HTC seems to be the unappreciated underdog of Android phones, forever doomed to linger in Samsung's shadow. With ailing finances and rivals at its door, its newest handset, the One, has a lot resting on its shoulders. Question is, does it measure up?

 

What is it?

HTC's high-end Android flagship phone, sporting a sexy body, stunning screen and out-of-the-ordinary camera.

A review of HTC's new One smartphone

 

Who's it for?

People who want the most polished and smooth Android experience available, and maybe don't want to stretch (literally and figuratively) to the five-inch screen that's becoming common on top-end Android phones.

 

Design

HTC's always been good at making pretty phones, and the One keeps the gorgeous genes within the family. It's got a minimalist metal construction with polycarbonate 'accents', which reeks of exquisite build quality. The metal construction and reassuring weight give it a chassis that feels rock-solid, and the rounded back, tapering to supermodel-skinny sides, makes it genuinely comfortable to hold in your hand, just like Peter Chou strongly professed at its launch.

The 4.7-inch screen is clad in Gorilla Glass, which wraps beautifully round the edge of the chassis -- HTC says it 'flows', and it almost has a point. The glass doesn't just stop at the edge of the screen, but contours round to give a silky-smooth edge you've got to feel to believe. Overall, tiny details like this conspire to make the One the most gorgeous phone I've laid eyes on in years, and a refreshing change from seemingly endless copycat, look-a-like phones. I'm smitten.

A review of the HTC one smartphone

The minimalist design is, sadly, carried over to the more practical side of the phone too. You won't find a microSD card slot lurking anywhere, and as for a removable battery? Dream on. All you get is a headphone jack, micro USB for charging, a pop-out SIM tray, and a pair of buttons -- a metal volume rocker, and a weird-looking power button that also doubles as an IR blaster, so you can use your phone as a TV remote.

One area HTC hasn't skimped on is the speakers: you get two of them, on the front of the phone no less. The holes are drilled out of the aluminium  and there's a notification LED -- always a good thing in our books -- lingering behind one of those holes on the top speaker.

The One's also more than just a pretty face. Under the Gorilla Glass is a stonking great 1920x1080p display, powered by a Snapdragon 600 processor, and a sweet 2GB of RAM -- the same as the Nexus 4, Sony Xperia Z or LG Optimus Pro. Don't be fooled, though -- performance on this is nippy as you like.

A review of the HTC One smartphone

 

Using It

Software

Holy hell this thing is fast. Zipping around HTC's well-skinned version of Android -- and zip is definitely the right word -- there's nary a hint of lag or stutter. Given the processing power under the hood, that's hardly surprising, but it's still damn impressive. Even pushing the system with the more graphically-intensive Android games -- Asphalt 7 or Real Racing 3, the One purrs along better than anything else out there.

In terms of OS, the One is running HTC's custom Sense 5.0 on top of Android 4.1.2. Sense 5.0 sports a bunch of differences to vanilla Android, but the overall impression you're left with is that Sense helps casual users access some of the more hardcore Android features, without needing to mess around deep inside various settings menus.

The customisable lock screens are a good example: they're one of the things Android's really got going for it, but normally it takes a fair bit of messing around with custom widgets to make a decent one. Sense comes preloaded with a bunch of different lock screen themes (Productivity, Photos, Music etc.), and they just work.

We won't dive into an exhaustive rundown of all the software differences here -- you can find that over at our full Sense 5.0 review -- but suffice to say that Sense is the only manufacturer Android skin I'd seriously think about keeping on a phone.

HTC one review

Hardware

Once you've finished obsessing over that gorgeous body, you'll inevitably reach for the on switch (which is a little hard to find, being almost completely flush with the body), and light up the screen. The 4.7-inch, 1920x1080p panel is incredible -- forget numbers, forget stats, and just revel in what, for my money, is the best mobile display made thus far.

The PPI is obviously somewhere north of pointless (468, for those of you who get aroused by meaningless metrics), but more importantly, the screen is a competent all-rounder. Viewing angles are excellent, and you can actually read the damn thing in direct sunlight. Side-by-side with the Galaxy S III's AMOLED display, you can see that the blacks aren't quite as good, but that's real nit-picking.

A review of the HTC One smartphone

Of course, if there was one feature HTC trumpeted above all else on its new phone, it was definitely the Ultrapixel. To recap: HTC's being the good guy, going against the megapixel myth, and shipping a 4MP phone camera it reckons is not only as good as the better-endowed competition, but is actually better in low light.

Does it work? Yes. In low light, the pictures this thing cranks out are seriously impressive, managing to make out objects without having to resort to a blurry noise-fest.

A review of the HTC One camera against the Sony Xperia Z smartphone's camera

Compared against the Sony Xperia Z, one of the best Android shooters out there, the low-light performance is out of this world. In the sample images above, (which are both cropped to the same extent), the text in the One's photo is totally readable, whereas the Sony's is a horror show you'd be hard-pushed to find a single letter in. Obviously, those sample images are a worst-case scenario, but they prove a point -- the One's camera craps all over the competition when the Sun goes down.

We tested the low-light against a bunch of other phone cameras, and the results are impressive -- the Nokia Pureview 808 wins (almost inevitably), but the One is close behind, and certainly leagues better than the blurry, noisy mess churned out by the others.

Sadly, the performance isn't quite as stellar when it comes to everyday photography. Whether it's due to the lack of pixels, or some other less-than-stellar component in the camera assembly, the One's photos aren't particularly sharp. They're fine viewed on the phone screen or Facebook, but blow them up any bigger, and everything goes a bit marshmallow-soft. You can find the full gallery of samples here; overall, it's fair to say the One's packing a decent shooter, but not anything particularly revolutionary and certainly not a Lumia 920-dethroning upstart.

A review of the HTC One smartphone

 

Tragic Flaw

You might've read about Blinkfeed, HTC's live tile/RSS feed mashup that spits out a constant news feed onto a home screen widget. You probably skimmed over it, thinking it's another bit of bloatware crap to be discarded as soon as you start setting up the device, right? Wrong.

Blinkfeed is here to stay, as a permanent wart on your home screens. Sure, you can change it from being the default home screen, but every now and again you're going to scroll onto your Blinkfeed page and get inadvertently slapped in the face by reality. For now, Blinkfeed is here to stay, a constant presence in your life (and probably on your data usage and battery, since you can't disable auto-refresh).

 

This is Weird

The handset gets almost worryingly hot when used a lot, especially if shifting a lot of data over the mobile network. We'll chalk it up to that metal back, and it's certainly not a deal-breaker, but it's still a tad disconcerting.

A review of the HTC One smartphone

 

Test Notes

- Oh my god the speakers are good -- better than any mobile speakers have the right to be. Playing music to various people through the phone is a funny experience, and one worth trying if you've ever wondered what the actual definition of jaw-dropping is. It's not so much the volume, which is definitely the best of any smartphone but hardly deafening -- it's that over the whole sound spectrum, the stuff the speakers spits out is fairly accurate and distortion-free.

I don't know whether this is due to the Beats Audio EQ (unlikely) or the excellent dual-speaker setup (far more plausible), but the speakers on this thing are damn close to putting small travel speakers like my own Altec Lansing out of work. It's that good.

- The IR blaster, which is embedded in the power button (now that's what I call multitasking!), lets you use your phone as a universal remote with your TV and home theatre set-up. It's quick and easy to configure. Moreover, the system leverages Peel to provide a personalised TV guide that ties in with the remote -- just tap on a currently airing show, and your TV will switch over to that channel, as if by magic.

- Battery life is average. The One is packing a 2300mAh cell, which gets me through a full day of fairly punishing use. On a brutal video rundown, it lasted about seven hours before conking out, translating to a good day of real-world use, especially if you crank up HTC's power saver mode, which lets you (among other things) restrict CPU usage and screen brightness.

- Internet speeds, especially web browsing, feel pretty nippy. With the chomping-at-the-bit processor under the hood, this is hardly surprising, but the One also seems to hold onto mobile signal a little bit better -- in rooms and Tube stations I'd previously had marked down as dead spots, I was scraping a little bit of coverage. We've tested on both EE's 4G and Vodafone's HSPA+ network, and download speeds are exactly in line with other top-end smartphones -- anything between 1 and 12Mbps, depending on signal and how much lead is in the walls.

- HTC's get-started software merits a mention for making the getting-going procedure surprisingly slick. If you're not restoring the phone from an HTC account backup, you can choose to do the initial setup on a computer rather than the phone -- just navigate to a webpage, enter the code your phone generates, and you're free to set up email accounts, lock screens and the like from your computer. It might sound like faff, and it's hopefully not something you're going to use more than once, but as someone who switches between phones with depressing regularity, not having to type out every email address and super-secure password on a touchscreen keyboard is something of a godsend.

 

 

Should You Buy It?

The One is, undoubtedly, an excellent device. It does everything well, some things -- the build, screen and mind-bending speakers come to mind -- superbly, with only a few entries in the negatives column. Of course, being average doesn't cut it any more, not with new smartphones spilling from Mother Innovation's every orifice.

Compared to the competition, the One still fares well. It's certainly at the top of the Android stable, with only Sony's Xperia Z and the bargain-basement Nexus 4 (and probably whatever Samsung's got in store) able to give it any competition. It's also one of the few devices that can compete with the iPhone on lustworthiness -- the rock-solid build and that awesome screen certainly give it a dinner-party-wow-factor in a different league.

Of course, given that the UK release has been delayed until the 29th, you'll have time to examine Samsung's offering; whatever it serves up, though, would have to be pants-wettingly good to put the One in the shade.

 

HTC One

Price: £519 off-contract
Processor:
Snapdragon 600
RAM:
2GB
Screen: 4.7-inch 1920x1080p
Storage: 32 or 64GB
Camera: 4MP Ultrapixel sensor
Operating System:  HTC Sense 5.0/Android 4.1.2
Gizrank: 4 stars