When you’re facing adversity, what do you do? Do you act out of fear and desperation? Throw everything against the wall and hope something sticks? Or do you use it as an opportunity to refocus, and soar to new heights? HTC chose the latter. The result is the One, probably the boldest Android phone ever made. But is it also the best Android phone ever made? Or even – gasp – the best smartphone ever made? Read on, as we review the HTC One.
Back against the wall
So HTC was at a crossroads. With revenues and profits collapsing, it decided to go all in. It put all its chips in the quality pot. After all, that’s what put HTC on the map in the first place. Dance with the one that brought you.
The fruit of that seed just might be the most beautiful smartphone ever made. Yes, I think it’s more stunning than any of Apple’s iPhones. If the MacBook Pro with Retina Display were a smartphone, it would be the HTC One.
In fact, the One feels like the iPhone that Apple could have made ... if it was willing to break down its highly-profitable formula and start from scratch. Adversity can give you an advantage over your sitting-pretty opponents. You’re less afraid of taking risks. HTC grabbed that bull by the horns.
In case the pictures don’t speak for themselves, we’re looking at an aluminum unibody-esque design. Stereo speakers sit above and below the 4.7-inch screen. Capacitive home and back buttons also live below the screen. Edges are smooth and polished. Everything is precise, unified, and elegant.
This thing belongs in a museum.
So the One looks great, but how does it feel in hand? I don’t think it’s quite as comfortable to hold as the Galaxy S4, but it’s not too far off its lead. The One is a bit heavier (by 10 percent), but the phone’s smooth aluminum chassis is still a pleasure to hold.
Things like “how it feels in hand” are, of course, extremely subjective. If this is important to you, just hit up a store with display models and decide for yourself.
The One’s display is one of the best – and quite possibly the best – on the market. It’s an absolutely stunning 4.7 inches of pixel-perfect glory.
On a technical level, we’re looking at 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution, spread out over 4.7 inches. That’s an absurd 468 pixels per inch (PPI). The screen uses IPS tech, so colors are more accurate and realistic. It’s a different experience from the Galaxy S4’s ultra-vibrant Super AMOLED display. The GS4 hits you in the face with mesmerizing color. The One waits for you to come to it.
Apple likes to boast that the iPhone’s “Retina Display” is the best in its class. Not anymore. To me, the displays of the One and the Galaxy S4 (and possibly a few others) easily outshine it.
Everything you do on a smartphone centers around the screen. A display can make or break a device. In this case, it’s just one of several elements that HTC hit out of the park.
The HTC One doesn’t feel like it’s trying to show you how fast it is. It doesn’t clobber you over the head with fancy animations or other bells and whistles. It just delivers. It’s the epitome of responsiveness. You forget about performance, because it’s never an issue. Addition by subtraction.
On a technical level, we’re looking at a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor clocked at 1.7GHz, along with 2 GB of RAM. In terms of benchmarks, it’s nipping at the heels of the quad-core version of the Galaxy S4. But the HTC One moves a bit faster in regular use. There isn't as much software bloat weighing it down. Performance just isn’t remotely an issue on the One.
This is normally where reviewers go into miniscule, geeky detail about app load times, gaming frames-per-second, and web browser speed tests. We could do that.
... but why? Performance isn’t a concern. Period. You task it to do something, and it responds. Instantly. What more do you need to know?
Making Sense of Android
The One, of course, runs Android. We’re looking at 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, which isn’t the latest version. That’s an area where Samsung got a leg up, as the Galaxy S4 does run Google’s latest. But 4.2 Jelly Bean was a minor upgrade over 4.1 Jelly Bean, so this probably won’t be a deal-breaker.
More obvious is the HTC Sense overlay. Its look and feel are trademark HTC: sophisticated, professional, understated. Contrast this with Samsung’s TouchWiz, which is more playful and in your face. TouchWiz is splashy and colorful; Sense is precise, leaning more on elegant grays and blacks.
One of the biggest new software features is BlinkFeed. It’s basically a Flipboard clone that lives as a permanent widget on your homescreen. It does what you’d expect it to: delivers visually appealing news and social feeds, tailored to your interests.
But I’m not a huge BlinkFeed fan. For starters, I regularly use Flipboard, and don’t need a new version. If I want that kind of thing on my homescreen, Flipboard has widgets too.
But my biggest complaint about BlinkFeed is that you can’t remove it from your homescreen. You can ignore it, and even switch to a different default screen ... but BlinkFeed never completely goes away.
It’s a well-made feature. It blends with the Sense UI, and could be a great source of info for you. But even well-made features are better when you can choose whether to see them or not.
Smartphone makers quickly learned the importance of feature branding. It isn’t a high resolution display, it’s “Retina.” It isn’t a stylus, it’s an “S Pen.” So here the HTC One’s stereo speakers have “BoomSound.”
Fortunately, this isn’t just empty marketing. These suckers are loud and full. I can safely say that they’re the best speakers of any smartphone or tablet I’ve ever used. I compared it to the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, which has unusually good speakers (also stereo) for a tablet. The One sounded much crisper, and was far superior on the bass end of things.
You probably won’t base your buying decision on this. You’re still better off buying a Bluetooth speaker, and beaming your music there. But good speakers are a nice bonus nonetheless – especially when it comes to watching movies and playing games.
With its camera, HTC is daring you to think outside of the box. See, when it comes to buying tech products, customers like easy-to-digest metrics. How many cores are in the processor? How many gigs of RAM? These things make it easier to compare devices.
In the camera department, product makers and customers have fallen in love with megapixels. Camera resolution is important, but it’s been blown way out of proportion. Once you hit a certain threshold of resolution, other factors – like sensors, lenses, and pixel size – become at least as important.
So HTC pulled back on the megapixels in the One’s rear camera (it only has 4 MP). It focused instead on the size of the pixels. These bigger pixels also have a catchy HTC brand name: UltraPixels.
The idea is that by squeezing in less pixels, the larger pixels that are there can let in more light, and capture wider varieties of color – even in low light.
In my tests (like the sample above), the One’s camera wasn’t significantly better than other (excellent) high-end smartphones like the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 under regular conditions. HTC’s claims about superior low-lighting images did add up ... at least when the lighting got really bad. The Galaxy S4 fared the best in standard indoor lighting. The more light we took away, though, the better the One fared.
Overall, the shots I took on the One were (roughly) in the same league as those from the GS4 and iPhone 5. And considering that those phones have 13 MP and 8 MP cameras, respectively, HTC did something right with its mere 4 MP. And for the crappiest of lighting conditions, its shots should look much better than its rivals.
In my tests, battery life was great. It only lost between 5-10 percentage points per hour, with little to moderate use. So unless you spend entire days playing 3D games and watching Netflix, you’re easily looking at a full day on a single charge.
It’s possible that your battery life will actually be better than mine. I tested a unit from Sprint, which has lousy coverage in my area. Weak and spotty service can put a hurt on a battery, so with better coverage your uptimes could potentially go from great to outstanding.
When Gizmag reviewed the Galaxy S4, I described it as “just about the perfect smartphone.” And I’d say exactly the same thing about the HTC One. Having two smartphones this good pop up at around the same time is something truly special. It’s the smartphone geek’s version of Lennon and McCartney, Magic and Bird.
But it also makes for a really tough decision. If I had to choose right now, I’d probably lean ever-so-slightly towards the One. I prefer Sense over TouchWiz, and also give the One’s display quality and performance the slight edge. I might also give HTC an extra boost because they need my business much more than Samsung does.
But these are just my preferences. The pendulum could just as easily swing towards the GS4's bigger screen, lighter build, and wacky bag of software goodies. In fact, but I’d be wary of anyone who claims that one of these phones is far superior to the other. We all have our preferences, but I think both both phones are as good as it gets right now.
It speaks volumes to how far Android has come. In years past, there was a sense that Android phones pushed the envelope more than the iPhone, but they also had some crippling flaws. They were first to LTE, but had miserable battery life. Faster processors, but still not as buttery-smooth as iOS. Bigger screens, but not as sharp as Apple’s Retina Display.
Now all of those concerns are null and void. In my opinion, both the Galaxy S4 and HTC One are now a full step ahead of the iPhone 5. In fairness to Apple, these phones shipped seven months later – so they should be.
But if the rumors about an iPhone 5S with an unchanged screen and chassis are true, then Apple could risk falling way behind. Huge phones like these two no longer feel huge. They just make the iPhone look small.
Any time you talk about "the best," you're really talking about the best for you ... or maybe the best for the majority of people. Either way, it can't be universal. However, I can’t imagine anyone who has used the HTC One having many complaints about it. It’s as heroic an effort you could ask for – from a company that desperately needed something like that.
Even if you ultimately decide on the Galaxy S4 (or another phone), you'd be doing yourself a disservice to not even consider the HTC One. To me, it's easily one of the two best smartphones ever made ... and you wouldn't be crazy for calling it the best smartphone ever made.
For more on the big smartphone dilemma of 2013, check out our in-depth comparison of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One.