Hands-On With the Sleek and Stunning HTC One
BEST OF SCIENCE | APRIL 8, 2013
The new HTC One, which begins shipping on April 16, is a complete hardware and software reinvention of HTC’s premium Android phone. It has a sleek aluminum body, unique camera sensor, front-facing stereo speakers, and a news-feed-based version of its Sense Android overlay. There’s just one problem: It’s coming out around the same time as Samsung’s blockbuster Galaxy S4.
The One’s seamless aluminum design is gorgeous and feels substantial in the hand. At just over 5 ounces, it’s a bit heavier than the 4.6-ounce Samsung Galaxy S4 and a full ounce heavier than the iPhone 5, but it doesn’t feel weighty or out of place in your pocket. In fact, the arched back of the case makes it feel like a thinner device than it is. The screen is large at 4.7 inches, though not as large as the 5-inch screen of the S4. Like all of the new high-end smartphone screens, the display on the One is incredibly crisp, with a ludicrous pixel density of 468 ppi. Inside, the phone has a 1.7-GHz, quad-core Snapdragon processor (we found it snappy and responsive), and it can be purchased with 32GB or 64GB of built-in memory.
There is a downside to the One’s seamless design that may be a deal-killer for some Android users: The case is sealed. There aren’t even any exposed screws. That means no removable battery and no expandable memory. In fact, the repair site iFixit has declared the One impossible to repair without destroying the phone.
The One runs Android Jelly Bean, but you’d hardly know it. Like most Android phone manufacturers these days, HTC adds a sophisticated overlay of software and UI features. HTC’s software skin is called Sense, and the latest upgrade includes a constantly updating blend of customized news and social updates called BlinkFeed. The concept is very reminiscent of the home screen of Windows Phone, but somehow the execution is noisier and more chaotic than the colorful Windows tiles. I found myself trying not to touch any of the BlinkFeed tiles for fear they would instantly launch me into a Facebook post or news item rather than get me to the task for which I had picked up the phone in the first place. The most useful thing I found about BlinkFeed is that you could pick a different home screen and avoid it altogether.
Another slick feature of the One is its remote-control functionality, which the company calls Sense TV. Much of the functionality of Sense TV is adopted from the company Peel, which formerly produced its own Wi-Fi-linked infrared repeater hardware, plus accompanying smartphone apps, to control all your AV gear. Now the company’s software has been folded into hardware like the One, which has its own infrared blaster that can imitate almost any remote control. What should be more interesting is Peel’s content-discovery software, which promises to find shows you would want to watch and tell you when they are on the air. But a reminder to watch a show is hardly the instant gratification of the show itself. And for those shows that hadn’t yet aired, the time I spent setting up a reminder could have just as easily been spent setting up my DVR to record them.
The biggest news about the HTC One is its camera. There has been a race among smartphone makers to make the built-in cameras as sophisticated and powerful as possible. But, given the shallow-body requirements of the form, there is no way to fit a big sensor that captures lots of light. Instead, most phone manufacturers have been carving up the space on small sensors into more and more megapixels—producing more and more resolution from the same captured light. Eventually, this strategy has a point of diminishing returns. Each pixel gets tinier with each bump up in resolution, and the amount of light captured by each pixel decreases.
HTC decided to buck that trend by creating a 4-megapixel sensor (most premium smartphones have 8 or even 16 megapixels) with larger “UltraPixels” that capture more light. The result is supposed to be brighter, more vivid shots and better low-light pictures. In our experience, this does seem to be the case, but in uneven light the One can overexpose sections of the shot, often blowing out pale skin tones. And even though we wholeheartedly agree that the current megapixel war is nonsense, the relatively low resolution of the One’s sensor starts to show when you zoom in and find that the details of your photo are fuzzy.
The One’s camera software features an innovative feature the company calls Zoe. Because the One’s shutter speed is so fast, Zoe mode can simultaneously capture 20 still photos and a 3-second video with sound. The idea is to create “living” photos that move like the shots in a Harry Potter newspaper. In practice, it’s a little weirder than that. Three seconds is a pretty short period of time to capture on video—it’s essentially a sentence fragment of your life. We have around 15 Zoe shots on our test phone that feel like clipped, stuttering false starts for a longer video. The concept is interesting, though, and if it were extended to 5 or 6 seconds, or maybe if we trained ourselves to work within Zoe’s boundaries, the results could be interesting. Then again, the micro-video-sharing site Vine already does something similar in a more compelling way, and it should be coming to the Android platform soon.
The onboard speakers of a smartphone may seem like an afterthought, but the way the One handles sound is one of the phone’s most impressive design features. With two front-facing stereo speakers, The HTC is simply louder and clearer than any other phone on the market. In fact, sound from the One’s speakers is almost on par with some of the self-powered mini Bluetooth speakers you can buy for $100. It’s almost a shame that the One doesn’t have the little flip-out kickstand that HTC used to put on its phones, since this device would make an excellent mini-stereo system for hotel-room travel.
Overall, the HTC One is impressive. It’s a grown-up, sophisticated phone with impressive build quality. Battery life is good; with moderate use, a single charge got us through two full days. The display is amazingly vivid and crisp, and videos look fantastic (although, like most Android phones, it won’t natively play the high-quality .mkv videos that file sharers love).
It’s almost a shame that this thing has to compete against the marketing muscle of Samsung and Apple. On the coming weeks and months, this well-designed and constructed device is likely to be lost in the news and reviews of the Galaxy S4 and next-gen iPhone. That’s sad news, since the One is a better deal when lined up head-to-head against those phones. The baseline One comes with 32 GB for $199 (that’s the two-year contract price). Sprint even has a promo deal selling it for $99. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S4 is expected to launch with a 16 GB phone at that price point, and Apple’s $199 iPhone 5 also has only 16 GB.