Is HTC's flagship Android smartphone with the Ultrapixel camera the One for you?
Are you an Android user who secretly wishes you could run Windows Phone 8 on your smartphone for those handy, self-updating tiles? HTC must share a similar admiration for WP8 as the Taiwanese company just debuted the HTC One, its top-tier Android phone that brings the best from rivals like the iPhone and WP8 into Android. But is the One the savior that HTC and its fans are hoping for?
After weeks of leaks and speculation about HTC's newest Android flagship phone. its executives finally made the phone official at a press event in New York City (check out our liveblog), slightly less than a week before Mobile World Congress where most new devices are typically announced.
We can't really fault HTC for trying to get the its flagship device some attention before MWC. After all, the One is more than just a device with updated parts: it sports the first ever Ultrapixel camera and Zoe feature, "BlinkFeed" live tiles on the home screen for Android, as well as Sense TV functionality that turns the phone into the ultimate television companion. No other smartphone on the market offers these features at the moment, but are they compelling enough to bring consumers back to HTC? Will the One even be considered top dog by the time it rolls out to carriers worldwide in late March? We got the chance to take a closer look at the One before it takes-off to Spain for MWC 2013.
Let's take a quick tour of the HTC One's hardware before we dive into its apps and features. At first glance, the HTC One looks like a flattened BlackBerry Z10 with matte-finished metallic casing along the top and bottom, and a shiny black bezel around the 4.7-inch 1920×1080 pixel resolution display in the middle. Although the One is technically a smidgen thicker than the Z10 at its thickest point (9.7mm versus 9mm), you won't notice the heft because the HTC phone's edges taper to a svelte 4mm. For this reason, the One looks and feels much thinner than the iPhone 5 (7.6mm).
Speaking of its edges, the One's power button sits on top of the hidden infrared blaster (more on this later) next to a 3.5-mm audio jack at the top of the phone, the microSIM door (requires a key like the Nokia Lumia phones) is on the left, the volume buttons are on the right, and a microUSB port is at the bottom of the phone. Sadly, we did not see any microSD slots for side-loading content but that's par for course with HTC phones.
The One has an all-metal finish, including an aluminum backside that's been fused with the phone antenna to ensure that its material won't cause reception problems. But you wouldn't know that from looking at the back of the phone -- it just feels comfortable in-hand, thanks to its curved design and finger-print resistant material. Like other HTC phones, its 2300 mAh battery is non-removable so the back cover is not designed to open.
You'll also notice the One has dual microphones above the display, as well as dual speaker grills along the top and bottom for improved sound quality for calls. We listened to some tracks by Ellie Goulding on a demo unit and found the front-facing speakers were definitely loud. With this phone, you won't have to cup your hands around its teeny speakers to boost its sound. However, the location of the speakers also assumes that users will be using it in landscape mode when relying on speakers, which may not always be the case, but at least you won't accidentally cover up the sound with your hands with this design.
Under the hood, the HTC One is stacked with all the best parts available, including the brand new quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor that is smoking existing CPU benchmarks, according to performance tests by SlashGear. The amazing test results do not surprise us as we did not notice any lag switching between apps or making significant edits to photos taken with the Ultrapixel rear camera. Its gyro sensor was also responsive, which made flipping from landscape to portrait mode and back surprisingly snappy.
Under its 468ppi bright display are two Android virtual keys: the back key on the left and the home key is on the right with the HTC logo in the middle. Because we've gotten used to the three-button design of other Android phones, such as the latest Samsung Galaxy line, we kept hitting the back key on the One when we were looking for the contextual one for more options, because it is usually on the left side on the S III and Note II. We eventually noticed that the virtual key for more options actually looks like a three-square-dot icon on the display screen, as seen on Nexus phones, which is sometimes at the bottom of an app. Clearly, we just need to spend more time with the phone to get used to its hybrid hardware and virtual key layout.
While the One features the redesigned Sense 5.0 UI that is unique to HTC phones, what everyone at the press event wanted to see was the Blinkfeed home screen with self-updating blocks of content, inspired by none other than the Windows Phone 8 live tiles with a dash of Flipboard. The idea behind Blinkfeed is that you should be able to do a lot with your phone just from the home screen without having to hop from app to app. Not only that, but your home screen should offer a steady flow of the latest news, alerts and social updates to keep your informed. It doesn't take long to personalize the content you want in your feed. Unfortunately, you can't pull content from just any website you like to Blinkfeed; you're limited to HTC's content partners that is 1400 strong and growing. Lucky for you, our publisher BestofMedia is working with HTC so you can add the latest Tom's Hardware and Tom's Guide content to your HTC One. (End shameless plug.) That said, we didn't see Tom's content as a option on the demo devices at the NYC event.
You can also customize the news subjects you would like to read about, by tapping on the square-button icon.
If you tap on the little pen icon, you can even post an update to Facebook or send a tweet to Twitter, directly from your start screen.
We found the virtual keyboard on the One gives a gentle, rumble-pack like shake every time a key is tapped. It's a nice change from the zappy feedback we get on some other Android phones. The keys look a bit skinny when the phone is in portrait mode, but our tweets were surprisingly free of typos. It helped that the predictive text was actually effective in suggesting the correct words as we typed.
The number of megapixels a camera has doesn't really say much about its ability to capture quality images; its sensor size, lens, image processor and metering all have to work together to take great shots in challenging conditions. Taking a page from Apple and its Retina branding, HTC is trying to shift our focus from judging cameras by the number of megapixels to the size of each pixel. With the Ultrapixel camera in the HTC One, the Taiwanese company claims each pixel can absorb 330 percent more light than smaller megapixels, so the idea is that Ultrapixel images will pack more detail than photos taken with megapixel cameras. Until we can put HTC's claims to the test, we'll hold off from declaring the HTC One's Ultrapixel camera the best ever.
After all the mentions of Zoe during the press conference, we were confused about what Zoe is. Is it an app, a stills and video reel, or a sharing platform? Zoe is actually a feature built into the HTC One's camera app, that is designed to capture 3-second clips from which you can later extract still photos. You can activate the Zoe feature by tapping on the blue icon on the left side of the camera app. Just hold the phone steady while the little bar on the right fills up with red -- that's your 3-second timer.
You can also create Zoe Highlights, which is a video that your phone automatically generates with the Zoe clips and photos you have in your gallery. To create a Zoe Highlight, all you have to do is choose a filter for your images and a song provided by HTC, and let your Android superphone do its thing. Once you are happy with your Zoe Highlight, you can upload it to Zoe Share online, which will host your upload for free for up to 180 days -- as long as you don't go over your 100MB limit. That way, you just have to share a link of your Zoe Highlight with your friends and family, and they can download the content they want from the HTC server.
Last but not least, we got a chance to sit down at one of the television booths to see how Sense TV works. Sense TV is baked right into your phone so it's more than just an app on your device. Not only can you get TV alerts into your Blinkfeed, use the app as your TV guide, or even turn your smartphone into an universal remote.
Because Sense TV is serious about populating your phone with relevant information in your area, you need to spend some time setting up this feature. It prompts you for such details as your zip code and the type of content service you have (down to the name of the service provider), but the process seems pretty quick and painless.
Once your TV feature is up and running, you'll find that the app is like a graphical TV guide that categorizes content by whether it is a movie or television show rather than by time. It's definitely a more attractive interface than an on-screen guide that looks like an endless spreadsheet, so it should help you discover things that you didn't know you would enjoy. Tapping on a specific image will bring up that show or movie on your TV (assuming it is on), which switches your fancy phone into an universal remote.
As mentioned earlier, there is actually an infrared sensor under the power button at the top of the phone, so the HTC One also doubles as an unusually powerful remote. Like any other IR device, you need to aim the front of the phone at whatever device you're trying to control from a distance. The One is also capable of learning and replicating a remote's layout on its display: all you have to do is point both device at each other's IR blaster, according to a HTC rep at the event. The One is already preloaded with a basic control layout so you can start enjoying your television right away.
HTC could have easily just made minor tweaks to the One rather than throw in all these technologies and features that its rivals would ignore. Instead, we have a very bold device that takes cues from its competitors but make them all its own. If you're an avid television viewer who want a stylish Android phone with a 4-plus-inch screen, you'll be happy with the HTC One. After all, it's thin yet sturdy, with top-notch workmanship and technical specs to boot -- what's not to like? If you're looking for a new Android phone with an expansion slot, you might want to wait till after next week's MWC to see what other phones will be coming down the pipe this year. After all, you won't be able to bring a HTC One home until late March, so you have plenty of time to agonize over your choice. Decisions, decisions!
Stay tuned for more coverage of HTC's latest flagship device.