HTC One Review: One Android to rule them all

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Claiming Android supremacy is difficult to do when your name isn’t Samsung. For years now Samsung has dominated the Android market. Samsung has taken a commanding lead in Android sales, much in part due to the long, strong marketing arm of Samsung. The unfortunate side effect is that in many cases great devices from other manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Motorola often get overlooked by consumers. In many cases, these overlooked devices are better than Samsung’s, but quickly are phased to the bargain bin and discontinued. To break this vicious cycle, and restore order to the Android Middle Earth, it was going to take one powerful device, a device to rule them all. It was going to take the HTC One.

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And after spending the past couple weeks with the HTC One, I can’t help but say to myself, “One phone to rule them all, one One phone to find them, One phone to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Hardware

The HTC One screams a build quality typically only found from the minds of Cupertino. This phone is sleek, sexy, and downright pretty to look at. HTC has ditched the cheap plastic ways of Samsung and instead offers users a solid machined piece of aluminum with a glass front, much like the iPhone 5. The HTC One feels solid in your hands, although that solidity does come with the price of increased weight. The HTC One is heavier than both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 at 5.04 ounces, a full ounce heaver than the iPhone 5 and about half of an ounce heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S4, but doesn’t quite approach too heavy when held in your hands.

The display on the HTC One is absolutely stunning. The use of a Super LCD3 display means unlike Super AMOLED displays, using your HTC One in the sunlight is actually feasible. While colors are not quite as vivid with a LCD display, the difference is so small that to the untrained eye it would be indiscernible. But one thing any user will quickly figure out is the ability to use their phone in the sunlight, to which the HTC One wins by a landslide. Furthermore, HTC has packed in an impressive 4.7 inch, 1080p (1080 x 1920) high-definition display capable of displaying 16 million colors at a stunning 469 pixels per inch. By comparison, the sometimes referred to “industry standard” Retina Display in the iPhone 5 has only 326 ppi, and the Samsung Galaxy S4 has only 441 ppi. Simply put, your text, photos, movies, apps and games have never looked brighter or crisper than before. This is the gold standard for smartphone displays.

The HTC One comes with only two touch navigation keys, the Home and Back button. The third Menu button has been stripped from the hardware in favor of contextual menus within Android applications. Although most apps for Android now include a software menu, especially if they are optimized from Android 4.0 or higher, the lack of a menu key may take some getting used to for seasoned Android users. On the top of the device is the sleep/wake button, and on the right side is the volume rocker. The bottom of the device is where users will find a Micro-USB port for charging and/or syncing; however, the port is offset slightly to the right side and isn’t center, something peculiar (but I’m sure there’s a reason for it) and it makes docking the HTC One a little more difficult.

Performance

The HTC One is fast, very fast. Performance on this device matches the speeds of the Samsung Galaxy S4 in real life usage. Users will see no noticeable difference between the two flagship Android devices. The HTC One features a quad-core 1.7 Ghz Qualcomm Krait processor utilizing the Snapdragon 600 chipset. The HTC One features 2 GB of RAM as well, and 32GB of internal storage. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC One does not include an expandable memory slot, but 32GB of internal storage should be plenty enough for most users. Spec for spec, the HTC One is pretty much identical to the Samsung Galaxy S4, and both devices perform exactly the same (this comparison is with the Galaxy S4 for the U.S. with the quad-core CPU, international versions include an octa-core CPU which we haven’t had the opportunity to benchmark).

The extra weight of the HTC One mentioned above can be attributed to the battery and aluminum frame. The HTC One comes with a 2300 mAh battery, 300 mAh smaller than the Galaxy S4′s battery. However, the HTC One’s battery life when in Power Saving mode lasts much longer than the Galaxy S4 when in the same mode. Where I was able to get through one day on the Galaxy S4 on a single charge, the HTC One was able to last two. Bottom line, the HTC One’s longevity is a breath of fresh air, and will keep users texting, tweeting, and surfing day and night with no issues.

Other features include Wireless N, Bluetooth 4.0, and NFC. Support for Bluetooth 4.0 low-energy devices is included, meaning the plethora to smart accessories coming to the market will have no issues with the HTC One. Wireless N is as expected speedy, and NFC brings Android Beam and Google Wallet support (provided that your carrier supports it). Overall, you won’t find a smoother running phone that can power through any task and still have enough battery at the end of the day to call home.

Network

The HTC One we tested ran on the AT&T network, and our tests showed a much improved network. In my hometown of Virginia Beach, VA, AT&T has recently launched its 4G LTE network. My personal device runs on Verizon’s 4G LTE network, which has been live in the area for much longer, and I’ve been pretty satisfied so far. However, AT&T’s 4G LTE network knocks the socks off Verizon’s when it comes to raw speed. My typical download speeds over Verizon’s 4G LTE network range in the 8 – 10 Mbps area, but AT&T showed why their advertisement at my local store of “Wicked Fast” wasn’t just marketing jargon. In speed tests, I was able to attain download speeds north of 30 Mbps on AT&T’s 4G LTE network, or about three times faster than Verizon. I’ve seen these speeds once or twice on Verizon’s network, but not as consistently as I saw them on AT&T’s. The LTE chip in the HTC One supports all LTE bands for traveling abroad as well, so no matter if you’re home or away, fast data speeds are at your disposal.

One area where I still feel AT&T falls short is call quality. During many phone calls with the device, my caller stated on several occasions they had a hard time hearing me, or couldn’t hear me at all. When calling back on my Verizon device, the instant feedback was “that’s much better”. This may just be my area, however, independent studies have shown my experience to be similar. AT&T’s 4G LTE network is lightning fast, the fastest in the business, but its legacy GSM network for calls still struggles with capacity and call quality. If you’re someone who spends more time behind the keyboard than the earpiece, then AT&T’s 4G LTE network will not disappoint.

Camera

In a market where smartphone makers are stuffing more megapixels into their cameras, HTC took a different approach with the HTC One and cut the megapixels in half, putting a 4 megapixel rear camera with “Ultrapixel” technology. HTC’s “Ultrapixel” technology allows more light to be captured by the sensor. By allowing more light into the sensor, HTC promises more vivid pictures than ever, and claims better quality than even competing 8 and 13 MP camera sensors. My tests proved this theory, as the HTC One was more than capable of taking great photos that were on par with the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5. HTC has been leading in camera technology for some time; last year’s HTC One won by a long shot in our picture quality tests, and this year’s HTC One packs half the pixels, but double the vividness.

Besides great photos, the HTC One records video in full HD at 1080p, and captures great videos. A built-in stabilizer helps keep images steady, and the device offers a plethora of sharing options. HTC has included its new Zoe mode, which is by far much more practical and useful than any of the “S”-branded tricks found on the Galaxy S4. Zoe mode for photos allows users to capture a short video clip of about 3 seconds for moments, and includes sharing options to social networks. Zoe is a much better addition to the standard camera any day over Samsung’s back of tricks, and is recommended completely over anything Samsung has to offer. Furthermore, HTC’s Zoe isn’t going to bloat your storage space either, leaving more room for users, and adding practical features to enhance the experience.

Software

The HTC One unfortunately does not ship with the latest version of Android Jelly Bean. Instead, the HTC One ships with Android 4.1.2 which still offers all of the Jelly Bean goodies like Google Now, but without the enhancements and performance tweaks found in Android 4.2.2. The HTC One also marks the debut of the latest version of its Sense UI, which still has the same HTC feel that users have fallen in love with, but has been slimmed down for a much smoother operation. There’s not much to say regarding the Sense UI on the HTC One that hasn’t been said before. The phone feels very much like a previous HTC device such as the Evo, but just a little less buggy and a lot smoother. Sense provides an uniquely HTC experience to Android, and the bottom line is you’re either going to love it or hate it.

I personally am still a fan of the stock Android ROM and experience, and would recommend the upcoming “Google Edition” to users if you can afford it. However, if you’re on a limited budget and must go with a Sense-enabled HTC One, I can say that it is a much better third-party UI than Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. I’ve always found the stock keyboard to be the best Android keyboard, with HTC’s Sense keyboard coming in a close second. Zoe adds some useful camera tricks, and the interface doesn’t inhibit or degrade performance.

The one addition to the new Sense UI I wasn’t crazy about was the new BlinkFeed. BlinkFeed essentially aggregates all of your social networks – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – into a Flipboard-style navigation and places it onto one of your home screens. I personally would prefer the real estate for apps and widgets of my own choosing, and removing it wasn’t apparent enough for me to complete quickly, if at all, so I gave up trying. This is truly the biggest frustration when it comes to Android for me. For a platform that prides itself on choice and openness, it seems to only apply when purchasing Google-branded devices.

Wrap Up

The HTC One is the best Android phone I’ve tested to date, and the best phone on the market today. It’s superior construction and build-quality make the Galaxy S4 feel cheap, and the gorgeous screen is a show stopper. Carrying around this device will certainly garner some peeks and interest from others, as it feels like you can’t help but be drawn to the simple, yet elegant and functional design. The vivid bright screen will make you wish they made it in a size ten times bigger, as movies never looked so good. The HTC One can easily perform as well as other new high-end devices like the S4 or Optimus G in real life situations. Benchmarks scores may show some differences, but at the end of the day what matters is the user’s experience when doing what they want to do with their devices, not how fast the phone can compute math problems or interpret code. With much of our computing shifting to the cloud anyway, having AT&T’s incredibly fast 4G LTE network will only make matters better.

The HTC One is that phone the Android ecosystem needed to finally give a real challenge to Samsung and its Galaxy line. And in the end, after two weeks with the device I would choose the HTC One over the Galaxy S4 any day as the Android smartphone to have.

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