In 2012, the HTC One X was the flagship Android phone that didn't get enough respect. Despite offering a much brighter screen and a more premium design than the Galaxy S III, Samsung ran away with the smartphone race. With the HTC One, the company hopes to shake its bridesmaid status with a bold new home screen with streaming content and an Ultrapixel camera that isn't afraid of the dark. You can even use the One as a TV remote. The aluminum design is pretty sexy, too, complete with a full HD display and powerful dual speakers. Does the One make enough noise this time around to be heard above the Galaxy din?
Editors' Note: Because we tested the international version of the HTC One for this review, we did not evaluate 3G/4G performance. When it becomes available in the U.S., the phone will be offered through AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
The HTC One is the first Android phone that rivals the iPhone 5 in terms of build quality and fit and finish. Just put this phone in your hand and you'll understand why HTC says it takes 200 minutes to machine-cut each unit.
Using a process called zero-gap injection molding, the One combines an aluminum front and back with polycarbonate on the sides, top and bottom, resulting in a handset that feels super solid. Premium accents abound, including the polished chamfered edges, the spun-metal volume rocker and the etched antennas on the back of the phone. Just don't expect a removable back for swapping out the battery or a microSD Card slot.
Now, here's something clever: The power button on the One's top doubles as an IR blaster for controlling your cable box or TV. Here you'll also find the headphone jack. The volume control, which is almost too flush with the unit, sits on the right side, while the left side houses only the SIM Card tray. A microUSB port lines the bottom of the phone.
Weighing 5.04 ounces and measuring 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.36 inches, the HTC One feels fairly light for a handset that's not plastic, but it's not anywhere near as compact as the iPhone 5 or Droid RAZR M. You'll definitely have to shift the phone in your hand to reach the power button up top and menu buttons down below. Nevertheless, we found the design pleasant to hold because of the way the back curves upward toward the edges.
The One is slightly heavier but thinner than the Droid DNA (5.5 x 2.7 x 0.38), which has a larger 5-inch screen. The Galaxy S III (4.7 ounces, 0.34 inches) is thinner and lighter than the One but it's also all plastic.
We're not fans of the button placement beneath the display. HTC opted to place an HTC logo right in the middle, which doesn't do anything, flanked by a Back button on the left and a Home button on the right. The previous HTC One X had a dedicated recent app button, which made it easier to multitask. Those with smaller hands will find they'll need to stretch their thumbs to activate these buttons.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more gorgeous screen on a smartphone. The HTC One's 4.7-inch Super LCD 3 display offers full 1080p resolution, which translates to an impressive 468 pixels per inch. Text looks ultra-crisp on this panel, whether you're viewing the app menu or websites like NYTimes.com.
When viewing the HD trailer for "Star Trek Into Darkness," we could make out every wrinkle and pockmark on Chris Pine's face. Though blacks could be darker, explosions were a fiery orange and red, popping off the screen. Overall, viewing angles are very wide from every direction, although reflections were slightly distracting.
The HTC One's display registered an impressive 463 lux on our light meter, which is lower than the iPhone 5 (525 lux) but on a par with the HTC One X + (462 lux) and well above the category average (299 lux). The DNA registered 311 lux.
HTC calls the HTC One's dual front stereo speakers BoomSound, and it's very fitting indeed. When streaming The Killers' "Mr. Brightside" on Slacker, the phone delivered very powerful audio, filling our office with sound, even at half volume. With the Beats audio setting enabled, both Brandon Flowers' vocals and the bass had more presence.
During the "Star Trek" trailer, the soundtrack and voiceover had a haunting impact.This phone is one of the few that sounds even better when you crank up the volume.With the supplied Beats headphones, the Goo Goo Dolls' "Slide" sounded better with the Beats audio setting off; John Rzenik's vocals became overwhelmed by the drums.
New Sense Interface
HTC's new Sense software, which rides on top of Android 4.1.2, has a completely new look. A cross between Windows Phone's Live Tiles and Flipboard, the new BlinkFeed feature streams news and social updates to the HTC One's home screen. A setup wizard invites you to choose from several popular news brands (including AP, The Huffington Post, ESPN and Engadget) or you can select topic categories (Trending Topics, Business, Politics, etc).
The main home screen consists of a series of panels of varying sizes. If you tap on a story, you'll see a snippet of an article, and you can then choose to view the original story. Social updates (which tend to be smaller tiles) take you to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for HTC Sense apps.
Some may find the BlinkFeed stream too busy, but you can always swipe to the right to access a more traditional home screen with app icons. Or you can relegate the BlinkFeed screen to a secondary home screen. Part of us wishes that HTC would let you access your mail via a BlinkFeed widget, but at least the UI shows upcoming appointments.
The top of the main home screen includes toned-down versions of the clock and weather widget, along with options for posting to Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, searching BlinkFeed, and Settings. The lock screen of the HTC One has a more modern look and feel, too, with the time and weather on the bottom along with four customizable shortcuts.
The app menu has cleaner-looking icons and a tighter font than previous Android phones, and you have the option to change the grid size from 3 x 4 (which shows fewer apps) to 4 x 5; we prefer the latter. Our only complaint is that the shortcuts for Search, the Play Store and options such as Grid size remain hidden until you scroll all the way up on the app screen.
The notification menu on the HTC One looks more Nexus-like -- in a good way, with a quick toggle for the Power saver option and a Settings icon. Too bad you can't tweak the brightness, engage airplane mode and change other settings right from within the notification drawer, as you can on the Galaxy line.
If you didn't like HTC's 3D carousel for multitasking, you'll appreciate Sense's new approach. Double tapping the home button displays apps you have open in a 3 x 3 grid, and all you have to do to close an app is swipe up on the thumbnail. Long pressing the Home button launches Google Now.
Now that more and more people have their smartphones handy when they're watching TV, why not let them use their handset as a remote control? That's the thinking behind Sense TV, which leverage's Peel's software to let you see what's on and change the channel without touching your traditional clicker. The IR blaster behind the power button does all of the work.
Setting up Sense TV was fairly simple. Once we entered our ZIP code and cable provider, the HTC One downloaded the channel listings for our area. We were also asked to pick some of our favorite programs, which the software would automatically surface if they were airing. After we selected our cable-box brand and TV brand, Sense TV let us tune in a show just by tapping on a thumbnail, which is much easier than using a traditional program guide. We could also access our cable-box menu to look up On Demand content and access recorded content on our DVR.
If you want to learn more about a show, you can just tap the three dots underneath the photo. From there, you can favorite a program or share what you're watching via social networks, but you can't tell the HTC One to tell your cable box to start recording from this menu. You have to jump over to the separate remote-control menu. Overall, though, Sense TV makes it easy to find good stuff to watch.
HTC's keyboard proved fast and mostly accurate when typing URLs and messages. By default, the One provided light haptic feedback, just enough to offer a more tactile experience without slowing us down. As you type you'll see suggestions appear above the keyboard, which are easy to select. The Trace option lets you swipe from one letter to the next to enter words, working smoothly in our testing.
If you're wondering whether the new Sense software slows down the HTC One, you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that this smartphone flies. Powered by a 1.7-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor paired with 2GB of RAM, the One lets us zoom through stories on the BlinkFeed, open apps quickly and switch apps with little to no lag.
The HTC One proved its mettle in benchmarks like Quadrant, which measures graphics, memory and I/O performance. The phone scored a whopping 12,426, which is much higher than the HTC One X Plus' mark of 7,568 (1.7-GHz Nvidia Tegra 3) and the Droid DNA's 7,011 (1.5-GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 CPU). This showing is also more than double the Galaxy Note II's 5,763 (1.6-GHz Exynos).
For those scoring at home, that's off-the-charts fast, but we expect other flagship phones such as the Galaxy S IV and the Optimus G Pro to be in the same ballpark.
The One also blazed through the An3DBench graphics test, notching 7,724. That's better than the HTC One X Plus (7,488) but only a little higher than the Galaxy Note II (7,707).
The HTC One X doesn't come with expandable memory, but it does offer 32GB to start with a 64GB option. Also, consumers will get 25GB of Dropbox storage free for two years.
Camera and Camcorder
HTC is out to bust the megapixel myth once and for all with the Ultrapixel camera inside the One. Yes, it's just a marketing term, but this smartphone leverages a larger sensor than other handsets and an f/2.0 aperture lens to capture 300 percent more light. In other words, you don't have to engage the flash to get a good-looking photo in low-light settings.
To test the Ultrapixel camera we attempted to capture an image of a Lexus pulling out of a gas station just after dusk. Surprisingly, the image looked fairly bright. While the photo appeared fuzzy when we zoomed in, it was certainly good enough to share. Another shot we took of a painting with minimal ambient light looked much sharper than what the iPhone 5 could muster.
When there was plenty of light outdoors, the One delivered mixed results. When we captured a mailbox with graffiti scrawled all over it, we could easily see where there were extra gobs of blue paint, and the layers of silver and white from various artists' signatures popped. However, when zoomed in to 100 percent, a sticker on the side of the mailbox looked more pixelated than on the iPhone 5.
The One's HDR mode came in handy when shooting a bunch of flowers right near a window indoors, but resulted in some trade-offs. With HDR off, we couldn't even tell that there was a wood wall in the background. With HDR on, details in rose petals were much more pronounced, but the red looked less rich. Plus, some of the brighter flowers got blown out.
As with previous HTC phones, the One can capture photos continuously in a rapid-fire fashion, as well as take stills while you're recording video. The 1080p footage we captured of New York City traffic looked crystal clear and smooth. There's also an HDR option for video, but we didn't see much of a difference.
Activating the front-facing 1080p camera, which offers a wide-angle 88-degree lens, is as easy as swiping down from the top of the screen with the camera app. The One accurately captured the rich red bricks behind us, as well as the dark circles under our eyes.
HTC has redesigned its Gallery app to make browsing through your photos and videos feel more dynamic. For example, if you use the Event view the HTC One will automatically build a highlight reel of a given day's photos and videos, stitching everything together for you. You can always go in and remove certain content. The finished product looks pretty polished, complete with several theme choices with their own music. Alas, you can't choose your own tracks yet.
We know what you're thinking: What the heck is a Zoe? By pressing the Zoe button on the left side of the camera app, the HTC one will capture 20 still frames along with 3 seconds of video. Plus, the camera starts a second before you press the button and finishes 2 seconds after you press stop, which means you're less likely to miss an important moment. The idea is that you'll want to share your Zoes, and HTC enables just that with a dedicated online portal (zoeshare.htc.com).
We had some fun by capturing a high-five between two colleagues, then sharing to Facebook. Others can't view your Zoe on Facebook or Twitter; they'll have to click on it to visit the Zoe site. Moreover, you can't like a Zoe or comment on it on HTC's portal. There is a neat viral aspect to Zoes, but right now it sort of feels like Vine-lite.
One of the coolest things about Zoes is that you can edit them into Sequence shots, which means you can compose an image that contains several shots of the same moving subject in the frame. You just have to make sure you keep the camera still. HTC also includes an Object removal option if you want to take a certain something from the frame. We were able to remove a car from a Zoe in the background with a tap.
Given that we tested a non-carrier branded version of the HTC One, the phone was refreshingly light on apps. Some of the more unique and compelling options, including the 7digital music store (we'll have to see if this is offered in the U.S.), Notes (which synchronizes audio recordings with your notes and integrates with Evernote), and Ploaris Office.
You'll also find Watch for downloading movies and TV shows, Dropbox, TuneIn Radio and a Parent Dashboard app from Zoodles that gives the HTC One a Kid mode. The Rescue App provides remote technical support. HTC's Weather, FM Radio and News apps are also on board.
MORE: 25 Best Android Apps
Battery Life and Call Quality
With a 2,300 mAh battery, we weren't expecting a lot of endurance out of the HTC One. The good news is that the handset lasted 6 hours and 45 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing on 40 percent brightness. That's a half hour longer than the 6:05 smartphone average. However, we had to run our test on AT&T's 3G network because the international variant of the One doesn't support 4G LTE, which sucks down power faster. We would expect at least a half hour less battery life for the One on LTE.
Fortunately, HTC offers a Power Saver mode that can do things like conserve CPU usage, reduce brightness and put the data connection to sleep with the screen is off. We'll update this review once we've run our battery test with Power Saver engaged.
The One comes with HTC SenseVoice, which increases call volume and quality in noisy environments. When we made a call to a landline, the caller said we sounded a bit digitized, as did he. However, the One was very good at blocking ambient noise; even when a big rig rumbled past us, the caller never heard it.
HTC took two pretty big risks with the HTC One in an effort to stand out against Samsung and other Android competitors. The company sacrificed sheer resolution in the Ultrapixel camera for brighter images and it re-imagined the home screen with BlinkFeed, streaming news and social updates instead of just presenting static apps. Despite some trade-offs, both gambles paid off in our book, answering one of the chief complaints smartphone owners have about their cameras while entertaining them in between photo opps.
HTC also deserves credit for integrating remote-control functionality for your TV watching pleasure and for delivering the best-sounding speakers we've ever heard on a smartphone. Most important, this is a device we'd proudly carry, thanks to its exquisitely beautiful industrial design. We just wish HTC had decided not to ditch the recent apps button and that it had included wireless- charging capability, especially since battery life over 4G LTE will likely be shorter than other phones. Although the Samsung Galaxy S IV looms large, the HTC One is a very satisfying smartphone.