Hands on: HTC One is back, armored and ready to take the Galaxy S4

HTC One - BlinkFeedEvery time a company introduces a new flagship phone, the pressure is on for said phone to have several bold features that look great in commercials and might maybe enhance the user experience. With Android smartphones, those features often come in the form of ever more complex pre-loaded apps and a camera that does everything except take a damn picture. HTC’s newest phone, the HTC One, definitely has some great new features, and a few duds.

For the first time, HTC is pushing for the One to sell across carriers as is, like the iPhone and Galaxy S3. There are no distinguishing letters or designs to differentiate between carrier versions; AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile will all get the same smartphone this March. The question is, are customers from any carrier going to line up for it?

Taking design cues from Apple

HTC is known for its ability to design phones that look good and are comfortable to hold. The One is clearly a descendant of the One X and Droid DNA, though some of the design language appears influenced by the iPhone 5. The tighter curve on the edges makes the facade look more rectangular. The back is classic HTC, including the camera lens ringed in chrome.

HTC One back

HTC One Infrared power buttonThe case is all aluminum except for a resin-like bonding material along the edges and back, so it’s very light for the size. It also looks really good in both silver and black thanks to the metal finish. The edges taper down and there is a tiny flat edge around the perimeter, just enough to give it some bling without feeling gaudy. It’s not as comfortable as the smoothly curving edges of the One X, though feels better in the hand than the iPhone 5.

This is an Android Jelly Bean phone but HTC keeps the physical buttons below the display. There are just two this time: Home and Back, though each one is multi-functional and users can choose what double taps and long presses do.

1080p screen

Even though HTC went giant screen on us with the Droid DNA, the One is standing its ground at 4.7 inches with this display. HTC was the first to bring us the 4+ inch phone, so you might expect them to keep pushing sizes bigger and bigger. However, 4.7 is a great size that balances big screen with holdability and a device that still feels like a real phone. Plus, 1080p resolution works out well at this size. LCD 3 technology makes for a crisp screen with bright colors, deep blacks, and wide viewing angles. The screen is a great canvas for the rich content of the BlinkFeed (see below).

HTC One screen

Kicking audio up a notch

HTC continues to push audio quality as a defining feature, so we get two front-facing stereo speakers on this generation of the One. Though the company claims that these speakers offer a far superior audio experience, so far we’re not impressed. The volume doesn’t get very loud, and the quality still struck us as tinny and not well-rounded.

To expect more from a phone is probably foolish, even with the hype from the HTC reps on stage. Still, with speakers in front, it will be easier to share videos and music without needing to plug in or transfer to a different device. And speakerphone calls are likely to be much better. A dual-microphone array promises to make audio recorded with video much better as well as calls in noisy environments. We look forward to testing this out.

The camera and its Ultrapixels

The last big feature on the hardware size is the camera. With the new One, HTC has introduced the Ultrapixel camera. Ultrapixels are larger than regular pixels and allow in more light, for one. While the company rightly points out that megapixels alone don’t determine the quality of a camera, this whole Ultrapixel thing may turn out to be just another buzzword that has no meaning to buyers.

We saw some demo images takes indoors and outdoors and they look good on screen. Pictures taken in the dim demo area weren’t as impressive, though they did appear nice for low-light shots. We’re intrigued by the promise of better HDR (high dynamic range) for both still images and video, as that will make it easier to take good shots in any lighting. HTC realizes that the pictures people take with their smartphone cameras are more likely to be shared to other phones and online, so the camera experience is all about making photos look good for that venue.

Starting with the camera, HTC includes a features called Zoe, which enhances picture taking on several levels. If you take a photo with Zoe, it actually records a 3 – 4 seconds long video and still images at the same time. With this, you can either share the little video or share and edit any of the stills. In the gallery, Zoe files cam be combined into a highlight reel that is shared as an MPEG video. Zoe files also allow users to choose the best facial expression out of many, eliminate objects in the background, and other cool photo manipulation tricks.

While we found Zoe fun to play with, the interface isn’t all that intuitive and we suspect many people will get lost in the weeds trying to find or use the different features. It’s possible to just straight up take photos or videos normally as well, and many of the editing features are available to normal pictures.

BlinkFeed, we want to like you

The biggest change in HTC Sense, the company’s interface skin over Android (Jelly Bean 4.2 in this case), is BlinkFeed. BlinkFeed is an app that takes over an entire Homescreen and offers a Flipboard/Pulse-like experience of news aggregation. Just choose your favorite news topics and sub-topics and BlinkFeed will serve up the latest from over 1400 content partners. The look and design of BlinkFeed is very FlipBoard-like, and we like that you can swipe up to see more and even filter down to only one source if you’re interested only in the latest from one news source.

But don’t uninstall your newsreader just yet, though. Unlike Pulse, Flipboard, and others, you cannot add your own news feeds. You cannot pull in feeds from Google Reader or any other RSS aggregator  nor can you add your favorite magazines or blog. You can add Twitter and Facebook so that shared articles from friends show up, but the whole thing isn’t as personalized as smartphone users have come to expect. HTC plans to add content partners all the time, but if your favorite is missing or you’re not so much into mainstream news sources, BlinkFeed is less useful.

HTC One Reading

We also wonder why BlinkFeed is only about news and related content – what about your inbox, messages, etc.? The interface reminds us of the Windows Phone 8 approach with the grid and live updates, but lacks the all-around useful of the tiles system. But it falls far short of BlackBerry 10’s new universal Hub concept.

Overall, software bling like Zoe and BlinkFeed, and silly little features like having lyrics in the music player (Why?) don’t feel necessary. They might, for some, enhance the smartphone experience. Or they could just get in your way. We’re looking forward to diving in deeper with them in our full review.

Performance

Despite all this extra stuff over Android, performance seems smooth and fast. It should be with a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. We’re interested to see how the 2300mAh battery holds up over the course of a day, especially since it’s integrated into the design and thus not removable. There’s no microSD card on this phone, so you’ll need to be happy with the 32GB or 64GB internal storage. This isn’t usually an issue for most users – people who use tons of apps are the biggest exception – but the Zoe feature means a lot more pictures and a video for every shot, which can eat up storage space fast.

We like it

The HTC one itself is impressive, but HTC phones usually are. The hallmarks of the company’s devices – solid, comfortable design, good audio, great cameras – are here, but so are the drawbacks like a bloated interface and app features of dubious usefulness. We’re more inclined to ignore the latter in favor of the former since the One is such a slick device. And now that it’s not divided into different phones of varying quality, the newest generation One may finally get HTC back into the game.

Now all we need is for Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T to give us some specifics on pricing and availability. 

Hands-on video

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