HTC have seen their fortunes slip of late. A company that was once the darling of the Android world has seen it’s market share and sales numbers plummet due to some sub standard devices and what seemed like a crazy need to launch one device after another in a very short space of time. The company lost focus and have suffered for it in a big way.

When we saw rumours first surface of the M7, as it was codenamed, we had already seen the HTC Butterfly be announced and there was a part of me that feared we’d see much the same again from HTC. Just with slightly better spec’s.

We also heard rumours that HTC’s CEO, Peter Chou, had promised to step down if the M7 was a failure. This coupled with the fact that HTC were reducing their advertising budget to a shoe string, started to give me hope that HTC might actually change tactics and focus on bringing out just one flagship device. My train of thought was, if he is willing to put his neck on the line with no marketing budget he must believe the device is good.

As is the case with every device these days, leaks pretty much gave us most of the specs, but HTC seemed to be embracing this and using it to their advantage. For anyone who watches Champion’s League football, you may have noticed that the actual name of the device was given away weeks before it was actually announced. HTC being one of the main sponsors this year had “HTC One” advertisements on every electronic billboard at the edge of the pitches and every time the score came up on screen you were greeted with the same. Not exactly subliminal but certainly one way of using your existing advertising to start giving your new device some exposure.

As we often get forgotten about in Ireland when it comes to getting review units of the latest Smartphones and the larger markets seem to be flooded with them, it does give us a chance to study what is being written about a device before we get our hands on it.

There have been many talking points surrounding the HTC One since it is launched and I’ll address them all in the review below. HTC have come out fighting the with the HCT One, but is it enough to save the company and take back some of that market share that Samsung has swallowed?

Long term Android users have an affinity with HTC that should be on a par with iPhone users and Apple, but for many reasons, the difference here is that HTC’s customers stopped buying their devices.

I’ve been using the HTC One now for over a week now. My last daily driver was the Galaxy S3. I have always been very attached to having expandable storage and a user replaceable battery. Both items that are absent from the HTC One.

Contrary to the flow of most reviews, I’m going to let you in on what I think of this device, before I get in to the finer details.

The HTC One is a fantastic device. The more I use this device the more I love it. This isn’t just the best Android handset ever, it is the best Android device by some distance.

Design

As Samsung has started to dominate the Android market, their choice of using plastic for construction of their devices has become a big talking point. It is not something that ever bothered me that much with Samsung devices as they are still well made and the plastic construction allows things like the removable battery and expandable memory to be included.

IMG_2321That said, when you pick up the HTC One for the first time, the aluminium based construction makes it feel like a more premium device. There are a lot of design cues here taken straight from Apple. The most obvious is the near identical aluminium finish that is seen on every MacBook Pro, but also the use of tapered edges to give the impression that the device is much thinner than it actually is. HTC have done as excellent job implementing it on the One. The phones tapers in to the white plastic band which only measures 4mm’s but they have also used a machined chamfer on the aluminium edges that accentuates just how thin that band is. The curved back that we’ve seen on many HTC devices before is also present here and makes the phone sit nicely in your palm, reducing the impact of such thin edges on your grip.

The front of the phone is obviously dominated by the 4.7″ screen. Towards the bottom of the screen is two capacitive buttons used for Home and Back functions with the HTC logo in the middle. The usual sensors and front facing comera are present but the more interesting addition here is dual front facing speakers. It is a feature we haven’t seen before on a mobile phone and we’ll talk more about them below.

The bottom edge of the phone has a micro USB port and the top left face has the slot for the SIM card. The volume rocker is situated on the right side of the phone and in an effort to keep the lines of the phone uniform, it is mounted flush with the surface. This makes it very hard to identify by touch, without actually looking at the edge of the phone. This is most noticeable if you are on a call and want to change the volume.

The top edge has a 3.5mm jack and the On/Off button which doubles as an IR blaster. Again it is mounted completely fluch with the surface. Function has been sacrificed here for design and after more than a week using the device I still struggle to locate the buttons.

Screen

Screenshot_2013-04-08-20-30-22Whether or not you “need” a 1080p screen on a 4.7″ device has caused a lot of debate. Some of my concerns in the past were related to the strain it may put on the processors having to render so many pixels and in turn then the drain that would place on the battery. My last few devices had 720p screens and I was interested to see if there would be that much of a noticeable difference when I started using the HTC One.

In a nutshell, yes there is a very noticeable difference. At 468 pixels per inch everything is crystal clear. There is a clarity about the screen that you don’t realise is missing from every other device you’ve used, until you have used a screen like this. I realise that may read a little odd but the point I’m trying to make is if you are using let’s say a Retina display on an iPhone or a 720p screen on another device, they are very good screens and I’m sure most will be more than satisfied with them but once you have used a 1080p screen such as the display on the HCT One, the others just don’t look so good anymore.

Contrast levels are good and colour reproduction is excellent making pictures look very natural. Sadly Black levels suffer from the washing out that all LCD’s suffer from. If you are used to an AMOLED screen this will be more noticeable. It is not the brightest screen I’ve seen on a device but it is adequate even in bright light situations. On full brightness the whole screen starts to look washed out so this may be why the screen brightness has been limited.

The Qualcomm S600 chip  and Adreno 320 GPU inside are more than capable of rendering the necessary amount of pixels and the newer architecture in the chips has reduced power consumption to a level where the 1080p screen is having little to no impact on performance or battery life. In fact the Qualcomm chip is capable of supporting two 1080p screens at the same time.

Naturally on a screen that fits in your hand, high def content looks amazing. Being able to appreciate 1080p clips at full resolution on a device so comparatively small, shows just how fast mobile technology is evolving. Like the point I made above though once you have looked at full HD content on the phone it makes looking at lower res content seem not so satisfying. If you are getting the HTC One, expect your downloads to be increasing in size pretty soon!

There is an excellent coating on the screen to stop finger print smudges and the cleaning action from taking the phone in and out of your pocket seems to be enough to keep it smear free. The aluminium back in fact shows up more smudges than the screen itself.

Speakers

It’s not often that you see a sub-section of a review dedicated to speakers. We’ve become used to Mono speakers usually mounted around the back facing away from you and while some phones do a better job than others, HTC have done something so simple here that you’ll wonder why this is standard on every device.

The two front facing speakers on the One have dedicated amplifiers. The volume level they produce is like nothing I have heard on a device this size before. Coupled with the Beats Audio software to enhance the quality of the sound, it means you’ll no longer reach for a set of external speakers when you want to listen to some music on the go. Yes, many dedicated external speakers will produce better sound but with the convenience of having this level of quality from the phone itself there’s just no need to use an external set.

Probably the most noticeable effect of these speakers is when you are watching a movie on the phone. In landscape, when you have a speaker facing each ear, they produce an almost virtual surround sound effect. Everyone I have shown this to has been amazed by it. It’s not because the speakers are that amazing in their own right, what is amazing is having this type of sound experience on a mobile device.

Away from consuming media you find that the speakers are in fact too loud for things like notifications or incoming calls. It is very difficult to find a volume level that doesn’t make you jump and scramble for the phone just to stop the noise! It has also made using the phone as an alarm in the morning a pretty startling event. Finer control on the volume is needed.

When on a call the volume is more controllable but it will still probably be the loudest phone call you’ve ever had. The sound is crystal clear but it is worth noting that pretty much everyone else in the room will be able to hear your conversation too which will be a pretty negative feature for many.

Storage

There is 32 and 64Gb options available to customers but most Networks are offering the 32GB variant. As mentioned above there is no way to expand that capacity but the phone does act as a USB host if you have a Micro USB OTG cable. These cables can be picked up for one or two Euro on eBay and once you have one hooked up, you can connect USB Flash drives to the device. It is the best work around available for limited storage and I just transfer content form a USB stick to the device as I need it. File transfer is quick using this method with a 2GB file transferring in less than three minutes.

The One comes with 25GBs of Dropbox storage included so this may also be an option for some for expansion. It really will come down to how you use your device whether having non expandable storage will be an issue or not. With so many streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix on the scene now and myriad cloud storage options available it is becoming less of an issue but if you’re the type of person who likes a substantial portion of their music collection with them at all times, 32GBs starts to run out very quickly. Around 7GBs of this space is already used for the system.

Battery

Screenshot_2013-04-08-20-30-58I have to say this was probably one of the most concerning aspects of the phone for me, before I got my hands on it. I always carried a spare battery for my S3 and pretty much every day, it was used. Not being able to change the battery makes me nervous.

The HTC One comes with a 2300mAh battery. Not massive by any means but an improvement from previous HTC phones. To help things along HTC has included an optional Power Saver mode which under clocks the processor and dims the screen. It’s accessible (permanently) from the notification pane. They have also included the ability to turn off the data connection during long periods of inactivity. If you are not bothered about getting real time notifications, in testing, I found that this adds about 25% to the batteries stamina.

So in real world tests how did the battery fair? I’m not a big fan of battery run down tests, where a film is played over and over again at a certain brightness until the battery dies. While they may give a standard benchmark score to baseline off, they only test one single feature of the phone and completely disregard the impact on the battery that other features may or may not have. I don’t know anyone who just uses their phone to watch one video after another and nothing else.

I consider myself to be a heavy user. I use Spotify and YouTube extensively every day. On top of that, I have multiple emails, Twitter and other social media accounts updating regularly and every spare minute I have is spent reading RSS feeds. Once I had got the battery through a few full charge cycles, I set about testing it in two ways. I used the phone as I would normally, regularly watching video and listening to music and with all the other services updating in the background. The next test I did was aimed at seeing how it did under a ligher load with no media consumption, streamed or local, but with the social media, feeds and email all updating.

Under the lighter load, with all background services running, I was seeing between 36 and 40 hours battery life. Under the heavier load I was still getting a full 26 hours out of the battery. In comparison with the same lighter load test I was getting around 22 hours out the S3 and that was with a Custom ROM which under clocked the CPU when the screen was off.

I’m not sure where all the reports came from that stated that the HTC One had poor battery life and it makes me question the agenda behind them but the only Android device that I have owned or reviewed that has come close to this type of battery life was the Motorla RAZRi and that is a much lower spec’d phone than the HCT One.

If you are a light user and are happy to allow data to be turned off when the phone is not in use, you could easily see two days out of the battery and if you are a heavy user you’ll get through the day without the need to top it up along the way. For an Android device that is pretty impressive.

Camera

When we first saw rumours of this “4 Ultra Pixel” camera we thought it was going to utilise a technology from dedicated cameras that involves using three layers of sensors, each 4MP’s, totalling 12MP ‘s. When the phone was announced this wasn’t the case and the camera is in fact only 4MP’s in resolution. What HTC has changed is the size of each pixel, increasing it to 2µm from the industry standard 1.3µm. The idea here is that each pixel will pick up more light and increase the quality of the image without having to increase the megapixel size.

To the average Joe on the street this means very little and what people want to know is if it takes good pictures or is this all hype? To be honest it’s somewhere in the middle. This isn’t some revolutionary new technology that is going to change the quality of the pictures you take. It is just a different take on things. HTC have basically tried to create an all round image sensor that will do better in low light conditions but you are sacrificing detail by way of the lower image size. Their marketing of this camera has been aimed at portraying a camera that will produce very good images for your online world. Not images that will look great at A4 size. To that end they have done a very good job. If you are someone who wants  a lot of detail in your images so you can zoom and crop, this probably isn’t the phone for you though.

From the phone’s own display up to let’s say a 13″ laptop display, the images look great. They have natural colour reproduction and detail levels are perfectly acceptable. Putting the same image on my 46″ Plasma produced a very different outcome though. Noise that isn’t perceptible on the lower size screen now becomes very apparent. Edges become pixelated and there is a certain amount of image distortion introduced in places for no obvious reason. These flaws are present on lower sized screens, it’s just you can’t see them so the image looks pretty impressive. That sums the camera up pretty effectively. If you look at your photos on smaller screens mostly it’s as good as any phone camera out there. If you like being able to edit the finer details of images or like viewing them on large screens, you are going to be disappointed.

 

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In my testing of low light conditions I had varying results. Walking down a street at night, where there was still some light from the lamp posts and other sources, produced very good images. In a poorly lit room such as a night club the images were just as bad as any other phone and there was no noticeable difference due to the larger pixel size.

In daylight conditions I found the images to be just as good as any other phone I’ve tested, but that is as far as it goes. It’s “no” better in most cases than any phone I’ve tested but is “as” good in some.  The HTC One isn’t a phone that should be bought by people looking for the bleeding edge of image sensors. If you are happy to have some pretty solid images but aren’t that fussed just how much detail there is there, you won’t be disappointed.

One of the headline features HTC announced was “Zoe”. HTC Zoe is a feature that takes 3 seconds of images before you hit the shutter button and once second after. Being someone who has young children, I’ve found this feature to be very useful. It allows you to pick an image out of those 4 seconds that best suits your needs. So if the subject is moving about and not looking at the camera consistently  you may find that at one point in those 4 seconds they are and you can use that image. All of the images from the pictures you take this way are saved so you end up adding life to your photo gallery as all of these 4 second clips play as you browse through them.

All of the phone companies are adding their own take on features like this, many that you would consider gimmicks and never use, but it would be wrong to call Zoe a gimmick as there are times it can be very useful.

I could go into some detail about video quality but it falls into pretty much the same category as images. There is nothing wrong with it per se but there is nothing stellar about it either. The camera does a very good job of not dropping frames when panning and the transition while moving is smooth enough. As is the norm, it will capture 1080p content at 30fps. It’s good, but not class defining.

HTC Sense 5

Screenshot_2013-04-08-20-31-17This is not the Sense of old. It is a very different, slimmed down animal which has removed many of the features that made it a resource hog in the past. It’s probably the closest to stock Android Sense has ever been but that doesn’t mean it’s without many HTC customisations. It is worth noting that Android 4.1.2 comes on the phone, which is not the latest version, but there has been talk of an update coming in the Summer.

Out of the box, the default homescreen in HTC Blink. Blink is a new feature that has been introduced with media aggregation in mind. Basically it looks like a Flipboard widget but with a more native finish. You can add social media content such as Twitter and Facebook to it and also then feeds from a predetermined list of providers. And here in lies it’s biggest flaw. It is horribly limited. Beyond the social element of it, you can only add content from a list that HTC provided. Maybe for the basic user this will be enough but I’d suggest that the market for this phone is of a more tech savvy nature and they will find Blink far too limited to use. You can’t turn it off but you can change which screen is your home screen, so a more traditional one is soon selected. Blink looks great and it is a nice idea but future updates will be delivered via Firmware updates and we all know how long that can take some Networks to deliver these. There are many Apps that do this better and are updated regularly so it is hard to see how HTC will keep Blink pertinent.

As I mentioned above there are only two capacitive buttons on the HTC One. Without a multitasking and menu button, Sense reverts to an on screen menu button and to a double tap of the home button to bring up the multitasking pane. Pressing and holding the back button launches Google Now. Thankfully HTC have ditched the multitasking view from previous versions of Sense. The cumbersome horizontal scrolling cards have now been replaced by a 9 position static grid of your most recent Apps. Double tapping the Home button, while easy to get used to, isn’t always the most straight forward of experiences. Often on the first tap you end up just hitting Home and being dumped out of the App you’re in back to your Home screen. Another very quick double tap is need to bring up the multitasking again. It would be easily solved with a software tweak but this is the software it ships with, something you would have thought would have been noticed in Beta testing.

The App drawer is one area where HTC have taken it down their own road. Out of the box, it looks pretty terrible but thankfully you can change the layout easily. The initial set up leaves you with a big clock and weather widget at the top of the App drawer and a 3 x 3 grid of Apps below it. Bearing in mind that this is a 1080P device, that is a complete underuse of space. The grid can be changed to 5 x 4 in the settings but there is no getting rid of the clock widget. Apps can also be set to arrange alphabetically which makes it a lot easier to find what you are looking for.

Make no mistake though, Sense 5 is buttery smooth to use. There isn’t a hint of slow down, lag or stutter anywhere to be seen. Whether this is down to the Qualcomm chip or  improvements to Sense, or both, is hard to pin down, but it works. Lags that still exist in stock Android are completely gone here. It is a seamless experience and makes using the device a pleasure.

HTC have included some Apps such as a PDF viewer and a Children mode which will allow you to give your phone to one of your kids without the fear of them doing serious damage (on a software front anyway!) but the stand out App from HTC is the browser. I’m a big fan of Dolphin browser. It’s my usual go to browser but it doesn’t seem to be optimised for the HTC One as yet. HTC’s own browser is very polished. Pages open quickly, there’s support for Flash and visually it looks very impressive. While it maybe just tweaks to Android’s stock browser, HTC have done a good job of making it fit within the whole Sense theme and it has the brawn to back up the good looks.

The one thing to take away from this is that Sense never get’s in the way of the user experience and in many cases it adds to it. The fact I Screenshot_2013-04-08-20-30-36just wrote that sentence should let you know just how much of a change Sense has undergone. Pretty much every menu has been skinned and it all fits nicely with the general theme. There is a touch of quality to the graphics used and it adds to the overall feeling of this being a very polished UI. Of all the manufacturer’s skins Sense is now the least obtrusive and more importantly it is having no impact on the device’s performance.

There are some little quirks such as what seems like unnecessary steps needed to add Apps to a home screen and if you have an App in the dock at the bottom of the screen and drag it off it onto a home screen, strangely it just duplicates it. To get rid of it you have to drag it back into the App drawer. There are also some other features that aren’t very intuitive and may cause some confusion, such as answering the phone when the screen is locked but they are all fairly trivial. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the way it’s done, it’s just that HCT have done things slightly differently than what you may be used to from previous Android phones.

Benchmarks

I won’t spend too much time on benchmarks results, but it is something many people want to see. The S600 chip with it’s 4, A15 cores is sitting at the top of the pile, at least for now, in terms of performance. Needless to say the benchmark results reflect it’s raw power and produce scores that are the quickest I’ve seen to date on any handset. So here’s a quick summary of the scores achieved.

System tests: Quadrant: 12848. Antutu: 24436. Linpack: 688Mflops. Geekbench 2: 2768

Browser tests: Sunspider: 1100ms. HTML5test: 430

It is certainly not a phone that want’s for power and that is reflected in real world usage too. The browser scores are far from class leading but not a lot has been done by HTC to improve on Android’s stock browser from that point of view.

Other Spec’s

The HTC One supports 802.11 a/ac/b/g/n/Wifi, Wifi Direct and can act as a Wifi Hotspot. Wifi speeds achievable are impressive. On my home 150Mb/s connection the phone was registering speeds of around 100Mb/s. The fastest I’ve seen on a mobile device. The device also included Bluetooth version 4.0 with A2DP support.

IMG_2317The phone supports HSPA+ and LTE but as it is not available in Ireland yet, support for it is not present on the Irish models. From the HSPA+ point of view the phone is more than capable of handling the max speeds available on the Irish Networks.

The Micro USB port is MHL compliant so you can mirror the device’s screen to a HDMI enabled monitor. HTC also sells a Media Link accessory that allows you to mirror the phone’s content via WiFi. It retails for about €90 and we’ll be testing it out soon so look out for the review.

Assisted GPS is also present with support for GLONASS too.

As I mentioned above the On/ Off button has a built in IR blaster. This is something that is making a comeback on devices now for controlling your AV equipment rather than for data transfer. HTC have created an App called “TV” which allows you to program an on screen remote to control all you equipment. Setup is a pretty painless process. You pick the make of the device form a list and then the phone downloads info from the net and asks you to try turning your AV kit on and off. If the first choice doesn’t work you work your way through a list until you find the correct setup. To set up my TV, Sky box and surround sound system took about ten minutes. The App can also be used as somewhat of a TV guide offering up suggestions for you to watch and showing what’s on next. It only supports Sky for now so there is no love for UPC or other services, but in truth it’s not that great and you’ll be missing little if you are not using Sky as your TV provider.

Build Quality

There are some little rough edges on the HTC One. Out of the three HTC Ones I’ve held all had some little imperfections where the aluminium frame meets the polycarbonate surround. They are not visible but when you run your finger along the edge you can feel them. I’m guessing after reading iFixit’s article on dismantling the phone, where they rated it the least repairable phone to data, that it is scars from the assembly process. It’s a small complaint and in no way takes away from the overall look of the device but it is still worth mentioning.

Conclusion

HTC find themselves in a tough position but they have given themselves the best possible chance of getting out of it by producing such a fantastic phone. If you look for weak points in the phone the only real area that isn’t as good as it could be, is the much hyped camera. In every other area this is one of the best phones ever made.

With HTC’s financial situation looming over them, you can only hope that they see the success Samsung have had by advertising big and start to back this phone the way it deserves to be. They’ve produced the device, now they need to make people see it everywhere they turn.

The phone isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.

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