(Pocket-lint) - The HTC One S sits behind the One X in HTC's new line-up of devices, looking to regain the Android top spot in 2012. Three devices, all featuring premium design aesthetics, comprise the One series, in what is pitched as a simpler approach from HTC.
The HTC One S arrives with a newer, lighter, version of HTC Sense, looking to appease those who tired of the uniform appearance and approach of previous devices. But is there space for the One S when the One X is so compelling? Can HTC regain the support of those who may be looking to devices like the Sony Xperia S instead?
There are two versions of the One S: the model on review here uses graduated anodisation and the other uses micro arc oxidation to provide distinctive finishes to both devices. They are designed to be tough and hardwearing, but all the while maintaining a slim profile. Measuring 130.9 x 65 x 7.8mm, this is certainly a slim phone.
In the hand, the design highlights around the sides of the phone do make a difference. Those lines not only help draw the eye around the device, but also provide points of grip in your hands. Metal phones can be a little slippery, but the One S avoids the worst of it, thanks to this clever detail.
The meeting of body and screen is tight and well considered. Unlike the HTC Sensation, which this replaces, the back doesn't come off. Instead you have a removable section at the top rear, which comes away to reveal the slot for the micro SIM card. There is another plastic section at the bottom, very much reflecting the design of older devices from HTC.
The micro-drilled speaker grills have a much more minimalist and sophisticated appearance than the recessed grills of other devices, rounding out a look that is difficult not to like. If we had one criticism, it's that the opening for the Micro-USB port feels a little sharp around the edges, but that's about it, so top marks to HTC for the design and build.
Display and hardware
The One S is very much the replacement for the HTC Sensation, with specs that more or less match the 2011 handsets. Sitting below the One X in HTC's portfolio, it demonstrates how times have moved on, with last year's flagship device specs moving into the mid range.
But even with this device positioned slightly off the top rung, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a lesser phone in practice, with one major exception: the display.
The HTC One S is equipped with a 4.3-inch 960 x 540 Super AMOLED display. It is bright, vibrant and sharp, but now sits in the shadow of the more natural-looking LCDs on rival devices and doesn't have the same high resolution as you'll find elsewhere.
It seems slightly perverse to be complaining about a display that is still high resolution, but with an increasing number of devices appearing with 1280 x 720 pixel displays, the difference is very much apparent. The difference in real terms is that the One S has a pixel density of 256ppi, the likes of the Sony Xperia S has 341ppi and side by side you can quickly see the difference.
In isolation the One S display is perfectly good. It has that heavy saturation common to Super AMOLED, which in some cases is good at boosting the vibrancy of colours. But it also means that things don't really look natural, and when the display dims, it all looks a little grubby. Not as grubby as the Galaxy Nexus, but noticeably inferior to the latest displays.
Sitting under the skin of the One S is a Qualcomm dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz and 1GB of RAM. It has 16GB of internal memory, but no microSD card for expansion, which will irritate some. HTC has its agreement with Dropbox to give you a boost in cloud storage, but that doesn't really compensate for the simplicity of sticking in a 32GB microSD, which no longer seems to be an option.
All the normal wireless connectivity is supported, although there is no NFC on this model. In terms of physical connections you have Micro-USB, which supports MHL if you want to use it as an output to your TV and the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.
The result is a package that not only looks good, but also performs well. The Qualcomm chipset at its heart makes this phone feel and behave more powerfully than the rival dual-core Sony Xperia S, so even those these devices sit very closely on paper, HTC has the edge.
Sense 4.0 and Android 4.0
One of the important points about the One S is that it is up to date on the software front. Not only does it step out of the door with the latest version of Android, but it also comes with the newest version of HTC Sense.
At the launch of the HTC One series, HTC said that HTC Sense shouldn't take anything away from Android. In the past this has been an increasing point of complaint from users - that native functions were lost in the sea of HTC ubiquity. This is less the case with Sense 4.0, but it still impacts in some areas.
We've looked at HTC Sense 4.0 in detail in our HTC One X review, as well as in a comparison with Sense 3.6 (the version for those older devices, like the HTC Sensation, being upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich), both of which are worth reading if you're interested in the One S. We're not going to cover all the details here, only the main points.
The biggest change to HTC Sense 4.0 is that it allows you more freedom to customise the launch bar on the home screen. No longer are you restricted to HTC's layout, you now get to customise the icons either side of the apps tray button. The result is that Sense 4.0 is much more like Android 4.0 on first landing on the phone.
The lock screen is fully featured too, pulling in those shortcuts from the launch bar as unlock options. Whatever you place on the launch bar becomes an unlock option, which is handy. The lock screen also gives you music controls, a choice of backgrounds, themes and access to the notifications bar.
The notifications bar will let you swipe away alerts you don't want to see, another Android 4 feature, but also gives you a settings button so you can dive into the settings and tinker with things. Naturally, as the One S uses three capacitive buttons across the bottom of the display for control, there is no longer a settings option down there, so this is the next best thing.
Those control buttons offer you back, home and recent apps. Recent apps has been modified from the native Android 4 appearance, so rather than small vertically scrolling thumbnails, you have larger screen grabs that scroll horizontally. Both allow you to swipe away tasks and switch applications easily, but the native Android version gives you more on the screen at any one time, so is faster to use.
HTC have modified just about every area of Android, but it conforms well to the control standards defined by Ice Cream Sandwich. That means your menu options are usually accessed via the three dots icon in the app, rather than the old menu button of previously. Not all apps are compliant and consistent with ICS's ways, but as developers update their apps on Google Play, things are becoming more uniform.
The browser has been nicely tweaked, with a useful "read" mode that cuts out pictures and adverts, and easy access to other tabs - although you can have only six open at one time. Flash is supported and can be enabled/disabled through the menu, as can the option to toggle desktop mode.
The important thing about all this is that the software all works very nicely indeed. There is no sign of lag as you navigate around the phone: it's fast, it's slick, and it all feels right.
There are some minor niggles, like HTC's keyboard that features a run of cursor buttons across the bottom, eating screen space that could be used to show you more of the app or email you're in. You can easily replace this with a third-party alternative, to make better use of space.
We also have a persistent complaint about HTC pushing its own Locations service rather than using Google Maps as the default mapping from things like the calendar or contacts. It's an important point, because Google Maps is very good and Locations is next to useless. Fortunately, there's an app to smooth things over, so you'll need to download the slickly named Select Other Map for HTC from the Play Store.
Music, movies, media
As a Beats-branded device, you'll find that Beats Audio fires up when you connect your headphones, or when using a Bluetooth device. Bluetooth also supports the apt-X codec for enhanced audio and the result is that the One S rarely sounds bad.
Beats, however, cannot be customised. It's either on or off and you can't tinker with the bass levels if you don't like it. But Beats is now device wide, so rather than just being limited to the native music and video players as it was previously, you'll now be able to enable it on other apps.
Music is now a hub, pulling your music apps together. Some apps you download will automatically find themselves in Music, like Spotify, but you can also add shortcuts if you want, for example to include the FM radio. It's a simple approach and one that we find convenient. You can also access both local and network content from this location, so it's a useful way of keeping all your music under one roof.
HTC has long supported sharing from its devices and access to media servers. You can navigate to shared content from the Gallery for both photos and video and here you'll see the benefit of all the connected accounts that HTC invites you to sign in to. You'll be able to access galleries on Facebook, SkyDrive or Dropbox, for example.
Like the HTC One X, we found that the network function wouldn't play video for us. This is probably a minor software bug as older HTC devices have worked perfectly and the same video files played when moved to the device. Video looks fantastic and even though the display isn't the best, it's still a great device for watching your movies, with plenty of space on offer.
To make sharing content from your phone more dynamic, HTC have introduced a new three-finger gesture. Swipe up the phone with three fingers and you'll send the content to compatible devices. If you have the Media Link HD accessory connected to your TV you'll be able to mirror your device (like an HDMI output), but unfortunately we didn't have one to test.
The swipe also works with Bluetooth for music, so if you have connected Bluetooth speakers you'll be able to send the track you're listening to an external device; we tested it with the Creative ZiiSound T6 speakers. You don't need to use the gesture if you don't want to, as you can simply choose the "select player" option in the menu as it does the same thing.
Around the back of the HTC One S is a 8-megapixel camera, partnered with a fairly low-resolution front-facing camera. We're not so concerned about the front-facing camera as its use is much less frequent than those shots you want from the main camera on the back.
Fire up the camera and you'll find the interface has had a significant overhaul from previous iterations. The biggest change is presenting the two most pertinent buttons on the screen at the same time, allowing you to capture photos or video instantly. You can even capture photos while shooting video.
The interface has been cleaned up, resulting in most of the settings options moving over to the left-hand side. Here you can change the shooting mode, control the LED flash and tinker with the settings. Focusing and capture is extremely fast. Thanks to continuous autofocus, the One S is usually focused and ready to capture as you line the shot up.
Tap the button and it's captured without the customary focusing delay you'll find on other devices. At times this means you're not always sure if it has focused, but with touch focusing you can tap on what you want to make sure. We'd love to see a persistent focusing reticule on the display to be certain, but that's a minor point.
The results are good. The fast capture (including burst shooting) makes it easy to grab fast action shots and then pick your preference. The camera doesn't deal hugely well with highlights, and low light conditions suffer from the normal high levels of noise, but that's to be expected from a phone camera.
Full HD video joins the mix too, and again you get nice continuous autofocus as well as touch focusing if you feel you need to take more precise control of things. You get video editing options to trim clips, as well as a new Movie Editor app to cut together a quick movie using photos and video, which is very simple to use.
Final points: Battery and calling
Perhaps the surprising thing about the HTC One S is that the battery life is rather good. With average use you'll get through a normal day and most of the evening too: we found that long days out with the One S weren't a problem and we never hit a critical level on the battery, which is a hugely positive point. Rated at 1650mAh, it isn't the biggest battery around, but it outperforms its bigger brother by a long shot.
Let's not forget that this is also a phone. Callers came through loud and clear and we found that the external speaker was reasonable quality both as a speakerphone and for a quick burst of music or YouTube video.
Like the HTC One X, the One S exhibits sensational design. It's a great handset both in terms of how it looks and how it performs. It might technically not be the company's flagship device, but aside from the screen, you'd never know that. As such, if you're pondering whether to buy the One X or the One S, then the choice seems clear: get the one you feel most comfortable holding. The One S will be better suited to smaller hands, but the trade-off is that you don't get the stunning screen of the One X.
Put up against rival devices, the HTC One S will acquit itself well. With HTC Sense offering a huge amount right out of the box, the tweaks that HTC has made to its software UI both improve the experience from previous devices, while maintaining most of that Android feel, if not the native looks.
Purists, of course, will argue that HTC Sense doesn't bring much that the right apps won't give you, but it's the small additions that make the difference. Naturally, the keyboard can be bettered and we found that the network streaming didn't work as it should, but neither are insurmountable: SwiftKey and Skifta solve these problems.
In short, about the only thing that stands in the way of the One S is the choice of display. You can get a better, higher-definition, display at this size, but accepting that limitation, the HTC One S is an excellent handset.