This new high-end Android handset has two objectives (at least). And they're sizable objectives: to both reinvigorate HTC's hardcore fans and win over a broader consumer base, one that includes both sexes.
To reach these objectives, HTC has put in place a solid set of technical specs (a 4.7-inch Full HD display, a next-gen Snapdragon S600 processor with 2 GB of RAM, a choice of 32 GB or 64 GB of non-expandable storage and a four-'UltraPixel' camera that HTC says wipes the floor with the competition in low lighting) and a carefully designed exterior.
But beyond the beefy on-paper specs and fetching appearance, how good of a buy is this £520 smartphone?
DESIGN & HANDLING
Though similar in ways to the BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5, the HTC One nonetheless very much has its own identity. It's elegant, it's fashionable and, most of all, it should be able to appeal to both men and women, a trait that has eluded HTC for some years now.
With a sleek, lightweight (just 130-gramme) body made of quality aluminium, a curved back designed to fit in the palm of your hand—one hand will do to use this phone—and a stunning facade, the HTC One carries with it a certain air of distinction. Speaking strictly in terms of look and design, the HTC One is an unquestionable success.
But it's a shame HTC failed to full-heartedly embrace the new style—the border on either side of the 4.7-inch screen is thicker than it needs to be. There's definitely wasted space there. And unlike BlackBerry with the Z10's border-requiring touch gestures, HTC doesn't really have any excuse for not trimming it down.
The ON/OFF button is located at the top end of the phone in a place that isn't necessarily intuitive to reach. In some cases, like this one, HTC made choices simply to fit a cool design. Another case is the aluminium volume button, which practically drowns in a sea of aluminium on the right edge of the phone, often requiring you to feel around with your fingers to find it. And then there's the body itself... which, being aluminium, tends to heat up when you browse the web or play video games.
HTC's final bold stroke was to go from the three touch-sensitive buttons on its previous models to two on the HTC One. They're located below the screen on either side of an HTC logo that's easily mistakable as a touch-sensitive button itself. One of these is the Home button and the other is the Back button. The one that didn't make the cut? The Menu button. The Home button is located just right of the logo, which is great for lefties, but for everyone else it will take some getting used to. To access the multitasking menu, you double-tap the Home button.
So you may have to re-learn a few of the habits acquired on other Android handsets, but the HTC One is nonetheless a welcome break from tradition. All in all, it's a well-designed smartphone with impeccable finishing that's enjoyable to use, in a compact form factor that has nothing to envy of the larger 5-inch Android phones. HTC avoided the pitfall of outing an oversized smartphone by giving it a display that's "only" 4.7 inches, and it's a high quality screen.
We were disappointed that there's no microSD slot for expanding the storage capacity (HTC has tried to make up for it with a "gift" of 50 GB on Dropbox), as well as the rising body temperature when running video games and web browsing.
For the HTC One's 4.7-inch display, HTC has introduced a new 'Super LCD 3' (S-LCD 3) panel that the Taiwanese brand is touting as high quality. And let us be blunt: this is one superb smartphone screen. We were already in love with it just by looking at the display, and after running our tests we couldn't believe the results.
Ladies and gentlemen, the average contrast on the HTC One's display is—ahem—1568:1! That's one of the best contrast ratios on any mobile device, smartphones and tablets combined.
And the screen brightness goes all the way up to 460 cd/m². The surface may be glossy, but with contrast and brightness like this, it's hardly an issue.
The HTC One excels equally well in colour reproduction, with an average Delta E of 3.2. Delta E measures the difference between the colours the way they're intended to look and how they appear onscreen. The closer to zero the better, so 3.2 is outstanding. All the shades and colours are evenly adjusted, with extremely natural and balanced rendering. The only exception is black. It's a deep black, but there are barely perceptible overtones of blue in it—not close to enough to ruin a movie or photo. The colour temperature is also admirable, at just under 6,000 kelvins over nearly the entire spectrum, effectively preventing any unwanted overtones. And the viewing angles are wide open. Whether you look at the screen from the side, above or below, the HTC One's screen stays perfectly legible.
There's just one minor problem: the 26 ms response time, which mainly rears its head in the apps menu with some very subtle ghosting in the vertical movements—something you very rarely see when scrolling through web pages. Also, the automatic screen brightness mode sometimes does funny things, like adjusting the brightness even when you haven't moved the phone. Weird.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
The HTC One runs on Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, but it also includes the latest version of Sense, HTC's homebrewed graphical user interface. Sense 5 wipes the slate clean from all the previous releases. Gone are the lively mega-widgets and super-advanced visual customisation options... Sense 5 is HTC's vision of a more minimalist, simplified Android interface, with a hint of Windows 8 in the BlinkFeed screen.
To see more about HTC Sense 5 and everything it has to offer, check out our full article, Sense 5: Staying Connected, HTC Style.
As for how the HTC One handles itself within the Sense 5/Android ecosystem, it's all gravy. Not a single lag, no snags in the responsiveness, nothing. You command, the HTC One executes. At high speed. And touch response latency is simply not a factor. The raw benchmark results from the 1.7 GHz Snapdragon S600 quad-core processor bury all competitors currently on the market, turning what is in theory a good interface into a great real-life user experience.
Combining this superb high-resolution display with a Qualcomm processor that does everything you ask it to do like a champ, the HTC One offers a choice web browsing experience. From managing favourites to opening web pages and scrolling within them, the HTC One is simply a pleasure to use.
Add to that a Qualcomm Adreno 320 graphics chipset, and you have some great mobile gaming. On recent releases like Real Racing 3, games run with flawless fluidity and the graphics are of the highest quality currently available on an Android phone, comparable only to the LG Optimus G.
The HTC One has Beats Audio for the sound. Or you can turn it off. All it really does is boost the bass, but fortunately the sound stays in check and doesn't create crazy amounts of distortion. But as for its real usefulness, that's open for debate. We would have preferred an actual equaliser like the ones in HTC's previous phones, simply replaced here with Beats. HTC has also come up with a new feature (buzzword?) called BoomSound, which basically just delivers stereo sound with simulated bass.
The headphone output volume is super-high with good dynamics and accurate stereo rendering. HTC had the good idea of putting the built-in speakers at the top and bottom of the screen, right where the phone earpiece and mic are. The speakers deliver sound quality vastly superior to all competing smartphones, with high volume and low distortion. With the volume on max, the HTC One simply rocks the house.
One idea HTC has really tried to drive home is that the camera works wonders in low lighting. At a time when all of the firm's competitors are racing to see who has the biggest... number of pixels, HTC made the surprising choice to settle with an itsy-bitsy 4 Mpx in 16:9 (astonishingly small compared to its rivals' gargantuan 13 Mpx...). That said, it should be able to compete with the Nokia Lumia 920, which uses Nokia's PureView technology to get the most out of fewer pixels.
In practice, the camera manages surprisingly well—as long as you don't blow up your photos, at which point you'll notice the lack of detail. The colours are fairly neutral (which is a good thing). They aren't quite as neutral as on the iPhone 5, but they're better than the Xperia Z, which exaggerates certain shades. And with satisfactory sharpness—again, assuming you don't zoom in—and relatively low noise, the HTC One is good for taking photos you only want to view on your smartphone screen or post on Facebook.
But whatever you do, don't enlarge your pictures. That's when things degenerate. All images produced on the HTC One's camera are limited to 4 Megapixels, and anything larger than the native dimensions will quickly remind you why 13 Mpx are nice to have. When you try and print your pictures in 4x6" or 8x12", the results are quite naturally disappointing and there's an utter lack of detail. You need at least 6 Mpx for prints that size. Every single competing high-end smartphone camera, from the Apple iPhone 5 to the Sony Xperia Z, demolishes the HTC One in the detail department.
But what about in low lighting? Do the camera's specs (f/2 lens, optical image stabiliser, large photodiodes) really crush the competition when the lights are low? Yes, it does take slightly better pictures in low lighting. But not quite as good as the Lumia 920. So the HTC One does indeed make good on at least one part of HTC's promise when it comes to the camera.
Actually, we wrote a whole article about the camera in low lighting and pitted it against the Xperia Z to see how the two compare. You can read it here.
We interviewed STMicroelectronics about the 4-Megapixel sensor, here's what they have to say about it.
The non-removable battery is 2,300 mAh. That just barely cuts it for all of Sense 5's constantly running push-inspired features. With all the bells and whistles on, the battery lasts on average 10 hours and 10 minutes (as confirmed by our battery testing software). In practice, the HTC One has a good full day's worth of juice in it, and you can even stretch that until the wee hours if you fiddle with the connectivity a little. The energy saving mode also helps.