This feels like déjà vu. A year ago, Taiwan’s HTC and Korea’s Samsung Electronics were locked in a battle over which had the best Android “superphone”. Both had compelling, almost equally matched products in the form of the One X (HTC) and the Galaxy S3 (Samsung).
Samsung, however, won the sales war, using its marketing and distribution muscle to make sure the S3 left the One X – and other Android rivals – in the dust.
It’s a year later, and the two titans of the Android world – well, the titan and the, err, lesser titan – are back for another round. As in 2012, HTC played its hand first, unveiling the One (the “X” disappeared from last year’s model), with Samsung, in much bolder fashion at a glitzy event at Radio City Music Hall in New York – again clearly using its marketing might – unveiling the Galaxy S4.
HTC has promised that this time around it’s going to be smarter in how it takes the fight to its bigger rival. It’s conceded that the One X didn’t perform as well as it had hoped because it needed to improve its marketing nous. Let’s hope it gets it right, because after a week of reviewing the new One, TechCentral’s editors believe HTC has created a phone that again looks set to be a contender for one of the top five, if not top three, smartphones of the year.
The obvious place to start a review of the HTC One is by looking at the phone’s design. HTC has outdone itself here. Gone is last year’s not-unattractive white plastic and, in its place, is an aluminium-clad unibody shell that looks like it could have been crafted by Steve Jobs. It looks stunning and feels great in the hand.
HTC has gone for a bare-bones approach to design with the One. The front of the 143g phone has two surprisingly good stereo speakers hidden behind discrete grilles — more on the audio later in the review — as well as a discreet, 2,1-megapixel front-facing camera. The back features a 4-megapixel camera and LED flash as well as an external antenna embedded tastefully into the metal. The top of the phone has a 3,5mm audio jack and the on-off button (which is not well placed for right-handed people), while the right has a well-designed aluminium volume rocker. At the bottom is the micro USB port for tethering and charging. This doubles as an HDMI port with a special cable, sold separately. Irritatingly, as with other HTC smartphones, the USB port is the reverse of most rival devices, meaning one can’t use it conveniently with third-party speaker docks.
Curiously, HTC has done away with the typical three-button Android approach, opting for two capacitive-touch buttons — one for home and one for back — and doing away with the contextual menu. It’s surprisingly easy to get used to, even for long-time Android users like your reviewer.
Pixels for Africa
The visual feast continues when powering up the One for the first time. The first thing that grabs the attention is the incredible pixel density on the 1080p-resolution, 4,7-inch display. HTC has packed in an incredible 468 pixels per inch and the result is noticeably better than many rival phones. Even next to the iPhone 5’s “Retina” display, which has a pixel density of 326ppi, the difference is apparent.
It’s instructive that HTC has decided to stay with the same 4,7-inch display as on the One X. Clearly, the company has decided the race for bigger screens is over, even though Samsung has pushed the size of the S4’s display to five inches, from the 4,8 found on the S3. It’s a bold bet by HTC and, if it proves successful, it may mark the point at which the size of average smartphone screens stopped expanding.
The HTC One’s rear-facing camera also deserves praise, despite only shooting at a maximum of four megapixels. Though the camera on the One X was as good as anything from its peers, it lost points for protruding, nipple-like from the rear of the device.
The One has what HTC has called an “UltraPixel” camera, meaning fewer but larger pixels on a sensor the same size as that found in rival phones such as the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S3.
Why do bigger pixels matter? Because, as with full-frame versus cropped sensor digital cameras, or 35mm film versus the enormous 6cmx7cm film of medium format, larger pixels mean more light-gathering capability and less noise, which in turn should mean better pictures, especially in low-light conditions.
Furthermore, HTC’s equipped the camera with an enormous f2.0 aperture. Aperture size dictates both how much light reaches the sensor and the depth of field (how much of an image is in focus). Its fast aperture means the One is excellent both in low-light conditions and at isolating subjects by keeping them in focus while making the rest of the image pleasingly soft.
Zoe is both the name of the camera and a shooting mode that allows you to take full-resolution stills and video simultaneously — that is, shoot video and you can pluck any still from it without having to sacrifice resolution. Moreover, it allows for the numerous tricks up Zoe’s sleeve.
The first of these is that Zoe records surreptitiously whenever the camera is in preview mode, so you can even pull stills from the few seconds before you hit the record button. It’s also possible to shoot slow-motion video or enable a HDR (high dynamic range) mode that allows for wider dynamic range — better handling of extreme highlights and shadows — for shooting 1080p video.
Other features Zoe makes possible are “sequence shot”, “always smile” and “object removal”. The first lets you combine multiple shots into one. For example, a person running past would result in multiple instances of the person all in a single frame. “Always smile” lets you choose the best facial expression from the sequence, even if it’s from a frame other than the one you wish to use for the primary image. “Object removal” allows you to remove extraneous objects, such as passers-by.
Zoe’s autofocus is speedy and intuitive, although the noise it makes by default is dreadful. Tap anywhere on the display and the camera focuses on that point in about a second. Users can opt to switch on a “tap-to-take” setting instead via the comprehensive camera menu. Though digging through the menus can be annoying, it’s laudable that HTC is willing to give users such fine-grained control should they want it.
Another big plus for the One’s camera is its optical image stabilisation. Thanks to an imaging gyroscope, the actual lens is able to move a degree in any direction to offset camera shake.
HTC has also overhauled the image gallery. A new feature called “living gallery” automatically arranges images into events based on time and date and you can export them as videos with automatically inserted cuts and music.
The only thing missing from the One’s camera is a dedicated shutter release button. The volume rocker on the right-hand side isn’t suitably positioned to fill the role, but a button at the top of the left-hand side where the Sim is housed would’ve done the job perfectly.
The One includes all the hardware — except for the weather station found on the S4 — users could hope for in a modern top-end smart device. It ships with a speedy quad-core Snapdragon processor clocked at 1,7GHz and the RAM has been doubled to 2GB over the One X. There will also be a 64GB model in addition to a 32GB version.
In terms of connectivity, the One offers everything up to 4G/LTE. We’ll get the European version of the phone, which supports LTE at 1,8GHz, which means it’ll work on the Vodacom and MTN networks.
As to be expected, there’s a gyro sensor, accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, GPS antenna, digital compass, near-field communication support, DLNA for wirelessly streaming media content, Bluetooth 4.0, and Wi-Fi up to the zippy “n” variant.
The battery has also been boosted — to 2 300mAh — but that has to power more pixels. It lasts for a day on average use, much in line with the One’s predecessor and not dissimilar to the battery life on the Galaxy S3. With modern smartphones, it’s always a good idea to keep the phone topped up when you can, whether it’s through a USB cable connected to your PC on your desk or using a car charger.
There’s even an “IR blaster” in the One, which, the company claims, can be used to control an entire home entertainment system. Unfortunately, DStv’s decoders were not supported in our test device. Hopefully this will be added by the time the One goes on sale in South Africa.
It’s in the multimedia department that HTC has really gone to town with the One. The dual front-facing speakers are simply exceptional. It’s hard to believe the sound they produce is being emitted by a smartphone. The sound is dense and rich, thanks to the built-in Beats audio processor — switching off Beats in settings shows just how much the processor is doing to improve the audio output.
It’s fair to say that the One produces the best sound we have heard to date from any smartphone, including the Windows Phone-powered 8X, which also has the Beats enhancements.
The dual speaker system and the fact that they face the front of the device are also ingenious moves by HTC. People don’t typically listen to audio out of the rear of their phones, especially when they’re watching multimedia content such as movies and television shows or playing any of the thousands of games available in the Google Play store. Oh, yes, Android games, as you might expect, run smoothly on the high-end hardware that powers this phone.
It’s in the software area that HTC is likely to court the most controversy with the One, especially with its new BlinkFeed-powered home screen. (Full disclosure: TechCentral will be providing content to BlinkFeed for South African users of the HTC One.)
BlinkFeed provides an aggregated view of your social networks and a range of international news feeds. It looks pretty, but after a few days of use, we missed having a simple row of icons and icon groups that provided quick access to the applications we use most often. Also, BlinkFeed is bandwidth intensive, so unless you’re on a Wi-Fi connection much of the time, make sure you load a big data bundle on your contract. According to HTC, BlinkFeed will use about 30MB of data per day — that’s almost 1GB/month.
Of course, many people will love BlinkFeed. It’s likely a tailor-made newspaper and social network right there every time you switch on your phone. For those who grow tired of it, or find it too intrusive, it is possible, thankfully, to change the home screen and push BlinkFeed onto another screen (though not to switch it off entirely).
Meanwhile, HTC’s new version of Sense — version 5 of the Android overlay – has been completely overhauled. We’ve always been partial to Sense, and the latest version doesn’t change that view. Gone are the cute clock widgets, replaced by a cleaner, more functional design that better matches the changes to the hardware.
Like many Android users, we still prefer the vanilla operating system without manufacturers’ software overlays, but HTC has managed, once again, to make an overlay that is superior to those developed by rivals, especially the clunky TouchWiz from Samsung.
HTC has produced the best-looking phone that we’ve reviewed. Period. It’s also packed to the rafters with features and improvements. Even Sense has made several leaps forward, although we’re not convinced everyone will necessarily warm to BlinkFeed.
If you’re in the market for a new phone this year — especially if you’re an Android user — you won’t have buyer’s remorse getting the One. If you listen to a lot of music on your phone, or consume a lot of multimedia content generally, then the One should probably be your first choice.
Of course, the phone that everyone will compare the One to is the Galaxy S4, a device that will enjoy saturation marketing when it goes on sale in a few weeks’ time. HTC struggled against the S3 with the One X. For the company’s sake, we hope it’s got its ducks in a row this time around. For, surely, it has a winning product on its hands. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media
- HTC has not yet revealed local recommended pricing for the One