The HTC One has been the darling of the smartphone scene this year, wowing reviewers (even if not wholly winning over the public when it came to sales). As is now customary, it's to be flanked by the HTC One Mini and, rounding off the smartphone size holy trinity, this, the HTC One Max. It's bigger, and comes complete with some quirky new features. But bigger doesn't always mean better.

 

What Is It?

A speedy, 5.9-inch smartphone/tablet hybrid that borrows much of the design language of the HTC One. It's running Android 4.3, though it's barely recognisable thanks to the inclusion of the HTC Sense 5.5 re-skin placed over the top. There's a 1080p resolution display on show, alongside a Qualcomm 600 Snapdragon quad-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz. Oh, and there's a fingerprint scanner on the back too. It's powerful, it's excessive, and it's verging on the ridiculous.

 

Who Is It For?

Giants. Those who want to be able to read their emails on a phone from the other side of a room. Anyone who wants a middle ground between a smartphone and a tablet, and understandably finds Samsung's TouchWiz UI offensive. People who have no qualms about having to stitch extensions into their trouser pockets in order to house their phones.

 

Design

It's so big. Comically big. It dwarfs even the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, its most comparable rival. At 217g it's heavy too (it actually slipped from my Mr Burns-like grip at one point), but does feel balanced, given the size.

Made from aluminium and some sparsely-used plastic edging, it apes the premium design of the HTC One, right down to the front-facing BoomSound stereo speakers and IR TV zapper up the top. The main difference (aside from the size, of course) is the placement of a fingerprint scanner just below the camera sensor on the back.

However, the chassis is finished with nowhere near the care that the HTC One has. For starters, that unibody design is gone, with a latch on the left hand side allowing you to pop out a thin backplate, exposing the SIM-card slot and microSD slot. This is a real chore to pop back into place and never fully sits flush with the frame of the phone. In fact, look closely elsewhere and you'll see fine lips where the aluminium components don't sit quite as cleanly next to the plastic parts as you'd hope, or even expect given the incredible finish of the original HTC One. Unlike the HTC One, the One Max's screen doesn't curve to the very edge either, with the One Max sporting a thin, white plastic border. The slight curve on the back makes the phone sit nicely in the hand, but you can't help feeling that this is a bit of a rush job.

 

Using It

At heart an Android handset (version 4.3, and complete with all the Google apps you'd expect -- Gmail, Maps, YouTube etc, etc), HTC has modified the vanilla Android experience heavily with the HTC Sense 5.5 skin. With it, you get features like a customisable lockscreen, plenty of lockscreen themes and homescreen themes, and a number of bespoke widgets. As ever, you can arrange these (alongside app shortcuts) in any manner you please with a long-press and a drag across one of a maximum of five homescreens, and notifications can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen. Frustratingly, the app drawer scrolls vertically, a disconnect between the horizontally swiped-through homescreens.

The sixth (now-optional) homescreen is reserved for BlinkFeed, HTC's divisive news and social aggregating service. It pulls in updates from all your social networks, alongside news sources that you define (alternatively you can allow the handset to figure out what's appropriate based on your "Liked" Facebook pages), and then presents them all in a scrollable grid. It can either be the first thing you see on your phone, or one of many homescreens, or hidden away completely. If you've set it up to sift through all the noise of multiple feeds, it's quite a nice service, but it becomes insane and pretty much useless if you give it free reign to display posts from all possible sources.

It may now play second fiddle to the Snapdragon 800 chipset, but the Snapdragon 600 used by the HTC One Max is still a fine processor. It zipped through homescreens without any hassle, and 3D games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City posed no problems for it. The 2GB of RAM is welcome too, allowing for quick jumping between multiple apps open simultaneously.

The fingerprint scanner was pretty much totally pointless though. Looking to match up with either of my index fingers (you can assign up to three fingers, each optionally triggering a different app or unlocking the phone), it hardly ever worked, meaning I had to type in an alpha-numeric password to get into the phone as a security precaution. This thing was meant to save me time, right?

On the other hand the camera system onboard is pretty good. HTC has pushed the Ultrapixel technology heavily since its launch on the HTC One, and it's again included here. Rather than going for a gigantic megapixel count, HTC believes the size of each individual pixel is more important, with the One Max's camera particularly good at capturing available light. As such, in low light situations, the One Max's camera absolutely shines, picking up detail where other smartphone cameras only see darkness. However, in everyday situations, the overall performance is merely average -- still images are accurately coloured, and look fine on the phone's screen, but blow them up on a bigger display and everything starts looking a bit soft. These images can all be accompanied by a short video using the Zoe shooting mode, capturing motion alongside stills, which really does little more than add a few short clips to the gallery view.

 

Tragic Flaw

Unlike Samsung's stylus-packing Note line, there's absolutely no reason for the HTC One to have been blown up to One Max-sized proportions. HTC has made little attempt to utilise the extra screen real estate here -- even HTC's stylus accessory looks set to only be ranged in Asian territories. Even if it did come packed in, there are no notable "bigger screen" app experiences, like a split-screen dual-app view, that could benefit from it. It's just a big smartphone, and it'll be up to you if that's really enough.

 

This Is Weird

HTC has compromised the overall quality of the build by offering a removable backplate, giving you access to the SIM-tray and microSD card slots, which could easily have been housed elsewhere. And yet, it doesn't give you access to the battery pack. What gives? That's pretty much the only reason we'd ever want a removeable back casing. HTC will be looking to push a battery-expanding case alongside the HTC One Max, which may go someway towards explaining this.

 

Test Notes

-- Aside from the aforementioned recognition problems with the fingerprint scanner, there are a few other issues with it we encountered. Firstly, having to swipe across it vertically (when you're attempting to hold the phone in one hand) requires an uncomfortable claw-like grip that could easily have been solved with a horizontal swipe or steady press. Secondly, it's such a dumb decision to place it directly beneath the camera unit -- unless you're looking at the fingerprint sensor as you're using it, you're bound to get prints all over the lens.

-- Despite stretching the 1080p resolution out over a wider area, the HTC One Max screen is still a beauty, remaining more than sharp enough. It's great for watching videos on and, in one of the rare moments when I felt I could truly appreciate the size, it's great for gaming -- particularly with action games where many onscreen touchscreen buttons could otherwise feel bunched up.

-- The BOOOOOOOMSound speakers are worthy of the name. Incredibly loud, they manage to output clear sound at impressive volume levels, with the extra width of the phone adding to the stereo effect. They're still largely bereft of bass, but wipe the floor with other smartphone speakers.

-- The HTC Transfer Tool app for Android is amazing, particularly if you're jumping from one HTC phone to another. Transferring content over Wi-Fi, I had everything I needed from my personal HTC One X phone moved over onto the One Max within minutes, incredibly painlessly. Restoring from HTC's web-based cloud back-up service is just as easy.

-- The IR TV zapper on the top is handy. It no longer doubles up as the power button (that's a separate chrome button on the right hand edge of the phone, alongside the volume rocker). With it you can control home theatre gear, and set up personalised viewing recommendations.

-- It gets quite hot when doing processor-intensive tasks, a welcome side-effect as the cold months draw closer (!), but honestly a worry as to the long-term health of the handset.

-- As mentioned earlier, HTC will be offering a battery-packing case to go along with the One Max at launch. I had a pre-production sample that was quite a tight fit for the phone, and didn't have the rubber feet that would allow it to sit upright for hands-free video viewing. The 1,300mAh battery worked though, adding an extra couple of hours juice for the One Max, powering the phone over three tiny contact points on the rear cover of the handset. In its finished state, it'll be worth a purchase.

-- Battery life was top-notch, truly impressive even without the case. With brightness levels pushed up to the maximum, Wi-Fi constantly connected, plenty of lengthy calls made, a fair bit of 3D gaming carried out and a few hours of HD movie streaming conducted, it sailed through an entire day's use without breaking a sweat. Conservative use could probably see you squeeze two days out without needing to reach for the charger.

-- Call quality was uniformly excellent, both as call recipient and caller. You will look like an utter knob walking down the street with this next your face though, so invest in a Bluetooth headset.

 

Should You Buy It?

Probably not. If you're after a phone, stick with the standard-sized HTC One -- it's built better, and is far more practical in terms of size. If you're after a tablet, a Nexus 7 is way cheaper, and will perform equally well. There's lots to like about HTC Sense though, so that could swing it, and as a phone it's a far more pleasant experience than the Note 3's TouchWiz UI. But there's a sense of desperation to the whole endeavour, with HTC looking to squeeze every drop of goodwill out of the HTC One branding. If you insist on finding a halfway home between phone and tablet, the HTC One Max will serve the purpose adequately, but not excellently.

 

HTC One Max Specs

Price: £600 SIM-free; soon to be available on networks
Gizrank: 3.5/5
Processor: Quad-core 1.7Ghz Snapdragon 600
Screen: 5.9-inch 1080 x 1920
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 16GB, micro-SD
Camera: 4MP UltraPixel rear camera, 1080p front camera
OS: Android 4.3 with HTC Sense 5.5 and BlinkFeed
Battery: 3,300mAh