, so Blink Feed is better for entertainment than must-have news. We'd like to see more refinement, being able to pick sports teams or more specific sites, but we're sure that will come in future.
Before you panic, you're not limited to just Blink Feed, however. Just as with any other Android device, you can add more home pages, and simply swipe horizontally to access another, filled with widgets and shortcuts and everything else. If you don't like Blink Feed, you can nominate another page as your home page and turn off all the syncing so it's just inert, but we couldn't find a way to actually remove Blink Feed.
Bringing your Gallery to life
It's not only your home page that's getting revitalised. Perhaps one of the nicest features of the HTC One is the live gallery. Like the living pictures hanging in Hogwarts (of Harry Potter fame), the Events section of your Gallery app will now spring to life.
One of the neat tricks of the HTC One is the zero-edit summary videos. They literally require no input, they just happen. That means you can head into something that happened on a particular day - a trip to the zoo perhaps - and the One brings it to life, mashing together photos and video and adding effects to make it interesting.
This technique is applied to static galleries when in the "events" view and not only those you capture on the HTC One. We imported lots of photos and the same funky video effects can be applied to those photos too, so long as they have a date.
You can, of course, browse photos and share everything as you always have done and your Gallery will also pull in photos from other online sources, such as Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox and Picasa.
Bringing your TV to life
There's another hardware feature we haven't mentioned and that's the IR controller. Built into the power button, you can use your HTC One as a universal remote to control exisiting devices like your TV or satellite or cable box. That's old technology - there was IR on our Compaq Ipaq back in the day - but there's a support app that's clever.
You can specify your region and what sort of TV service you have (in the UK that’s Freeview, Freesat, Sky or Virgin Media) and designate some of your favourite programmes. The TV app will then show you what’s on, recommend you programmes and because it’s also a remote, tapping a programme will see it turn over to that channel.
TV information also rolls into Blink Feed, so you’ll get a timely reminder of something you might like coming up. Your own videos also roll into the app, as well as HTC’s Watch movie service. You can schedule reminders (which are added to your calendar), share and search for programmes.
You can also set up multiple remotes, so if you have different devices in different rooms, then you’re covered. It only takes a few minutes to set up and we were up and running, controlling a Samsung TV with Virgin Media cable box.
Music and movies
TV is only part of the entertainment offering on the HTC One, as Sense 5 brings a new music player too. It’s fairly conventional in its approach to organising music, with the integration of media servers and controls that fall onto the lock screen and into the notifications area.
The real new addition to music, aside from those great sounding speakers is a new visualisation mode. Tap the button and you’ll flip over to this new funky view, which looks great on the sharp display. Taking this a stage further is lyrics.
When you flip over to the visualisation, the music player will contact Gracenote to see if there are lyrics for the track. These will then display, karaoke style, as you listen the music. You can also tap the button to read them if you want to check you have it right. It’s "kiss the sky" by the way.
On the movies front you have HTC’s Watch service if you want to buy your videos that way, but Play Movies is also in place. One thing to note is that if you use the Zoe feature in the camera (that captures short video clips) then your "personal videos" section will fill with these clips very quickly.
Sitting within the selection of pre-installed apps you'll find that some HTC stalwarts are gone. There's no Footprints or Locations, thankfully, and in the process HTC has done away with one of our longest running complaints: calendar location links now open in Google Maps by default. At last!
The calendar app has been customised to HTC's liking and we're not entirely sold on it, especially as there's no day name listed in the agenda view or day view, only the date. There are also no day names displayed when setting a new appointment, which is less than useful. Thankfully, Android's stock calendar is available in Google Play, so you can quickly replace that of HTC.
There's also a Kid Mode, from Zoodles, that will let you make your phone safe, so you can hand it over as a distraction, with a fun selection of content and easy to use instructions. There's also Best Deals, which will provide you with various local offers, like restaurant discounts.
The camera is one of the biggest areas of attention for the HTC One. Dropping the sensor to 4-megapixels, but making those pixels larger - "UltraPixel" - the aim is to increase the amount of light captured by the sensor and improve the performance in tricky conditions, like low light. The image files are smaller than those 8 or 13-megapixel rivals, coming in around 1.5MB, rather than 3.5MB you'll find elsewhere. There’s a lot going on here, which we won’t dive into here in too much detail, because it’s the results that matter.
First, looking at the interface, it’s easy to navigate, remembering that the camera really offers three main shooting modes: stills, video and Zoe. The buttons for still or regular video capture are instantly available, and the HTC One is quick to focus and quick to snap off shots, as previous devices have been. There's touch focusing option if the automatic focus doesn't get things right.
As a stills camera, the HTC One doesn't escape from the problem of noise. In low light, there's still plenty of noise, but we noticed that it preserved colour better than some rivals in the same situation. That said, even in perfect conditions, you still have noise blighting things like blue skies. Aside from all the technology and fancy terms, this is still a phone and it won't give you images like a dedicated camera with a precision lens.
There are lots of effects to apply, you can change the aspect and shoot in different modes, however the camera isn’t as granular as that of the Sony Xperia Z with oodles of settings. The big difference here is that the HTC One camera feels like a camera designed for smartphones, rather than trying to recreate what you have in a compact camera, which is the approach Sony takes.
Some of the additional features flow though to the front-facing camera too. It has the neat countdown we saw introduced on the HTC One X+ and can give you great results. You can also apply the HDR mode to the front camera, so if taking a self-portrait with your face in shade, it will lift some of the shadows. The front camera is good, probably the best out there at the moment.
Talking of HDR, the HDR mode is a little coarse on the HTC One. We've tried it in a few situations and found that the results are rather over-exposed, but that may come down to what we've been shooting.
Overall there's a lot to consider. The shots we've taken with the HTC One have been perfectly good, with some great results, however there's a danger that these things are over sold. It isn't a replacement for a proper camera if you actually care about fine detail or low light performance.
When it comes to video capture, the HTC One offers video that's typical of a camera phone. There are various modes, including 60fps and slow motion, both of which sacrifice quality. Then there's the HDR video mode, which sacrifices speedy focusing (you can fix focusing in video in the settings), so the best results come from the normal 1080p mode.
We also found that flicker was a problem, for example in advertising boards or shop signs, or when filming a display, but with no settings to adjust the frequency to 50Hz, which might be the cause. It's also slightly annoying that the camera app always opens in landscape, but that's a minor software fix.
The Zoe mode has taken many of the headlines, capturing 3-second clips of video, from which you can extract stills, with the aim of giving you living snapshots, rather than relying on capturing that perfect moment. Well, you'll think they're video, but thanks to dual capture, the individual frames are stored too with a 2688 x 1520 resolution. That means you can take a Zoe and extract a frame of the perfect smile, rather than taking lots of shots and hoping to get it right.
Within the Gallery you don't see all this as HTC keeps it all bundled together, but explore your device and you'll find all the files sitting there, 20 JPEGs and 1 MPEG for each Zoe. If you import files manually to a computer, that means there's potentially a lot of files to sift through.
It's the remixing of these that's really impressive, as we mentioned in the Gallery section above. We'd never really shoot that much video, but Zoe encourages you to do so, because it looks good when remixed and shared. There's a designated sharing service for this - Zoe Share - although it will only last for 180 days on that site. You can export your mashed-up video summary as an MPEG4 and share on somewhere like Facebook or YouTube if you'd prefer, which is probably the safer option for longevity.
Zoe, ultimately, is lots of fun and a unique feature on the HTC One.
The HTC One is the best phone that HTC has made. The design, the refreshes made to HTC Sense, and the power on offer make this among the best that Android has on offer. There's innovation, there's attention to detail and there's plenty on offer straight out of the box.
It isn't perfect, but then what phone is? What we really like is the day-to-day experience of using the HTC One. Having lived in the Nexus 4 with it's raw Android experience, it doesn't feel like HTC Sense is taking anything away from you - once you've swapped out that calendar, made Chrome the default browser and got Blink Feed under control.
But the headline features might obsure those things that are important. Blink Feed might not be for everyone, the camera isn't so dramatically different, even if the remixed results are. But some of the phone's core features really shine: the display is fantastic, there's plenty of power and the sound quality, be that for calls or music, is outstanding.
HTC has a history of making good phones, so the HTC One doesn't comes as a surprise to us. It's a fantastic Android smartphone and is well worthy of your consideration if you're in the market for a premium device.