HTC was one of the pioneers of Android smartphones, having made the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, and also the first Google Nexus Android phone, the Nexus One. However, despite this early lead, Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones have now become the leading Android devices on the market, both in terms of sales and public perception. With the new One, HTC is hoping to return to its position of King of the Android Hill, and I can certainly say that this phone has all the right ingredients to achieve this. It’s a gorgeous premium-level device, made from a single piece of machined aluminum – if the iPhone 5 is considered the gold-standard for smartphone design, then the HTC One surpasses it. Also, not only is it a great smartphone, but it is also one of the best mobile gaming devices available today. Telus was kind enough to send one to us to take a look at, so read on for my thoughts.
The HTC One features what HTC is calling a ‘zero-gap’ design – the aluminum chassis and white plastic parts (some plastic is necessary for cellular reception) are machined as one piece, so the fit and finish is flawless. The bead-blasted aluminum has an attractive matte finish that feels very solid, unlike most plastic smartphones. The One is also very slim, at 9.3mm, and weighs a scant 143 grams.
It has a 4.7-inch full-HD (1080p!) IPS Super LCD 3 screen, which is one of the best phone screens I have ever laid eyes on – it has excellent viewing angles, is incredibly crisp due to its resolution (468 PPI), is very bright, and has very accurate colours (unlike the over-saturated colours of AMOLED screens found in competing phones). It is powered by a 1.7 GHz Snapdragon 600 quad-core CPU and an Adreno 320 GPU. This potent combination allows the One to score 6690 at the Extreme pre-set in the 3DMark benchmark test , ranking it as one of the fastest phones available today. It’s able to play even the most graphically demanding Android games at smooth frame-rates at its native 1080p resolution.
The speakers of most smartphones are often an afterthought, so it is nice to see that HTC paid a little more attention to this aspect of the One, equipping it with dual ‘BoomSound’ front-facing stereo speakers, powered by built-in amplifiers. These make the audio from the One the loudest I have ever heard from a smartphone, yet the clarity is still good (albeit a bit heavy on the bass) due to the Beats Audio technology that HTC has equipped the phone with. The Beats audio also adds some oomph to headphone experience, and makes for a great gaming aural experience. However, some might find the heavy bass a little overpowering when listening to certain genres of music.
Another area that HTC has paid extra attention to is the camera, and the One has an UltraPixel camera. In reality this is just HTC’s hyperbolic term for a camera with a low-resolution sensor with larger pixels that perform better in low-light conditions. While it is technically only a 4MP camera, I found that this sensor, in combination with the f/2.0 aperture 28mm-wide lens, did perform a lot better for the kind of pictures you take on a smartphone (to tweet or post to Instagram) - it’s not like you are going to blow them up to 8x10 and print them out.
Because of its design, the One has a non-removable 2300 mAh battery. While it does have more capacity than many other Android phones, the One’s battery-life is still only average, due to the extra power consumption of the fast CPU and high-resolution screen. I still managed to get a full working day of average use from the phone, with a couple of email accounts and Twitter set to sync frequently, but as soon as I pushed the phone by doing some gaming, the battery life dropped, so it’s probably a good idea to keep a charger or external battery pack handy at all times. The One also doesn’t have a microSD slot for any storage expansion, again a decision probably made more for aesthetics. Thankfully, it has 32GB of storage, which should be more than enough for installing quite a few games and still have room for music and other apps.
The HTC One runs Android Jelly Bean, but sadly not the latest 4.2 build (which is still only available on Google’s Nexus devices and the new Galaxy S4). Still, the 4.1.2 version it comes with is an excellent mobile OS, and the Sense 5.0 UI that HTC has applied overtop of it is pretty close to stock Android (which, in my opinion, has the best UI), with a clean, minimalist look that is a lot better than the previous versions of Sense UI and the TouchWiz UI that Samsung puts on their phones. One knock against Sense 5.0 is that HTC’s new superfluous ‘BlinkFeed’ live home screen, which streams news and social media updates, is set to be the default when you turn the One on, and one of the first things I did to my demo unit was to switch it off by installing a better third-party launcher like Nova.
To test the gaming experience on the HTC One, I installed a variety of games from different genres, including Angry Birds Star Wars, Mega Run, Fieldrunners 2, Asphalt 7: Heat, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, The Room, Super Hexagon (this game made me rage-quit numerous times!), and The Bard’s Tale. They all ran great and looked amazing on the high-resolution screen. Android gaming has really matured over the past year or so, and even though it’s still true that many games will still launch on iOS first, the Android versions are often not far behind, and they look at lot better on the HTC One than the iPhone 5, due to its bigger higher-resolution screen, faster processor, and better sound.
The One is also one of the few PlayStation Certified smartphones, with access to the same Playstation Mobile gaming library as the Vita. I downloaded Lemmings from the Sony app; it ran well and looked great on the One’s crisp screen. Speaking of the Vita, I do think that the One is a great example of why portable gaming devices like the Vita and 3DS are increasingly becoming irrelevant. Compared to the Vita, the HTC One has a better screen, has better graphics (with some games), is more portable, and does every non-gaming activity a thousand times better than the secondary features, like Twitter and Facebook access, Sony has tacked onto the Vita. Yes, at the moment, if you are looking for a deeper, more console-like gaming experience, you are still going to only find those games on Sony’s and Nintendo’s platforms, but Android and iOS games are quickly evolving from the bite-sized experiences that they are known for. One area, though, that dedicated portable gaming devices still have a leg-up on smartphones are physical controls, and touch is never going to be able to replicate them for certain kinds of games like FPS’s.
The One does get pretty hot when gaming though, since there is so much power packed into such a thin chassis, and battery life does take a hit when playing – I only got 2.5 hours of use when looping 3D Mark extreme two to three times in a row approximately every 5 minutes in-between regular smartphone use. Obviously this isn’t acceptable if you are going to be using the One for more than gaming, so plan accordingly.
Overall, I think the HTC One is one of the best smartphones you can buy today. It is gorgeous to look at, incredibly well made, very powerful, a great gaming platform, and a viable alternative to portable gaming consoles like the Vita and 3DS. It only lets down a bit with its average battery life and slightly older version of Android. It is available now from Bell, Rogers, Telus and Virgin Mobile for $650 outright, $150 on a three-year term, and if you’re not tied to one carrier I’d recommend the Telus version, simply because it doesn’t come with pre-installed carrier apps that you can’t remove.