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Thursday, February 21, 2013
HTC One Review
HTC's latest smart phone brings new features including BlinkFeed, which fills your homescreen with news stories and pictures, and neat camera software, which makes 30-second videos from your photos and clips. The 1080p display and metal construction are more reasons to be excited, but it remains to be seen if the One is enough to keep Samsung and others at bay.
Last year's HTC One X was bigger, bolder and more powerful than any smart phone that had gone before it, but for all its charms it was quickly outpaced by the brighter and even more slick Samsung Galaxy S3. That switch-up was emblematic of HTC's recent trauma at the hands of Samsung, which over the last few years has prised the Android crown from its head.
The HTC One represents a desperate reinvention for HTC, a drastic move to pack in new hardware and software features in a bid to claw back the top spot. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is barrelling towards us over the horizon though -- will the HTC One be good enough to keep the Galaxy gang at bay? Or is HTC's new toy on a one-way trip to the landfill?
I've gone hands-on with the HTC One ahead of its UK launch on 15 March, so read on for everything you need to know, and my first impressions of using this metal mobile. Be sure to bookmark this page too, because we'll be updating it with more hands-on photos and video, and eventually a full review with a star rating.
Design and display
Before last year's plastic devices, HTC used to be known for making chunky, metal mobiles, and the One is a return to that metallic tactic. At 9mm thick, this aluminium phone isn't as slim as rivals like the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S3, and it feels weighty to hold too.
If you dislike the light, flexible feel of plastic phones, then the One's sturdy chassis will suit you down to the ground. The metal back is curved, making it comfy to hold, and there are dual speakers at the top and bottom of the phone that add a little design flair (though they sound almost as tinny as any other smart phone speakers).
If you're after a swanky phone with some stylish design touches, you won't be displeased with the HTC One.
I like the look of the HTC One, especially from the front, but the metal chassis does have some potential flaws. The phone's dual antennas are built into this casing, and while HTC seems confident that this won't cause loss of signal, the attenuation caused by metal in the hand was a famous problem for the iPhone 4. It's also possible that the metal casing will mark or chip easily, coming off worse in an in-pocket scrap with your house keys.
The HTC One has a 1080p screen that measures 4.7 inches on the diagonal -- the same size as last year's One X. The display is very sharp and looks bright, so should make your photos and videos look as sparkly as can be.
HTC's ditched the multi-tasking key that's normally present on the bottom-right corner of Android mobiles, instead opting for just 'back' and 'home' touch-sensitive buttons.
To access the multi-tasking menu and switch between recent apps you now have to double tap the home button, which calls up your recently used applications. It's an extra button to press, but I can't see many Android fans taking long to adjust to the change, and it should make using the HTC One fractionally easier for those new to the world of smart phones.
If you hold down the home button you're taken to a Google Search page, for quick access to the Big G's Web-searching skills.
The HTC One is powered by Android 4.1.2, but HTC has stitched a new version of its Sense interface over the top in a bid to offer something unique over the hoard of similar Android mobiles out there.
The most significant new feature is BlinkFeed, which is a new homescreen that HTC hopes will grab your attention for 30-second bursts.
BlinkFeed takes data from news websites, as well as the phone's camera and your social networks, combining them into randomly-sized tiles that you can scroll down through. If you tap on one -- a news story, for instance -- it pops into full-screen mode so that you can read the whole article.
Which news sources get pulled into BlinkFeed is up to you -- you'll choose from a long list of available websites. To refresh your feed you swipe downwards on the screen, which will make BlinkFeed check for new stories, pictures and updates to incorporate.
The interface is attractive, and -- if you take the time to choose a variety of news sources -- turns your phone's homescreen into a colourful mosaic of pictures and headlines. The style borrows heavily from the popular Flipboard app, with a dash of Windows Phone's dynamic live tiles sprinkled atop for good measure.
HTC's latest interface feature will pack your homescreen with attractive little parcels of news.
When offline, BlinkFeed will remain frozen, and unfortunately won't cache stories to make them available when you're without an Internet connection. HTC says it might add this feature in the future.
If you don't like BlinkFeed you can swipe to the left to see a normal Android homescreen, and if you'd prefer you can set these normal screens as the default home view upon unlocking your phone.
Personally, I'm optimistic about this feature. There are already apps out there that sort news stories into an attractive stream (like the aforementioned Flipboard, for instance), but they require you to open an app first. I can see BlinkFeed being used in 30-second bursts, when you glance at your mobile in a coffee queue or lift, and have time to quickly blast through one or two news stories. At the very least, it's not something that rival smart phone-makers have tried before.
Elsewhere, little has changed. When I held the HTC One and started swiping through menus, I have to say I was struck with how familiar it felt. For all its fresh, metal style and BlinkFeed, there's a feeling that the HTC One is broadly similar to HTC's previous phones. Samsung is known for loading its mobiles with bucket-loads of new features, so I wonder if this new flagship will do enough to push things forward, and offer compelling reasons to choose it over the host of rival smart phones out there.
HTC's biggest gamble is with the One's camera, which boasts a 4-megapixel CMOS sensor. That's a very low megapixel count compared with other smart phones and digital cameras, but HTC reckons dropping the megapixel count inside the One is the best thing for picture quality.
That's because individual pixels on that 4-megapixel sensor are much bigger -- specifically I was told each pixel measures four square microns (2 microns on each side), compared with the 1.96 square micron pixels on the One X's 8-megapixel sensor. The idea is that because each pixel is larger, it lets in more light, which means better snaps in dark conditions.
The 1/3rd-inch sensor inside the HTC One's snapper is the same physical size as many other mobile snapper sensors, including those inside the iPhone 5 and Nokia Lumia 920. You could get more light, and therefore better pictures by bumping up the size of the sensor itself (compact cameras or SLRs will have larger sensors), but HTC insists that would compromise on the size of the camera unit, making for a bulkier smart phone.
Another advantage of that lower megapixel count, according to HTC, is that images and photos you capture will be smaller files, taking up less space on your smart phone and uploading to Facebook or Twitter at greater speed.
It's an interesting gamble, as many shoppers look to the number of megapixels as an easy way to judge a camera's prowess, and could easily be put off by a lower figure. At the same time, just because HTC is opting for bigger individual pixels doesn't necessarily mean the pictures this smart phone produces will be better. Ultimately we won't know for sure how decent the One's snapper is until we can perform our own in-depth camera tests, so stay tuned.
Zoe wanna-make-a video
The HTC One has another camera trick up its big metal sleeves, called Zoe camera. This camera mode is distinct from the regular still and photography camera mode, and remembers footage from before you press the shutter.
Taking a photo in Zoe mode makes a short video, that you then examine frame by frame, with the ability to save individual stills as photos. The idea is that capturing a perfect moment on camera is tricky, so you should take advantage of the One X's processor and manageable image size to shoot in this 'burst mode'.
The One's modest 4-megapixel camera has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.
The camera has one more trick -- a gallery option that sorts your photos and videos by when they were taken, and automatically edits them together into a slick, 30-second clip, with a variety of Instagram-esque filter options and music choices.
If you shoot a lot of photos and videos, on a trip to the zoo for instance, they'll be automatically cut into this slick music-video-esque clip. If you don't like the look of the short clip then you can shuffle the placement of the content that goes into it with a button-press, shuffling continually until you're happy with your tiny clip.
If you've ever put together a video in Apple's iMovie software using its present styles, you'll be familiar with the look and feel of the end product. The trick to HTC's offering however is that you don't have to do any editing yourself -- your footage and photos are smushed into a short video that's perfect for posting to Facebook or sending to relatives.
Video pros won't be charmed by the pre-packaged nature of the 30-second clips this feature produces, but for most smart phone owners -- who take dozens of photos and video clips but never get round to organising them -- this could be a very simple way to get a short, memory-crammed video that requires very little effort.
Processor, battery and 4G
The HTC One has a 1.7GHz quad-core processor, backed up by 2GB of RAM. That's faster on paper than the One X's quad-core chip, though there are few apps out there that pushed even last year's model to the limit, so I suspect you'll struggle to really max out this mobile.
The One X had less-than-spectacular battery life, so here's hoping the 2,300mAh battery inside the HTC One can last a little longer away from the mains. Meanwhile storage is pegged to be 30GB, and colour options are silver or black.
The HTC One will feature all the necessary radio gubbins to work with the UK's 4G networks, including both EE's existing LTE network and networks that are yet to be booted up from the likes of Vodafone and O2. 4G is currently quite pricey in the UK because only one network offers it, but in the next few years the ability to play nice with a range of networks will be increasingly important.
It's too early to know exactly how much the HTC One will cost when it's released in mid-March, but being a top-end mobile HTC said to expect prices to be similar to those of the One X, when it went on sale in 2013. In other words, expect to pay around £500 to get the HTC One SIM-free, and between £30 and £35 per month if you're buying the phone on contract.
The HTC One gives the impression of a solid, dependable mobile, with some promising new features such as BlinkFeed and the Zoe camera software. Elsewhere this feels like a regular, powerful Android smart phone, that takes a gamble on cutting its camera's megapixel count.
So far, nothing suggests to me that the HTC One will be anything other than a thoroughly decent mobile. It remains to be seen whether it's enough to put HTC back on top though, and I'd advise that any potential buyers hold fire for a month or two to check out Samsung's next flagship before throwing down cash.