Review of the HTC One


The HTC One is the high-end Android phone that is supposed to save HTC. However, I donít think theyíve done themselves any favors in the choice of a name, because Iím sure regular people (those who donít have a passion for smartphones that way we do) will look at that and assume that itís a step down from the HTC One X or even the HTC One S. I wonder what marketing genius thought that putting fewer letters in a name, which is striking similar to other names theyíve already used, will somehow impart the idea that this is a step up?

Last Updated: 26-Apr-2013

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

A stupid marketing move or not, the HTC One is a high-end phone that will compete directly with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4. I tested the S4 before this review was completed, so Iíll compare the 2 where applicable. I will also compare the HTC One with the S3 and with my trusty S2 LTE.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

Unfortunately the HTC One that I tested was locked to Telus, and my S2 LTE is still locked to Rogers. If Iíd had the HTC One and the Galaxy S4 at the same time I could have put the Telus SIM in the S4 and compared them. I therefore couldnít compare both phones on the same network. This isnít really a big deal, because of the last couple of years there has been little or no difference in RF performance between one phone and the next (even the new BlackBerry Z10). This is because the manufacturers all use pretty much the same RF chipsets, especially for LTE. Any small differences come mainly from antenna design.

However, I did once again find that Bell Mobility/Telus still have an LTE network that tries to push me off of LTE whenever it can. For example, I couldnít get the phone to go to LTE anywhere in my house, even though Bell/Telus has a reasonable LTE signal there. I eventually solved the problem by forcing the phone into LTE only. While there is no official option to do this, you can make the change in the unofficial ďTestingĒ menu which is reached by dialing *#*#4636#*#*. From this menu touch ďPhone informationĒ, and then scroll down slightly to ďSet preferred network typeĒ and choose LTE only. Just remember that when in this mode the phone cannot make or receive calls, but it can handle text messaging and all data functions.

Audio

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

During a phone call the overall quality of the HTC One is just average. Its tonal quality is fine, but not quite as nice as a typical Samsung phone. Earpiece volume is also fine, but not quite as loud as my S2 LTE. Iím not sure how many people really care about the phone functionality any longer, but if you do still demand this feature on a daily basis youíll find the HTC One is an okay phone, but nothing stellar.

I had expected the speakerphone to be much better than it was, but to be fair itís still better than most phones. The high-quality speakers (which Iíll get to in the next section, on Multimedia Audio) donít sound any better than most other phones during a call, mostly because the quality of the audio coming from a typical phone call is pretty bad to begin with. Where the speakers on the HTC One excel however, is in their ability to NOT add any further distortion to the sound (which on most phones usually comes in the form of sympathetic vibrations inside the speaker or it casing).

Multimedia Audio

When it comes to listening to multimedia audio through the native speakers on the phone, the HTC One blows away all other phones on the market. The speakers used on the phone are of very high quality, they face forward, and there are two of them (which providers stereo sound). While nothing this small can be expected to produce anything vaguely resembling bass, the rest of the audio spectrum is reproduced cleanly with exceptional tonal balance. Howard Chui and I listened to various examples of music and we agreed that what the speakers seem to have in spades is the ability to bring out the detail in the sound. Voices on videos (or from other high-quality sources like Zello for example) sound superb.

However, there is one caveat to this: in order to achieve this wonderful sound quality you MUST turn on the Beats Audio feature (though fortunately, it is on by default). Youíll find plenty of opinions regarding Beats Audio in general, but you have to hand it to HTC for providing an equalization curve that suits the built-in speakers to a tee. By carefully crafting an equalization curve for the speakers, HTC has created an aural experience you must hear to believe.

The overall volume of the speakers isnít quite what youíd expect however. Compared to the Galaxy S4 for example (which I was able to quickly compare to when I picked up the HTC One for this review) the volume of the HTC One was a little disappointing. While the HTC One sounded much better than the S4, it wasnít all that much louder. But just to be clear, it was louder, but not by enough to really make a huge real-world difference.

I next compared the HTC One against my S2 LTE when plugged into a stereo with Mission speakers that were quite capable of reproducing very low-frequency bass. One of my favorite songs to test this is ďSk8tr BoiĒ by Avril Lavigne, though not because itís a particularly stellar piece of music. However, just near the beginning (at around 14 seconds, and then again at 1:50) there is an incredibly low-frequency rumble that is the sort of thing you feel rather than hear. Itís very distinct and it can be used to test a speakerís (or headsetís) ability to reproduce this type of bass.

The song is good for comparing the difference in bass output from one audio device to another, and in this respect I was a little surprised by the results. My initial tests were performed by turning off all audio-altering features in both phones (which means Beats Audio in the HTC One). In this configuration sound is as flat as it can be and gives us a reference from which to work. I had to listen to the bass parts of the song a few times over on each phone, but I couldnít escape the fact that it just wasnít as noticeable on HTC One as it was on my S2 LTE. Turning on Beats Audio helps a bit, but doing so tends to boost higher-frequency bass content to a greater extent.

I next used the Volume+ app on both phones to artificially increase the bass (which is provided by a native API call in Android that apps can make use of). I was once again surprised to find that in HTC One the effect was more prominent in higher-frequency bass and all it did was to make the sound a bit boomier. My S2 LTE on the other hand boosts just the ultra-low frequency bass and the effect is quite stunning. As I use my phone as the source of pretty all the music I listen to, this aspect of the new Galaxy was a bit of a put-off. Bass aside however, the S4ís overall audio reproduction sounds quite good and it was hardly a problem for most people out there.

Bass aside, the HTC Oneís overall audio reproduction sounded quite good and it was hardly a problem. However, the poorer ultra-low bass performance was a disappointment to me personally, and may be an issue for bass fans out there. Now this doesnít necessarily mean that the multimedia audio is better in the S2 LTE (youíll find plenty of articles on the internet that go to great lengths to fault Samsung for the audio chipset they used on the S2 models), but there is a difference you actually hear, so I canít in good faith give the HTC One a full 5 stars for audio reproduction.

Display

Like the Samsung Galaxy S4, and a few other high-end phones coming out just recently, the HTC One has a 1080p screen resolution (that means 1920 by 1024 pixels). Back when I reviewed the Galaxy S3 I speculated that manufactures would go nuts and build phones with resolutions higher than 720p (1280 x 720). Sure enough they did, and it just goes to show that theyíll do anything to make their phones seem better than the competition (or than their previous generation models).

Fact is, theyíve gone too far, because it just isnít possible to see a difference between 720p and 1080p on a screen that is 5 inches or smaller in size. Well okay, you can see a difference if you examine the screens under a magnifying glass, but the real-world difference is so slight that itís like hardly detectable.

I suppose that so long as the GPU can keep up with the resolution increase, and so long as we arenít paying a penalty in battery consumption, having the extra pixels isnít going to hurt. However, I have no way of finding out if the phone might have got better battery life if theyíd used the 720p screen from the One X instead of this new 1080p screen.

Resolution aside however, this is a very good LCD display. Like the North American version of the One X before it, the display shows no signs of color distortion as you increase your viewing angle. The screen does look a little darker once you exceed about 20 degrees, but otherwise the color purity remains intact right around to 85 degrees (after that you canít really see the screen anyway).

Processor and Chipset

The HTC One uses the Qualcomm APQ8064T Snapdragon 600, which provides quad cores clocked at 1.7 GHz. The GPU is the Adreno 320, which is more than powerful enough to handle the 1080p resolution of the new screen. But does this new generation of processor and GPU produce a markedly faster (or at the very least, snappier) phone? Compared to my S2 LTE (which uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8260 dual-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz and an Adreno 220 GPU) there wasnít anywhere near as much difference as Iíd expected. GPU performance on the S2 LTE is obviously much lower than on the HTC One, but the Adreno 220 has 4 times fewer pixels to manipulate.

I compared app launching speeds and overall smoothness of scrolling in various situations. Yes the HTC One wins, but the extent to which it wins is by a much smaller margin than you might image. For all the processor/GPU improvements weíve seen in the two generations of phones since the release of the S2 LTE, the overall improvement has been a bit disappointing. I guess the problem is that there just isnít much they can do to radically improve the performance of the chipsets and weíre beginning to reach an asymptote in the graph of smartphone complexity vs real-world speed. This is perhaps why companies like Samsung concentrate so heavily on added software features to differentiate their new phones.

GPS

I try to make a point of testing the GPS performance on phones, because Iíve had trouble finding any that can match the overall accuracy of the one in my S2 LTE. Phone after phone have lost this competition against my S2 and I was beginning to wonder if Iíd ever find another smartphone that could match it. Well, it seems I finally have. The HTC One has a GPS chipset that for the most part seems to match the accuracy of my S2 LTE.

To test the GPS (assuming the weather permits) I take both phones on my bike with me (ensuring they have an unobstructed view of the sky) and I track the rides using SportsTracker Pro. I later download the KML file generated by these tracks and I play them on Google Earth. As the triangle moves along the ground and traces the route I took I can see how much error is present by observing where the trace differs from reality. I can also have both traces displayed simultaneously to see how much they differ from one another.

Now at this time no consumer GPS device is capable of rendering traces that are spot on all of the time, but the amount of error should never exceed a few feet in either direction. In past tests top-notch smartphones were producing tracks that were off by as much as a full lane or two, which just isnít acceptable to me.

The HTC One suffered from none of the radical errors Iíve seen on past phones (including the HTC One X) and it seems to be just as good as the chipset in the S2 LTE.

Camera

What surprises some people is that the HTC One has a 4 megapixel main camera. In a world where the quality of something is gauged by the magnitude of the numbers we assign to it, this seems like a step backwards. The Galaxy S4 for example sports a 13 megapixel camera, while my old S2 LTE has an 8 megapixel camera. What gives?

The problem with camera sensors is that the smaller we make an individual pixel, the less light sensitivity it has. Most high-pixel shooters found in modern phones have night modes that allow shooting in dim light, but this usually requires the taking of multiple exposures and blending them into a composite single image. This virtually ensures that only when the camera is held perfectly still (and the subject doesnít move) will we get good results. Sadly this rarely happens and taking good-quality low-light pictures with most modern smartphones is limited to situations where the subject stays motionless and the phone can be held exceptionally steady.

By moving to a larger pixel, HTC has created a camera that has very good low-light sensitivity. Add to that optical stabilization (most smartphones, including the S4, use electronic stabilization, which is nowhere near as good) and you end up with a smartphone that can take low-light pictures under a wide range of conditions. Granted, the subject still canít move rapidly, but it can move slightly and the optical stabilization means you donít have to hold the phone rock-steady to get a good photograph. Another benefit of the low-resolution camera in the HTC One is that it can auto-focus in extremely low-light conditions with great ease (and incredible accuracy).

In bright sunny conditions however, where most high-resolution sensors donít have any problem, the lack of megapixels in the HTC One creates for a somewhat disappointing result. The shots still look good, but they seems to be softer than those taken with a higher-resolution camera simply because the HTC One just doesnít have number of pixels necessary to resolve the fine detail. Now arguably, smartphones are most commonly used to take pictures indoors under iffy lighting conditions. If thatís the case with your photographs, then youíll really appreciate the quality of the low-light pictures the HTC One can take.

The good low-light sensitivity also applies to shooting videos. The lower-resolution sensor doesnít matter here, because even 1080p videos are only just a notch under 2 megapixels in size, and thus are well within the capability of the 4 megapixel sensor. When it comes to low-light videos, the HTC One puts all other smartphones to shame. It produces videos with excellent color and sharpness in light that would produce dark grainy videos on any other phone (and a large number of point-and-shoot cameras as well).

Sundry Observations

I really didnít like the placement and the flush-mounting of the power and volume buttons on this phone. Both were difficult to feel and difficult to press since they didnít protrude (even slightly) from the body of the phone. While I understand this was a styling choice (and typical of HTC models), it produces buttons that just arenít as easy to use as they should be.

The removal of the menu soft key from the bottom of the phone is puzzling. While Jelly Bean works just fine without one, and HTC has omitted it in past models, removing the menu key for the sake of styling (like the flush physical buttons) is a compromise I find difficult to reconcile. They also changed the secondary functionality of the remaining two keys. On most Android phones long-pressing the home softkey displays the running apps (for fast app switching), but on the HTC One long-pressing the home key launches search (which is achieved on other Android phone that donít have a search softkey by long-pressing the menu key, which of course the HTC One doesnít have). To switch apps you must double-tap the home key.

The Sense UI also changes the way the app-switching screen looks. Rather than present you with a scrolling list of screen captures, icons, and text descriptions, the HTC One displays a static panel of 9 small screen captures with text underneath. This is fine as far as it goes, but it will never show more than 9 of the last-launched apps. So, if you can get by with just the last 9, you might like this arrangement, but otherwise it is a bit limiting. Fortunately you can still swipe items from the screen to close to them, just as you can in stock Jelly Bean, though there is no way to close all of those apps simultaneous (as you can on many other implementations of Jelly Bean, including the Galaxy S4).

The body on the phone is made from a single piece of aluminum, and so the battery is not removable. I searched the internet for what a user would do if the phone locked up completely (which on other phones is solved by pulling the battery for a second or two). Hopefully a specific key combination is ALWAYS detected and forces a reboot. If it doesnít, then the only way to recover from such a lock-up is to wait for the battery to run down, and that seems horrifically unacceptable.

The phone also doesnít support an external MicroSD card, though this isnít new for HTC phones. The phone I tested came with 32 GB of built-in storage, but the speed at which the camera consumed memory was astounding. With what seemed like only a small number of videos and photographs taken, the phone reported that theyíd consumed almost 7 GB of space. At that rate the camera could consume all of the space in the phone and force you to have off-load much of it to your computer.

Conclusions

In certain respects the HTC One is a superior phone to its competition and its predecessors. The low-light capability of its camera is unmatched, its speakers set a new standard for quality in the industry, and its LCD display is among the best out there (comments concerning 1080p notwithstanding). Beyond those three things however, there really isnít much to recommend the HTC One over other current-generation phones (or even the previous-generation 720p phones) other than price.

It also has a few strikes against it, including terrible physical buttons, the missing menu softkey, the lack of an external MicroSD card, non-removable battery, and Sense UI (if you donít happen to like it). The aluminum body, while beautiful, felt rather uncomfortable in my hand due to the sharp edges and was scared silly that Iíd scratch the back (which isnít replaceable).

I came away from the review feeling rather under-whelmed, despite the camera, speakers, GPS performance, and screen quality. If youíve liked previous high-end HTC phones, then you should have no problem with this one. However, if you already own something like an HTC One X, then you wonít get all that much for your money if you switch to the HTC One (unless of course the speakers and/or the camera are too good to pass up). Users familiar with Samsung phones will find the layout of this model to be rather annoying, but you can get used to it.

If youíre in the market for your first high-end smartphone however, itís difficult not to recommend the HTC One. The areas in which it excels will likely prove to be important to many first-time buyers, and the lower sticker price compared to its direct competition (I.E. the Galaxy S4) will surely attract many buyers.

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