HTC One deep-dive review: A smartphone that flirts with perfection

With its high-quality hardware and stunning design, the HTC One is one of the best smartphones you can buy today -- but it isn't without its drawbacks.

When you evaluate enough mobile technology, one thing becomes painfully clear: Device quality and commercial success don't always go hand in hand.

Just look at HTC: The company's One X and One S were among the finest phones of 2012, but both suffered from limited availability and lackluster marketing. Despite being very much on par with their rivals, the phones failed to take off.

This year, HTC has an even stronger contender on its hands: the HTC One, launching April 19 on AT&T ($200 for a 32GB model or $300 for a 64GB model with a two-year contract) and Sprint ($200 for a 32GB model with a two-year contract) and "sometime in the spring" on T-Mobile. The One combines many of its predecessors' best assets with an inspired new design, innovative new features and a bold new approach to smartphone photography.

So is the HTC One the right one for you? I spent a week using the device in place of my own personal phone. Here's a detailed look at where it shines -- and where it falls short.

Body and display

The moment you pick up the HTC One, you know you're holding a premium product. The phone's silver aluminum unibody casing is visually striking and a pleasure to touch; it gives the device a high-quality feel and serves as a sharp contrast to the plasticky builds seen on some Android devices.

The HTC One has an inspired new design and innovative features.

The HTC One measures 5.4 x 2.7 and is only 0.37 in. thick. The phone has a gently curved back that makes it even thinner at its edges -- it gets down to 0.16 in. at its narrowest point -- without creating an unsightly camera "hump" or any other midsurface protrusion. At 5 oz., the One feels light yet substantial and not at all flimsy or fragile.

The One does have a touch of plastic -- a thin trim that covers the phone's outer edges and crosses its back, presumably for reception-related purposes (antennas and metal, as we've seen in the past, don't exactly play well together). The strips are firm and finished with a matte effect that helps them blend seamlessly into the design.

The One's left edge houses a barely visible micro-SIM tray that opens only with the help of a small pin tool. On the top-left edge sits the power button -- an awkward placement that makes the button difficult to reach, particularly if you hold the phone in your left hand. The power button doubles as an IR blaster for controlling TVs and other components -- one of the phone's cooler features -- which may explain its otherwise baffling position.

A 3.5mm headphone jack is also on the phone's top. A textured metallic volume rocker lives on the right edge, while a micro-USB port is built into the bottom. You can use the micro-USB port as an HDMI out if you have an MHL adapter.

One odd touch with the One's design -- and this is admittedly picking a nit -- is the way the metal meets the plastic trim on the bottom edge. While the materials come together seamlessly elsewhere on the phone, on the bottom, the plastic is not completely flush with the metal; instead, it extends ever so slightly beyond the plastic, resulting in a sharp and uneven surface on an otherwise smooth device. Big deal? Not really. But given the attention to detail that's apparent in the rest of the phone's construction, it's a curious disconnect that, once noticed, is difficult to ignore.

Enough about the body, though; let's move on to the face. The bulk of the One's front is taken up by a 4.7-in. 1080p LCD display. At 468 pixels per inch, the screen is downright gorgeous, with brilliant colors and sharp detail that make images and text pop with stunning clarity. Even in bright sunlight, the One's Gorilla Glass 2-protected screen remains perfectly visible.

The screen is flanked top and bottom by dual front-facing stereo speakers that deliver the best audio I've ever heard from a smartphone. Music played through the One sounds full and clear and lacks the tinny, muted quality so many smartphone speakers possess. And it's loud, too: While the phone obviously couldn't replace a full stereo system, it sounds better than most laptop speakers and could easily suffice for listening to tunes at your desk or in your living room with friends.

A notification LED is hidden within the top speaker grille; it lights up different colors to alert you of events like missed calls and new voicemails. You can customize how and when the LED illuminates with the aid of a third-party application called Light Flow.

The button factor

Despite its commendable design decisions, HTC made one unfortunate move with the One's form: It opted to rely on physical capacitive buttons instead of the virtual on-screen alternatives Google recommends for modern Android devices. The setup takes a negative toll on the overall user experience -- and its effects are not insignificant.

The first problem is with the basic positioning of the buttons. HTC has opted to place a permanent Back key at the bottom-left, just below the screen, and a Home key at the bottom-right. Between the two buttons sits an HTC logo that serves no functional purpose.

That configuration is a deviation from even the standard physical-key Android setup, in which the Home key lives in the bottom-center of a device. That standard exists for a reason: The Home key is one that's probably accessed most frequently during use. With a centered position, the button is easy to reach with your thumb while holding the phone with one hand. With the far-right placement HTC has opted to use, single-handed access to the button is either incredibly awkward or downright impossible.

HTC's two-button approach also omits the Android app-switching key, which typically exists alongside the Home and Back commands. That key allows you to multitask and quickly switch from one app to another. To access it on the One, you have to double-tap the Home key -- a hidden and less convenient process that many users may not even realize exists.

On top of that, the phone's physical-button approach results in some apps -- including Facebook -- placing an obtrusive black bar at the bottom of the screen in order to display a single legacy Menu icon. (On a button-free phone, that icon would appear discretely alongside the on-screen buttons when needed.)

And finally, the One's capacitive buttons don't consistently light up during use, even when the phone is in a dimly lit room. Because of that, it's often impossible to see the buttons and know where to press in dark lighting conditions.

Under the hood

The HTC One runs on a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor equipped with 2GB of RAM. The result is a phone that's lightning fast: Apps load instantly, Web browsing is smooth and snappy (even with multiple tabs open) and swiping between home screen panels is swift and lag-free. The One has handled everything I've thrown at it with ease and shown no signs of stutters or slowdowns.

Most U.S. models of the One will ship with 32GB of internal storage. AT&T will also offer a higher-capacity 64GB model. The One does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

The HTC One packs a 2300mAh nonremovable battery. In my experience, the battery has been good but not bulletproof. On days where I had low to moderate levels of usage -- what typical smartphone users would probably consider normal -- I made it through with plenty of charge to spare.

On days with heavier use, though -- 30 minutes of video streaming, an hour of audio streaming and a couple hours of scattered Web browsing and social media activity, for example -- I started seeing low battery warnings toward the end of the evening.

What about data connectivity? The One supports both LTE and HSPA+ networks. For AT&T and T-Mobile users, that means the phone will connect to LTE by default,then automatically drop down to HSPA+ if you're in an area where LTE isn't available.

Given the fact that HSPA+ data speeds are often equal to or even greater than LTE speeds, this is a meaningful advantage -- particularly when compared to Sprint, where LTE connectivity is still rare and painfully slow 3G service is the only alternative.

I found voice call quality on the HTC One unit I tested -- which was a Sprint-connected model -- to be perfectly fine; I could hear people loud and clear and those with whom I spoke reported being able to hear my voice without any crackling or distortion. HTC says the One has several call-enhancing features, like ambient noise detection and dynamic volume adjustment, but I was unable to detect any noticeable increase in quality based on their presence.

The HTC One supports near-field communication (NFC) for wireless payments and data transfers. It does not, however, support wireless charging.

Cameras

By now, you've probably heard about the HTC One's unconventional approach to smartphone imaging. In short, while most manufacturers brag about a large megapixel count for their smartphone cameras, HTC has opted to go with fewer but larger megapixels on the One -- a change the company says results in better real-world performance for the types of pictures most people take.

The HTC One's camera uses 4 megapixels -- "UltraPixels," as HTC calls them. According to HTC, that configuration allows for 300% more light to be captured than what you'd get with a typical 13-megapixel smartphone shooter.

The One features a bunch of other fancy-sounding camera technology, like a dedicated image processing chip, an f/2.0 aperture and a high-frequency optical image stabilization system. In my real-world tests of the device, all that stuff added up to pretty solid performance.

The One's most impressive images seem to be those captured in low-light environments.

The One's most impressive images seem to be those captured in low-light environments: I found the One could take sharp-looking images in dimly lit areas where higher megapixel smartphones failed. At times, the One even produced lighter and more detailed images than I could see with my own eyes -- and that was without the use of a flash.

When it comes to other types of photos, the One does fairly well -- but it does have its limitations. Due to the low megapixel value, the highest resolution you can get on a photo is 2688 x 1520. And if you carefully inspect an image blown up to that full resolution, you can sometimes see some quality loss in the fine detail.

Does that matter? For most people, probably not. Images captured with the One look great at the sizes used for the majority of online viewing and sharing.

The same applies to paper. I tried printing a handful of images captured with the One in different conditions (using a professional photo printing service). At 4 x 6 and even 5 x 7, prints looked sharp and no different from shots taken with a standalone camera. When I reached the 8 x 10 size, I could see some subtle quality loss if I looked carefully in the right places -- but even that was relatively minor.

(Still not sure what to think? Check out my HTC One camera sample gallery to view a collection of images I captured with the phone and judge for yourself.)

The smaller image size also allows for some interesting and innovative camera features. One of them is an unusual way of capturing images called Zoe. When you activate the One's Zoe mode -- by touching an icon at the top of the Camera app -- the phone records 20 still images and three seconds of 1080p video every time you tap the shutter icon.

Using Zoe delivers a few benefits: First, instead of having just one snapshot, you can pick from 20 images taken over a more natural period of movement. Second, it enables you to use speciality editing features, like one that mixes and matches faces from multiple Zoe images in order create one in which everyone in your group is smiling -- or another in which you blend multiple Zoe images together to erase an unwanted person or object from the background.

Last but not least, the One automatically compiles images and Zoe videos into Video Highlights: 30-second clips that put related content together with visual effects and music. Video Highlights can be exported as regular MP4 files and shared anywhere you want.

Whew! A lot to take in, right? It is -- and that's the downside: With all this going on, it can be confusing to wrap your head around HTC's ambitious camera software. The Gallery interface is rather difficult to navigate, too, and I suspect many users are either going to fail to notice the Zoe-related features altogether or stumble onto them by accident and become befuddled by what's happening.

Additionally, by saving 20 images and a video every time you press the shutter button, the Zoe feature makes a mess of your phone's image folder -- something that could be particularly annoying for users who rely on automated image syncing services like those provided by Dropbox and Google+. And while you can opt to avoid Zoe altogether, the Highlight Videos are automatically created on the fly and stored on your phone whether you want them or not.

By the way, the One's camera can capture regular 1080p video, too; a 2-megapixel camera on the phone's front also takes 1080p-quality video and is equipped with a wide-angle lens for vanity pics and video chat.

The software

The HTC One runs custom HTC software based on Google's Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system. (I asked HTC if and when the phone would be upgraded to the more current Android 4.2 release, but representatives were unable to provide a specific answer.)

BlinkFeed is a Flipboard-like news stream integrated directly into the launcher.

The One's user interface is quite different from what you'll see on other Android devices, including past HTC phones. First and foremost, the default home screen panel is taken up by something called BlinkFeed -- a Flipboard-like news stream integrated directly into the launcher. You can set it up to include content from a limited range of specific websites or opt to add broad categories like business, entertainment and gadgets -- along with content from a few different social networks -- into your stream.

I found the BlinkFeed concept to be sensible enough in theory; many novice users won't search for apps and configure their home screens on their own, and BlinkFeed provides a nice starting point for easing such people into the smartphone world. It's well-designed, too, and easy to use (though I did find I received fresher, more diverse and more frequently updated content from Flipboard).

That said, a lot of users aren't going to want BlinkFeed as a permanent part of their lives -- and HTC doesn't provide a way for you to remove it entirely from the phone. I'm not sure why HTC didn't create it as a removable widget instead of baking it into the launcher; that would have allowed much more flexibility while still achieving the same effect.

You can, at least, deactivate BlinkFeed and ignore it if you want. When you swipe over to the right of BlinkFeed, in fact, you'll find a more traditional home screen setup. You can add up to three more traditional panels and set any of them to be the default. (BlinkFeed will always remain on the left-most panel.)

BlinkFeed aside, HTC's new user interface is flatter and more visually subdued than those the company has created in the past. Still, many of the UI changes feel rather arbitrary and unnecessary -- change for the sake of change -- and some of them actually make the user experience less intuitive than what Google's stock Android software would have provided.

Widgets exist in a separate area that's accessible via the phone's main settings menu.

To add a shortcut from the app drawer to your home screen, for instance, you can't just hold it and drag it into place; instead, you have to press and hold the icon, look for a "Shortcut" icon that appears at the top of the screen, drag the app to that icon, and then go about placing it on your home screen.

The Favorites Tray at the bottom of the home screen is even more vexing: You can't drag and drop a shortcut directly from the home screen into the Favorites Tray, and you can't drag and drop a shortcut from the app drawer into the Favorites Tray using the process described above, either. The only way to get a shortcut into the Favorites Tray is to drag it from the app drawer down onto the Tray's space. Good luck figuring that out.

Widgets, meanwhile, exist in a separate area -- a home screen customization tool -- that's accessible via the phone's main settings menu. And they appear in unalphabetized, random order. Oh, and you can also get to your apps from that tool. Sheesh -- it gives me a headache just trying to describe all of this.

HTC made several other puzzling UI decisions with the One, such as a permanent clock and weather widget at the top of the app drawer, a persistent notification for "Power Saver" that can't be disabled, a custom Share menu that's uglier and harder to use than the stock Android version and a configuration in which the old and outdated Android browser is set to be the default Web browsing tool instead of the superior (and actively maintained) Chrome for Android application.

At a Glance

HTC One

HTCPrice: $200 (32GB w/two-year contract at Sprint or AT&T), $300 (64GB w/two-year contract at AT&T)Pros: Premium, metal-centric build; striking design; stunning 1080p display; superb performance; excellent front-facing stereo speakers; outstanding low-light camera capabilitiesCons: Messy and needlessly convoluted user interface; dated and problematic button configuration; camera not designed for detailed high-resolution images; no SD card support; nonremovable battery

Between HTC and the carriers, the One also has a mess of bloatware, ranging from apps like Lookout and SoundHound to -- on the Sprint device -- the ever-popular Sprint Zone and Sprint TV. (Some of these will obviously vary from one carrier to the next.) Several of the apps can be hidden and disabled, while others are set to remain permanently in place.

Bottom line

The HTC One is one of the best made smartphones you can buy today. The phone has high-quality hardware and a beautiful, premium build. It has a stunning 1080p display, great-sounding stereo speakers, and a camera with outstanding low-light capabilities and interesting (if somewhat overwhelming) software features. If all of that's not enough, it's also one of the fastest devices around, with top-notch performance that won't let you down.

The One does, however, have some drawbacks. Its camera isn't designed for detailed high-resolution images, its button configuration is far from ideal and elements of its user interface are needlessly convoluted and confusing.

For folks in the know -- and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you're one of them -- a custom Android launcher can cover up many of the software-related issues. The camera limitations won't be relevant for the majority of smartphone users. And the buttons, while irritating, are something you'll get used to after a while.

So all considered, the HTC One's strengths certainly outweigh its weaknesses. Ultimately, you'll have to decide how much the phone's quirks matter to you -- but warts and all, the One is an exceptional device that easily earns a place among the Android elite.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

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JR Raphael

Computerworld (US)

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