People always ask me about the perfect or the best smartphone they can buy and I keep telling them there is no such thing as a perfect phone. No matter how much money you can throw away, you still cannot buy a phone that has got it all. Think about it – the iPhone 5, though very close to being one, still has a small display (for many) and there are restrictions around customizing the user interface. The Samsung Galaxy S III (and even the Galaxy S 4, for that matter) has all the specifications and a big display but does not look or feel premium enough with its plastic build.
The HTC One, on the other hand, gives the best of both worlds. Its design can rival that of the iPhone with premium materials and nice curves, while sporting hardware specifications comparable to that of the latest Galaxy smartphone. If that isn’t enough, HTC has also added some nifty hardware and software tweaks to make the experience even better. So can the HTC One be the perfect smartphone out there?
HTC has always been renowned for its premium design but they have taken industrial design to an altogether new level with the HTC One. The unibody aluminum build not only feels great to hold but is also sturdy enough to take a few falls without getting scratched or dented. The front dual-speakers add to the personality of the phone without making the device feel too tall to hold. The plastic insert around the edges doesn’t feel shabby and is covered elegantly with chamfered edges on either side, like the one found on the iPhone 5. The back houses a larger than normal camera opening flanked by an LED flash.
The lines on the back panel not only give the One a distinct feel but also act as the antenna for various radio chips inside the phone. These lines were required because of the aluminum body, which interferes with radio frequencies, but HTC managed to make them look like a part of the design language. I’m told the ring around the camera lens is actually for NFC.
At 143 grams, the One feels sturdy and substantial without getting too heavy to drag your shorts down when placed in its pocket. The curved back gives an illusion of it being thicker than it really is – 9.3 mm at its thickest point and roughly half of that at its thinnest at the edges.
Unlike most Android smartphones, the One only has two capacitive buttons below the display. For some reason, HTC has done away with the menu button and instead has the brand logo in center flanked by the back and home buttons on either side. It does take a bit of time getting accustomed to the arrangement and for the first couple of days I frequently found myself hitting the HTC logo when I wanted to hit the home button. One drawback of not having a dedicated menu button is that one has to rely on on-screen menu buttons, whose placement is not uniform across apps. The home button, in the meanwhile, also works for summoning Google Now by long-pressing it and the multi-tasking menu by double tapping it.
The One is the greatest smartphone HTC has ever built and that shows in the hardware too. It runs on the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz. It is by far the fastest chipset I have seen on a smartphone, which unlike the Nvidia Tegra processor found on the One X, does not heat up significantly, no matter what you throw at it. That processor combined with 2GB of RAM ensures that this phone would be relevant for a long time. Yes, there will be better and faster processors in the next couple of years, but I believe this configuration should be good enough for most tasks for at least two years from now. It comes with 32GB of internal storage of which approximately 25GB is available to users. There is no microSD card slot.
The 4.7-inch full HD display on the One is also the best I have ever come across on a smartphone. Being the smallest full HD display in the market ensures that the pixel density is as good as it can get. The viewing angles are great and so is the sunlight visibility. Yes, the contrast could have been better but colors look closer to real than what one finds on Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays.
Another impressive aspect of the One is the dual speakers, which HTC calls BoomSound. It is one of those things that makes me wonder why did not anyone think of this before. Rather than hiding the speaker on one of the edges or the back, HTC has placed them bang on the face above and below the display. There are two speakers rather than the usual one and the fine machine drilled holes for the speaker grills are a work of art on their own. The placement of the speakers ensure that they don’t get muffled irrespective of how the phone is held or kept on a surface. Unlike other speakers that sound tiny, these speakers are enough if you are watching a movie alone. I found them perfect for watch YouTube videos and movies, while I relied on a pair of headphones for listening to music. Like most HTC smartphones this also comes with Beats Audio enhancement.
The most controversial feature and one that HTC thinks is the phone’s highlight is its camera. At a time when rivals are embedding 13-megapixel sensors on their phones, HTC has given the One a lowly 4-megapixel camera. Still, it reckons that the One can click better photographs than most cameras as the sensor is bigger and can capture 300 percent more light per pixel than most cameras found on phones. With more light being captured, every single pixel contains more information and hence the term Ultrapixel. This is somewhat opposite of Nokia’s PureView technology that had a 41-megapixel sensor and oversampling was used to combine information from multiple pixels into one pixel.
During my usage, I found that the camera actually performed very well under low light conditions, capturing a lot of details while my iPhone 5 captured nothing. Unfortunately, I did not have a Lumia 920 to compare the results. Daytime photos, however, were a mixed bag – they were good for uploading on Facebook, for instance, but lacked details and sharpness when compared to those clicked with the iPhone 5. The HTC One’s camera would work great for people who mostly end up clicking photos in the evening or indoors, or those who simply click photos to share on Facebook and other social networking sites.
Reams have been written about HTC’s Sense UI layer on top of stock Android. Yes, there is nothing better than getting stock Android but Sense has been one of the more tolerable UI layer than others. The One introduces the fifth iteration of Sense and along with it BlinkFeed, which puts information directly on the homescreen. Think of BlinkFeed as having FlipBoard on your homescreen. The idea is that every time users unlock the phone they get news updates that are relevant to them without having to do anything after doing the initial setup. Users can choose to have their Facebook and Twitter feeds apart from news from hundreds of sources delivered on to their homescreen. They can even choose from different genres of news and only those delivered.
BlinkFeed is an interesting concept for those who don’t use many apps or for those who want to keep in touch with the latest updates every time they switch on their phones. Unfortunately, I am not one of them and I tend to get most of my updates from Twitter, for which I have a dedicated app. Having said that, I showed BlinkFeed to a few people and many of them were extremely receptive to the idea. While you cannot turn off BlinkFeed completely, you can sweep it to one side and program the phone to take you to a regular homescreen every time you hit the home button. This can be done by hitting the edit button on BlinkFeed homescreen and selecting the second homescreen as the default home.
Talking about software, HTC has also added a lot of goodies to the camera. There’s one called Zoe, which takes a three second video clip and 20 still shots from which users can select the exact frame they want. I believe this will come in handy for fast moving shots. HTC has also added tools like object remover and effects for editing photos. There are simply way too many options available to edit photos and get that perfect shot.
The HTC One has been a bag full of surprises. Its performance has left me speechless and no matter how hard I pushed the device, it always came out on top. I could easily get over a day of battery life from the phone with about an hour of calls, four hours of web browsing, two Gmail accounts on push, one Twitter and one Facebook account, both with push notifications turned on. One weekend, when I made less than an hour of calls along with two hours of web browsing, I was able to squeeze 37 hours on a single charge with 8 percent battery still left. This is by far the best battery performance I have seen on any smartphone, leave aside any Android phone. The Galaxy Note II comes close, but then it is also a much bigger device. Having said that, I must add that it took me over four hours to charge the One’s 2,300mAH battery from zero to full. HTC needs to look into it and possibly go for some fast charging technology as it becomes impossible to fully charge the battery unless it is left for charging overnight.
Call quality was also above par, which I believe is due to multiple mics for noise cancelling, something that HTC calls HDR microphone. As mentioned earlier, the processor is among the fastest I have ever seen and does not heat as much as others when multitasking. Even the audio quality is above par and I find the dual-speakers on the front to be a great concept with flawless execution. The ultrapixel camera dazzles under low-light conditions but doesn’t really come out on the top in regular daylight photos.
Those who have been reading my reviews and following me on Twitter would probably already know that I am not a big fan of Android and have always found Android smartphones to be unreliable. I have struggled to find an Android smartphone that could rival the iPhone by giving a great combination of design, hardware, software and performance. Most Android smartphones with the hardware specifications are too big for my liking and lack any design sense. The ones that have good design lack in performance and battery life is usually dismal.
The HTC One changes all that for me. It has been over two weeks since I have been using the One as my primary phone and I don’t have the urge to go back to the iPhone 5, something that usually happens within the first couple of days of shifting to my review phone. At Rs 42,900, HTC has got the pricing right too.
With the right blend of design, hardware and performance, the HTC One is the closest thing to a perfect smartphone. It doesn’t get better than this. At least for now.
Photographs: Eshan Shetty