HTC was once the darling of the smartphone world, but Samsung has usurped that crown thanks to products like the popular Galaxy S III and recently released Galaxy S4. HTC has produced plenty of phones recently (if not as many as the prolific Samsung), but badly needs a winner: so how does the flagship £529.99 (inc. VAT, £441.66 ex. VAT) HTC One shape up?
The 4.7-inch HTC One is an excellent example of industrial design: not only is it attractive to behold, but its user ergonomics are also great.
Aluminium is used for the backplate and the screen surround, and fresh out of the box, our matte-black review sample looked and felt superb (it's also available in silver). However, the large expanse of the back could be prone to scratching by keys, coins and other odds and ends that find their way into pockets and bags.
HTC has taken pains to imbue the One with some character. The corners are rounded, while the backplate curves into the long edges, which makes it feel comfortable in the hand. The short edges are also curved to reflect this — it's quite subtle but it does make a difference to the look and feel of the device.
Between the aluminium front and back is a band of plastic that houses the side-mounted buttons and ports. This is a minimal set: the right long edge has a volume rocker; the bottom has the Micro-USB port for battery charging (this also supports MHL, so if you buy an adapter you can use HDMI); on the left edge is a caddy for your microSIM, which releases readily if you have a paper clip to hand. The caddy is there because the One has a sealed-in battery, and lacks a removable backplate.
Not everyone will like the power button's location on the top edge, the convention with larger handsets being that side-mounted buttons are easier to access. There's a reason for its location, however.
Anyone who has followed smartphones since the old Windows Mobile days will know that infrared was once a standard feature. It fell out of fashion, but is now making a comeback. This is because handset makers are looking for new features to cram into their devices, and infrared is the universal standard for remote controls.
HTC has included an infrared feature it calls Sense TV, which you can use to set the device up as a remote control for any of your household media devices. The infrared sensor doubles up with the power switch, which is why it's mounted in the most ergonomic location — on top of the phone. Sense TV also offers electronic programme guides for Sky, Freesat, Freeview and Virgin Media.
The HTC One's 4.7in. screen is flanked top and bottom by grilles that hide a pair of speakers. One of this handset's notable aspects is that it pumps out a decent volume of sound — at good quality too. There's even a reasonably good stereo effect if the handset is properly positioned. We can see ourselves using the built-in speakers quite happily, which isn't something you can say for many smartphones.
The speaker grilles do make for a tall phone, at 137.4mm (5.4 in.). The other measurements are 68.2mm (2.68 in.) wide by 9.3mm (0.37 in.) thick. The HTC One is similar in size to the 4.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S III, which measures 136.6mm by 70.6mm by 8.6mm (5.38in. by 2.78in. by 0.34in.), and to Sony's 5-inch Xperia Z at 139mm by 71mm by 7.9mm (5.47in. by 2.79in. by 0.31in.).
There's not a lot between all these measurements, but it's clear that those speaker grilles do add height. As far as weight is concerned, the HTC One, at 143g (5.04oz.), is heavier than the Galaxy S III (133g; 4.69oz.) but a touch lighter than the Xperia Z (146g; 5.15oz.)
HTC has given the One a broad range hardware and software features, and there are some real innovations. We've already noted the infrared-driven Sense TV, but you'll expect a lot more on a device costing over £500 (including VAT).
Powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor running at 1.7GHz with 2GB of RAM, the HTC One fairly flies along. In fact, nothing we threw at it seemed to slow it down.
Storage capacity is another matter: 32GB may seem like plenty, although on checking we found that only 25GB was available to the user fresh out of the box. HTC also bundles 25GB of Dropbox storage, which might also seem generous. But there's no microSD card support here, which will disappoint anyone who likes to swap cards to move data between several devices — phone, tablet and notebook for example.
The HTC One is an LTE (4G) handset, with 3G (UMTS/HSPA) and GSM/GPRS/EDGE support too. As far as Wi-Fi connectivity is concerned, the device is noteworthy for adding the latest 802.11ac support to the usual a/b/g/n roster — this was a first when the One was announced, but has since been matched by the Samsung Galaxy S4.
We've already mentioned that the HTC One has HDMI support (although the adapter cable you'll need is not provided). GPS and NFC are also integrated, along with the customary array of sensors — gyro, accelerometer, proximity, ambient light. There's also a second microphone on the back of the chassis, which helps to filter extraneous noise during calls.
The HTC One's screen, as already noted, measures 4.7 inches across the diagonal. Its 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution equals the 5in. Xperia Z's and delivers a higher pixel density (469ppi versus 441ppi) thanks to its slightly smaller size. Both of these high-resolution screens better the 4.8in. Galaxy S III's 1,280 by 720 pixels (306ppi). The One's display is impressively clear, sharp and bright and is great for watching video, reading text such as emails and browsing websites. Combined with the excellent speakers mentioned earlier, the HTC One's multimedia capabilities are superb.
The HTC One runs Android 4.1, with HTC's Sense interface sitting on top. Sense has had a complete overhaul and is now at version 5. Sense has played a large part in the success of HTC's handsets, and version 5 is in many ways a simpler reinvention.
The app menu, for example, now has the classic Android clock — reinvented as a black-and-white version of itself, sitting at the top of what's by default a three-by-three grid of applications. You sweep up to see more apps, whereupon the clock scrolls off-screen. You can override this and revert to the classic four-by-four grid if you prefer. Apps can be grouped into folders, which lets you organise downloads, for example; HTC kick-starts this process with folders for Media, Google, Productivity and Tools.
The home screen features what's probably HTC's most significant innovation — BlinkFeed. This provides you with ever-changing news from external sources and your own social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr) feeds. BlinkFeed is graphics rich and you'll need to scroll vertically in order to view more than three stories at a time. External sources are selected from a walled garden, so if you have a few regularly monitored websites you're unlikely to be able to add them to BlinkFeed.
Irritatingly, it's not possible to remove BlinkFeed. You can turn it off and consign it to a subsidiary home screen, but it still sits there, displaying no data and occupying a screen that could be used for something you actually want. BlinkFeed clearly has potential, but it needs to be more flexible and accommodate user-identified information sources.
HTC has worked hard on the One's camera, introducing a couple of new features. The resolution is only four megapixels, but these are ultrapixels — essentially bigger pixels that capture more light (300 percent more than conventional pixels, according to HTC) for better performance. We got some good photos from the phone, but the results aren't stellar; to get good 'keeper' photos you'll still need a separate, dedicated camera.
HTC's biggest camera innovation is Zoe. This is a third shooting mode, in addition to stills and video, that takes a three-second video whose frames you can selectively retain as stills. That immediately overcomes those frustrating photos where you miss the best smile, or someone is blinking.
Zoe shots can be viewed in the gallery and shared; and because they're so short, these 'living photos' can be stitched together to make fast-paced longer videos that you can share via YouTube. It is hard to say whether Zoe will really take off, but it's certainly an intriguing feature.
Another potentially good idea is Kid Mode, which lets you create a child-friendly area of your handset. We like the idea, but HTC has bought into a third-party app for this service and it's available for any Android or iOS device.
Performance & battery life
We've noted that the HTC One's quad-core processor is fast, that the screen is superb and that the speakers are excellent. With HDMI-out and full 1080p support it would be entirely feasible to use the HTC One as a presentation device if you had a large screen to link up with. For more detail on the HTC One's performance compared to its peers, see this benchmark test.
The 2300mAh battery has a lot of work to do keeping this handset going. HTC includes a power-saving mode, but this doesn't let you decide exactly how power is saved. Similarly, 'sleep mode' turns data off after 'long periods' of inactivity, but the handset doesn't tell you how long these periods are, and you can't configure it. Even simple settings like turning data off overnight would be useful, and we'd really like a lot more facility for user intervention here.
Anecdotally, battery life was average: during the test period, we generally had to recharge the device during the late afternoon as well as at the start of the day.
HTC has pulled out all the stops with the One. It looks great, sounds great, performs well and includes some clever features. HTC Sense 5 isn't intrusive, and Zoe may well turn out to be a killer app.
The lack of storage expansion and the persistence of BlinkFeed are irritations, but overall the HTC One stands up well against rival flagship handsets such as the Sony Xperia Z and Samsung's Galaxy S4.