It isn't often that you'll see us revisiting a year-and-a-half-old device. After all, in the world of smartphones, 18 months ago is practically the stone age. But I recently took a break from reviewing the latest and greatest phones to play with a favorite from early last year, the HTC One (M7). The fact that it holds up so well today might say something about the direction in which smartphones are moving.
A few years ago, any 18-month-old smartphone was likely to look and handle like an old clunker next to the latest flagships. If nothing else, performance and camera quality might have been so far behind that they alone were reason enough to go with the newer model.
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But my going back to the HTC One (M7) shines a light on just how much smartphone innovation has slowed – if not come to a screeching halt. I'd say late 2012 to early 2013 was the period that smartphones hit peak levels in the most important areas. Display, performance, camera and battery life ... phones like the One M7 marked that as good as most people would ever need threshold. Most of the "innovations" we've seen since then? Well, they're, at best, slightly more convenient. At worst, they're gimmicks cooked up by increasingly desperate marketing departments.
Sure, HTC's 2014 flagship, the HTC One (M8), is a better phone with a bigger screen and a few new tricks up its sleeve. The LG G3 has an insane pixel count, the iPhone 5s lets you unlock it with your fingerprint and the Galaxy S5 can soak in a glass of water without going kaput. Those are all fun features and, if all else were equal ... sure, I'd take most of them.
But is any of that really necessary? Do these extra features really offer much of an improvement over excellent 2013 phones like the One M7? Or are OEMs just trying harder and harder to look like their latest devices make the older ones obsolete?
Even today, the One M7 has everything I need from a high-end smartphone. Zippy performance? Check. Spacious and sharp screen? Yep, the 4.7-in, 1080p display on this puppy still looks terrific. Battery life? It's roughly the same as, if not better than, most high-end phones you can buy today. Its camera could be better, but it's solid enough – and I turn to a DSLR for any serious photography anyway. HTC even helped the device's longevity by keeping it up-to-date with the latest Android and HTC Sense software.
Did I mention its design? Even after a year and a half, the One's aluminum unibody construction oozes premium quality. It's one damn sexy smartphone that pulls off the trick that countless other phone-makers have failed at: looking as good as an Apple product, but without looking like an Apple knockoff.
The best thing about buying the One M7 today is that, with a little hunting, you can find it for dirt cheap. US wireless carriers are still asking for way too much, but if you look at eBay or Craigslist, you can find brand new models for under $300 or "like new" models in the $200-250 range.
Now why, again, would I want to pay over twice that – or perhaps sign a two-year blood oath – to get a newer phone? Just so I can have a monstrous screen, skip entering a passcode or drop my phone in the toilet without any worries? At what point do bigger and more just turn into feature creep and overkill?
Maybe one day we'll get back to a world where this year's smartphones are, once again, dramatically better than last year's. Maybe there is some unforeseen smartphone-maker creativity waiting in the wings that will change all of this. Maybe. Or maybe OEMs know damn well that those days are long gone, and are now pinning their hopes on less travelled roads, like smartwatches.
If the rumor mill has its ducks in a row, then we'll soon see two new iPhones. They'll both have sleek aluminum unibody builds, and one of them will sport a 4.7-in screen. The world will probably go nuts about the iPhone 6 – and, who knows, maybe we will too.
But can it really be that big of an upgrade over this 4.7-in aluminum masterpiece? Can the new owner of Beats Electronics really give us a good reason to pay three times what we'd pay today for this beauty from the last owner of Beats Electronics? Unless the folks in Cupertino have something truly special up their sleeves, that's going to be one tall order.
The HTC One (M7) is still available, and still worth checking out – especially if you can find it for $300 or less without a contract or installment plan.
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