By early 2013, HTC have become one of the also-ran manufacturers in the Android sphere. This isn’t the place to discuss the reasons why in any detail, but the reasons are almost certainly associated with a small marketing budget, a confusing range of handsets and losing the specification game with Samsung. In 2010, they were the manufacturer of choice for Android devices partially down to the quality of their products and also because the competition were not as cohesive. It’s no reflection of the quality of their recent products and in 2012, I picked the HTC One S as my business use device, based on the blend of superb build quality and great call quality. HTC have since updated the One S to Android Jelly Bean this year to improve the device in several ways.
But let me skip forwards to HTC’s 2013 flagship device, the One and first write about the design. There’s one word that springs to mind: gorgeous. HTC build great quality handsets, but the One surpasses everything else I’ve ever used. It’s machined from a single piece of aluminium with a wrap-over glass screen. It’s smooth, sophisticated, it feels expensive and robust. It uses a 4.7″ screen, which is a deliberate design by HTC to avoid it from being too large to handle. As such, it’s large but not excessive. It has a rounded back so it’s thinner at the edges compared to the middle (as thin as 4mm).
Tapping the lock key fires up the screen. Forgive the hyperbole, but the screen is a third generation SuperLCD in glorious full 1080p. It’s insanely sharp and crisp. The One uses Android 4.1.2, backed up by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad core processor clocked at up to 1.7 GHz. It has 32 GB of storage and 2 GB of RAM; it’s fast and smooth in use. There’s a fixed 2,300 mAh battery and no MicroSD card slot. The One has a 4 UltraPixel camera fitted, which uses fewer larger pixels for significantly increased sensitivity in low light conditions. You get the usual selection of radios including NFC, plus an infrared port, so you can use the HTC to control your TV (or if you happen to be walking past a TV display in a shop…). Finally, on the front of the handset you’ll find dual stereo speakers with a dedicated amplifier. It’s a great device for watching and listening to media with no distortion even when the volume is at maximum.
In terms of box specification, then, the One is surpassed by the Samsung Galaxy S IV. The new Galaxy has a quicker processor, a larger screen of the same resolution and Android 4.2.2. It also comes with a replaceable 2,600 mAh battery and a MicroSD slot, but only has 16 GB of storage as standard.
Let’s go a little deeper into the HTC then and look at the software. The One introduces HTC’s new Blinkfeed, which behaves like a series of widgets designed to pick up what you want to see and read. Blinkfeed occupies an entire homepage, where you can swipe across to a more normal launcher screen. You can configure Blinkfeed to pick up news headlines, social media updates, emails, text messages; HTC claim that there’s little impact to the battery; more on the battery later. In use, try to imagine Flipboard mixed with Windows Phone 8 and you get an idea what Blinkfeed is like. In some ways it also reminds me of Windows RT, having two ways to use the device: normal and Blinkfeed. I admit that I wasn’t a fan of the idea behind Blinkfeed; I have played with it a little bit and it works well. Reception has been mixed from colleagues and clients. I did notice a small impact on the battery but not enough to make a difference in how frequently I have to recharge the handset.
Away from Blinkfeed, the One uses HTC’s Sense, now up to version 5. I like HTC’s improved Sense from 2012 onwards and with this version, they have simplified things still further. For example, the launcher show three applications in a row rather than four. By default, some apps are arranged in folders, which keeps things nicely organised. Critically, it avoids the glut of dozens of applications arranged across several application screens, which new users to Android devices often find daunting. I believe HTC have managed something that the other manufacturers have yet to achieve: how to pack more features into a handset but also make it less daunting to pick up and use for the first few times. If you’re planning on mounting the One in a car, you also get HTC’s superb Drive mode, which makes things even easier to use. When you get to the keyboard, this works well; it comes with a good predictive engine and a Swype-like input. As this is an Android device, the HTC keyboard can easily be replaced with something else if the user wants.
Touching upon the Android nature of the HTC, it’s also important to highlight that the One has the usual Android productivity features. It’s easy to integrate your chosen cloud storage account and document editor. You can change the keyboard, the launcher and the set up to suit. Voice dictation works well too.
The camera is a mixed bag. In good lighting, I prefer the pictures taken with my One S. I don’t take many pictures in low light and whilst I understand what HTC are trying to do, still shots feel like the handset’s weakest feature: zoom into a picture and it isn’t as sharp as competitor devices. The One works well in low light conditions and other reviews show that the video camera is excellent, but I take even fewer video clips as I do night pictures. HTC have also included a couple of nifty camera features to highlight the multimedia aspect of the device; Zoe makes a composite of video and pictures and Video Highlights shows off your taken picture gallery including music. They’re cute, not something I would frequently use and quite hard on the battery.
Voice quality features in HTC’s marketing and in my limited use, I’ve found that the One does very well. Regular readers will know I’m fussy when it comes to audio quality because my hearing is not great and the One passes this test.
I’ve found that the One’s battery life has been similar to other high end Android devices: you should see a working day from the handset as long as you moderate your data usage over 3G. HTC’s “Power saver mode” helps battery life by shutting the Internet connection off as well as dimming the backlight.
In conclusion, I’ve been very impressed by the HTC One. They’ve built an exceptionally beautiful handset, given it plenty of features and a good but not class-leading specification, then made it easy to pick up and use. The only weakness is the camera.