Last year, HTC promised a unified marketing effort with the One brand, but it didn’t seem to go as planned. They started with the One X, One S, and One V. Then came the One SU, One SV, One VX, several Desire devices, and the Butterfly. Lets not forget variants such as the EVO 4G LTE, the DROID Incredible 4G LTE, and the DROID DNA. Unfortunately 2012, was another bad year for HTC, and they have come back with the same story for 2013, which is to offer a unified marketing effort and one flagship phone. This time around they did indeed unveil “one” phone, appropriately called the HTC One. There are plenty of reviews already published on the HTC One, and you will have a hard time finding anyone who doesn’t think it’s the best phone ever made. I will cut to the chase and tell you that it’s very unlikely that I will disagree with that assessment, especially when you consider the fact that I picked the One X as the best phone for 2012 while everyone and their brother chose the Samsung Galaxy S III or Galaxy Note II. Unfortunately being the best doesn’t guarantee success nor does it mean that you should buy it. Sometimes its better for the average person to buy what’s popular rather than what’s considered to be the best. The bottomline is the One is the underdog salivating for your hard earned dollars. Underdogs need to prove their worthiness. In other words, does the HTC One provide enough greatness to break brand loyalty for the average consumer? A year and half ago, it was all about specs for phones, but Samsung and Apple recognized that mainstream consumers don’t buy on specs. They buy on consistency, software features, and a recognized brand. The One X may have achieved the best phone last year in terms of pure hardware, but they failed in all three categories. Will this year be any different? Hit the break to find out.
Last year’s One X was stunning to say the least, but a year later the One somehow makes the One X seem cheap, I know that is an overstatement, but I say it to prove a point. How could HTC improve on something that was so great? Well I’m not part of the design team at HTC, so I can’t offer much more than they obviously have the most talented design team in place. When people stare at their phones, they are generally looking at their display to read emails or play a game, but HTC phones are different. Of course you look at the display, but when you have a phone as sexy as the HTC One, you sometimes pull it out of your pocket just to stare at the phone itself. You end up holding it at different angles to let the beautiful curves sink in. This is when your spouse or friend says, “What are you doing? It’s just a phone.” You just sigh knowing they will never understand.
The One has an all aluminum body with a hint of polycarbonate as opposed to the all polycarbonate body of the One X. Each phone is made out of a single block of anodized aluminum and has a zero-gap construction. The edges are chamfered thanks to a special diamond cutter, and each unit goes through roughly 200 minutes of CNC machine cuts. There’s no question that HTC spent a lot of time and money to make the One the most attractive phone ever made. HTC is hoping consumers really care about this. I know I do, but I’m not convinced that others do. For more on their process click here.
HTC introduced the pyramid style design with the Butterfly/DROID DNA, which was also implemented on the One. The back is rounded and resembles a Hershey bar. It allows HTC to offer a thinner profile at the edges, which is roughly 4mm. At its thickest part, it’s 9.3mm, but because of the pyramid style, it feels so much thinner. It also feels more natural in your hand. Since it’s all metal, you can’t expect it to be the lightest phone as it comes in at 5.04 oz (143g). In contrast, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 weighs 4.59 oz (130g). Still, it’s not a big difference, and the One feels more solid.
Other than the materials, HTC also changed the layout of buttons and ports from last year. Whether you like the changes or not, this is one of the weaknesses of HTC in that they just don’t seem to have any consistency, which ends in confusion for consumers. The power button (with built-in IR blaster) is now to the top left (was top right on the One X) and the microphone jack is now at the top right (was top left on the One X). The volume rocker remains at the top right, but is sleeker. The left side now has the microSIM slot towards the top (was on the top on the One X), and the microUSB port is now at the bottom towards the right (was on left side bottom on the One X). So far I have only compared these changes to the One X, but the Butterfly/DNA has even more differences. Now we get to one of the most dramatic changes and that’s the capacitive buttons on the front of the phone. HTC decided to get away from the Android concept and go with just two buttons, Home and Back (instead of Back, Home, Task). Not only that, they moved the Home button to the right and put an HTC logo at the center. It actually looks good, but it’s another example of HTC’s lack of consistency. Samsung has been criticized for their lack of quality in their phones, but one thing HTC can learn from Samsung is consistency. Consumers don’t feel lost when upgrading from one Samsung device to another. As much as I appreciate quality, consistency is probably more important to the overall marketing strategy.
Last but not least, HTC made a dramatic change with the speaker or shall I say speakers. The HTC One has two speakers on the front of the device, one at the top and the other at the bottom. This is something Samsung implemented with their most recent tablets, so it’s nice to see this same concept on a phone. While the majority of phones only have one speaker, they are generally found at the back, which never made sense. The speakers aren’t small either. In fact they are so big, they housed the notification light inside the top speaker to the left. I will talk more about the speakers in the performance section.
As far as specs go, the HTC One didn’t hold anything back. It has a 4.7-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) LCD 3 display with a ppi of 468, a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, Adreno 320 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, 4MP (with UltraPixel) rear camera, 2.1MP front camera, 2,300mAh battery, IR blaster, MHL, DLNA, WiFi 802.11 a/ac/b/g/n, WiFi Direct, and microUSB port. As for radios, it depends on your area. I am reviewing the AT&T version, which has 850/1900/2100MHz 3G and 700/850/AWS/1900MHz LTE. You will notice that I didn’t list a microSD slot, and that is because it doesn’t have one. This means there isn’t a way to expand the storage. Still, with 32GB and 64GB offerings, it should satisfy most people. It also needs to be noted that the battery cannot be removed since the One is a unibody design.
There really isn’t much to say about the speed of the One other than it’s very fast. Reviewing CPU performance is starting to get boring because phones are getting to the point where consumers aren’t going to notice much from phone to phone. The AnTuTu benchmark came in at 23,538, which is one of the highest scores we have ever seen. The bottomline is that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 performs very well.
Much like quality of materials, HTC has been kicking major butt in the display department. Everyone was blown away with the 720p LCD 2 display on the One X, but the 1080p LCD 3 display that was introduced late last year in the Butterfly/DROID DNA left us completely speechless. The One has the same display as the Butterfly/DROID DNA, but it has a little higher pixel count (468 ppi vs 440 ppi) since the display is at 4.7-inches as opposed to 5.0-inches. No one is going to notice that difference, but it continues to be the best display on the market.
HTC introduced Beats integration a couple of years ago, and most people saw it as a gimmick. I would tend to agree, but it appears HTC had a plan all along, and I don’t think any of us realized how committed they were to sound quality. The One is the first HTC phone to feature BoomSound, which is appropriately named. As I mentioned in the design section, there are two speakers at the front of the phone (top and bottom), which provides stereo sound as opposed to mono sound. The result is the best sound I have ever heard from a phone. You really have to hear it for yourself to believe it. Unfortunately I don’t get a lot of use out of it since I don’t use my phone to play music via the built-in speakers. I think most people use ear phones, and the good news is that you won’t be disappointed with that either because the One features the same 2.55V amp that’s in the DROID DNA. When it comes to sound, there isn’t a phone that comes close the what the One offers.
The One sports a much bigger battery than the One X, but only slightly bigger than the DROID DNA. The One has a 2,300mAh battery, while the One X had 1,800mAh and the DROID DNA had a 2,020mAh battery. 2,300mAh is pretty good, but the Galaxy S 4 sports 2,600mAh and it’s removable. If HTC is weak in one area, it seems to be in battery life. The One X was nothing to brag about and neither was the DROID DNA. With 2,300mAh, we were expecting a big improvement, but unfortunately it came up as a slight improvement. In my usual video rundown test in which I run continuous video with WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS turned on (WiFi and Bluetooth not connected), I was able to squeak out a little over 7 hours. The DROID DNA came in at a little over 6 hours. An improvement, but nothing to write home about. Still, real world daily use is where it counts and you can expect to get about 15 hours with average use. However, if you’re at an event in which you plan on taking a lot of Zoes (see below), it will cut that down a lot.
A couple of years ago, it was all about the specs, but things have shifted to the software side. When I say software, I really mean the proprietary features, not the user interface. Unfortunately HTC hasn’t figured this out yet as they seem to spend more time on their user interface, which is called Sense. On the other hand, Samsung spends more time on proprietary software features which translates to more phones sold. Most of them are gimmicks and probably rarely used, but they are marketable and exciting to consumers. In HTC’s defense, they did come up with some new software features this year (see below), but nowhere near the number that Samsung is rolling out with the Galaxy S 4. HTC’s continued focus on Sense only confuses consumers since a lot of the main aspects of the user interface change from phone to phone. HTC really needs to take a cue from both Samsung and Apple in this regard. Samsung has been criticized for their TouchWiz interface in that it hasn’t really changed much since Gingerbread. I agree, but this is what makes their phones more appealing to consumers. Consumers need familiarity when upgrading phones or receiving updates. Samsung adds new features, such as S Beam, Smart Stay, and All Share, but they keep the basic elements of their UI the same. Consistency is the key, and HTC lacks that.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this year’s version of Sense, Sense 5, has some changes from last year. I put together a tutorial video highlighting the major ones below.
Now as I mentioned, HTC did find time for a few proprietary features, which include BlinkFeed, HTC TV, and HTC Zoe / Video Highlights (see camera section). BlinkFeed is HTC’s version of Flipboard that looks like a widget, but isn’t removable. It’s a scrollable news feed that you can customize, but HTC made the choice that it has to take up one of your homescreens and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s doesn’t have to be your main home page, but it’s shocking that HTC wouldn’t make it removable. HTC found that consumers generally don’t bother with widgets and they generally leave their device’s “out of the box” setup intact. It appears they were trying to simplify things for the average consumer, but why not make it a removable widget for those advanced users?” See the video below to learn how it works and how to set it up.
HTC TV is one example of a newer trend for smartphones. The One features an IR blaster (just like the Galaxy S 4) built into the power button. You can control your TV, cable/satellite box, and home theater receiver. Controlling your devices is just part of it since you can also get a more visual look to what’s on TV and get recommendations based on your interests. Just tap on a show that interests you, and the One will change your satellite/cable box to the appropriate channel. HTC TV is nothing new since Peel already offers something very similar, but it can bring this type of application to the forefront with some marketing. Below is a video showing you the setup process and how HTC TV works.
This is the most controversial part of the HTC One. While phone manufacturers are in a race to offer the highest megapixels, HTC is making a very bold move in going in the opposite direction. While flagship phones are now at 13 megapixels, the One sports 4 megapixels. HTC is arguing that it’s not about the megapixels when it comes to quality photos, it’s the size of the actual pixels. HTC is marketing their camera as UltraPixel, which means they are using a large sensor (one-third-inch BSI) and combining it with bigger pixels. The result is better color and a dramatic difference in lower light situations. To give you an idea, most phones have 1.1-micrometers pixels, but the One has 2-micrometers pixels, which lets in 44% more light. Combine this with a 28mm f/2.0 AF lens and optical image stabilization, you have one of the best cameras on a smartphone.
The problem lies with the size of the photos. I agree, an 8MP sensor isn’t going to necessarily give you better photos, but as you know, smartphone cameras don’t offer optical zoom. This means that if you want to zoom in on your subject, you’re going to be left with a rather small photo if you’re starting with 4MP. The same goes for cropping after the fact because the detail isn’t going to be there. This is exactly where the controversy lies. The bottomline is that you will get amazing photos with the HTC One, but you are going to have to plan your shots better. You are going to have to make sure that before you press that shutter button, you will be satisfied as far as distance from the subject because your options after the fact won’t be there. I suspect this is the case for most consumers in that they are probably sharing their original shots and not cropping. I like this direction that HTC is going, but it’s going to take a lot of marketing to educate consumers on why their 4MP is better than the competition’s 13MP. Will the rep at the carrier store really understand the differences and be able to explain it to the consumer?
Based on what I told you about UltraPixels, it’s no surprise that the One camera performs fantastically in low light, which is where the majority of photos are taken. In bright light, it’s not as noticeably better, but an update is coming that will help with that. It is also one of the fastest cameras as far as focusing. As soon as you hold the One up to take a shot, it’s ready to go. If you need to focus on another subject, it’s instantaneous when you tap your finger. As far as basic camera settings, everything is there from last year including panorama, HDR, various editing effects, and a slew of settings for fine tuning.
You will find plenty of example photos online that were taken from the One, but here’s a few with different light variations for you to judge. The first two are in sunlight while the last two are in very low light conditions.
I mentioned HTC Zoe and video highlights in the software section, but since it’s a camera function, I thought I would discuss it here. I have criticized HTC for not offering enough software features on the One as opposed to the Galaxy S 4, but HTC might have struck gold with Zoe and video highlights. It just might be the best feature to ever be offered on a smartphone, and I’m shocked Apple didn’t come up with it first.
Let’s talk about Zoes first. The name Zoe comes from zoetrope, which is a device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static pictures. HTC Zoes are 3 second 1080p videos, but also includes 20 images. It’s like an updated version of burst shooting, but much better since you’re getting video at the same time. You enter Zoe mode by simply hitting the Zoe button in the camera interface. You can still do traditional burst shooting, but Zoe is going to offer so much more. HTC has put together an algorithm that will turn your images, Zoes, and videos into a 30-second highlight video. The world has become very visual thanks to sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Google+, so why not turn it up a notch with highlight videos? Unfortunately that’s a daunting task for the average individual. Most consumers aren’t about to load video and images into a video editor and mess with that. Instead, HTC’s unique algorithm will do it for you automatically. When I say automatically, I mean it because you don’t even need to press a button to actually create one. Your 30-second highlight video with music will already be in your gallery without ever asking for it.
How does it know what images / Zoes to use? Generally we take photos around certain events so HTC created event folders in the gallery. Each event will consist of images, Zoes, and videos that you took. You can move any of these media files from event to event, but generally it will go by date and time frame. In most cases, you won’t have to do a thing. When you tap on an event, you will see all the media associated with the event, but the top will already have a highlight video ready for you to watch and/or share. You can change the effects, and if you’re not certain you like the video, just hit shuffle and a new highlight video is ready in less than a second. You can even fine tune things by pre-selecting the images, Zoes, or videos that you only want to be utilized. You can share any of these videos via YouTube or through HTC Share. YouTube is the more permanent share, while HTC Share is only for 30 days. I can’t stress enough how incredible both the Zoe and video highlights features are. This alone is reason enough to buy this phone and is something that HTC needs to push in their marketing efforts.
I put together a complete tutorial of the camera interface, Zoes, and Video Highlights which you can watch below.
And here is what the finished product looks like. I have six versions of the same event with the only difference being one of the six predefined filters: Islandia, Burbia, Eifel, Vega, Avalon, and Polaris.
Now everything great does have its downside and Zoes are no exception. By using Zoes, you are going to use up your storage a lot faster since every Zoe is an mp4 video as well as 20 images. When using traditional burst shots, people generally pick the best one and delete the remaining shots. With Zoes, you will want to keep these videos because they are used for the video highlights. After you have created a video highlight that is acceptable, you should save it and/or share it. Then go through the remaining Zoes and save the images separately that you like and delete each Zoe. Unfortunately you won’t be able to create another video highlight in the future, but how many do you need from the same event? Another issue is battery. When people are at an event, they tend to leave their phone on a lot so they can take photos at a moments notice. If you do that while you’re set to Zoe, you will drain your battery faster because it’s constantly buffering video since every Zoe includes about a half a second before you hit the shutter button. The last issue involves instant uploads. You might want to turn this off because if you leave it on, you are going to have a lot of uploading, which could affect your data plan as well as battery life.
There is no question that the HTC One is the best phone on the planet, but the real question is if you should buy it. As I mentioned in my opening, consumers tend to choose what’s popular because the “best” doesn’t always translate into anything useful for mainstream consumers. Buying something popular means more people have it, which makes consumers feel more at ease since there will be more people to offer assistance. Popular phones are also likely to get more support since manufacturers tend to spend more money on the phones they sell more of. Last year I felt the One X was the best phone, but I had a hard time recommending it over the Galaxy S III. I feel like when I recommend something that someone isn’t familiar with, I am asking them to “take a chance” if you know what I mean. Fast forward to this year. Do I feel differently? The One is still the underdog and I already mentioned that consumers aren’t buying on specs, they are buying on consistency, software features, and a recognized brand. Last year, HTC failed at all three, but this year it’s a little different in that they succeeded in one area, software features. Samsung wins in the number of features, but the Zoe / Video Highlights feature is so good, it puts whatever Samsung is bring to the table to shame. Is this feature enough of a reason to break brand loyalty and force consumers to buy the HTC One? Unfortunately for people who aren’t into the camera so much, the answer isn’t so easy. For those that put the camera towards the top of their list, the answer is yes. The One seems to be a phone to build a brand upon and will hopefully allow HTC to be more consistent moving forward. I’m not sure HTC could have made a better phone, so the time is now for people to find out about HTC and “take a chance.” HTC has a long way to go to reach Samsung’s market share dominance, but they are well on their way to satisfying their hunger by getting a decent slice of the pie.