HTC One review: An amazing screen but a baffling interface
This beautifully designed handset matches the iPhone for build quality – but its hardware and software have their shortcomings
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 9 April 2013 08.21 BST
HTC One: one of the few phones that can match the iPhone's standards of feel and finish
This year's crop of high-end smartphones is starting to emerge. The first contender is the HTC One, a powerful handset that should do well this year.
The HTC One is one of the string of smartphones running Google's Android software. Collectively, they're the big alternative to the iPhone, though no one model outsells the Apple handset. What makes the HTC One really stand out is that it's one of the few phones that can match Apple's standards of feel and finish.
Much like the iPhone, the HTC One has a beautifully machined aluminum back and metal detailing on the front. Also like the iPhone, the metal edges are bevelled, or "chamfered" as the industrial designers call it. Plastic and metal are joined together so well that you can't tell by feel where one ends and the other starts.
While the HTC One clearly borrows some elements of the iPhone 5's style, it's hard to mistake it for the Apple handset. For starters, it is half an inch taller and broader, with a huge screen. It's also noticeably thicker at its maximum, but that's cunningly concealed by a bulging back and narrow edges. Bigger screens are one way Android phones take on the iPhone, and that inevitably leads to bigger phones, but the HTC One carries its bulk very well.
The screen boasts a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels – as many as you'd find on a 50-inch TV set. You'd have to line up three iPhone 5s, side by side, to show as much detail as you can on one HTC One screen. That doesn't mean the screen is three times as useful. These pixels are just so small that the eye can't take advantage of the full resolution.
Above and below the screen is two speaker grilles. That means that when you turn the phone sideways to watch a movie, you'll get real stereo sound, without headphones. The speakers are great, too, pumping out surprisingly deep sound.
The price you pay for a body that feels as tight and sharp as a knife fresh from the forge is that nothing goes into or out of it. You can't change the battery, and you can't expand the memory with cards. Again, this is very much in the iPhone's vein, but it's a contrast to Samsung's Galaxy phones, which have chintzy plastic backs that allow you to change batteries and plug in memory cards.
The camera does something interesting, but the results are disappointing. It's well known that boosting the megapixel count of camera sensors doesn't really do much for the image quality, but phone and camera makers can't seem to stop using megapixel count as a marketing tool, so the megapixels keep climbing. HTC has finally taken a stand against this trend, with a camera sensor that has only 4MP of resolution. It's a timid stand, though, as HTC doesn't actually tell you it's a 4MP sensor.
Rather, HTC calls it an "Ultrapixel" camera. The story is that the sensor pixels are twice as big as they are in most phone cameras, which means they can gather more light. More light per pixel means better pictures in indoor lighting, at least in theory. In practice, I found the images to be better than those of other Android phones in low lighting, but not as good as those from the iPhone 5, which are of higher resolution. Low-light pictures taken on the HTC One do show relatively little "noise" – which usually looks like coloured speckles – but the images aren't particularly crisp.
Another hardware feature that reaches but doesn't deliver is the infrared diode on the top edge. Through it, the phone can control your TV or cable box. However, setting up the software is daunting. I was confronted with going through a list of 1,800-plus channels and manually selecting which ones I get from my cable provider. Even if I were to set this up, I still couldn't control the DVR functions of the cable box from the phone. So as a replacement for the remote, the HTC One falls short.
The phone's other big shortcoming isn't really new, or unique to this model. Rather, the problem is that HTC is doing what it's always done, and what competitors such as Samsung do, too. It can't leave Android alone, but tinkers with it to "improve" it and put its own stamp on it.
The result is a baffling interface, with four different "home" screens from which to launch apps. It might reward those who take the time to customise it and really get to know it, but most people aren't like that. They're better served by simple, consistent interface. Google recognises this and keeps Android relatively simple on its own Nexus line of phones. HTC and Samsung seem determined to make things complicated.
After parts shortages forced HTC to delay its release, the One is now on sale in the UK, Germany and Taiwan. In the US it has already sold out on T-Mobile, but is for sale on AT&T, Sprint and Nextel with shipping from about 18 April. Prices will be about $200 with a two-year contract.
If you're looking for an Android phone, do yourself a favour and check out the HTC One in a store. Samsung will outspend HTC many times over in marketing when Samsung's Galaxy S4 comes out shortly. But if you take the time to feel the One in your hand, it will probably be your One.