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HTC One S Review

DT Editors' Choice

HTC One S Review

Highs
  • Fantastic, thin design
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Vivid AMOLED screen
  • Amazing rear camera
  • Runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
  • Beats Audio is included
Lows
  • Sense 4.0 UI is puzzling
  • Weak front camera (VGA)
  • Non-removable battery, no microSD
  • T-Mobile's network lags behind
This is probably the best HTC phone we've used to date. While it still has too many apps pre-loaded and HTC's interface is a bit quirky, the manufacturer has clearly learned from its mistakes.

HTC hasn’t had an easy run as of late. In the last six months, Samsung has snatched away much of the goodwill the Taiwanese company had built up over the years. Devices like the Rezound fell flat against the competition, but on T-Mobile, HTC has remained a power player. With the Amaze and the Radar, it has flourished on the last major carrier without the iPhone. The One X, S, and V were unveiled in February at Mobile World Congress as the phones to lead HTC’s resurgence back into the market. The One X is bound for AT&T soon, but it appears that its smaller brother, the One S, will lead the charge. And from the looks of it, it may have a good fighting chance.

Video Overview

Feel

The One S is slightly smaller than the largest phones coming out, with a 4.3-inch screen, but it’s all the better for it. While we liked the One X, it will be too large for many users. The S manages to pack in almost every exciting feature of the X, but in an even nicer, more compact design. The One S feels like the culmination of more than a year of improvements (and setbacks) in HTC’s phone design. It borrows the overall design pioneered on devices like the Sensation and Inspire, but merges them with the sleek unibody design of phones like the Radar. Overall, the phone feels like a flattened, slimmed down Amaze, which is, well, quite amazing. This is the best-designed HTC phone we’ve used, and possibly the most comfortable as well.

While recent phones like the Amaze and Galaxy Nexus seem to be getting bulkier, the One S is following more in the footsteps of the Droid Razr (minus the big camera bump). Its rounded edges make it much more comfortable to hold than the Razr, though it’s almost as thin at only 7.8mm deep (Razr is 7.1mm, iPhone 4S is 9.1mm).

The screen size and choice of fixed navigation buttons may also prove wise, as it’s much easier to reach the power, volume, and three haptic navigation buttons (Back, Home, Multitask menu).

HTC brags that the phone has a “ceramic metal surface” or “gradient anodized aluminum, depending on the color you choose. It’s getting more difficult to tell the difference between materials these days, but this doesn’t have a cheap, plastic feel and small touches like blue surrounding the rear camera and under the removable backplate make it feel all the nicer.

The One S is probably the first phone since the Razr Maxx that has felt like a truly next-generation device. It isn’t a revolutionary leap forward in any outward way, but it refines and takes smartphone design up a notch. Kudos to HTC.

Screen

In its quest for redemption, HTC has also finally abandoned LCD screens in favor of AMOLED, which is currently the hot screen type. This means that the 4.3-inch screen on the One S has the vivid, bold colors AMOLED provides, as well as its deep blacks. This is mostly a good thing, but there are still a few quirks. While Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) was designed with many blacks and colors meant to take advantage of the battery saving features of AMOLED, HTC’s Sense UI is a bit flashier, which may be hurting battery life a bit.

The screen’s 940 x 560 pixel resolution may also be hurting it a bit. As with the Droid Razr, you can make out some of the black subpixels on the screen if you look hard enough. Hard edges, like on icons, have a slightly rough, pixely border, and on pure white screens, you can make out the black lines. HTC has tried to compensate for this by including a lot of subtle patterns in its backgrounds, but it’s there. Many of you may not notice it, but it may also annoy users with particularly good eyes. Hopefully future phones will have 720p screens, which will shrink the problem substantially.

As a final note: The HTC One S screen is made of Gorilla Glass – always a comforting feature.

Operating system

Like the other One phones, the S runs on Google’s new Android 4.0 (ICS) operating system, with a design modified by HTC Sense 4.0. Most of the key benefits of Android 4.0 are intact, but the goal with Sense seems to be reverting the look to something more like Android 2.3. Some cosmetic changes are fine, but others are a bit puzzling, like the modified widgets, home screen, and the new multitasking screen. We still haven’t figured out how to change our wallpaper without entering the settings menu. At times, it feels like HTC is being different just for the sake of it, which is never good.

Still, the good outweighs the bad. Because the One S runs Android 4.0, users will have many stability improvements. For instance, the data usage monitoring feature allows you to view how much data each app consumes individually. Soon, most apps will be built for ICS, which allows developers to better accommodate different screen sizes and device types.

   

Pre-installed apps

HTC tries to make things easy on new users by including useful apps like weather, a flashlight, and other simple things, but it does go overboard. Like all HTC phones, there are about 60 apps installed on the phone when you buy it, many of which aren’t removable or particularly useful. Do you need Slacker radio, Amazon, Lookout Security, or Zinio? We don’t. A bunch of T-Mobile apps also come crammed aboard. One of the few useful additions much be Dropbox, which is preloaded with 25GB of free cloud storage instead of the usual 2GB.

(A word to the wise: Don’t use anything but Google to backup most of your data. Though Google might go under tomorrow, your contacts are likely safer with it than companies like T-Mobile or device manufacturers. HTC is shutting down and all of its cloud backup services on April 30, so if you had a previous HTC phone and used HTC Sense to backup contacts, text messages, or anything else, follow these instructions to get your data before it’s gone forever.)

Beats Audio: Improved

With the Rezound (review), to use Beats Audio, you had to use the crappy music player HTC installed on the device. Thankfully, this requirement has been removed. We’ll leave it to you to decide if some audio filtering is really a big deal, but it did make music sound a bit better (though the phone does not come with premium headphones, or any headphones, for that matter). The HTC Music app is also much improved. Instead of just playing music, it now acts as a hub for all of your other music apps. On our phone, we use Amazon MPE, Google Music, Pandora, and Spotify. All of them are easily accessible from the music hub – a step in the right direction. Useful features like this would serve HTC better than some of its other efforts. We also checked out the Car Stereo Clip when the One S was unveiled, and it’s pretty cool.

Specs

Here’s the rundown: The One S has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a 4.3-inch, 940 x 560 pixel AMOLED screen, an 8-megapixel rear camera, and a VGA front camera. It runs on Android 4.0 with HTC’s Sense 4.0 UI overlaid on top. More common features include Bluetooth 4.0, a Micro SIM slot, Micro USB port, headphone jack, proximity sensor, digital compass, gyroscope and accelerometers, and Wi-Fi (of course). Sadly, there is no microSD slot.

While we weight user experience more heavily than benchmarks in our reviews, it’s worth mentioning that the S4 processor is a screamer. In the Quadrant benchmark test, the HTC One S scored an average of about 5,000, which is the highest score we’ve seen. Suspiciously high, actually: the (plenty fast) Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 scored between 2,500 and 3,400 in the same tests. While we wouldn’t suggest any foul play here, there’s no way the One S is twice as fast as the Galaxy Tab 8.9, so take it as a reminder of why we take benchmarks so lightly.

Camera

HTC unveiled the One series by comparing its camera directly to the iPhone 4S. Indeed, HTC may have taken back the camera crown from Apple. In many ways, the 8-megapixel rear camera on the S is equal or superior to Apple’s efforts. It has a fast f/2.0 aperture that supposedly captures about 40 percent more light than other phones, a better flash, and HDR (High Dynamic Range), which allows it to take better pictures if there is a bright light behind your subject, like if someone was standing in front of a sunset.

       

In our testing (check out our camera test from MWC), we’ve found the One S’s camera to be extremely fast and accurate. Indoor shots look at least as good as the iPhone 4S and outdoor shots look amazing as well. In most conditions, it’s still a crapshoot which phone will produce a better shot, but in certain circumstances, HTC does have an edge. Video is now one of them.

One of the coolest new features of the One series is the ability to snap photos while recording video. Anytime while recording, you can snap a 5-megapixel picture of whatever is going on. It’s fantastic. If you’re not recording, holding the shutter button will let you take a burst of photos as well. Whenever we tried this feature, it seemed to lead to a lot of blurry shots, but it’s certainly cool to have the option to take action shots.

Voice and data

Voice calls are pretty standard on T-Mobile’s network. We had no trouble hearing or being heard. It all sounds as dismal as voice calls always have. Our data speeds in Manhattan have been pretty poor for the last couple days, though we’re fairly certain that the weakness may be on T-Mobile’s end. We’ve been downgraded to 2G service on several occasions. When we’re on the 3G HSPA+ network, we tend to get about 5Mbps down and .5Mbps up. This mostly means that things are running pretty well (when we’re on 3G), but the network is nowhere near as fast as AT&T or Verizon’s 4G LTE networks.

Battery life

Battery life has been decent, but not amazing by any stretch. Most users should be able to get a day out of the One S, and its battery life certainly exceeds the Galaxy Nexus, but comes nowhere close to the performance of the Droid Razr Maxx, which is our current favorite. GSM Arena has a good benchmark of the One S’s battery life and how it stacks up. Give it a look if you’re interested.

Overall

This is probably the best HTC phone we’ve used to date. While it still has too many apps pre-loaded and HTC’s interface is a bit quirky, the manufacturer has clearly learned from its mistakes. Thanks to a new AMOLED screen, great specs, the inclusion of Android 4.0, better music and Beats Audio support, a kickass new camera that rivals the iPhone, and an overall design that feels and looks like a next-generation Android phone, the One S is a definite return to form for HTC. This is a phone you can get excited about owning.

Highs

  • Fantastic, thin design
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Vivid AMOLED screen
  • Amazing rear camera
  • Runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
  • Beats Audio is included

Lows

  • Sense 4.0 UI is puzzling
  • Weak front camera (VGA)
  • Non-removable battery, no microSD
  • T-Mobile’s network lags behind
DT
Jeffrey Van Camp

As the Mobile Section Editor for Digital Trends, Jeffrey Van Camp is responsible for the content and direction of coverage on smartphones, tablets, ebooks, and other mobile gadgets and software. Jeff has been writing about tech, video games, and movies on the Web for more than a decade. Before joining DT, he spent several years working with mobile app/game developers and wireless carriers. You can reach him @JeffreyVC on Twitter or Facebook.

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